Lessons from Leviticus 16

Lessons from Leviticus 16


The 16th chapter in the book of Leviticus describes the yearly service that would take place in the Tabernacle (and subsequently in the Jerusalem Temple) on the Day of Atonement. The passage describes in great detail precisely what it is that the high priest must do on that holy day. This includes (but is not limited to) bringing several animal offerings, reciting a verbal confession over some these offerings, bringing incense into the holy of holies, sprinkling the blood of some of the offerings in the holy of holies and sending out a goat into the wilderness.


With the absence of the Temple we cannot fulfill the directives of this chapter on a practical level at this time. Nevertheless, this chapter still occupies a central position in the minds and the hearts of those who revere the Jewish Scriptures. Although we cannot practically fulfill these laws we can still learn and be inspired from these laws.


Interestingly; both the Jewish and the Christian communities focus on this passage. But these two communities have each taken different lessons, even opposite lessons out of the verses in this chapter.


The Christian community (and I refer here to those denominations of Christianity who have targeted my community for proselytization) focuses on the blood atonement described in this chapter. Christian theology asserts that there can be no atonement for sin without a blood sacrifice so the lesson they take from this chapter is that we can’t manage without some form of substitutionary atonement. Being that we cannot offer the bulls, the rams and the goats described in Leviticus 16 these Christians contend that these have all been replaced by Jesus. By putting their faith in Jesus Christians believes that they have the cleansing of the Day of Atonement every day of the year.


The Jewish community cannot accept the Christian interpretation of this chapter in Leviticus; this for many reasons. One simple reason that jumps out at us as we examine the issue is the simple fact that God only fixed one Day of Atonement per year. There are more than 50 Sabbaths in a year. It is clear to the Jew that the lesson of Sabbath is one that we should be focusing on more frequently than the lessons of the Day of Atonement. The Christian’s inordinate obsession with sin and atonement is not reflected in the life-cycle set forth in the Law of Moses. According to the Law of Moses we should more often focus on the idea that everything that exists is a creation of God (Exodus 20:11) than we should be focusing on our need for atonement.


Furthermore; the Christian interpretation of the passage in Leviticus ignores all of the aspects of this holy day that were not substitutionary atonement. The verbal confession, the incense, the lots, the changing of the high priest’s clothes and the ritual washing are all ignored or marginalized by the Christian reading of this chapter.


The Jewish community does not see this passage in Leviticus as an exaltation of one method of atonement over another. To the Jew this chapter speaks of God’s gift of obedience. God commanded us to do these actions not because he needed them done but because He grants us the opportunity to obey His command. Each and every detail of these laws is treasured and cherished by the Jewish people. We study the intricate laws described in this chapter and we teach them to our children. We yearn for the restoration of the Temple so that we can again enjoy the gift of obeying each one of God’s instructions and we beseech God that He restore His sanctuary to our midst.


On the Day of Atonement we attempt to fulfill those of God’s commandments that are possible for us to fulfill in our exiled state and we thank God for granting us this limited measure of that gift. We take the opportunity to focus on the absence of the Temple and reinforce the recognition that it is our national and personal sins that are prolonging our exile. We pray for God’s cleansing and for Him to draw us close to Him.


The lesson of Leviticus 16 (as well as the lesson of every other chapter in the Bible) is that obedience and submission towards God brings blessing and life. The opportunity to obey God is not something that is intrinsically ours but rather it is a gift that God sometimes withholds from us. Our submission towards God brings us to yearn for the restoration of the gift. And our obedience to God’s law does not allow us to accept a theology which asserts that chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus has been discarded, done away with and replaced by something different.


The prophets taught us clearly that the underlying theme of the Law is NOT sacrifice but obedience (1samuel 15:22; Jeremiah 7:22,23). Obedience is not a matter of obtaining God’s blessing by the work of our hands but rather obedience is submission of heart and body to God with the full recognition that every action of ours is but a gift from God.

