Leviticus 16

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons when they approached the presence of the Lord and died, 2 and the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother that he must not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil-canopy in front of the atonement plate that is on the ark so that he may not die, for I will appear in the cloud over the atonement plate.

Verse 1 reminds the reader of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu recounted in chapter 10. That event reminds Aaron, the high priest, and his successors that they must strictly follow God’s commandments or risk death. When verse 2 states that Aaron must not enter the Holy of Holies (“the holy place inside the veil-canopy”) at any time it means that he was only to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), as the following verse makes clear. The “atonement plate” was the sculptured slab atop the Ark of the Covenant. It is not clear whether the cloud over the atonement plate is the cloud of incense the priest raises (v. 13) or the divine cloud (Ex. 40:34-35; Num. 9:15-23).

3 “In this way Aaron is to enter into the sanctuary – with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

The Hebrew is emphatic that this is the only way that the high priest is to enter the sanctuary.1

4 He must put on a holy linen tunic, linen leggings are to cover his body, and he is to wrap himself with a linen sash and wrap his head with a linen turban. They are holy garments, so he must bathe his body in water and put them on.

The high priest did not wear his regular vestments on this occasion. Instead he was to wear unadorned white linen vestments. “They symbolized the abject state of the High Priest, the representative of the Israelite people, in seeking expiation of sins and making confession.”2

Among his fellow men his dignity as the great mediator between man and God is unsurpassed, and his splendid clothes draw attention to the glory of his office. But in the presence of God even the high priest is stripped of all honor: he becomes simply the servant of the King of kings, whose true status is portrayed in the simplicity of his dress.3

Milgrom adds that angels were said to be dressed in linen (Ezek. 9:2-3, 11; 10:2; Dan. 10:5) so, by wearing linen, the high priest ministered in clothes appropriate for approaching the divine presence.

5 He must also take two male goats from the congregation of the Israelites for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.

6 Then Aaron is to present the sin offering bull which is for himself and is to make atonement on behalf of himself and his household.

Aaron’s household includes all and only the Aaronid priests.4 According to m. Yoma 3:8 the high priest prayed the following prayer:

O God, I have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before thee, I and my house. O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house, as it is written in the Law of thy servant Moses, For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord (Lev 16:30).5

7 He must then take the two goats and stand them before the Lord at the entrance of the Meeting Tent, 8 and Aaron is to cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and one lot for Azazel.

The Hebrew word Azazel is found nowhere else in the Bible outside this chapter. Its meaning has been disputed since antiquity.

The LXX and Vulgate translate the term as “scapegoat”, suggesting they see the term as describing the goat’s function. Jewish tradition largely thought the word referred to the location where the goat departed (Tg. Ps.-J.; b. Yoma 67b; Sipra, Ahare 2:8). Rooker and Cole believe these two options have the strongest support.

Hartley argues that the fact that Azazel is used in parallel with Yahweh suggests that the term refers to a personal being. In 1 Enoch, a source that post-dates Leviticus, Azazel is one of the deposed angels who cohabited with human women.6 He was given jurisdiction over sorcery, acts of war, and harlotry. He was cast into the wilderness by the archangel Raphael. While we should not read this account back into Leviticus, it does suggest that the wilderness was seen as a place of sinfulness and evil (Isa. 13:21; 34:14; Luke 11:24). Levine links Azazel to the goat demons mentioned in 17:7. He thinks this chapter transforms the sacrificial worship of demons, forbidden in 17:7, into a set of rites that subjugate the sinful and evil forces identified with the demon. The scapegoat forces the sins of the Israelites back on Azazel. In other words, evil returns to its point of departure.

According to Wenham, Hertz countered the above interpretation by noting how easily it could be confused as a gift for the demon. Since an offering to a demon is a grave sin, he says this makes it unlikely that a demon was in any way associated with the holiest of rites.

