Yom Kippur-The Day of Atonement, the High Priest and the Scapegoat

Yom Kippur-The Day of Atonement, the High Priest and the Scapegoat

Yom Kippur falls between the feast of trumpets and the feast of tabernacles and is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. Unlike all the other feasts it is not a time of rejoicing but afflicting the soul. In Leviticus 23:26-32 the command for the children of Israel to afflict their souls was given three times in that brief passage emphasising the importance of it.

Like all the feasts it points to Messiah and there is also an eschatological significance in God’s prophetic calendar. At the feast of trumpets the alarm is raised, then at the Day of Atonement it is a solemn convocation and at the feast of tabernacles concerning the Messianic kingdom, Yeshua Hamashiach (Jesus the Messiah) will rule as He tabernacles among us in Jerusalem. This follows the time known in the Tanakh (Old Testament) as Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7) and in the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) as the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21; Revelation 13:5) since the focus of attention will be on the nation of Israel.[i]

The Day of Atonement has always had great significance in the Jewish calendar but following the Babylonian exile which was considered a judgement from God (Daniel 9:2; c.f. 2 Chronicles 36:21; Jeremiah 25:9-12), fulfilling the law became essential since it was directly linked with Temple service in which atonement was made for the sins of the people.[ii]

Leviticus 16:1-34 gives us the precise instructions concerning how the Cohen Hagadol (the High Priest) would perform his duties. Numbers 29:7-11 provides the law of the offerings on the day of atonement. Together with Leviticus 18:1-30 regarding sexual purity laws, these comprise the Torah readings on Yom Kippur. The Haftarah readings are the entire book of Jonah, Isaiah 57:14-58:14 and Micah 7:18-20.

The lots and the scapegoat

Interestingly, the instructions in Leviticus 16 for the Day of Atonement follow the death of the two sons of Aaron when they offered profane fire on the altar. This reminds us that we must approach the Lord with reverence and in the way that He has shown us. The high priest would enter into the holy place with a bull offering as a sin offering and a ram offering as a burnt offering. The high priest would wash and then put on the holy garments. The bull offering would be for himself and his house.

The high priest would then cast the lots for the two goats. One lot would be for the Lord and the other would be for the scapegoat. The scapegoat was let go into the wilderness. Why the requirement for the two goats?

The two goats speak of the completeness and sufficiency of the sacrifice of Messiah Jesus.[iii]The goats represent the foreshadowing of how Yeshua would propriate God’s wrath and expiate sin. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that ‘For he made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.’ In other words, Yeshua became a sin offering for us. Romans 3:25 explains ‘whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.’ Jesus the Messiah never sinned, and He was the perfect, unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

This also fits in with Micah 7:18-20 which is read in the Haftarah readings on Yom Kippur.

“Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity
And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?

He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy.
19 He will again have compassion on us, And will subdue our iniquities.

You will cast all our sins Into the depths of the sea.
20 You will give truth to Jacob And mercy to Abraham,
Which You have sworn to our fathers From days of old.”

Come now and let us reason together

The Talmud (Yoma 6:2 and Yoma 6:8) recalls a fascinating sign in connection with the ribbon that was tied around the scapegoat as intercession was made for Israel. But first, let us note Isaiah 1:18 which reads as follows.

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.

He then came to the scapegoat and laid his two hands upon it and he made confession. And thus he would say: “Please, ‘Hashem’! They have done wrong, they have transgressed, they have sinned before You, Your people the House of Israel. Please, in the name of Hashem (Bashem)! Forgive the wrongdoings, the transgressions, the sins which your people, the House of Israel, have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, as it is written in the torah of Moses Your servant: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you [to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord”] (Leviticus 16:30). And the priests and the people standing in the courtyard, when they would hear God’s name explicated coming out of the high priest’s mouth, would bend their knees, bow down and fall on their faces and say “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever!”[iv]

They said to the high priest: the goat has reached the wilderness. And how did they know that the goat had reached the wilderness? They used to set up scouts and they would wave scarves, and they would know that the goat had reached the wilderness. Rabbi Judah said: but did they not have a great sign? From Jerusalem to Bet Hidudo was three mils. They could walk a mil, return the mil, then wait the time it takes to walk a mil, and thus know that the goat had reached the wilderness. Rabbi Ishmael said: but did they not have another sign! A thread of crimson wool was tied to the door of the Temple, and when the goat reached the wilderness the thread turned white, as it is written, “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).[v]

Astoundingly in addition to the ribbon turning white, the Mishna recalls other similar signs that occurred over the forty- year period before the destruction of the Second Temple and the fact that two of them relate to the Day of Atonement, cannot be a coincidence.[vi]We can see those signs in Yoma 39a and Yoma 39 below.

