The previous post dealt with the misuse of metaphor and models when interpreting biblical texts. What follows is a reading of the Yom Kippur ritual found in Leviticus 16, in its cultural, social context.
[Apologies for the length: It is a difficult subject to tackle with brevity!]
Yom Kippur In Its Ancient Near Eastern Leviticus Context
The groups and cultures of the ancient Near East functioned with varied, but similar, worldviews concerning statuses and forces such as order, chaos, impurity, pollution, cleanness, commonness, and holiness. We find evidence for this, and accompanying rituals, within the archaeological record throughout the area, in artefacts as well as preserved text.
For the Israelites, with transgression comes impurity. Throughout the year the Israelites, by transgressing their covenantal relationship with God, slowly pollute the Tabernacle. The impurity is drawn to its opposite, holiness, invading and collecting within the holy space. This jeopardises the holiness of the sanctuary, therefore, as the impurity increases, it also jeopardising the presence of the holy God in the midst of the people.
Yom Kippur is an annual purification ritual performed by the Israelites to cleanse the Tabernacle of ritual impurity, thus returning it to a state of holiness, and ensuring the continued presence of God with the people, and maintaining the covenantal relationship.
1] Fasting And Avoiding Work: Sacred Time
By restricting Yom Kippur to an annual observance the pollution of the sanctuary becomes a much more focused issue, with a much greater need for introspection and remorse for actions. The day itself is separated and made sacred from other days in that the whole camp would fast and refrain from work.
2] The Bull: For The Imperfect High Priest
The overseer and main performer in the ritual is the High Priest. The High Priest and the priestly tribe must be represented, and have their transgressions atoned for, by an additional layer of sacrifice. This is due to their closer contact with the Tabernacle and its holy objects, as well as their greater responsibility in the community. A bull is sacrificed and the blood used during the purification ritual within the Tabernacle.
3a] The First Goat: As Sacrifice, For God
The first goat is sacrificed and the blood, and that of the bull, is used to perform the first stage of purification. (Contra to Driscoll’s understanding, confession is not performed over the sacrificial goat.) It is not the death of the Goat which is important, but rather the action performed with the blood. It is ‘for God’ as it deals with his dwelling place. Within the sanctuary, the innermost part of the Tabernacle, the High Priest sprinkles the blood, purifying the space. He then moves out into the Tent of Meeting, again sprinkling the blood, purifying the space. Finally, he moves out to the Altar in the courtyard, again sprinkling the blood, purifying the space.
The use of blood is symbolic: it represents life and holiness. The high Priest, through the performance of the ritual, brings purification and holiness to the inner-most region of the Tabernacle, the sanctuary, moving outwards to the courtyard.
3b] Two Second Goats: As Burden Carrier, For Azazel
Once back outside the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the High Priest confesses the transgressions over the second goat. The goat then carries the burden of guilt outside of the order of the camp, to the mysterious Azazel,1 who dwells in the chaos of the desert.
The Ritual Complex: Purpose And Result
The repentance for sins has already occurred throughout the year in the more specific rituals outlined in Lev 1-7. Yom Kippur focuses on dealing with impurity within the Tabernacle, more especially the Sanctuary, which can only be purified once a year, during Yom Kippur.
The annual observance highlights the severity of sin. It is dangerous. Sins can not be committed in a blasé manner because of the availability of the rituals which can be performed on a daily basis. The accumulation of sin through the year, jeopardising God’s maintained dwelling, must be considered.
The movement of the ritual, from the centre of the camp, out into the desert, suggests and enacts the movement of impurity. The impurity is removed away from God and his people, and out of the camp. Away from holiness, and purity, out into the neutral desert. Away from order and out into chaos. An eradication of the impurity of transgression is not in view, but rather a removal of impurity from the camp, limiting the effect it can have upon the covenantal relationship.
Justice: Restorative, Not Retributive
Yom Kippur, then, is a display of restorative justice. The thrust and focus is of highlighting and owning the transgression within the covenant relationship between the people and God. The contrition of the people leads to the forgiveness offered by a merciful God, displayed in his continued dwelling amongst the people, and his continued blessing.
Yom Kippur is not retributive justice. There is no measure-for-measure punishment regarding the transgression of the people. God’s wrath is not placated by an outpouring upon a substitute victim.
Penal substitution is not in view. To place that metaphor over this text leaves it misshapen, and clarity is lost as the wrong colours and hues are being seen. The next post will use the shapes and colours of the Yom Kippur festival and place them within the bigger picture of Jesus, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.
1. [The character of Azazel may be a desert demon, a term for the wilderness itself, or a borrowing from older traditions in the ancient Near East. What is important is that it is the locus of the sending of the impurity of the transgression of the people. A locus which is opposite to the holy, life-giving God, outside of the order of the camp in the chaos.]↩