When we read Leviticus, we read it through the lens of the cross. This is good, because Leviticus points to the cross; it was fulfilled there. However, the cross did more than one thing. Our default view is penal substitution—but I don’t believe that is how it fulfilled Leviticus. If we read Leviticus with substitution in mind, our interpretation becomes quite confused, and we miss what it is actually all about.
I’m going to use Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, to illustrate this. That’s the festival we tend to be most familiar with. Certainly we expect it, of all things, to model the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. Is it not, after all, called the Day of Atonement? Does not the “scapegoat” carry away the moral guilt of Israel?
No, I don’t think it does—so let’s do some Bible study.
The context is how to avoid the incident of Leviticus 10, in which Nadab and Abihu were struck down by God. The instructions of Leviticus 16 come on the heels of their death. There is no indication they tried to enter the most holy place; Leviticus 10:4 indicates their bodies were in front of—or perhaps at the front of—the tent of meeting. Probably they made the offering on the bronze altar in the courtyard. So the motivation of Leviticus 16 is a fortiori: if Nadab and Abihu were struck down for simply making an unsanctioned offering outside the twice-holy place, how much more careful must the high priest be when going inside the twice-holy place? One does not enter God’s throne-room without express permission, following the rules exactly (cf. Esther 4:11). Leviticus 16 therefore prescribes how and when the most holy place may be entered.
Why did anyone need to enter at all? Well, my contention is that they needed to cleanse it of ritual impurity. That is really the only reason that makes sense. They were purifying it to ensure it remained fit for God’s habitation. More on that later. First, let’s look at the sacrifices themselves.
The sacrifices given are bulls, goats and rams, which was typical. They are not lambs, so there is no obvious correlation here to the description of Jesus as the lamb of God (John 1:29); that reference is to Exodus 12. The bull is for decontaminating the high priest; one goat is for decontaminating the people; another is for Azazel, a spirit being; and the ram is for a burnt offering, which reestablished a relationship between the people and God.
The burnt offering
All of these points bear explanation; I’ll tackle the last one first, and the others below: the burnt offering was akin to our custom of bringing a bottle of wine when invited to dinner. It was a goodwill gift for the worshiper seeking God’s presence. It had nothing to do with sin or even impurity, and this is clear because a burnt offering always preceded other sacrifices which were about removing impurity. It was a kind of ice-breaker; it “requested access” to God, so the worshiper could either simply pray in God’s presence, make an offering of gratitude to God if he was not in a state of impurity (e.g. Leviticus 3), or offer a sacrifice to deal with impurity or some other matter of the law.
The “sin” offering
On Yom Kippur, the high priest is decontaminated first by sacrificing the bull. Once this is done, he sprinkles the blood on the throne of God—i.e., the lid of the ark, which is often misleadingly called the mercy seat. The common appellation of God as the one “enthroned upon the cherubim” refers to the lid of the ark (2 Samuel 6:2 etc.) which in turn was modeled after the heavenly reality (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5; cf. Ezekiel 1; Isaiah 6). This was, in fact, the symbolic throne of God—and, on Yom Kippur, even the literal one: in Leviticus 16:2 he promises to appear in the cloud; not as the cloud.
The important point to note for our purposes is that the priest does not sprinkle the blood on himself, nor on anyone else. This is an offering which involves the shedding of blood, but the term חטאת—chatta’at—which most translations render “sin” offering (Leviticus 16:3 etc.) is confusing, because we read it in light of the cross. As with the burnt offering, it does not deal with moral sin; again, this is obvious in places like Leviticus 5 where a chatta’at must be made for touching a corpse. This is not sinful behavior; anyone performing a burial, or checking on a sick relative, might touch a corpse perfectly innocuously. So although the Hebrew חטאה—chatta’ah; note the ending h—does usually refer to moral sin, the chatta’at—note the ending t—is better translated “purification offering.” It is for removing ritual impurity; the defilement is of a symbolic nature rather than a moral one. This also ties into the meaning of “atonement;” see below.
The goat that “makes atonement” with its blood
One of the goats is then sacrificed; the same thing happens with the sprinkling of its blood in order to “make atonement for the Holy Place.” Now watch carefully—I have nothing up my sleeve. The atonement is made for the place—for the inner sanctum of the tabernacle itself. It is not made for the people.
Again, a word of explanation: the term כפר—kipper—typically rendered “atonement” (Leviticus 16:6 etc.) to the best of my knowledge comes from the Akkadian kuppuru. In ritual settings, both words refer to purging or purifying. In Leviticus, therefore, I think we should translate kipper as “to make a purging,” rather than “to make atonement.” This is because, just as with the “sin offering,” it is clearly not referring to moral guilt; it is referring to decontamination. Obviously a place cannot incur, nor be purged of guilt. Rather, what is in view is the restoring of this space to a state fit for God to dwell in, by sprinkling God’s throne (the lid of the ark) with blood. The same thing happens in verse 18 with the altar: the priest “makes atonement for” the altar by sprinkling it with blood. He is not removing moral guilt; he is purging it from ritual uncleanness.
The goat that “makes atonement” by being sent away
This understanding of atonement is corroborated in what happens next: the other goat is sent away. It is not sacrificed; its blood is never applied to anyone or anything. Rather, the ritual impurity of the people is symbolically transferred to it, and it is driven out of sacred space:
…the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. Leviticus 16:10
The goat doesn’t “pay for” the impurity with its life; rather, it removes the impurity from the borders of the camp, carrying it into the wilderness, which was the domain of Azazel.
