Light from the Sidra

Acherei Mot

Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

The sixteenth chapter of Leviticus is one of the most important passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The instructions for observing Yom Kippur are given after the sons of Aaron offered strange fire before the LORD and died, alerting the high priest to the dangers of approaching God in ways other than he has authorised. Even the holiest man in the nation is forbidden to approach the Most High other than at the time and in the manner he specifies.

The chapter highlights four important truths:

The holiness of God

The entire book of Leviticus is concerned with the holiness of God and his people. God chooses to dwell with the people of Israel. But because they are not utterly holy as he is, he remains inaccessible, remaining apart from them in the holy of holies, the innermost part of the tabernacle. He may be approached once a year but only after a rigorous set of requirements have been met in order to purify the sanctuary, Aaron himself and the people.

In the Haftarah, God reveals to the prophet Ezekiel that he will judge the holy city Jerusalem because of the “abominations” of its inhabitants. Even though the city was the place where the LORD had set his name and though it was the site of his glorious temple, he would destroy Jerusalem because of the sins of the Jerusalemites. God is so holy and pure that, according to the prophet Habakkuk, he cannot look on iniquity.

The seriousness of sin

Someone once said that you cannot have a high opinion of God if you have a low opinion of sin. Because God is perfectly holy and righteous he cannot ignore the sins of his people. Sin caused God to drive Adam and Eve out of Eden; sin was the cause of the flood which wiped out the entire human race except for eight people; sin brought fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah; and sin resulted in the death of Nadab and Abihu, the consecrated priests of the LORD. Aaron, the holiest man in the nation, had to be warned that if he approached God in a manner other than that prescribed by God he would die.

The necessity of a mediator

One of the outstanding doctrines of modern Judaism is that Jews do not need a mediator between themselves and God. Yet a glance at the book of Leviticus shows that man has always needed a mediator. Moses stood between God and the people when the Law was given at Sinai. He revealed the commands of God to the people. The priesthood was established so that the people might have representatives to stand between them and God. The ordinary Israelite could not enter the holy place, let alone the holy of holies. Likewise, on the awesome Day of Atonement the High Priest went alone into the presence of God after first atoning for his own sins and then those of the people.

The necessity of sacrifice

“The life of the flesh is in the blood. And I have given it to you upon the alter to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Leviticus 17:11 makes as clear as it is possible that sin is atoned for by the shedding of blood. When the Jewish people returned from exile in the book of Ezra, their first priority was to reinstitute the sacrificial system. Even before they set about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem they offered sacrifices to God. Though there was no temple the offerings prescribed in Leviticus were restored.

When Aaron entered the most holy place and sprinkled the Ark of the Covenant with the blood of the sacrificial goat, the sins of the people were covered. When he laid his hands on the scapegoat and confessed the sins of the people, the iniquities of Israel were symbolically transferred to the goat. The Hebrew text says the goat was for “Azazel”. In Israel today, if you get into an argument or upset someone, they may very well say to you, “Lech le Azazel!” by which they mean, “Go to hell!” When the people saw the goat for Azazel disappear into the eastern horizon they saw their sins symbolically being removed “as far as the east is from the west”. The goat was symbolically being sent to hell.

But next year Aaron or one of his sons would have to re-enact the ceremony because the ritual was entirely symbolic. An animal could never really remove sin. The ritual could only cover sin temporarily. But in the prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years after the Yom Kippur ceremony was introduced into the religious life of Israel, we read that a human being will one day become a sin offering. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah presents to us a future day of atonement in which a man carries the sins and griefs of the people of Israel; a righteous servant of the LORD who would shed his blood to bring peace and forgiveness.

The description given fits but one man, the man who suffered crucifixion 2,000 years ago. The man who was pierced by cruel nails, who was numbered among transgressors, who prayed for those who killed him, who was cut off from the land of the living but prolonged his days.

See for yourself in our Messiah pages.   

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