On the Biblical calendar, the 10th day of the 7th month is the appointment known as Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement is the Holiest day of the Biblical year. It is a day of intense prayer, fasting and calling out to God for mercy and grace. It is a day for doing business with God. It is a day for coming face to face with God.
Yom Kippur comes just ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Ten days prior to Yom Kippur, the Torah commands us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. One of the reasons for blowing the shofar is as a warning that a period of judgment has begun. According to Jewish tradition, the Gates of heaven swing open on Rosh Hashanah. The Heavenly Court is convened on Rosh Hashanah. The Books of Judgement opened on Rosh Hashanah. The heavenly ledgers are scrutinized on Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah begins a period of ten days of judgment. The ten days end with the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, the judgment is sealed. The books are closed. The gavel falls. Every human being is inscribed either in the book of life or the book of death. One last, long shofar sounds at the end of the day as the gates of heaven swing shut and close.
The weight and solemnity of the High Holiday judgment is well expressed in the following Medieval prayer:
"Let us now relate the power of this day's holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with lovingkindness and You will sit upon it in truth. You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates; Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Records - it will read itself, and everyone's signature is in it.
"The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them - and they will say, 'Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!' - for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment.
"All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
"On the Feast of Trumpets will be inscribed and on the Day of Atonement will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created, who will rest and who will wander, who will live and who will die . . ." (Rosh Hashanah Machzor).
Clearly, the Day of Atonement is regarded as a day for doing serious business with heaven. It is a day of fasting and pouring out entreaty, a day of prayer and cry for forgiveness. It is a day of judgment, but it is also a day of atonement.
What is Atonement?
In discussing the Day of Atonement it is helpful to accurately define the word "Atonement." Contrary to popular Christian teaching, atonement does not mean forgiveness of sin (though forgiveness may be an aspect of atonement). It is from the Hebrew word kaphar which means, "covering".
The sense in which the word is used is as a covering-protection from danger. The idea is that God is dangerous. If common, mortal, finite and sinful man is to enter the presence of the Holy, Immortal, Infinite and Righteous God, the man must be covered (i.e. atoned for) or he will be consumed and destroyed by the presence of God.
Adam and Eve
For example, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden enjoyed the presence of God. They walked with him daily in the garden. Then they sinned. Their eyes were opened and they immediately realized that they were naked. They immediately realized that they were without covering. Instinctively they began to try to sew fig leaves together to cover themselves because they knew God was coming, and they knew they could no longer withstand his presence. They could not enter his presence without covering.
Their effort to cover themselves, however, was futile; so when they heard God's voice and knew that he was entering the garden, they hid themselves. They could not come face to face with him.
After judging them, the book of Genesis tells us, that God made garments of skin to cover them. Thus the story of the fall of man leaves us with our first glimpse of atonement. God kills an animal to cover Adam and Eve. It is the first record of death in the creation, and it is a sacrifice meant to accomplish covering.
Perhaps this was the very first Yom Kippur. According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of their creation. Is it possible that 10 days later was the day they sinned?
Moses and Atonement
Another example of the need for atonement is found in the story of Moses and the Golden Calf. After Israel sinned by making the golden calf, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to interceding for them. God was ready to destroy Israel; He was unwilling to even let His presence be among them. He said, "I will send an angel with Israel, but I cannot go with you or I might break out against you and destroy you." (Exodus 33)
Because of the sin of the calf, Israel found herself unprotected. She has no covering. She is in danger from the presence of God.
But Moses says to Israel, "Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." (Exodus 32:30). He fasts for forty days and nights, and then goes back up the mountain with the two new tablets. The two tablets are meant to replace the ones he broke when he saw the calf. He goes back up the mountain, back up into the presence of God.
On the mountain Moses implores God for mercy and requests to be shown all of God's glory. Face to face. God replies that no man can see his face and live. Moses would be consumed by God's glory. Instead God offers to cover Moses with his hand, hiding him in the cleft of the rock, while God passes by and declares the full meaning of His Name. He offers to tell Moses exactly who he is. He offers to reveal to Moses his essential person.
"And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.'" (Exodus 34:5-7)
This revelation is called the Thirteen Attributes of God. For the first time in history, the full extent of God's mercy and grace were revealed. Moses already knew God was gracious, he already knew he was abounding in loving kindness, but to what extent he did not know, until that moment when God covered him with his hand and proclaimed his Name. Only then, with the revelation of these Thirteen Attributes, was it made clear that the essential essence of God and the meaning of his Name, the LORD is Grace.
