“Cleaned and Dressed”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23.27-28)
What sets the Day of Atonement apart from all the other holidays God gave to Israel is that it was the one time in the year when the high priest was to enter the Most Holy Place to perform his priestly duties. He was to burn incense before the ark and sprinkle blood from animals offered to atone for his own sins, and those of the people. That was the central and defining moment of the holiday, but it involved many other important details.
Having already selected a bull for his own sin offering and a ram for his burnt offering, the high priest was to begin the ritual by bathing and putting on his designated clothing (Le 16.3-4). Then the populace was to present him with two goats—one as a sin offering—and a ram—as the people’s burnt offering (v5). The high priest would then present the bull before God at the entrance of the tent of meeting, kill it, and take some of its blood, along with incense and coals from the altar, into the Most Holy Place, where the core of the ritual was to be performed (vv11-12).
Having filled the room with smoke from the incense and sprinkled the blood of his sin offering (the bull) before the ark of the covenant (vv13-14), he would then exit and retrieve the first goat, which was the people’s sin offering, and repeat the sprinkling process before the ark (v15). The purpose of all this was “to make atonement … for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel” (v17), but there’s still more to come! This includes making atonement for the altar, putting blood from the goat on its horns in order to “cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel” (v19). They were left with two rams still alive, as well as one goat. The high priest was to lay his hands on the goat’s head and confess Israel’s sins over it, then commit the goat to a man previously selected for the task of leading the goat away into a remote part of the wilderness, where he was to “let the goat go free” (v22).
Sending away the scapegoat, symbolically carrying far away the guilt from their sins, was the culmination of the atonement ritual; but we should, perhaps, not be surprised that there are more duties to follow, for all involved. There are still a dead bull, a dead goat, and two live rams—sin offerings and burnt offerings left unfinished, with further processing and immolation on the schedule. But while this was the high priest’s job, he had something else to do, first.
Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. (Leviticus 16.23-25)
Then, there’s the man who had taken the scapegoat out and set him loose in the wilderness. He was still required to “wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp” (v26).
Finally, although the offerings were now completed, the portion of the sin offerings (the bull and goat) burned on the altar was surprisingly small, amounting to the animals bulk fat, kidneys, and part of the liver (cf. Le 4.8-9). What was to be done with the great majority of each carcass? It was to be taken out of the camp and
burned up with fire. And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. (Leviticus 16.27-28)
In short, the idea is that the sins of the priesthood and the populace have been symbolically transferred to the scapegoat, and the penalty for those sins transferred to the bull and other goat. The act of sending the former away, and offering the latter up to God brings about reconciliation between God and his people—but everyone who came into contact with that sin, even in the process of casting it away, is now tainted by it, and must clean off that taint before re-entering society. It’s like the reaction any mom would have, after dad and the boys finish fixing the septic tank or sewer line and try to come inside: “Stay out there and strip. I’ll get the hose—you are not bringing that into my house!”
God went to great lengths to show Israel how they should look at sin, teaching them in a visceral way to be disgusted by it and keep away from its taint. He wants us to learn that same lesson, but today there is no longer a need to offer these annual sacrifices, because Jesus is the reality—the one who cast these shadows. He approached God’s heavenly throne with his own perfect blood, the only truly atoning sacrifice for sin. He “suffered outside the gate” (He 13.12) and carried away the sins of the world, not just symbolically but spiritually. We all participated spiritually in offering him up as our atoning sacrifice. What must we do, before we’re fit to enter the city of God? Like everyone involved in the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, we must have “our bodies washed with pure water” (He 10.22). Then, we must put on clean clothes. Only those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Re 7.14) are joined to God’s people and fit to enter his Presence.