It should not come as a surprise that the Day of Atonement is the most unusual holy day of the year. Each holy day has its distinctive traits. As examples, the Feast of Unleavened Bread has us eating unleavened bread for a week, and Pentecost has the unusual aspect of counting. But for outsiders, Atonement is just plain weird. They think it very strange that we will voluntarily not eat or drink for an entire day.
Of course, in this distinction—which is called "fasting" or "afflicting our souls"—resides a great deal of the day's spiritual instruction. Fasting teaches us to realize just how dependent we are on God. Every day, every hour, every minute, He supplies us with everything we need for life. If He suddenly failed to do so or forgot or stopped caring, how quickly we would die! This day teaches us how frail and needy we are—how much we need God.
When we apply this understanding of how much God supplies to our spiritual life, we come to a stunning realization about how much He provides to us throughout our conversions. It begins with His revealing Himself to us, calling us, forgiving us, and giving us understanding—and so on, all the way to giving us eternal life! He supplies all we need to grow and bear fruit and prepare for His Kingdom.
Recognizing this leads us to feel humble and full of awe of Him, as well as eternally grateful for the things that He has done. It should cause us, as shown in Isaiah 58, to make a proper response, which is to treat others better by sacrificing for them and showing them outgoing concern. If God does so much for us, we should reciprocate by doing good things for others.
Another strange aspect of the Day of Atonement is that it puts two goats front and center (Leviticus 16). One goat in this Old Testament ritual is chosen for the Lord, and it is sacrificed, its blood sprinkled by the high priest on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies, which he enters just this one time each year. The other goat, the Azazel goat, is left alive, and all the sins of the people are laid on its head. Instead of being slain, it is led into the wilderness and abandoned.
This ritual contains the heart of this holy day's meaning: the need and the means of atonement for sin. Because of that, the possibility of unity with God opens up. Without such atonement, humankind cannot be at one with Him, which is God's ultimate goal.
The Azazel goat represents Satan. In this ritual, God shows how He will deal with the problem of Satan. While Passover and Unleavened Bread show how God deals with sin, they do not specifically show how He will deal with Satan himself. It does not answer how God will get rid of the great deceiver, the being who is the original source of sin and who constantly broadcasts his rebellious, anti-God attitudes to humanity as "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2).
This unusual ritual pictures God tracing mankind's sins back to the Devil, represented by the live goat. God places the bulk of the guilt for the people's sins on his head, right where they belong. In the goat being led away into the wilderness, we can also see that this holy day foreshadows Satan being bound for the Millennium and ultimately for all eternity (see Revelation 20:1-3, 10), so that he can no longer influence mankind to sin.
The Day of Atonement is also an extraordinarily solemn day. Only Passover approaches its level of solemnity, which is only natural because Passover and Atonement possess common themes. Both focus on the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ that is necessary to cover sin and atone for the wickedness of mankind. Realizing the cost of God's grace, our observance of Atonement should make us feel humble, grieved, needy, and absolutely powerless.
Even so, we should also feel a kind of joy and a great deal of gratitude knowing that God has provided an effective and powerful means of atonement for us through His Son Jesus Christ. Our Savior endured suffering and death for us, so that we could be cleared of sin, have access to the Father, and in time be united with God forever. Without His atoning work, we would have no hope of good and no future.
Atonement contains another oddity, one that has to do with what we do or—more exactly—what we do not do on this particular holy day. God instructs us on all the other holy days not to do any "customary work" (see Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29), which is our everyday labor, but for the Day of Atonement, the instruction to do no work on this day is far more emphatic. God even uses a different word for "work" in Numbers 29:7 (melakah) to stress that He forbids any kind of work on this holy day.
In His instructions about this day in Leviticus 23:26-32, God mentions not doing any work on this day three times. He says to do "no work," "[not] any work," and "no manner of work." This is a day in which we are to be completely at rest. His intention in this regard is so insistent that, once, He threatens to take the life of anyone who works on it: "Any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people." He means it!
In Leviticus 23:32, God calls the Day of Atonement "a sabbath of solemn rest." In the Hebrew, it is literally "a sabbath of sabbaths," which is a superlative construction unique to that language. "Holy of Holies" and "Song of Songs" are similar phrases, doubling the same word to show that the thing in question is the greatest or best of its kind. Thus, the Holy of Holies was the holiest place of all in the Temple, and the Song of Songs is the most beautiful and best of songs. So the Day of Atonement is the exceptional Sabbath-rest, and as such, of all the Sabbaths of the year, we are to do no work at all.
The reason for this has to do with the fact that it is impossible for us to atone for ourselves. Once we sin, no work on our parts could ever make up for our disobedience and the evils that follow. It took the sacrifice of Christ and the grace of God to make that happen (Ephesians 2:4-9). We had no part in it whatever, and Atonement reminds us of that each year. Only God's efforts can bring about forgiveness and reconciliation.
God was purposeful in including so many peculiarities in the Day of Atonement. It is intended to be strange for the purpose of capturing our interest. These oddities are supposed to jump out at us, so that we dig deeply for their meanings and receive the full benefit of God's instruction in them.
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh
If you would like to subscribe to the C.G.G. Weekly newsletter, please visit our Email Subscriptions page.
Return to the C.G.G. Weekly archive (2014)