The day of atonement, known as Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition, was a particular day in the Old Testament year when sacrifices were made to cover the sins of the Israelite population as a whole. This was such a special occasion that it was also the only day that the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, the most inner sanctum of the tabernacle, and there would be a period of fasting in the lead-up to it.
The High Priest, in this case Aaron, would remove his normal jewel-bedecked exterior garments (ephod and upper robe) and present himself humbly before the Lord, after washing in water, in his plain linen tunic, trousers, sash and turban. He would sacrifice a bull for himself and his family, thus making himself right with God before offering sacrifices on behalf of the nation.
Instead of the normal practice of sacrificing a single goat, upon whose head sins had been confessed (known as transference), on this occasion two goats were given by the gathered peoples for atonement. One would be sacrificed without transference, as a spotless, sinless sacrifice and the other would be presented alive before God as the scapegoat; the kid upon whose head Aaron would lay his hands and confess the sins, iniquities and transgressions of all the Israelites. The scapegoat would then be sent far away into the wilderness, an uninhabited land, where it would be released, never to return.
The symbolism of the day of atonement is rich. The High Priest removing his glorious robes of office to minister before God in simplicity and humility reminds us of Jesus, our High Priest, who left behind his glory and splendour when he came to earth as a baby, to serve in simplicity and humility, yet just as the High Priest donned his beautiful robes again after the ritual sacrifices, so Jesus, in his resurrection body after crucifixion, was taken back up to glory and beauty in heavenly places.
The need for two goats – one to cleanse the altar from the stain of past sacrifices and one to remove the sin from the presence of the people – signified the inadequacy of the blood sacrifice system. One animal sacrifice was not and could never be enough to cleanse the Israelites of their sins and even with two animals, taking on different functions, their sins would only be ‘covered’ for a year at a time. Only the sacrifice of Jesus, the sinless, spotless lamb of God, would be sufficient to cleanse us and take away our sins once and for all.
Jesus didn’t just ‘atone for’ or ‘cover’ our sins, he took them away completely. The difference between the way the goat removed sins and Jesus removes sins can be shown in this crude example. I had an important meeting to go to in London and needed to take baby Lou to the childminder before haring over to the station to catch the train. I had shut the front door of our third floor flat and was almost at the bottom of the stairwell on our way out when she was lightly sick on my shoulder. I didn’t have time to go back upstairs and get changed without risking missing my train, so I had to wipe myself down with tissues as best I could, lather myself in perfume and wear my jacket to strategically cover the stain. When I met up with my colleagues in the rather swanky hotel in Bloomsbury, they never noticed anything wrong because the stain was covered up, out of their sight, but I was conscious of it all the same. It felt uncomfortable knowing that I had a blotch on my blouse, even underneath my jacket. This is what it was like when the scapegoat took the sins away. They were no longer visible, inasmuch as they had been ‘covered’ by the goat, but the people were still conscious of them. When I got home I washed my blouse and the stain came out, so when I next wore it, I was no longer conscious that there had ever been a stain! This is what it is like when Jesus removes our sins; it’s as if they were never there! Hallelujah!