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Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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9 Responses to Lessons from Leviticus 16

  1. naaria says:

    I have long noted that beside an importance placed by many (but not all) Christians on blood (almost entirely because of the “blood of Jesus”, although “blood” is not the major emphasis of the gospels or its teachings), that there is a strong reliance on certain Jewish Prophets and much less on the readings from the Torah (that many often wrongly refer to as “Law”), except for a large part of Genesis. One of the reasons is the belief that certain verses “point to Jesus”, especially if it deals with general ideas of mercy & forgiveness (as long as repentance does not negate the theory of the power of Jesus’s blood). Another reason is what appears to be the “fallen nature of Mankind” and the hopeless situation of people (although that is only a part of the long history of Israel or of Jews). So another major reason is those many verses which appear to be very critical of Israel or of Jews. But the people (pictured as always sinful, disobedient, or deserting God for the gods of the neighbors), did not go extinct, nor was the Torah or the critical writings of prophets lost or thrown away (at least not most of what scholars might suspect or theorize was written). We must keep a more historical perspective; Israel was on a “cross-roads” between stronger northern & southern neighbors. They had to survive long periods of time with no temple, no nation. How, reasonable is it to blame their problems all on individual or collective “sin”? Is God so unjust or unmerciful?

    We must remember that the Prophets were speaking to their leaders or the people in a time in certain time in history of Israel and later of Judea. They were trying to explain how their people came to suffer so & how their nation “under God” could so savagely be defeated and over-run by Godless, pagan, sinful peoples & nations. The Prophets job was also to console the people and give them hope in the most hopeless of times. The alternative would be to start to believe, like Israel’s enemies, that the God of Israel was as “conquered as His people were” and thus the pagan gods were the “real” “mighty ones”. Better to blame all the failure & suffering upon their own selves and even upon their anointed priests, then upon their God. But after “70 years”, the “exile” for the people of the southern Kingdom and the remnants of the Northern was ended.

    Therefore, Ezra 1:1-2. “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the LORD roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm…”. “The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah”.

    Many scholars believe that the book of Daniel was written about the subjugation of Israel by the Greeks & by Hellenism, which brought about the successful “Maccabean” revolt. God heard Israel’s call, judged them, and then “took up their cause”, as during the earlier Lamentations of Israel.

    Lamentations 3:52-65. “Those who were my enemies without cause have hunted me like a bird; they flung me alive into a pit and hurled stones on me; water closed over my head; I said, “I am lost.” I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea,… You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” You have taken up my cause, O Lord, you have redeemed my life. You have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause. You have seen all their malice, all their plots against me. You have heard their taunts, O Lord, all their plots against me. The whispers and murmurs of my assailants are against me all day long. Whether they sit or rise—see, I am the object of their taunt- songs. Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord, according to the work of their hands! Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them!”

    Lamentations 4:21-22. “Rejoice and be glad, O daughter Edom, you that live in the land of Uz; but to you also the cup shall pass; you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare. The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished, He will keep you in exile no longer; but your iniquity, O daughter Edom, He will punish, He will uncover your sins.”

    Israel is not the only one “punished”; Edom (one of symbols of the enemies of Jews) is punished as well for their unjust treatment & slander of Israel & their God. We may not see God, but we can see things like cruel treatment by people against other people & bloody wars.

    Ezekiel 36:1-16. (condensed). Blessing on Israel . “Because the enemy said of you, “Aha!” …. because they made you desolate indeed, and crushed you from all sides, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became an object of gossip and slander among the people; … the desolate wastes and the deserted towns, which have become a source of plunder and an object of derision to the rest of the nations all around,… therefore says the Lord God: I am speaking in my hot jealousy against the rest of the nations, and against all Edom, who, with wholehearted joy and utter contempt, took my land as their possession, … to plunder it.” ” … because you have suffered the insults of the nations; … the nations that are all around you shall themselves suffer insults”. “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot out your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they shall soon come home. See now, I am for you; I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply your population, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the towns shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply human beings and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am The Lord”.

    Ezekiel 36 is about “The Renewal of Israel”. My study notes show, that “the oracle concerning the restoration of the mountains of Israel is a deliberate contrast with that against Mount Seir. As a prophecy of consolation, it also reverses some of the imagery of the prophecy of retribution in chapter 6”. Notice that the renewal of Israel or Judea is mostly due to the suffering of Judea or how they are treated by “the nations”. If this is any indication, the longer that Israel or Jews suffer, because of the “sins of the peoples of the nations”, the longer those “nations” will suffer later. Better for Israel to be insulted, then to be those who insult in order that they might exalt themselves & their “belief system”. Better to be the so-called “sinners”, then to be among those who always unjustly and arrogantly “harp” on the sins of Israel of the “Jews”, instead of looking at their own sins (“beams” in their own eye).

    Zechariah 14:16 “All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King LORD of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths”. At least, they won’t bow to the sword or to statue or to a human king or “man-god”.

    Part of the “addendum” to Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind: 14 that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind”.

