Bible Passages: Leviticus 16:1-22

16 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.

3 ‘This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: he must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash round him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. 5 From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

6 ‘Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. 7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. 9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

11 ‘Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. 12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.

15 ‘He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: he shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.

18 ‘Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.

20 ‘When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Key OT/NT passages on how this passage fits within the Bible story as a whole

Since the Garden of Eden, humanity’s greatest privilege has been to come close to God and enjoy fellowship with him (Genesis 3:8). But Adam and Eve’s sin lead to death and separation from God (Genesis 3:23-24). God acted to bring people back into his presence. He rescued his people from Egypt (Exodus 3, 12-14) and came to live among them in the tabernacle tent – dwelling place – at the heart of their camp (Exodus 40:34-35). Here, because of sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7) and the High priest (Leviticus 8-10), the people saw and enjoyed God’s presence (9:23-24).

But the filth of human disobedience brought a crisis of insecurity into the Israelites’ closeness with God (10:1-3). The Holy God would not live in the presence of defiling sin, and defiled sinners could not live in the presence of a Holy God. The LORD graciously provided the day of atonement to cleanse his place and people of defilement so that he could come close to them. The day also removed sin from the people’s midst so that they could come close to him. But the cleansing of sin was limited (see all the precautions even after atonement in 16:23-28) and temporary (16:29-34). And the closeness it brought was limited (only the High Priestly representative went into the Holy of Holies). Eventually both certain closeness and cleansing were lost at the destruction of the temple and in the exile.

 But the LORD promised that there would be a High Priestly King who would permanently cleanse the place and people from the impurity of sin (Zechariah 3:8-9, 13:1). A servant who would permanently bear the sin of the people (Isaiah 53:6,8, cf. 1 Peter 2:24). Jesus’ death on Good Friday was the true Day of Atonement. Jesus is the High priest who offers himself once and for all at the cross. His death cleanses those who believe in him from sin eternally, and it cleanses their consciences internally, and it cleanses them with certainty (Hebrews 9:11-28). He brings the people close to God (compare Hebrews 10:19-25 with Luke 23:44-46). By the Spirit, God now dwells within believers with a closeness greater than ever before (Ephesians 2:21-22). One day we will all live in his presence in a new creation ‘place’ without the soiling of sin or its effects (Revelation 21, esp. v1-8 & v27). 


Note on key themes of the book

The book of Leviticus is the 3rd book in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). Together, these books cover the story of creation through to the entry of God’s Israelite people into the promised land.

Leviticus is concerned with answering the question at the heart of the story of the Pentateuch (and the Bible!): how can sinful people come close to, and live with, a Holy God? Or, in the language of Leviticus, how does the Tabernacle where God dwells become the Tent of Meeting between him and his people?

The answer is through the sacrifice God provides (ch1-7), offered by the priests God appoints (ch8-10) and through cleansing from the pollution of impurity and sin (ch11-15). These three come together decisively on the most important day of the Israelite calendar – the day of atonement (ch16). On this day the high priest entered the Holy of Holies through sacrifice. He came into God’s presence to purify God’s place and people so that the people and God could be with one another.

Notes on the immediate context of the passage

The Day of Atonement is preceded by chapters 11-15 which describe the reality and dangers of uncleanness. Ritual uncleanness is not sin, but it mirrors and points to what sin is and what sin does. Using the image of uncleanness, the ‘cleanliness code’ shows that:

a) all human existence is defiled by death and sin. Like uncleanness, sin spreads between and within people

b) God’s holiness and human sin cannot come together; just as ritual uncleanness and God’s holiness cannot come together.

c) when human sin enters the place of God’s holiness the sinner must die, just as ritual uncleanness in the camp where God dwells can lead to death (15:31).

Wonderfully, Ch11-15 also reveals that:

d) uncleanness (and therefore the sin it mirrors) must be, and can be, dealt with through the cleansing work of priest and sacrifice.

Having painted this picture in Ch11-15, Leviticus 16 returns to the disobedience of Nadab and Abihu (16:1-2), and so firmly moves from the description of how to deal with ritual uncleanness to how to deal with the defilement of sin that it mirrors. Because of the seriousness of a-c above, Chapter 16:1-22 reveals the priestly work of offering a purifying sacrifice and purifying substitute that will cleanse the place, priest and people of sin so the people can be close to the Holy God.

16: 23-34 continue the description of the day of atonement. V23-28 give instructions for keeping the holy and the sinful absolutely separate after atonement is made. V29-34 make it clear that the purifying work of the day of atonement is effective but must be repeated yearly.