Milgrom, largely agreeing with Levine, counters:

The most plausible explanation is that Azazel is the name of a demon who has been eviscerated of his erstwhile demonic powers by the Priestly legislators. First, the goat sent him is not an offering; it is not treated as a sacrifice, requiring slaughter, blood manipulation, and the like, nor does it have the effect of a sacrifice, namely, propitiation, expiation, and so on. Moreover, an animal laden with impurities would not be acceptable as an offering either to God or to a demon (cf. v 26). Second, the goat is not the vicarious substitute for Israel because there is no indication that it was punished (e.g., put to death) or demonically attacked in Israel’s place. Instead of being an offering or a substitute, the goat is simply the vehicle to dispatch Israel’s impurities and sins to the wilderness/netherworld. The banishment of evil to an inaccessible place is a form of elimination amply attested in the ancient Near East.

Azazel himself is deprived of any active role: he neither receives the goat nor attacks it. Regardless of his origins — in pre-Israelite practice he surely was a true demon, perhaps a satyr (cf. Ibn Ezra on 16:8), who ruled the wilderness — in the Priestly ritual he is no longer a personality but just a name, designating the place to which impurities and sins are banished. As for the survival of the name Azazel, “demons often survive as figures of speech (e.g., “gremlins”) long after they have ceased to be figures of belief. Accordingly, the mention of a demon’s name in a scriptural text is not automatic testimony to living belief in him” (Gaster 1962b: 818). Azazel suffers the fate of all angels and spirits in Scripture. They can represent powers of the physical world (e.g., Pss 104:4; 148:8) but they are not deified (Deut 4:19; 17:3; Job 5:1) and their worship is prohibited (Exod 20:4-5; 22:19; Deut 5:7-8).7

9 Aaron must then present the goat which has been designated by lot for the Lord, and he is to make it a sin offering, 10 but the goat which has been designated by lot for Azazel is to be stood alive before the Lord to make atonement on it by sending it away to Azazel into the wilderness.

“The scapegoat was not an offering to Azazel; it was being dispatched to his realm, the wilderness.”8

11 “Aaron is to present the sin offering bull which is for himself, and he is to make atonement on behalf of himself and his household. He is to slaughter the sin offering bull which is for himself, 12 and take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord and a full double handful of finely ground fragrant incense, and bring them inside the veil-canopy.

The altar mentioned in verse 12 is the altar for burnt offerings in the sanctuary courtyard. The incense is described in Ex. 30:34-38.

13 He must then put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the cloud of incense will cover the atonement plate which is above the ark of the testimony, so that he will not die.

The ark of the testimony is so named because the tablets given to Moses were placed inside it (Ex. 31:18; 40:20). The incense cloud is required so that Yahweh will manifest himself (v. 2; cf. Ex. 24:15-18; 33:18-21).

14 Then he is to take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the eastern face of the atonement plate, and in front of the atonement plate he is to sprinkle some of the blood seven times with his finger.

The number seven indicates completeness.

15 “He must then slaughter the sin offering goat which is for the people. He is to bring its blood inside the veil-canopy, and he is to do with its blood just as he did to the blood of the bull: He is to sprinkle it on the atonement plate and in front of the atonement plate.

16 So he is to make atonement for the holy place from the impurities of the Israelites and from their transgressions with regard to all their sins, and thus he is to do for the Meeting Tent which resides with them in the midst of their impurities.

The sanctuary itself is purged of impurities. Atonement is also made for the transgressions (pesha) of the Israelites. The Hebrew term pesha refers to intentional violations of God’s law.9 Every kind of wrongdoing is atoned for by this rite. According to m. Yoma 5:4 some blood from each of the two sin offerings was sprinkled on the outer side of the veil-canopy (cf. Lev. 4:16-17). This is what is meant when this verse states “thus he is to do for the Meeting Tent.”

17 Nobody is to be in the Meeting Tent when he enters to make atonement in the holy place until he goes out, and he has made atonement on his behalf, on behalf of his household, and on behalf of the whole assembly of Israel.

