Leading Question: In the narrative portions of the Old Testament, why is the Day of Atonement never mentioned?
The popular Christian view of Old Testament history envisions three annual pilgrim festivals as the people streamed toward Jerusalem. Luke 2:41 tells us that every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. That was the occasion when his parents “lost” Jesus, only finding him again after three days of worrisome search (Luke 2:45-48).
But a search of the Old Testament narratives reveals quite a different picture. The great Day of Atonement is mentioned only in Leviticus 16 and 23:27-32. The other great events in the festival calendar fare only a little better. Several key passages are worth noting.
Solomon: 2 Chron. 1:3-6. According to the Chronicler, King Solomon and the whole assembly of Israel made their way to the high place of Gibeon to worship the Lord. No particular festival is mentioned, but what the Chronicler tells us is revealing. The “tent of meeting” was at Gibeon (1:3) as was the bronze altar (1:5). Solomon even offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar (1:6). But the Chronicler specifically states that the ark of the Lord, central to the Day of Atonement service, was not at Gibeon. David had taken it to Jerusalem and had pitched a tent for it there (1:4). Thus it would have been impossible to carry out the regular order of daily or festival services as outlined in the Pentateuch, for the sacred objects were not all in the same place.
Hezekiah: 2 Chron. 30:26. Hezekiah’s great Passover is recorded only in Chronicles. It is not even mentioned in Kings. But according to the Chronicler, good king Hezekiah began to prepare the temple for worship almost the moment he took office – in the first month of the first year of his reign (29:3). He opened the doors of the temple and repaired them. The climax of his reform was the keeping of a magnificent Passover and the seven days of the festival of unleavened bread which followed the Passover. Indeed, it was such an event that the people agreed to keep the festival of unleavened for a second full week (30:23). The Chronicler enthusiastically described that event as follows: “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem” (30:26). In other words, the festivals had hardly been high on any king’s agenda before the time of Hezekiah. The Chronicler dedicates two whole chapters to the Passover (29-30) and an additional chapter to the reforms that follows (31)
Josiah: 2 Chron. 34:1 - 35:19. Good king Josiah came to the throne some 80 years after Hezekiah’s Passover. The chronology is uncertain, but the Chronicler describes in some detail how Josiah gradually came to the place where he was prepared for another reform. With the beginning of his reign at eight years old, the sequence of events is striking:
Age 16: “He began to seek the God of his ancestor David” (34:3). The obvious question is: What god did he serve in the first eight years of his reign?
Age 20: “In the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles, and the carved and cast images” (34:3). The narrative continues to describe how Josiah pulled down the altars to Baal, burned the bones of the priests, and demolished the incense altars throughout all Israel. After four years of “Bible studies” Josiah was finally moved to action.
Age 26: “In the eighteenth year of his reign” he began “to repair the house of the Lord his God.” And while they were repairing the temple, the priest Hilkiah “found” the book of the law (34:14). Probably a form of the book of Deuteronomy, they took the book to the king and read it to him. Josiah was horrified – obviously hearing the words of the law for the first time. When the temple was in order, they celebrated another great Passover. This time the Chronicler compares the event with the days of Samuel: “No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; none of the kings of Israel had kept such as passover as was kept by Josiah, by the priests and the Levites, by all Judah and Israel who were present” (35:18). In short, the great passover and reform of Hezekiah had left not a trace and isn’t even mentioned.
Nehemiah: Neh. 8:1-18. Both Ezra and Nehemiah led out in a great revival sometime after Nehemiah’s return around 444 BC. The people wept when they heard the law because they realized how far they were from full obedience. But Ezra and Nehemiah asked the people not to weep; indeed they urged them to eat and drink and give gifts. “For this day is holy to the Lord; and do not be grieved” (8:10). On the second day of the revival they discovered that they should be living in booths in the festival of the seventh month (8:14), so they went out and gathered leafy branches as the law said and celebrated the feast, “for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so” (8:17).
Question: What lessons can we learn about God and his plans for his people from the description of the Day of Atonement, even though it left no mark at all in the actual history of God’s people in the Old Testament? Five points we can observe:
1. A Fast, Not a Feast. Even though the Day of Atonement is listed in Israel’s festival calendar in Leviticus 23, it is the one event in which fasting, not feasting was commanded. It was thus a somber day, one that is known in Jewish sources as a “Day of Judgment” (cf. Rosh HaShanah 16a; see “Atonement, Day of” in SDABC, p. 98).
2. A Tale of Two Goats. After the rebellion Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10), God gave instructions as to how the high priest should approach the Lord. As spelled out in Leviticus 16, this was the Day of Atonement, observed on the tenth day of the seventh month. In addition to the extensive preparations for the high priest, central to the ceremonies of that day were two goats, one which Aaron was to offer as a sacrifice, sprinkling its blood on the mercy seat over the ark of the covenant (16:15). This was to cleanse the people and the tent from all uncleannesses (16:16).
The other goat was one on which Aaron laid his hands, confessing all the sins of Israel, “putting them on the head of the goat” (16:21). This goat was then led away by a designated person and released in the wilderness. Upon returning to camp, the person who led away the second goat could be readmitted after washing his clothes and body.
Question: What might be the significance in the different ways the two goats were treated? The goat for the Lord was simply sacrificed as a means of cleansing the tent and the people. No sins were confessed over that sacrificial goat. The live goat was a sin-bearer of a different kind. Aaron laid his hands on that goat and put Israel’s sins on that goat before he was led away.
3. Azazel. The name linked with the live goat is a curious one: “Azazel” is the word used in the NRSV, a simple transliteration of the Hebrew. It appears in Leviticus 16:8, twice in 16:10, and in 16:26, but nowhere else in Scripture. The KJV translates it as “scapegoat.” Most modern scholars see it as a reference to a desert demon, a meaning suggested by the fact that in the intertestamental book of 1 Enoch, Azazel is singled out as the leader of the Satans who introduced forbidden knowledge to man (8:1; 10:4, 8; 54:5-6). He is to be bound in darkness so he can no longer lead men astray (10:4). The book of 1 Enoch specifically states that all sin is to be ascribed to Azazel (See Alden Thompson, Responsibility for Evil in the Theodicy of IV Ezra [Scholars Press, 1977], 42). All that points to the great controversy theme which becomes important in Adventist theology.
4. What Happened to Forgiveness? The official study guide notes that the verb “forgive” does not appear anywhere in Leviticus 16 or 23:26-32, the two passages that interpret the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. A paragraph from the official study guide is helpful here:
“The Day of Atonement was the second stage of a two-phase atonement. In the first phase, during the year, the Israelites were forgiven. Their sins were not blotted out but were entrusted to God Himself, who promised to deal with them. The second phase did not have much to do with forgiveness; the people were already forgiven. In fact, the verb ‘forgive’ does not occur at all in Leviticus 16 or in Leviticus 23:27-32. What this shows us is that the entire plan of salvation deals with more than just the forgiveness of our sins, a point that makes even more sense when understood in the wider context of the great controversy.” – from comment for Sunday, November 3, Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, 4th quarter, 2013
5. Cosmic Conflict. The narrative of the two goats points directly to the great struggle between good and evil, between Christ and Satan. Satan rarely appears in the Old Testament; in only three contexts is he explicitly named and identified as a supernatural being opposed to God: Job 1 and 2, Zechariah 3, and 1 Chronicles 21. But the hints of such a conflict are here in Leviticus 16 and will developed into a larger picture of the conflict between good and evil.