The Day of Atonement was the most solemn day of the whole Jewish year. It was a day of mourning and fasting and other forms of self-denial, as the people reminded themselves of their inherent sinfulness, and of their perpetual need for cleansing and forgiveness. For the Law itself acknowledged the inadequacy of the sacrificial system. No matter how many offerings and sacrifices were made throughout the year, no matter how conscientious their efforts to keep Yahweh’s sanctuary ‘clean’, it would inevitably become defiled by their sins – and if that state of affairs were allowed to continue, He would have to withdraw His presence from His people.
The centrepiece of the day’s rites was a special sin offering that consisted of two identical goats. Their fates were decided by lot: one was ‘for Yahweh’, the other was ‘for Azazel’ (a demon believed to live in the wilderness, who may represent Satan). They embodied two aspects of the one sin-offering: one goat would be sacrificed as the means of atonement, the other sent away to demonstrate the effects of that atonement.
Normally the priests were forbidden to enter the Most Holy Place, which was God’s immediate presence. The Day of Atonement was the one exception: the high priest was allowed to go in, with extreme caution, burning incense to create a dense cloud of smoke that would screen the Ark of the Covenant and prevent him from actually seeing God (which would mean instant death). There he sprinkled the blood of the slaughtered goat directly onto the lid of the Ark. After doing this, he went out and symbolically placed upon the second goat all the sins atoned for by the death of the first goat. This second goat, the ‘scapegoat’, was then taken far away from the camp and released into the wilderness (where it would presumably die). This ritual gave a clear visual demonstration of what had been accomplished: that through the sacrifice of a representative substitute, God’s wrath is averted and our sins are carried away out of sight, never to trouble our relationship with God again.
“As far as the east is from the west,
so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)
As a result of this ceremony, all the nation’s sins were both forgiven and forgotten, and the people could continue in fellowship with God for one more year. But then it had to be done all over again… and again, and again… until the death of Christ made further repetition unnecessary (Hebrews 9:24-26).
In a bizarre parody of the scapegoat ritual, Pilate presented the crowd outside the Praetorium with two Jewish men (both called ‘Jesus son of the Father’), and invited the mob to choose which one should live and which one should die (Matthew 27:17). Barabbas was the one released, not into the wilderness but to Israel’s representatives (who became ‘defiled’ by his uncleanness). But it was Jesus who performed the role of the sacrificial victim and also the function of the scapegoat by taking away all our sins – going even as far as the realm of the dead, to proclaim His accomplishment (I Peter 3:19).
So has the Day of Atonement has been fulfilled already? In one sense, yes; but as part of the autumn feast cycle it is still awaiting its final fulfilment. When Christ returns as Judge, the Most Holy Place will not be a small dark room in an ancient building in a faraway city; it will embrace the furthest limits of human existence. In God’s presence, sin cannot be ignored, and judgement must be executed in one way or another (Revelation 20:11-15). For sinners, that will mean death; but Christ has already made atonement for those who put their faith in Him.