‘The Day of Atonement’ by Michael Morales

Image from Wikimedia

The Scapegoat painted in 1854-1856 by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). The goat is depicted near the southern end of the Dead Sea – a desolate, inhospitable wilderness. Utterly abandoned, the beast stands shakily in the mire, soon to be just another of the skeletons embedded in the mud around it. The goat bears a piece of red cloth. Although not prescribed in Leviticus, the High Priest in Jesus’s time tied a piece of scarlet cloth to its horn. This identified it as the scapegoat; and red colour, it seems, represented the sin of the people. The painting’s frame bears the quotations ‘Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted.’ (Isaiah LIII, 4) and ‘And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.’ (Leviticus XVI, 22).

The day of Atonement (described in Leviticus 16.1-34 and Numbers 29.7-11) lay at the heart of the whole Old Testament sacrificial system. On this day a final great purification offering was offered for all of Israel’s sins over the preceding year. This sacrifice consisted of a pair of goats. That sacrifice – and, in fact, the whole Old Testament sacrificial system – was fulfilled Jesus’s sacrificial death on the Cross.

In this article, Michael Morales brings a fresh and illuminating perspective on the Day of Atonement and its fulfilment by our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He writes, “As part of the profound theology of atonement in the Old Testament, sin was understood as both deeply-seated within the heart and exceedingly defiling. Because the earth had been polluted by humanity’s sin and consequent death, the LORD God who is the fountain of life could not dwell with his people—yet this was the very purpose for which he had created the heavens and earth. The Tabernacle (and later Temple) was, therefore, a provisional ‘creation in miniature’, an architectural cosmos that would allow the holy Creator to dwell in a sacred, clean ‘house’ among his people. Again, the Tabernacle was a temporary solution during the interim before the establishment of a new (that is, newly cleansed and renovated) heavens and earth. But even during the interim, God taught and warned his people that his earthly abode, the Tabernacle, could not remain in the midst of his people when defiled by the uncleanness of their sins. Although faithful Israelites would offer sin offerings throughout the year, their own consciences surely testified to the inadequacy of their repentance, let alone remembrance, of sin. If one were to offer sin offerings (typically a young goat) for every sin committed in a single day, one would never leave the Tabernacle precincts and would become exceedingly poor in the process since livestock were a precious commodity. Many sins, then, had not been dealt with through the cleansing blood of atonement. Worse still, Israel’s sins spread their uncleanness so that the Tabernacle would steadily become defiled; without a remedy, God would need to remove his holy presence from among his people. Such a need for comprehensive forgiveness and cleansing from sin was addressed by the Day of Atonement ceremony, allowing for a fresh start annually—a new year, as it were.”

Dr Morales continues: “The analogy between creation and the Tabernacle proves prophetic. If the high priest, through the blood of atonement, could cleanse God’s architectural cosmos (i.e., the Tabernacle) from sin’s defilement, then could such cleansing also be possible for creation itself? The book of Hebrews teaches precisely this point. Jesus was not a Levitical high priest, linked to the Tabernacle as a miniature copy of the cosmos. Rather, the Son of God is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, and has accomplished creation’s Day of Atonement, cleansing God’s people and the cosmos definitively from sin’s defilement. With his own blood, Jesus entered heaven itself, the reality which the Tent’s holy of holies only copied. All of God’s people, from every era and nation, will dwell with him in glory in a new heavens and earth because of the Messiah’s work of atonement. A foretaste of that glorious life may be experienced every Lord’s Day as the church below enters through the new and living way—the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ—into the joys of the heavenly Mount Zion (Hebrews 12.22-24).”

Read the whole article HERE.

Michael Morales is Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus (see the publisher’s description for this book HERE). This is a superb study of the book of Leviticus and its place in the whole Bible story.

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