Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonements)

The feast

When there was a temple: the two rams

During the feast called Yom Kippur (יוֹם כִּפּוּר, originally Yom Kippurim, the day of atonements), the priests would atone for the sins of the priesthood and of the people, and subsequently purifiy the temple because it is among the people, who are not pure. This was the only day the High Priest (כהן גדול) was allowed inside the Holy of Holies (קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים), the holiest part of the temple where the ark of the covenant was placed (אָרוֹן הַבְּרִית). For the sins of the people, Aaron was instructed to prepare two special rams (Leviticus 16):

And [Aaron] shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. […] Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
Leviticus 16:5,7-10

Modern celeration of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur was never meant to be a celebration, but rather a day of mourning over one’s sins, a day of true repentance. Therefore, in modern-day Israel, nobody drives on that day. All shops are closed, even in secular cities like Tel Aviv, and the airport is closed. Life literally comes to a halt.

In Judaism, the outer and inner states of being considered to be connected. Therefore, when someone is ashamed or feels guilty, they might fast to reflect this inner suffering outwardly, i.e. , inner repentance should be reflected by bodily suffering (e.g. through fasting). Thus, during biblical times, people would put ashes on their head and wear sackcloth as a sign of mourning (e.g. Genesis 37:34; 2 Samuel 3:31; Jonah 3:10). Reflecting the connection of body, spirit and soul, all the senses are connected as well, both in worship and in everyday life: For example, dancing reflects inner joy, and singing as well as hearing music adds those senses to adoration. Similarly, eating the meat of a sacrifice involves taste, while smoke coming fromthe altar of incense symbolises prayer and smells good (e.g. Ps. 141:2).

The scapegoat

The term scapegoat is used in many situations in the English language: Most crime movies contain it. But where does it come from?

The origin of the term is a translation of the text of Leviticus 16, where the words “for Azazel” (לעזאזל) were translated as “an escaping goat” (interpreted as two words: le-ez azel, לעז אזל, literally “for the goat out”) in the King James Bible, also called a “scape-goat” in older versions. However, it makes more sense to consider Azazel to be a name: The goat “for Azazel” was meant to carry away the sins of the people. Azazel was understood to be a demon of the desert or wilderness and one of the main ennemies of God, a leader of the fallen angels.

Who exactly is Azazel?

To understand that, we need to go back to Genesis 6, where the text explains that a certain type of angels (sons of God, בני האלהים bnei ha’elohim) came down from heaven to commit the sin of taking human wives and having giants as children. This happened in the 7th generation after Adam, during the life of Enoch. This man also wrote a book about thoses events. From there we know that these fallen angels were led by one particular fallen angel, Azazel. Before the flood, the fallen angels were punished for their sins by being bound and locked away until the end of times, when they will be released for a short time to inflict suffering upon humanity. And Azazel was put into a “bottomless pit” in the wilderness. Enoch wrote this:

61And it came to pass, when the children of men had multiplied, in those days there were born to them beautiful and comely daughters. 2And Watchers, children of heaven, saw them and desired them, and lusted after them; and they said one to another: “Come, let us choose for ourselves wives from the daughters of earth, and let them beget us children.” […] 6And they were 200 who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of mount Hermon; and they called the mount Hermon, because they swore and bound one another with imprecations. 7And these are the names of their leaders: Semyaza, who was their leader, […] Asasel, the tenth to him, […] 81 Asasel taught men to make swords of iron and breast-plates of bronze and every weapon of war; and he showed them the metals of the earth […] 94Then [Raphael] and Michael [and Sariel and Gabriel] went in and said to the Lord of the ages: 6“You see what Asasel has done, what he has introduced and taught, wrong-doing, and sins upon the earth” 104 And to Raphael God said: “Go, Raphael, and bind Asasel. Fetter (bind) him hand and foot and cast him into the darkness; make an opening in the desert […] and there go and cast him in.”
The Book of Enoch, translation by Matthew Black

While Israel wandered through Azazel’s realm, the wilderness, they sinned so much that they built a golden calf (Exodus 32). Then, right before Israel was supposed to enter the land of Canaan (כְּנָעַן; the land of Israel, אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל), they sent 12 spies there. When ten of them came back with bad reports, the people rebelled against God because they did not trust in him (Numbers 13 & 14). As a result, they were sent back into the wilderness for 40 years, until the rebellious generation would be dead as atonement for their sins (Numbers 14). Only the pure generation could come out of the wilderness, the land of sin, and enter the promised land.

Extra-biblical Jewish traditions (Talmudic texts) state that the priest bringing the goat to the wilderness – paralleling the 10 spies – had to walk past 10 booths where they would be offered food but would have to decline, as there is no grounds to celebration, which eating represents. Previous to that event, the High Priest would have confessed the people’s sins by praying this prayer, which the people would repeat:1

“O Lord, I have acted iniquitously, trespassed, sinned before Thee: I, my household, and the sons of Aaron—Thy holy ones. O Lord, forgive the iniquities, transgressions, and sins that I, my household, and Aaron’s children—Thy holy people—committed before Thee, as is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant, ‘for on this day He will forgive you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord; ye shall be clean.'”

Similarly to the people who rebelled, the goat for Azazel, burdened with the sins of the Israel, was to be cast out into the wilderness to die there.

