Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Roy Gane


Grethe, our landlady, called my wife and me outside to help her find Mykiko, a Siamese kitten. She could hear him mewing plaintively near the wood pile, but she could not see him. Thinking he had gotten stuck somewhere between the pieces of wood, we dismantled the pile. But Mykiko was not there. Then he mewed again. I looked up and saw the pathetic puss way up in the pine tree over the wood pile.

Mykiko’s cries were weak because he had been through a dreadful ordeal. A dog had chased him up the tree, and he had spent the night there through a rainstorm. I brought a long ladder, put on thick leather gloves to protect myself from claws, and went up the tree. Sure enough, when I reached for Mykiko, the frantic feline flailed his claws, but I grabbed him and brought him down. He purred in gratitude, and when I put him down, he kept following me around to show his affection. Even though I was allergic to cats and tended to avoid them, Mykiko was bonded to me. He was sure I had saved his life.

What goes up must come down. Even if you are a cat. At the Israelite sanctuary, the two basic stages were similar: Evil came into the Israelite sanctuary throughout the year and left it on the Day of Atonement. What goes in must come out, even if it is a sin or a ritual impurity.

The fact that the two stages moved in opposite directions is indicated by the fact that the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement removed sins and ritual impurities that had been removed from persons who offered sacrifices for them throughout the year. Notice the wording of Leviticus 16:16, describing the evils that the high priest cleaned out of the sanctuary: “Thus he shall make atonement for the (most) holy place from the impurities of the Israelites and from their transgressions as well as all their sins...” (my translation). “All their sins” covered the sins for which they had already received forgiveness through sacrifices that removed the sins from them. So it is clear that on the Day of Atonement, forgiven sins were treated a second time, this time to remove them from the sanctuary rather than from the sinners.

The two stages are confirmed by what happened in the rituals themselves. First, a careful comparison between Leviticus 4 and 16 shows that there was a reversal in the order of blood applications performed in the holy place. When blood was applied in the holy place during the year (Leviticus 4), it moved toward the ark, indicating that the sin carried by the blood was moving into the sanctuary. But on the Day of Atonement, the blood moved away from the ark, showing that the sin was moving out of the sanctuary (Leviticus 16).

Here is what happened, according to Leviticus 4. For sins of the high priest or the community, the high priest applied blood at two locations inside the holy place (Leviticus 4:6-7, 17–18), moving toward the ark of the Covenant, where God’s presence was located. The two blood applications were:

  1. Sprinkling seven times in front of the inner veil, that is, in front (east) of the incense altar.
  2. Daubing on the horns of the incense altar.

The high priest then poured out the remaining blood at the base of the outer altar (verses 7, 18) simply to dispose of it. This disposal was not an application of blood to the altar.

By contrast to the movement toward the ark in Leviticus 4, Leviticus 16 shows that in the special sin offerings on the Day of Atonement, the sanctuary was cleansed from the inside out: most holy place to holy place to outer altar. Within each of these areas, we have found that blood was applied in locations that moved progressively away from the ark of the Covenant (16:14–16, 18–19).

1. Sprinkling once on the lid of the ark.

2. Sprinkling seven times in front of the ark’s lid.

3. Daubing on the horns of the incense altar.

4. Sprinkling seven times in front of the veil, that is, in front (east) of the incense altar.

5. Daubing on the horns of the outer altar.

6. Sprinkling seven times on the outer altar.

The fact that the sanctuary was cleansed from the inside out agrees with what we would expect for a “house-cleaning job.” When you want to sweep out the rooms of a house, you begin from the innermost part of the house and sweep the dirt toward the door that leads outside.

This order for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) reverses the direction of movement that occurred on other days (Leviticus 4). See especially the way in which the blood applications in the holy place on the Day of Atonement (above diagrams 3 and 4) reverse the order and direction of the blood applications there during the year (previous diagrams 1 and 2). Throughout the year, blood carried sins into the sanctuary, and on the Day of Atonement, blood carried sins out of the sanctuary.

We have found that the blood of sacrificial animals carried defilement into the sanctuary throughout the year. This idea is supported by Leviticus 6:27–29, which instructs priests regarding sin offerings:

Whatever touches its flesh shall become holy, and when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place. An earthen vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken, but if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured and rinsed in water. Every male among the priests shall eat of it; it is most holy.

The sacrifice was “most holy,” but its blood and flesh were treated as if they were impure. A garment spattered with blood had to be washed. An earthen vessel in which the flesh was boiled had to be broken. This was similar to the treatment of objects that came into contact with the carcasses of unclean animals (Leviticus 11:32–33). A sin offering was holy because it was offered to the holy God, but there is a sense in which it was also impure. Why? Because it was the means by which sin or ritual impurity was removed from the offerer.

