We begin our passage today with the command for the Day of Atonement. As we have seen, the holiness of God is emphasized throughout the first five books of the Bible. Here, we see that the holiness of God precludes even the High Priest from entering through the veil into His presence (16:2), except for one time per year. Even then, Aaron must be sure to wear the priestly garments precisely as commanded, and ceremonially wash (v. 4), and he must offer a bull for atonement for himself (v. 5, repeated in v. 11), and he must offer incense (vv. 12-13). Only then can he represent Israel before God. Here we see a pointer to the perfect holiness of Christ Whose perfect righteousness allowed Him to represent us on the cross.
The two goats both represent Christ, each representing a different aspect of His atonement for sin. One goat represents Christ Who made atonement by His blood (v. 15). Note the command that this must be done by the High Priest alone with no one else in the Tabernacle (v. 17), like Christ was forsaken and alone at Calvary. The other goat represents the effectualness of Christ’s atonement for removing sin from us after having our sin placed on Him (vv. 21-22).* Note that the altar spoken of in verse 18 speaks of the Altar of Incense.
We again see the required ceremonial washings for Aaron (v. 24), the one who leads the scapegoat into the wilderness (v. 26), and the one who burns the remains of the bull and goat (v. 28). We also again see the requirement to remove the unholy portions of the offerings and burn them outside the camp (i.e., away from God’s presence). Even after atonement for Israel has been made, nothing changes. Further washing is still required. Unholy things are still not allowed in God’s presence. We see that this “atonement” is far from ultimate.
In verse 29 we see that this is to be done once a year. But it has to be done every year. And also note that a fast is prescribed (that “afflict yourself” is fasting) and a Sabbath called for all who are atoned for. And this includes both the native (physical Israelite) and the stranger who sojourns among them (none native proselyte). We see that this atonement – and the final, once for all atonement this points us to – is not limited to physical identification, but spiritual.
Chapter 17 begins with the command that all sacrifices must be done at the Tabernacle, under penalty of removal from the nation (again, representing removal from God’s presence – 17:4). This points us to the exclusivity of the atonement God provides. There is no other atonement that saves or brings one into God’s presence. This is another pointer to Christ and the one way – and only one way – God graciously made for us to be saved. This is why when Christ came the physical place of worship ceased to matter (John 4:21-24 – note in that passage how the “salvation is from the Jews” reveals that Jerusalem – the Jewish place of worship – was formerly the true place of worship, as we see here in Leviticus 17).
In verse 10, God forbids the eating blood, again under penalty of removal from God’s presence. In verse 11, God explains why: life is in the blood, the blood is for atonement, blood makes atonement “by the life.” And of course, the animals that can’t really atone for sins (Heb 10:4) point us to the only sacrifice that can. So this is ultimately about the blood of Christ. And our life is found in the the blood of Christ, because only His blood is for atonement, and He made atonement by the life He gave.
Chapter 18 deals with unlawful sexual relationships. Notice that God prefaces there laws by commanding that Israel not do what Egypt does, and not do what the Canaanites do. As we’ve seen, sexual sin is often used to symbolize sin as a whole. And in the world, nothing reveals the heart of a culture like the sexual sins that are accepted in that culture. I think we can understand that in 21st century America.
God forbids incest (18:6). Note that the wives of close relatives (father in v. 8, uncle in v. 14, son in v. 15, brother in v.16) show how God’s creation command that a man and his wife are one flesh (v. 24) is echoed here. The emphasis on the importance of the family unit is also expounded here, and this is not necessarily based on blood relationship. A blended family is a true family. Step siblings are true siblings. Children of your wife from a previous marriage are your children. Note also that monogamy within the confines of marriage is strongly implied here.
The importance and value of family is again asserted in the command not to sacrifice children to the pagan god Molech. This was an Ammonite deity. The belief was that if the firstborn was sacrificed, Molech would bless the family with many offspring. God counts every life precious, and so should we. Killing a child is the pinnacle of devaluing family, and God values family. So killing a child is profanity to God Who gives life. I know, the idea of sacrificing a child as a result of idolatry seems so barbaric to 21st century western sensibilities…or does it?
In verse 22, God forbids homosexuality. In verse 23, bestiality is forbidden. There is a logical progression here that history bears out. A culture will accept the killing of children, then it will accept homosexuality, then it will eventually accept bestiality. All of these things once thought abominable will eventually be normalized in a sinful culture. Like Egypt. Or like Canaan. Or like ours.
The chapter ends with God again reminding Israel that they are not to be like the world. These ethical differences are what the ceremonial differences point us to. Israel will eat differently than the world and dress differently that the world because they are different from the world. And because they are different from the world, they will not practice or accept sexual sin or infanticide, which are abominations (v. 27). And if Israel gives in to the world and acts like the world, they will end up like the world (v. 28) and cut off from God (v. 29). Verse 30 reminds us that it is Who God is that makes us who we are, and who we are determines what we do. We “keep God’s charge” and are not unclean, why? He is YHWH God (18:2, 4, 30).
*This is the goat that is “for Azazel” (vv. 8, 10, 26). No one knows what or who this Azazel is, and this is generally understood to refer to the scapegoat. By the first century, some Jewish traditions held that Azazel was the angel put in charge of hell. By this reckoning, the goats represent the two possible ends of man. Either your sin is atoned for by the blood of Christ (goat 1), or you bear your sins and are sent to hell (goat 2).