In most English literature, the climax of a story comes near the end. The most important point, the twist, the surprise, all come in the finale. But in Hebrew literature, which is what the Old Testament is, the main point often comes in the middle. You can think of it as a mountain peak. The beginning leads up to the top and the end comes down from it. But all parts come to a climax in the middle. That’s the peak.
That middle point is this chapter - the Day of Atonement. In fact, since the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, are one literary unit and Leviticus is the middle book, the Day of Atonement is the middle of the middle. In many ways, this chapter is the peak of the mountain that is the Torah.
So what’s going on here?
The main point of the Day of Atonement is given to us right away: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil...so that he may not die...But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place” (16:2-3). The Most Holy Place in the tabernacle was the Holy of Holies. It was behind a veil. That is where God’s actual presence was. The Day of Atonement is so important because that is the day a human got to go into God’s presence.
This day involved very specific sacrifices. These sacrifices made atonement first for the High Priest’s sins and then the sins of the whole nation. Not only that, it cleansed the tabernacle of all the unintentional, unatoned for, and unknown defilement that happened through the year.
There are two main sacrifices. The first is a bull. This is for Aaron’s sins and the cleansing of the tabernacle. Its blood is brought into the Holy of Holies behind the veil and put on the mercy seat which is like God’s kingly footstool.
The second sacrifice involves two goats. One goat is a sin offering for all the people. Its blood is also brought into the Holy of Holies to cleanse it on behalf of all the people's sins.
The reason this cleansing had to be done is that, as Leviticus 16:16 says, God’s tent “dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanliness.” Cleaning the tent made God’s presence with his people possible.
The second goat, though, would not be used to cleanse the tabernacle. In fact, it wouldn’t be killed at the tabernacle at all.
Aaron was to present this second goat in front of the tent, lay his hands on it, and confess all the sins of the people over it. The goat is then taken outside the city and released into the wilderness, never to return. The picture is a powerful one for the people of Israel. Their sin has literally been taken away from them.
As Christians, we have an even better Day of Atonement because Jesus is our new high priest.
Aaron was a sinner who needed his own sacrifice. He was part of the ongoing problem, so he could never offer a permanent solution. Jesus, on the other hand, is sinless and doesn’t need to make a sacrifice for himself. That’s why he can offer an ongoing and permanent solution. What the High Priest had to do every year, Jesus was able to do once for all. We only need one Day of Atonement - the day Jesus died on the cross.
What’s more, while Aaron’s sacrifice made it so he could enter God’s presence on earth, Jesus’ sacrifice made it so anyone who believes in him can enter God’s eternal presence. We don’t just get access behind a physical curtain. We get access to God’s very presence in the true Holy of Holies in Heaven. That’s why, after Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was torn in two.
Finally, this once for all, eternal sacrifice communicates something very important about us and our sin. Whereas Israel had to be constantly reminded of their never-ending problem of sin by this and other rituals, when Jesus dealt with our sin once and for all, we can be sure that our sin has been dealt with permanently. That is why we no longer have to practice any sacrifices. It is finished!
So why is this in the middle of Leviticus and the middle of the Torah? Why is this one of the Bible’s great climaxes and peaks? Because one of the Bible’s main points is God’s desire to live with his people. And the Day of Atonement shows us how he makes this possible. It also tells us that, in Jesus, the cross now sits at the center of everything we do. It is the mountain peak of our new story with God.
I pray that the Holy Spirit would show you the God who makes a way to dwell with us and forgive us. And that he does this finally and fully through Jesus dying for us on the cross - our once-for-all Day of Atonement.