Sacrificial blood itself was not impure, but it was a “carrier” agent, a means of transfer, just as blood in a human or animal body has the function of carrying away waste products. Sin or ritual impurity would go from the person being purified through the blood to the altar. Similarly, bath water by itself is clean, but when you contact it with your dirty body, the water carries dirt. If that dirty water gets on something, it will make that object dirty.

The whole point of the ritual impurity laws was to keep impure people and things from coming into contact with holy things connected with the sanctuary (see Leviticus 7:20; 15:31). But here in the sin offering, we see holiness and impurity together. In this sacrifice, God allowed holiness and impurity to mix in order to make atonement for His people.

By transferring a sacrificial animal to God, an Israelite transferred sin or ritual impurity from himself or herself to God at His sanctuary. The person was freed from the problem because God took it. It was now in God’s “ball park,” that is, His sanctuary.

When an Israelite laid one hand on the head of an animal in a sin offering, whether it dealt with a case of sin or with ritual impurity, this gesture played an important role in the transfer of evil to the sanctuary because it identified the offerer as the one whose evil was transferred to the sanctuary by means of the animal.

Since the location of the sevenfold sprinkling in front of the incense altar is important for understanding the reversal of blood applications in the holy place, some additional explanation will be helpful. Remember that the instructions regarding what the high priest is to do in the holy place (= “tent of meeting”) on the Day of Atonement are abbreviated: “and so he shall do for the tent of meeting...” (Leviticus 16:16b). These words indicate that he is to follow the pattern set in the most holy place, where he applies blood once to an object (the ark) and seven times in front of that object (verses 14–15). In the holy place, the object to which the high priest applies the blood once (on each of the horns) is the altar of incense (Exodus 30:10). Therefore, the sevenfold application of blood by sprinkling in the holy place must be in front (east) of the altar of incense.

In Leviticus 4:6, 17, on a day other than the Day of Atonement, the high priest also sprinkles blood seven times in the holy place. This is the same action as on the Day of Atonement, and it is in the same area. Other applications of blood during the year are performed at the same locations as on the Day of Atonement: on the altar of incense (Leviticus 4:7, 18; Exodus 30:10) and on the outer altar in the courtyard (Leviticus 4:25, 30, 34; 16:18–19). Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the sevenfold sprinkling during the year would be performed at the same location within the holy place as on the Day of Atonement, namely, in front of the altar of incense.

The location of the sevenfold sprinkling in front of the incense altar on days other than the Day of Atonement is not contradicted by Leviticus 4:6, 17, where the sevenfold sprinkling is “in front of the curtain." The Hebrew expression “in front of" in Leviticus 4:6, 17 refers to a location in one area that is “in front of" another area (compare Genesis 33:18; Leviticus 10:4; 2 Kings 16:14). While the inner curtain or veil of the sanctuary is not itself an area, by stretching across the interior width of the sanctuary, it defines the area of the most holy place. So in Leviticus 4:6, 17, sprinkling in front of the veil means sprinkling in the area of the holy place, which is in front of the area of the most holy place. The sevenfold sprinkling is both in front of the veil and in front of the incense altar. The fact that the incense altar is located between the sprinkling and the veil does not contradict the fact that the sprinkling is in front of the veil.

It is the area of the holy place that is affected by defilement during the year and cleansing on the Day of Atonement. Therefore, it makes sense that the sevenfold sprinkling of blood would be in the main, central part of the holy place, in front (east) of the incense altar, rather than at the edge of the holy place between the altar and the veil.

Thus far, we have found that a reversal of blood applications in the holy place provides evidence for two stages of atonement. A second piece of evidence is found in connection with the purification of one or more assistants, probably not priests, who dispose of the sin offering carcasses on the Day of Atonement. This activity makes such an assistant impure that he is required to purify himself (Leviticus 16:28). Why does he become impure? Because the carcasses function as ritual “sponges” that absorb the impurities and sins removed from the sanctuary.

Disposing of the carcasses of sin offerings for the sins of the high priest or the community on other days of the year does not defile assistants, as shown by the fact that they are not required to purify themselves (Leviticus 4:11–12, 21). Why do they not become impure? These carcasses are not functioning as ritual sponges to remove defilement from the sanctuary. The sins are moving into the sanctuary, not out of the sanctuary.

We have found that sacrifices during the year moved sins and impurities into the sanctuary, and sacrifices on the Day of Atonement moved the same evils out of the sanctuary. Each evil was handled twice by sacrifice, in two stages of atonement. What goes in must come out!

*This is a chapter excerpted from Roy Gane’s book Altar Call (Berrien Springs, MI: Diadem, 1999), pp. 203-209.

Roy Gane, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 

Image: Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark, painting by James Tissot, c. 1900. Public Domain

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