This is standard cosmic geography—Azazel appears at Qumran and in 1 Enoch as the leader of the watchers who sinned in Genesis 6. This is probably a legendary embellishment, but the point is that Leviticus takes for granted that he is a foreign god (cf. Psalm 82; Deuteronomy 32:8, ESV) in opposition to Yahweh—possibly associated with a goat demon (cf. Leviticus 17:7). But the point for us is that the goat for Azazel isn’t a substitutionary sacrifice—it isn’t slaughtered at all. Rather, it is a vehicle for sending the impurity of Israel where it belongs: into a tainted domain, away from where Yahweh dwells.
The purpose of Yom Kippur
The reason for Yom Kippur is given in Leviticus 16:29–34. The atonement language is repeated, with the space and utensils being “atoned for”—purged—first, and then the people. There is a symmetry here: the purging made for the space and for the utensils is the same as that made for the people. They are not differentiated. So again, this is a purging of ritual impurity; a re-dedicating of the whole system to Yahweh, and a reestablishment of sacred space through ritual cleanness.
The motivation is implicit: Because ritual uncleanness was “contagious,” there was the fear that eventually, through the actions of even one man, the whole community and space of Israel could become unfit for God’s presence—and then he would leave. Yom Kippur is the solution. It restores the temple, its trappings, the priests, and the community to a state fit for God’s presence; which is why, when you see the sprinkled blood of Jesus mentioned in Hebrews 12, it is in the context of approaching God, rather than forgiveness of sin. It is what enables us to be in God’s presence. Because Jesus took on human nature, and redeemed it on the cross, our bodies themselves become sacred space; we don’t have to go through repeated rituals, because the sacrifice cleanses once and for all.
The relationship between moral and ritual impurity
What, then, is the relationship between moral and ritual impurity? Simply put, they occupy different categories. Ritual impurity is symbolic; it images moral impurity, rather than having an intrinsic moral status of its own. By contrast, moral impurity is the reality; the actual guilt warranting actual justice.
This is clear from the different solutions Scripture prescribes. While moral impurity certainly would make you ritually impure, these were different categories of defilement, which is why God lambastes the Israelites in Isaiah 1 and elsewhere: they are trying to use Levitical sacrifices to purify themselves of the moral pollution caused by their intentional, defiant sin. The sacrificial system was not for that; it could not remove that kind of defilement. An intentional sinner couldn’t make himself fit to dwell in sacred space just by offering a sacrifice; the Levitical cultus was for dealing with impurity ritually or symbolically; for imaging the restoration of right relationship through faith, after someone had accidental failed to observe God’s moral or cultic requirements.
If you were faithful to Yahweh and you had not intended to sin, and you were seeking to make restitution, then there was no moral issue because righteousness is by faith! The moral pollution was dealt with through faith; but God still required the symbolic removal of its filth, and the symbolic restoration of the relationship—for which purpose the sacrifices were given. But in the case of serious and intentional sins absent faith, the moral pollution remained; thus there was no way to restore you to a ritually undefiled state in which you were fit for God’s presence. You cannot remove real guilt by going through symbolic motions. Sacrifices didn’t remove moral pollution, so as long as you were morally polluted you were ritually polluted. No sacrifice could change that. The answer in these such cases—sins like adultery and idolatry and murder—was to remove you from the sacred space entirely, either by exile or execution. Yom Kippur had nothing to do with it.
If ritual impurity was symbolic, why have it at all?
The purpose of the ritual purity laws certainly was to emphasize the great divide between the righteous God and depraved man. It is dangerous for people whose only intention is always evil continually (Genesis 6:5) to approach a God who destroys unrighteousness like an all-consuming fire. So what the Levitical system is modeling for us is not substitution; it is the need for forensic justification—for being declared fit for God’s presence purely on the basis of faith, as demonstrated in obedience to the cultic laws.
The connection between the blood of animals, and the blood of Jesus, is not that animals had to die in the place of people to turn away God’s wrath. Indeed, as any Christian knows—but hasn’t necessarily thought through—“it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Rather, the blood made the area symbolically suitable, clean, for habitation by God. The point is not to turn away God’s wrath through a substitutionary sacrifice, nor I think to model the turning away of God’s wrath through a substitutionary sacrifice. It is to demonstrate the extreme unapproachableness of God in view of the depravity of man (cf. Matthew 15:11–20). Everything in Leviticus is signalling that people are not worthy of coming before God; that they have to do a great deal of careful and precise and weird stuff for God to even be willing to dwell among them; and indeed that coming before him is extremely dangerous, because if they do it wrong they are gonna die.
That surely is the key takeaway for us, especially in terms of relating Leviticus to Jesus. Can you imagine how amazing a Jew would have found it to hear that he no longer had to worry about this problem—that God had made a way of actually turning his own people into sacred space through a one-time sacrifice that would ultimately perfect them? And not only that, but it had dealt with the underlying problem that made sacred space so dangerous in the first place: sin.
That would be almost unbelievable. Still is.
Steve Hays and a commenter named Jeremiah have posted some thoughtful comments at Triablogue about this article—which I interact with there, and largely agree with. I have updated the article in response to their critique.