Chapter 17 continues the theme of sacrifices, establishing that blood is never to be eaten and not to be shed except when properly offered to the LORD at his holy place. Blood is exclusively for atonement, a life given to purify a life, and is not to be used for anything else.

Structure of the passage

Our crisis: not close to God because not clean from sin (V1-2)

The disobedient approach of Aaron’s oldest sons, which perhaps only happened moments before, led to their death. The High Priest Aaron, like them, is unclean before the pure God because of the deadly infection of sin. Even he cannot draw close to God without dying. But God lovingly wants his people, through their representative, to come close (v3)…

What follows is a symbolic ceremony that shows we can be cleansed of sin and close to God through the priest’s purifying work. The LORD begins by revealing preparatory instructions (v4-10), before providing detailed instructions on how a sacrifice can cleanse away sin’s impurity (v11-19), and how a sin-carrying substitute can be cut off so the people can come close (v20-22).

We can be clean (v3-19)

The High priest is to be symbolically pure through bathing and wearing special robes (v5). He is then to take 1 bull as a sin offering for himself and his household (v3, 6), and 2 goats for the people (v5, 7). One of the goats is to be a sin offering for the people, the other a scapegoat that will go into the wilderness (v8-10). The repetition of the word ‘atonement’ and ‘sin offering’ (both of which here carry the sense of purifying) make the point clear: the priest will purify the sin of the people. This is first achieved by cleansing their sin. The High Priest approaches the Holy God (v11-13), before comprehensively cleansing God’s Holy place - first of priestly sin (v11-15) and then the people’s sin (v16-17), through the blood of the sacrifices. This cleanses God’s dwelling place from all the Israelites’ sins (v16) and so also purifies them (v17). This cleansing of their sin will continue because the altar at which their sacrifices are offered is also cleansed (v18-19). We can be cleansed of our sin by the death of our High Priest Jesus…

We can be close (v20-22)

Sin isn’t only a deadly infection that makes God’s people unclean, it is also an impurity for which they are responsible and which means they should be cut off from God. The second goat takes their confessed sins (v21) and goes to a remote (literally ‘cut-off’ place), bearing the sin and responsibility for it (v22). This means the Israelites can come and stay close to the Holy God who lived among them. We can be close to God because our High Priest Jesus substituted himself for us…

Suggestions for any tricky bits/questions?

Why does the Day of Atonement refer to the context of chapter 10 (10:1-3) when it follows chapters 11-15, which have covered cleanliness laws?

Do check out the notes on the immediate context of the passage above! The overarching focus of the Day of Atonement is on sin, as v16-17, v22, v30 & v34 highlight.

What is the link between uncleanness and sin?

Do check out the notes on the immediate context of the passage above! Ritual uncleanness is not sinful, but its impact on every area of human life, and its separating/death causing impact on our relationship with the holy God, mirrors the impact of sin.


Could the blood of animals really cleanse the Holy of Holies and the rest of God’s place?

No… and yes!... No, it couldn’t – the New Testament is clear that the sacrifice of animals could not cleanse worshippers of the feeling of inner spiritual uncleanness. ‘It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus came as the perfect sin offering whose blood truly cleanses the stain of sin (Hebrews 9:23-26). He took the place of the sinner as a human being who could truly represent them. The infinite purity of his life as God’s obedient Son could cover the impurity for every sin every believer has or will ever commit. The animal sacrifice was only a ‘shadow’ hinting at Jesus’ sacrifice, not the reality itself (Hebrews 10:1.)

But yes, it could – because the sacrifice was the God-given shadow of the sacrifice of Jesus! The Lord repeatedly says that the actions on the Day of Atonement do cleanse and atone for all sin (Leviticus 16:16-17, 22, 30, 34). This is because when Israel practised the Day of Atonement they did so trusting in God’s promise to cleanse their sin. The animal’s blood was accepted until Jesus came because its value relied on his promised coming. We might accept a cheque we know is going to bounce if we also know we are going to put a vast sum into the cheque-giver’s account. In the same way, God accepted the ‘cheque’ of the animal sacrifice, even though in itself it had no value. He did this because he knew he was going to put the valuable sacrifice of Jesus into the sinning Israelite’s account. The cheque of the animal sacrifice would not bounce because when it was ‘cashed’ the sacrifice of Jesus would pay the debt.

If the people have sinned, why is the cleansing of the place where God dwells the emphasis? Surely the cleansing of the people should be.

Leviticus certainly wrong foots us here. We would expect the people to be sprinkled with blood, not the Place of Meeting. But the people’s sins had defiled and made unclean the place of God (v16). For them to be cleansed of sin in God’s eyes, the place where he met with them had to be cleansed of their sin. If you mess up a house you’re a guest in, this creates a relational problem between you and the owner. When you ‘cleanse’ the house of your mess, your relational ‘slate’ with the owner is also wiped clean. This is clearly the line of thought in v17. Now that the Holy Place is cleansed God’s people are purified.

