Summary: All kind of significance can be seen in the observance of the Day of Atonement.
“The Day of Atonement” is the English translation for the Hebrew, “Yom Kippur.” “Kippur” is the Hebrew word “kaphar” meaning “to cover.” Specifically, atonement refers to God covering our sin. Yom Kippur fell on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh Hebrew month, and was observed between the Feast of Trumpets on Tishri 1, and the Feast of Tabernacles which begins on Tishri 15.
Though it’s listed among the seven feasts, it wasn’t a feast. On this day the Lord said, “you must deny yourselves” (Leviticus 23:27, 32). The day was devoted to fasting and repenting of the previous year’s sins. Three passages give instructions for the high priest (Leviticus 16), the people (Leviticus 23:26-32), and the sacrifices (Numbers 29:7-11).
1. The practical significance of the Day of Atonement for Israel.
A. The preparation for the services.
The Jewish day began at 6 PM, but the service for Yom Kippur started the next morning. It followed the morning service in the afternoon. On this day the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and stand before God. So it was crucial he be ritually clean and qualified for his duties. To insure this, the high priest was required to leave his home one week before Yom Kippur to stay in the high priest’s quarters inside the Temple. During this week, he was twice sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer just in case he’d become unclean. This was the cleansing process for ceremonial defilement (Numbers 19:1-10). Also, all of his duties for Yom Kippur were rehearsed.
Any other day, the high priest washed his hands and feet before performing his duties. On Yom Kippur, he had to totally immerse himself in a special golden bath. His purple robe was hemmed with tiny golden bells, and over the top of his robe, he wore a golden breastplate, studded with twelve precious stones - as a reminder that he represented the twelve tribes of Israel before God. But this day, he wore garments woven from white linen that were never worn again.
Once dressed, he washed his hands and feet for the morning service - the regular daily sacrifice. Then he returned to his chamber to change into his white linen garments. On this day he changed clothing 5 times, and each time, he washed his hands, his feet, removed his garments, and totally immersed his body, put on a change of clothing, and washed his hands and feet again.
B. The presentation of the sacrifices.
The covering for sin was a blood sacrifice of an innocent animal. The authors of The Feasts of the Lord, tell of being asked why God demanded blood and not another bodily fluid like sweat or tears.
“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement (covering) for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement (covering) for one’s life.” - Leviticus 17:11 (NIV)
Sweat and tears speak of effort and work, which can never cover our sin. Atonement isn’t earned or deserved; it’s granted, but only after God’s justice has been satisfied, which demands payment for sin, and the payment is death. Since life is in the blood, the sacrifice for sin must be a blood sacrifice. Yom Kippur required an increase in animal sacrifices. Besides the regular daily offerings, other offerings were made. These included a bull, a ram, 7 lambs for the people, and a ram for the priesthood (Numbers 29:7-11). This was because the sacrifices were an atonement for the previous year's sins of the entire nation.
C. The place of the scapegoat.
The Yom Kippur service featured two goats - identical in size, color, and value. Two lots were placed in a golden vessel. One inscribed, “for Yahweh” and the other, “for Azazel.” The high priest shook the vessel, randomly took one in each hand, and held them to the goat’s foreheads to determine the outcome. He declared them “a sin offering to the Lord.” The two goats were viewed together as one singular offering.
Scholars say “Azazel” comes from the Hebrew “azel,” meaning “escape.” This has led to calling this goat the “scapegoat” for it escaped death and was driven into the wilderness. The high priest laid hands on its head, confessing the people’s sins. The scapegoat was then led through the Eastern Gate more than 10 miles into the wilderness. The goat determined “for Yahweh” was offered as a sin offering.
While the scapegoat was taken into the wilderness and the people awaited word it had been accomplished, the service continued. The high priest finished sacrificing the bull and the goat on the altar. Then he addressed the people, reading the Leviticus passages and quoting the Numbers passage by heart, verifying all commands had been carried out. Finally, the remaining offerings for Yom Kippur were offered. He then bathed for the 5th time and changed into his golden garments. He would perform the regular evening service and Yom Kippur ended.