During Jesus’ day, it had such a place of prominence that it was common for the Jews to refer to the day as simply, “The Day”. As the name suggests, Yom Kippur was a day when the Jewish people offered atonement for the sins of the previous year. The outline used in the atonement ceremony can be found in the 16th chapter of Leviticus (for all the Great Adventure students out there, Leviticus is the book between Exodus and Numbers that you skipped ;-).
The people first brought two goats before the high priest. By drawing lots, one goat was selected for Yahweh and one for Azazel (more on him later). The high priest would then take a bull and sacrifice it for his own sins and for the sin of those in the priesthood (the Aaronite priesthood). The high priest would then take this blood and walk behind the veil that hid the Holy of Holies. This was the only time of the year that this occurred. The high priest would then incense the mercy seat and sprinkle it with the blood from the bull.
You often hear a story of how the high priest would tie a rope around his leg or wear a bell so that if he was struck down by God that he could be pulled out without anyone having to enter in to the Holy of Holies. Though I hate to spoil a good story, it is most likely only that – a story. But, let’s move on.
The priest would then take the goat that had been selected for Yahweh and sacrifice it for the sins of the people. Again, the high priest would pass beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies and incense the Mercy Seat and sprinkle it with the goat’s blood. At this point the blood from the bull and goat were mixed and sprinkled and smeared on the altar of sacrifice.
Now, what about this Azazel and the goat selected for him? Azazel (sometimes spelled Azazzel) was a demon, a fallen angel that “lived” in the wilderness or desert (demons living in the desert is a pretty common theme in the Bible).
Now the priest would take this goat and lay his hands on its head and “confess” the sins of the people over it, in effect transferring these sins to the goat. The goat was then lead out to the desert by a man. Now even though this goat was not a sacrifice to Azazel, it was common for it to be lead a few miles outside of Jerusalem and pushed over a cliff. You can imagine what a bad omen it would have been for the goat carrying all of the people’s sins to find its way back to the city!
Just a quick note here. This goat that has the sins and the transgressions of the people transferred to it is called a “scapegoat”, and is where we get the term “scapegoat” from.
Great, but does Yom Kippur have any importance to Christianity? And how. The author of Hebrews (Heb 9:11-14) talks about Jesus being our high priest and perfect sacrifice, shedding his blood for the atonement of our sins:
“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ…”Jesus, the great high priest, passes into the "greater and more perfect tabernacle" and offers the perfect sacrafice of His own blood for all people, eternally.
And not only is there a connection to the goat which was selected for Yahweh, but there is also a connection between Jesus and the scapegoat. Paul, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, verse 21 makes the connection for us:
”For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”Just as the sins of the people were transferred over to the scapegoat, so too were our sins transferred to Christ. And just as the scapegoat of the Old Testament was led out into a desert inhabited by demons, we read in Luke chapter 4:
“Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.”But unlike the scapegoat who only acted as a means for the sins of the people to be moved around and transferred, Jesus took all the sins of the world and atoned for them at Calvary, forever.
Happy Yom Kippur!