How can the goat take the people’s sin away into the wilderness?

See the answer to the question about the effectiveness of animal sacrifices.

Isn’t this animal sacrifice horribly abusive of animals and their rights?

The animals here aren’t treated dismissively. On the contrary, it’s because their life is recognised as valuable that they’re offered in the place of sinful human beings. The blood which represents this life is not to be used for anything else because it represents a precious life (Leviticus 17:11 and surrounding verses) and stands in for a precious life.

Animals should be treated with care and respect. The OT makes this clear (Proverbs 12:10). The questions we must grapple with are: 1) which is more precious – the life of a goat, or the life of a man (or woman)? And 2) are we responsible for the filthy infection of sin which deserves death and separation from God. If you were offered the choice of a goat dying in your place, wouldn’t you take it? In love the morally pure LORD gave and accepted the blood of animals in the place of his people’s lives.

Why can’t all the people come in?

Even the high priest, purified as he was, could not look on the place of God’s intense dwelling over the atonement cover (v2, 14). And he could only come in once a year (v34). This is because God’s holiness is so intensely pure, and human sin so intensely impure, that even with the Day of Atonement’s ceremonies they couldn’t have survived in his presence. Only the eternal and total once and for all cleansing of Jesus’ death completely removes and cleanses sin, which now means that believers are in God’s presence as he lives within them and can approach him with confidence (Hebrews 10:19-22). One day we will enjoy his presence perfectly in the New Creation (Revelation 21).

What in the world does this ancient and long defunct ceremony from a wildly different culture have to do with me?

The fact that Jews still treat the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) as the most important day in the Jewish calendar show that the promise of cleansing from all wrongdoing and closeness to God are enduringly attractive. Jesus’ death on Good Friday is the true Day of Atonement that this ancient ceremony (and its modern equivalents) really point to. We can be cleansed of sin and close to God if we put our confidence in his purifying death (Hebrews 9::24-25).

Summary of author’s main point

The people cannot live close to God because of sin’s uncleanness. To be close, they need atonement through a cleansing sacrifice and a cut-off substitute.

Purpose for original audience

Make sure the priest properly carries out the cleansing sacrifices and sends off the sin-carrying substitute, and repent. Then we can come and stay close to God.

Purpose for us today

Be confident that because our priest Jesus died to purify us, we can be clean from sin and come close to God.

Key areas of application to individual Christians:

We are clean! Good Friday was the true day of atonement. Our high priest Jesus cleansed us with his own blood – eternally, internally and certainly (Hebrews 9:12-14). But some sins make us feel particularly unclean, perhaps past sexual relationships. The sins of others against us can leave us feeling dirty too. We live in a culture were people increasingly feel shame for how they feel or live. We can believe that God and other Christians see us as particularly defiled. But the cross speaks truth into those feelings: When you feel that way, look at the cross and say ‘I am clean.’ 

We are close! Jesus is the high priest who substituted himself for us, being cut-off from God for our sin so that we could come close to God (Isaiah 53:6-8, Hebrews 10:19-22). But even though we may believe we’re objectively clean we may still feel that we can’t come close to God. We might see inconsistencies in our life that mean we feel like frauds to come praying before its all sorted out. Or we may think that we’re not sorted enough in our own Christian lives to get closer to God and fully participate in the shared life of his people at Trinity, choosing not to come or serve. But we are close to God, so lets come to the heart of the ‘camp’ in prayer and with others.

Key areas of application to those not yet trusting Jesus:

Are we clean? We might think that we’re pretty good people and that of course we’re clean in God’s eyes. Especially if we’re religious. But Aaron’s sons were religious and their moral filth led to their deaths. Here’s a 2-step test to see if we’re clean. 1) Have we realised that we are unclean? (The people denied themselves – e.g. fasted as part of repentance - in recognition of their sin -v29). 2) Have we relied on Jesus for cleansing? (Not on trying harder, or doing a good deed for others/God.) If we can truly say ‘Jesus: clean me’, knowing we need him to, then we are clean.

Are we close? We might believe in a God and sometimes pray. Thinking, of course we’re close. God is everywhere, we’re all his children. But all of us are actually like the Israelites – responsible for the deadly infection of sin that means separation from God or death. Here’s how we know if we’re really close to the real God. 1) Have we realised we are far away? 2) Have we relied on Jesus’ substitution to bring us close? If we can truly say ‘Jesus: take my place’, knowing we need him to, then we are clean.