The Underlying Purpose of the Day of Atonement


A–Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached (qarab) the presence of the Lord and died (mut). v. 1 (Man’s independent approach to God leads to death)

B–“Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is over the ark, or he will die; v. 2a (Inside the veil)

C–For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat (kapporet: cover).  v. 2b  (God’s presence)

B–He shall take a fire pan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. v. 12 (Inside the veil)

A–He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die (lo mut). v. 13  (Man’s approach to God under God’s instruction leads to reconciliation)


In an earlier lesson, we began an exploration of the “appointed time” (moed) known as the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). That study coordinated with the actual occurrence of the “appointed time” which last year fell on October 12th and this year begins on September 29. We focused our study at that time on the meaning of the term, anah nephesh, meaning to “afflict one’s soul.” We discovered that this term in Scripture refers to fasting. A question arose: what does fasting have to do with atonement?


The earlier study centered on text in Leviticus 23:26-32. Although Yom Kippur is covered in more detail in Leviticus 16:1-34, I chose to steer away from that discussion in that it delves into the practices of the “high priest” (kohen gadol) in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), an office and places that presently do not exist. However, the underlying purpose of Yom Kippur is to be found in Leviticus 16, as well as a path to answering the question that arose arose about fasting.


The first 28 verses of the passage, or at least most of them, delve into intricate practices of the high priest, in this case, Aaron, given to Moses by God. In the midst of these verses, we read about specific animals–a bull, a ram and a goat–that are offered to God; about the garments worn by the priest; about bathing; about the sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat; about another goat let out into the wilderness. If we take a more discerning look, however, parsing through all the elaborate details, something else emerges that perhaps we weren’t expecting. This deeper picture begins in verse 1. The Torah initiates the discussion of the Day of Atonement with a statement that references an event six chapters earlier: “Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached (qarab: to come near) the presence of the Lord and died.”  (Lev. 16:1) In Chapter 10, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, “took their fire pans, and after putting fire in them, place incense on it and offered (qarab) a strange (zarah: other) fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.” (Lev. 10:1) The Hebrew word translated in 16:1 and 10:1 as “approached” and “offered” respectively, is the same, qarab, meaning “to come near.” This word, qarab, does not simply mean to be close, but rather to literally occupy the same space. The act of “coming near” was an approach of their choosing. Conversely, in verse 16:2a, Aaron is instructed by God through Moses that he will not venture into the mibbet paroket–the house of the veil–God’s most holy place at a time (ayt) of his own choosing.[1] This corresponds to the instruction from God in verse 16:12, in which the phrase “mibbet paroket” repeats, that he will take a censer of burning coals and finely-ground, sweet incense inside the veil–in other words, he will venture inside the veil in the way of God’s choosing.


And once inside the house of the veil, Aaron was instructed to “put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony.” A cloud of incense (anan ha-qe-to-ret–root of which is qitor meaning smoke) would arise from the censer of the high priest, covering the cover (ve-kissah ha-kap-po-ret) of the ark that covers, in turn, the testimony of God, that is, the Ten Commandments. Wasn’t there already a cloud over the ark?


The answer is an emphatic yes. We find this at the center of the chiasm: “For I (God) will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.” This conjures up images of other occasions in which God appeared in a cloud–in a pillar of cloud (Ex. 13:21), in the wilderness of Sin as the people grumbled against the LORD for lack of food; and most particularly, at Mount Sinai, in which God declared to Moses that “I will come to you in a thick cloud (anan).” And it came to pass that “a cloud covered the mountain” (Ex. 19:16), the very same place in which the Ten Commandments were given, and therefore, as in the Tabernacle, they were covered by the cloud of the LORD.


Returning to Leviticus 16, the cloud of the LORD and the cloud of incense both would cover the Ark of the Testimony and its precious contents. There is a “oneness” of purpose indicated here. At this “appointed time,” both God and man–symbolized by their respective clouds–become as one–unlike the incense cloud of Aaron’s sons as they sought to be near the LORD. The Torah paints a picture here of reconciliation. This reconciliation is embedded in God’s instructions for atonement, in which God takes the lead, but man participates. Moreover, it precedes the other atoning acts both inside and outside the veil–the sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat, on the altar outside, and the tent of meeting.[2] It also precedes the dispatching of the goat into the wilderness. The reconciliation between God and man is not the after-effect or consequence of atonement; rather, it brings about atonement.


And so, what does this process of atonement have to do with fasting? In the Garden of Eden, when Eve looked upon the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable (chamad: covet) to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” (Gen. 3:6) Our desires–whether they be for food or wisdom–estranged man from God. Conversely, the suppression of desire, the affliction of self–anah nephesh–the deprivation of our appetite (nephesh), draws us closer to God. Although we are presently without a Tabernacle or Temple, we signal our willingness to reconcile with God when we fast. The first couple identified with God so completely that they were not “self-aware” (boosh), even though they were naked. They were akin to the human cloud that joined the cloud of God above the Ark of the Testimony for a common purpose. They were one with God. Returning to this “oneness” is the underlying purpose of the Day of Atonement.

[1] Time, in the Hebrew mindset, also “draws near,” as the future is seen as approaching, or moving toward, the present. We do not move of our own volition, “back” towards it. God reserves the exclusive authority to set appointed times.

[2] In the Israelite culture of ritual purity, it was considered that the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were like magnets attracting sin that would enter and defile them. Hence, the atoning actions of the priest were directed at cleansing the Tabernacle, making it clean (taher), that which is ready to be used for God’s purposes. (Lev. 16:19)

One thought on “The Underlying Purpose of the Day of Atonement

  1. In re Richard’s comment on Torah (Lev 16) where he makes a great point that reconciliation is not the result of atonement but rather precedes or leads to it, I recall the instruction of Jesus about presenting a sacrifice at the altar along the same vein in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’:
    “So if you are presenting a sacrifice (read, “gift”) at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and BE RECONCILED to that person. THEN COME AND OFFER your sacrifice to God” (Mat 5:23,24, Life Application Bible, emphasis mine).
    Earlier in Jesus’ sermon he clarified an important issue: “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (5:17, LAB).

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