Yom Kippur in the Bible

Today was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, probably the holiest day in Judaism. Technically Yom Kippur ended at sundown (and I’m chasing midnight with this post), but it’s difficult to keep a schedule and my fasting today turned my brain into mush. For the last several years, I have done my best to fast alongside my wife in support for her and her religion. I don’t know that it helps her, but it’s worth doing for the chance that it does.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this is the month of Tishri in the Jewish calendar (generally September or October) and it is a month with many holy days. Last week was Rosh Hashanah, this week is Yom Kippur, and we’re just a few days from Sukkot and Simchat Torah. After that, we get a break until Hanukkah. I have resolved this year to try and offer (as best I can) a biblical explanation for each of the holy days (and holidays) as they come around.

And even if you aren’t Jewish, Yom Kippur has the distinction of being the holiday that we get the term “scapegoat” from, using a real live goat. Read on!

High Priest Offering Sacrifice of a Goat
High Priest Offering Sacrifice of a Goat

Biblically, Yom Kippur is mentioned in several places, each with its own specific spin or context. The first such mention comes in Exodus, when Moses is given instructions on how to prepare the altar for the Tent of Meeting.

And Aaron shall make atonement upon the horns of [the altar] once in the year; with the blood of the sin-offering of atonement once in the year shall he make atonement for it throughout your generations; it is most holy unto the LORD.’

Exodus 30:10

The implication of including the instructions for the “sin-offering of atonement” in the altar building instructions underscores the importance of this ceremony and this holiday to early sacrificial Judaism. It’s practically an instruction in an ancient IKEA instruction booklet, though without the allen wrenches and cute illustrations.

Three other mentions in the Torah, two in Leviticus and one in Numbers, further clarifies the exact time of the Day of Atonement sacrifices, the specific animals to be sacrificed, and even the (very harsh) penalties for working on this holiest of days.

I’ll get to the first reference in a second, but the second and third reference in Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29 each come from that book’s cycle of holidays. (As seen in Rosh Hashanah, earlier, both books have a roughly parallel cycle of holy and feast days with different elements highlighted in each.)

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD. And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people. And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people. Ye shall do no manner of work; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be unto you a sabbath of solemn rest, and ye shall afflict your souls; in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye keep your sabbath.

Leviticus 23:27-33

Leviticus 23 focuses mainly on Yom Kippur’s role as a special sabbath, without work, and the severe punishment for those who work on that day. Incidentally, in Isiah 58 (in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur) the prophet appears to be paying special attention to the shirkers who worked or caused others to work on that day:

 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Isiah 58:3-7

In contrast, Numbers 29 focuses on the sacrifices rather than the penitence of the individuals:

And on the tenth day of this seventh month ye shall have a holy convocation; and ye shall afflict your souls; ye shall do no manner of work; but ye shall present a burnt-offering unto the LORD for a sweet savour: one young bullock, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year; they shall be unto you without blemish; and their meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil, three tenth parts for the bullock, two tenth parts for the one ram, a several tenth part for every lamb of the seven lambs; one he-goat for a sin-offering; beside the sin-offering of atonement, and the continual burnt-offering, and the meal-offering thereof, and their drink-offerings.

Numbers 29:7-11

It is the first reference in Leviticus 16 that has be scratching my head. On the surface, it reads a little like the later Leviticus passage which I described above.

And it shall be a statute for ever unto you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work, the home-born, or the stranger that sojourneth among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the LORD. It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute for ever. And the priest, who shall be anointed and who shall be consecrated to be priest in his father’s stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen garments, even the holy garments. And he shall make atonement for the most holy place, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar; and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make atonement for the children of Israel because of all their sins once in the year.’ And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.

Leviticus 16: 29-35

Here, the focus of the text is on the priests that will do the atonement, rather than the adherence of the sabbath or sacrifices as in the other passages. I’m not entirely clear on why Leviticus discusses this holy day twice and it may be a textual hiccup (similar to the wife-sister narratives in Genesis). What is curious is the context.

The Sin of Nadab and Abihu

The Sin of Nadab and Abihu

Just prior to this passage, still in Leviticus 16, is the description of the specific acts that Aaron needs to perform to atone for the sins of his sons. They had incorrectly sacrificed to God and made Him angry enough to issue a major smiting. (They were consumed in fire.) This all happened in Leviticus 10.

What is curious to me is that the very specific acts of atonement that Aaron needed to perform for the sin in Leviticus 10 is immediately followed by the command for a yearly Day of Atonement. The placement of these two texts together was not seen as a coincidence and so the acts of Aaron’s specific atonement also became part of the tradition for the general atonement.

On the plus side, this is where we get “scapegoat” from:

And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer him for a sin-offering. 10 But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:6-11

Aaron’s sins (and by extension later, the sins of the community) are placed in two goats, one of which is sacrificed to God and the other released to the wilderness where it is taken up by Azazel. (And in practice, the goat was pushed off a cliff. It was considered extremely bad if the goat survived to return to the camp and brought back all those sins.) Presumably, Azazel was some sort of demon (or angel?), and possibly even an alternate name for Satan. (In that case, it would be the earliest reference to Satan in the Bible, not counting the Eden narrative. Jews believe that sometimes a snake is just a snake.) Strangely, in some translations, the name is left out altogether.

Is Azazel is echo of a pre-monotheistic Judaism? It does seem strange that the Israelites were commanded to essentially sacrifice an animal to another demon/spirit. This may be the reason that the name is omitted from some translations.

And look at the time! I’ve missed my deadline. Oh well!

Coming Up: Let’s build booths!


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