Monday, June 10, 2013

When the Books are Closed: A Look at Yom Kippur

The books were closed.

The ten days of trying valiantly to "merit" God's forgiveness were over.  It was now the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement.  Literally, it was a day of "At-one-ment," a day focused on making God's people "at one" with Him.

Coming ten days after the Feast of Trumpets, Rosh Hashanah, this solemn day was the one set aside for God to judge the sins of an entire nation for another year.

Now, there were no more works to be done.  It was the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," a day of complete and total rest.  On this day, all Israel had to look not to their good works but to God alone for their covering.

And on this one day each year, the Day of Atonement, God commanded that the high priest was required to enter His presence in the Holy of Holies: " On the tenth day of the seventh month...The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.  This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites" (Lev. 16:29,32-34).

There, in the Holy of Holies, the high priest would offer two sacrifices, first for himself and then for the people of Israel--a bull and a goat, as is described in Leviticus 4. 

While God gave few instructions for Rosh Hashanah (The Feast of Trumpets) that began this ten day countdown to the Day of Atonement, He devoted an entire chapter to giving detailed instructions for this single calendar day.

As part of the sacrifices to atone for the high priest's and the nation of Israel's sin, God commanded a ceremony involving a scapegoat.  Scripture records, "When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness" (Lev. 16:20-22).

While Scripture says little more about this scapegoat except that it was burdened with a year's worth of sins for the entire nation of Israel, the Talmud (codified writings by first and second century rabbis) note a tradition of putting a red ribbon around this scapegoat.  According to the rabbis, if God forgave the nation's sin, the ribbon miraculously turned white, symbolizing atonement, one's sins being as scarlet but being washed as white as snow.

What is interesting, though, is that the Talmud records how for the forty years preceding the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the scapegoat's ribbon didn't change color. This implied the sacrifice for atonement was not accepted by God.*

Backtrack forty years from 70 AD.  Jesus, the Messiah, died on a cross in 30 AD.  In other words, for the next forty years after Jesus' death, the Day of Atonement and its associated sacrifices would have still occurred, but, according to tradition, the rabbis believed God rejected the nation's sacrifice and denied the atonement.  

It's fascinating.  Although it's not Scripture, the Talmud is giving testimony that the final atonement has been made in the person of Jesus Christ so the sacrifice of goats is no longer acceptable to God.*
The entirety of Yom Kippur points to Jesus as our Messiah.

This is a day when we are to recognize how far we are from God, how offensive our sins are to Him, and how desperately we need God's sacrifice in Jesus because there are no "works" good enough to bring us back into a right relationship with Him.

The high priests of old were merely providing a shadow of a sacrifice to come.  The book of Hebrews compares Israel's high priest to Jesus', our once-and-for-ever high priest, saying of Christ, "He doesn't need to offer sacrifices every day, as high priests do--first for their own sins, then for those of the people" (Heb. 7:27).

The atonement has already been made.  We must realize our insufficiency in ourselves.  We must choose to enter into total rest, the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," in Jesus alone, for He alone is our covering.

*Nadler, Sam. Feasts of the Bible. "Yom Kippur."  Video. Torrance: Rose P, 2011.
Image: "The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
A One Hundred Trumpet Blast Wake-Up Call
Positioning Passover Pronouns
Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' or Worship
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover

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