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cannot offer the bulls, the rams and the goats described in Leviticus 16 these Christians contend that these have all been replaced by Jesus.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