    • naaria says:

      I often see those who are critical of Jews or of Judaism, “walk a fine line” when they “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” or say “God blesses those who bless Israel”. But there is a much finer line that is used to somehow connect verses like those in Lev 16 with “blood of Jesus”.5

    • Certainly Israel is not the only one punished! Israel is and was the best of the best, and of ALL nations, Israel had the most knowledge about G-d and the most direct interaction. So all of these thousands of verses throughout Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, and the other prophets that strongly condemn Israel’s horrific sins are a statement about all of mankind, not just about Israel. Again – Israel was the best of the best…so where does that leave the rest of the nations, the nations that view her with disdain and perceive this denouncement of Israel for her sin and G-d’s judgment on her as though they (other nations) were better, or as though they had the right to judge? It leaves them in far greater judgment. Because, as you say, the many nations that mock Israel for her sin do indeed have a beam in their own eye. G-d’s use of the exceedingly wicked to punish Israel for her wickedness did not at all mean what they thought – that G-d had favored them. No, the fact is that Israel had what they never had in the first place – G-d’s utter devotion, even in her sin, and His love and favor regardless of her failures.

      As for Ezekiel 36, it most certainly is about renewal. But don’t forget to read beyond verse 16. You stopped there, for some reason. There are also verses 17 through the rest of the chapter. And there are still all of the chapters of Ezekiel before chapter 36, some of which consist almost entirely of lists of Israel’s sins, over and over. And there is still chapter after chapter in book after book of the Bible in which G-d, for some reason, chose to focus repeatedly on Israel’s sins. Yes, for some reason He did that.

      Yet those books also most clearly show His redemption and His righteousness and His Holiness and Mercy, and that is the point in the first place. It is all about HIM. In Israel’s status as being the best of the best, she STILL failed and was said (by G-d — and it is His assessment alone that matters) to be utterly sinful. Then He reached down and washed her and cleansed her and redeemed her, and thus He then called her a holy people, the redeemed, a city sought and not forsaken. And when He gives her a New heart and a New Covenant (see the verses beyond those you read in Ezekiel 36, and also Jeremiah 31) then she will truly walk in obedience…for His Righteous work, His alone.

      • Freedom
        We are holy EVEN when we are in our sins because God sanctified us and because we trust in God and NOT in Jesus (or any other idol for that matter) – Jeremiah 2:3

        • I would say we are holy because of HIS work on our behalf… as we see in Jeremiah chapter 2, G-d was testifying that He had counted Israel holy in the past, even though when we read the same parallel passages describing the events He mentions here, we see that He grew angry with her then because of her sin. Yet He loved her and counted her holy, washing her sins away – as He says many, many times throughout Scripture.


          • hyechiel says:

            Dear Freedom;
            G-d knows all from the first particle in creation, until the last of everything, and He starts all over again. So He knows what we are, and when. What we forget is why we were choosen; for the job He wants us to do.
            So we are Holy, because our job is Holy. For the rest, He does what He can to keep us stright.

    • alide1 says:

      So Prophets were written for certain times, but definition of “prophets” means they were prophesying too and telling the future. also you just have to read them to see all the prophecies about future things. I haven’t observed a focus just on Prophets (it is part of the bible isn’t it?) among any groups but maybe an equal focus. like a focus on Prophets when they get left out of conversations about God and the bible.= asking if God is unreasonable or unjust seems strange, just read what he says instead. I would say that if he says Israel sinned then Israel sinned. If he says the neighbors sinned then the neighbors sinned. I see a lot of both in there and I bet the neighbors thought they had good reasons for sinning too, maybe they rationalized it was all really just their neighbors fault too. God still loved Israel and reached out even when they sinned (really often), that’s the point.
      I don’t get what you are saying about Torah wrongfully being referred to as “the Law”, unless maybe you think king David was not referring to Torah when he talked about the law. that was pretty often.

  2. hyechiel says:

    Dear alide1;
    The point is that G-d used Israel to show the nations how they can, and should, rise to a higher level of Righteousness. The Hebrew word translated as “prophet” does not mean
    “sothsayer/fortune teller.” It means “spokeperson”. The telling the future was not their doing, but a recital of what G-d told them.
    For the rest of the Tanach, it is a history of how His nation grew up, and His desire for you to do the same. Right now, the world is going through a birth pain of renewal, as we gain an understanding of how we can serve G-d. As long as so many refuse to acknoledge His Mercy, we cannot have it. Cease refusing it, an it shall be ours for the behavior we possess.

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