A double fulfillment

The death sentence on Yeshua

Two thousand years ago, Israel was a Roman protectorate. Because of many civil wars, the contestants for the throne, descendants of the Hasmonean dynasty founded by Judah Maccabee, had asked the Romans authorities to help them by securing the country militarily.3 The Romans intervened, incorporated the kingdom of Israel into their empire. As such, Israel had its own king alongside a Roman Governor (a “legate governor”) who was responsible for regulating trade and maximising tax incomes. The ruling king of Judea was still a Jew until Herod, an Edomite who had converted to Judaism, was appointed king of Judea by the Roman senate.4 But with Rome’s support of Herod and his conquest of Jerusalem, the rule went into foreign hands. After Herod’s death, Rome split the kingdom into Judea, Samaria and the Galilee, and each of his sons ruled one part. The provinces of the Roman Empire had prefects, and the man in this position from 26-36 A.D. was Pilate (Pontius Pilatus).

Being a Roman protectorate had a few advantages for Israel. For one, it assured them political stability and military protection. Also, they were allowed to keep their government, religion, language and culture. This had not been the case under the previous Greek rule (around the time of the Maccabees). Over time however, this situation gradually became worse: Not only had Rome appointed a foreigner as king, i.e. Herod, but the system was also very corrupt: While the priests in charge of the temple were still descended from Aaron around 30 A.D., as required by the Torah (Numbers 3:10), by 30 A.D. they were not. Rather, some rich men favored by Rome had bought into this position of wealth and authority.1 And finally, taxation was quite high. Hence, several groups of Israelites had tried to overthrow the Roman political structure in order to free their people.

Around the year 30 A.D., close to the feast of Pesach (פֶּסַח, the Passover), emotions were running high. Pesach is the feast of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, and as such ideal for revolutionaries to heighten the Jewish wish for freedom from Rome. A few days earlier, the people had welcomed Yeshua, a man fron Nazareth, a descendant of king David, as Messiah when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt. 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-19), thus fulfilling prophecies in Zechariah 9:9 and 14:1-5. Rome feared that Yeshua could potentially instigate a revolution or be crowned king even against his own will (he had previously stated that his kingdom was not of this world, John 18:36). The people loved him, but Pilate could not risk a rebellion and a new war. At the same time, some Jewish religious leaders feared that they would loose influence if Yeshua became king, as he had repeatedly spoken up against them. Not to forget that a war would be devastating and they were not ready for it. “Better for one man to die for his people.”, they thought. And so they brought this man – Yeshua of Nazareth – before Pilate on charges of rebellion against Rome (e.g. Luke 23:1-5) to ask for Rome’s permission to execute him. But Pilate, afraid of the people, sent him to Herod Antipas, the ruler of the Galilee whose subject Yeshua was seen as. But Herod, not knowing what to do with Yeshua, just sent him back to Pilate. And Pilate gave them a choice, as “at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas” (Mat. 27:15).

So the Priests, the Elders of the people and now had two men before them to choose from:

  • Yeshua of Nazareth, called the Messiah by his followers. He had been active for years, but he had taught peace and yet, he had undermined their authority: His goal was to free his people from spiritual oppression and bring them back to the pure word of God (Tanakh, תַּנַ”ךְ‎, i.e. Old Testament), discarding the Oral Law that gave so much authority to the corrupt religious leaders (Pharisees, Saducees, etc.). Yeshua is presented throughout the gospels as the son of God, our Father.
  • Yeshua Barabbas (בר אבא‎ bar abba, Aramaic: ‘son of the father’). According to some theories, he was a revolutionary who had tried to start a rebellion and killed someone while doing it. His goal was to free his people from political oppression, in this case Roman influence.
    Note concerning his name: Most modern New Testament translations do not contain Barabbas’ full name, as it is missing in many manuscripts. However, older versions have it as “Jesus Barabbas”.2 Origen (Ὠριγένης Ἀδαμάντιος, Ōrigénēs Adamántios; 184/185 – 253/254 A.D.), a greek “church father” from Alexandria, considered the name “Jesus” to be holy, probably not knowing that it was quite a common name2 (or still is today with its alternative spelling “Joshua”). It is possible that was the reason for its removal in later manuscripts. Another possibility is that the scribes who transcribed the New Testament considered the name Jesus in that passage to be a mistaken repetition of the same name.

This leads to some striking similarities and differences between the two Yeshuas:

  • Both bear the same name, meaning to rescue or to deliver.
  • Both are presented as son of the father.
  • Both wanted to free their people, one spiritually and the other politically.

During the Yom Kippur ceremony, where the priests had to send one goat away to die in the wilderness, carrying the sins of the people ‘to Azazel’, the other had to be sacrificed as a sin offering to atone for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:15-16). And that is exactly what the priests and leaders of Israel chose: For one man to be released and for the other to die for his people. And just like sprinkling the ram’s blood on the ark of the covenant would cover the sins of Israel (Lev. 16:15), so did Yeshua’s blood. This was even emphasized by what the priests and the elders themselves said: “His blood be on us and our children!” (Mat. 27.26). If only they had understood Yeshua’s gift.

The future fulfillment

The New Testament book of Revelation foretells a future fulfillment of Yom Kippur. When the priest went into the Holy of holies in the temple (Lev. 16:17-19), no one was allowed inside until the atonment had been completed by sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice on the ark of the covenant seven times.. Revelation uses the same imagery:

The sanctuary of the tabernacle (מִשְׁכַּן‎‎) in heaven was opened, and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.
Revelation 15:5-8

Could it be that the seven plagues symbolise the sprinkling of blood in the heavenly temple to atone for the world’s sins? Similarly, a loud voice says, after the 7 plagues are poured out onto the Earth: “It is finished!” (Rev. 17:17), just like Yeshua cried out on the cross, after he drank of the wrath while he was dying to atone for our sins:

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished!” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:30

References

1 Jewish Encyclopedia, Azazel (Link)

2 Evans, Craig A. (2012). Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press. p. 453.

3 Wikipedia, Article about the Hasmonean Kingdom

4 Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 1.14.4

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