The Sages taught: During all forty years that Shimon HaTzaddik served as High Priest, the lot for God arose in the right hand. From then onward, sometimes it arose in the right hand and sometimes it arose in the left hand. Furthermore, during his tenure as High Priest, the strip of crimson wool that was tied to the head of the goat that was sent to Azazel turned white, indicating that the sins of the people had been forgiven, as it is written: “Though your sins be as crimson, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). From then onward, it sometimes turned white and sometimes it did not turn white. Furthermore, the western lamp of the candelabrum would burn continuously as a sign that God’s presence rested upon the nation. From then onward, it sometimes burned and sometimes it went out.[vii]

The Sages taught: During the tenure of Shimon HaTzaddik, the lot for God always arose in the High Priest’s right hand; after his death, it occurred only occasionally; but during the forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the lot for God did not arise in the High Priest’s right hand at all. So too, the strip of crimson wool that was tied to the head of the goat that was sent to Azazel did not turn white, and the westernmost lamp of the candelabrum did not burn continually.[viii]

And the doors of the Sanctuary opened by themselves as a sign that they would soon be opened by enemies, until Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai scolded them. He said to the Sanctuary: Sanctuary, Sanctuary, why do you frighten yourself with these signs? I know about you that you will ultimately be destroyed, and Zechariah, son of Ido, has already prophesied concerning you: “Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars” (Zechariah 11:1), Lebanon being an appellation for the Temple.[ix]

What happened 40 years before the Temple was destroyed? Jesus the Messiah gave Himself as a sin offering to atone for the sins of the world. The wrath of God was laid upon Him as he bore the weight of sin. Isaiah 53, that great chapter which speaks so clearly of the suffering and sin-bearing Servant Yeshua explains, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).”

Yeshua is Cohen HaGadol

The book of Hebrews explains what this all means and who Jesus is. Concerning the Old Testament and the New Testament, they are not in opposition but fit together perfectly. The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed. You could state that Hebrews is a commentary on Leviticus and that Yeshua is the high priest and fulfilment. Chapters 9 and 10 help to explain what the finished sacrifice of the Lord Jesus means and has accomplished.

Hebrews 9:6-7 explains the limitations of the earthly service.

‘Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience— 10 concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.’

We know from the Torah in Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Hebrews 9:22 corresponds with this, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.

Furthermore the sacrifice of animals was insufficient. The Day of Atonement took place once a year and sacrifices continued. They were not able to remove sins. Hebrews 10:1-4 encapsulates this.

‘For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.

How then could atonement be made and especially without a temple to perform sacrifices since without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sin. Hebrews 10:11-14 answers that exactly.

‘And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. 14 For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.’

If that were not clear, although it is, the writer of Hebrews assures us, ‘Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin (Hebrews 10:18).’ The Hebrew root for ‘Kippur’ is ‘Kapar’,  which occurs in 84 verses in the Tanakh and it means ‘to cover’.[x] In Genesis 6:14 Noah covered the Ark with pitch inside and out and this word is used in that context.[xi] Only Jesus could provide that covering since He is the perfect sinless Messiah. Only He could provide a covering, make atonement and also remove our sin forever.

But He is also our Cohen Gadol, our High Priest. Jesus came as fully God and fully Man meaning He knows us perfectly; He can relate to us and He understands us perfectly.

‘Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).’

And so I implore you, have you had your sins forgiven and removed as far as the east is from the west? Will you turn to the Lord and trust Him who made atonement for sin? Will you follow Him? The Day of Atonement was a solemn occasion as we see to this day. This is a matter of grave and of the utmost importance. We have learned from Nadab and Abihu that we must approach a holy God on His terms. Who is the author of your salvation and who are you trusting in? Have you confessed Yeshua as Lord and Saviour and are you ready for when He returns?


[i] P. Grieve Leviticus What the Bible teaches Ritchie Old Testament Commentaries (John Ritchie Ltd, 2012; Kilmarnock), p259

[ii] Bryan W. Sheldon The Messiah and the feasts of Israel (Gospel Folio Press, 2007; Port Colbourne), p146

[iii] Peter Sammons Israel’s Holy Moedim and their prophetic significance today (Glory to Glory Publications, 2017; Cambridge), p116.

[iv] https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Yoma.6.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[v] https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Yoma.6.8?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[vi] Tony Peace The Messiah Factor (Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2017; Montana), p117

[vii] https://www.sefaria.org/Yoma.39a.15?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[viii] https://www.sefaria.org/Yoma.39b.5?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[ix] https://www.sefaria.org/Yoma.39b.6?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[x] Grieve, p27

[xi] Ibid, p27