The Thirteen Attributes are an oft-repeated refrain in the prayers of the Day of Atonement. In those prayers, the congregation readily admits that we have no worthy deeds, we have nothing to show God, we have no merit to tip the scales of judgment in our favor. We have no basis to ask for mercy except for this, "You are the LORD, the LORD, gracious and compassionate:
The Second Coming of Moses
In the narrative, it is only after God has revealed to Moses his Thirteen Attributes that he makes a new covenant with Israel.
He makes a new covenant with Israel and Moses returns down the mountain with the tablets. When the people see Moses, his face is radiating brilliance from being in the presence of God. Moses achieved covering for Israel's sin. According to midrash, the day Moses came down Sinai with the 2nd set of tablets was indeed the Day of Atonement.
The picture of Moses in his second coming is startlingly messianic. On Moses' first trip down the mountain out of the presence of God, the tablets were broken. Like Messiah himself, the Word was broken for the sin of the people. After this initial descent down the mountain, Moses returned to the God. He went back into the very presence of God to make atonement, to effect a new covenant, to reveal the true and essential person of God. He was able to reveal the full extent of God's mercy and grace. These things accomplished, he then returned, bearing the New Covenant in his arms. He came down from the Father in splendor, in glory, in brilliance, terrible to behold. It was the Day of Atonement.
Intersection of Holiness
In Leviticus 16 we read about the Tabernacle ritual for Yom Kippur. In that passage we see an intersection of three holies. On the Day of Atonement, the Holiest man in the world (the High Priest of Israel) goes into the Holiest Place in the world (the holy of holies) on the Holiest Day of the year (the day of Yom Kippur).
The Holy of Holies was never entered except for this one day out of the entire year. In the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant and enthroned between the Cherubim on the Ark was the manifest presence of God. God was in that room! Somehow the Almighty, Infinite God, the King of Universe himself had taken up residence inside that room. To enter was to literally be in the presence of God. Once a year, on the holiest day of the year, the holiest man in the world had to enter the holiest place in the world. He had to enter into the presence of the Holy, Holy, Holy, LORD of Hosts.
In the Holy of Holies
He had to enter in order to make atonement for Israel, for the Holy of Holies, for the Tabernacle and for the altar. Because these things were continually in the presence of God, they needed to be atoned for. Without covering they could not remain in the Presence of God.
Before entering the Holy of Holies, the High Priest immersed himself and put on simple, white, linen garments. Then with two handfuls of incense and glowing coals from the altar, he entered. He effected atonement for Israel and the Tabernacle through a complex series of blood rituals and sin offerings (see Leviticus 16). In these rituals, he carried the blood of the sin offerings into the Holy of Holies and splashed it seven times on the Ark of the Covenant, then 7 times on the curtain which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Tabernacle and finally seven times on the altar of incense which stood before the curtain. These rituals were intended to provide the necessary covering for the Tabernacle and for Israel.
When he emerged and the people saw him, they rejoiced knowing that atonement had been made for them and for the Tabernacle. On seeing the High Priest emerge from the Holy of Holies, they knew that they would enjoy God's presence again another year.
The Work of the Master
Why is all of this relevant to us as gentile believers living at the beginning of the 21st century? Because atonement is the work of the Master on our behalf. Until we understand Biblical atonement and the Day of Atonement we will not fully understand who Yeshua is or what he accomplished for us!
According to the writer of the book of Hebrews, Messiah has become our High Priest. He entered into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, the actual throne room of God and applied his own blood for atonement. He entered into the presence of God for us so that he might usher us in. We boldly enter the presence of God because the blood of Christ covers us. And he stands interceding on our behalf before the throne of God, just as a high priest.
In the gospels, when he died on the cross, the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom, indicating that through Messiah's sacrifice we have access to come face to face with God.
"Therefore we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Yeshua. His body is a new and living way opened for us through the veil. We have a great priest over the house of God, so let us draw near to God in the full confidence of faith." (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Just as it was not until Moses sought God's mercy to atone for the sin of the people that God revealed the full extent of his mercy and ultimate meaning of his Name, so too, it was only through the Master's atoning work, specifically his death and resurrection, that the full extent of God's mercy and grace have been made manifest to the universe. And just as the people anticipated Moses' return, and he returned with his bright and glowing countenance, and just as the people anticipated the High priest's return from the Holy of Holies, so too we anticipate the return of our High Priest on the Day of Atonement.