At other times priests officiated in the larger section of the Tent outside the Holy of Holies.

18 “Then he is to go out to the altar which is before the Lord and make atonement for it. He is to take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it all around on the horns of the altar.

The altar in this verse is the altar for the burnt offering.

19 Then he is to sprinkle on it some of the blood with his finger seven times, and cleanse and consecrate it from the impurities of the Israelites.

20 “When he has finished purifying the holy place, the Meeting Tent, and the altar, he is to present the live goat.

21 Aaron is to lay his two hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins, and thus he is to put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man standing ready.

The sins of the Israelites are symbolically transferred to the scapegoat by the laying on of both hands. If this were a sacrifice the priest would only lay one hand on the goat (1:4). Note that a confession is to be made. “Iniquities”, “transgressions”, and “sins” are terms that collectively encompass the totality of human sinning.10 According to m. Yoma 6:3 a priest was given the task of driving the goat away so that it would not return to a settled area.

22 The goat is to bear on itself all their iniquities into an inaccessible land, so he is to send the goat away in the wilderness.

The Hebrew translated “an inaccessible land” literally means “a land of cutting off.”

“Cutting off” could refer to the fact that the place to which the goat was led was “cut off” from the camp, perhaps by a deep valley, so that the animal had no chance of returning to Israel and bringing back the guilt of their sins. Alternatively, it could refer to the fact that it was taken to a place where its life was “cut off.” In later times, the Mishnah records that the goat was led to a steep cliff and pushed over backward to kill it.11

23 “Aaron must then enter the Meeting Tent and take off the linen garments which he had put on when he entered the sanctuary, and leave them there.

Taken literally verses 23-24 mean Aaron disrobed in the Meeting Tent and walked in a naked state to the place of bathing. Since nakedness before the altar was forbidden (Ex. 20:26; 28:42-43) this literal meaning is unlikely to be entirely correct. It seems that certain details are omitted in this chapter. Aaron probably disrobed and bathed in a screened area near the Meeting Tent. Since the priests were commanded to disrobe and bathe in other performances of the cult it is quite likely an area for disrobing and bathing was near the Meeting Tent. Mishnah Middot 5:3 and Mishnah Yoma 3:3 refer to a bureau in the temple complex on whose roof was a place for ablutions.

24 Then he must bathe his body in water in a holy place, put on his clothes, and go out and make his burnt offering and the people’s burnt offering. So he is to make atonement on behalf of himself and the people.

25 “Then he is to offer up the fat of the sin offering in smoke on the altar, 26 and the one who sent the goat away to Azazel must wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and afterward he may reenter the camp.

27 The bull of the sin offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought to make atonement in the holy place, must be brought outside the camp and their hide, their flesh, and their dung must be burned up, 28 and the one who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may reenter the camp.

29 “This is to be a perpetual statute for you. In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you must humble yourselves and do no work of any kind, both the native citizen and the foreigner who resides in your midst, 30 for on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the Lord.

The date corresponds to approximately October.12 The Israelites were to humble themselves by at least fasting (Isa. 58:3), although further measures may be implied. Mishnah Yoma 8:1 says that eating, drinking, bathing, anointing, putting on sandals, and marital intercourse were forbidden.13 This practice shows that contrition is indispensable for forgiveness. The foreigner had to abstain from work so as to not affect the Israelite community. The foreigner did not need to observe all aspects of the Day of Atonement.

31 It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must humble yourselves. It is a perpetual statute.

32 “The priest who is anointed and ordained to act as high priest in place of his father is to make atonement. He is to put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and he is to purify the Most Holy Place, he is to purify the Meeting Tent and the altar, and he is to make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.

34 This is to be a perpetual statute for you to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” So he did just as the Lord had commanded Moses.


Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.

  1. Levine 1989, p. 101 
  2. Levine 1989, p. 101 
  3. Wenham 1979, loc. 3070-3072 
  4. Hartley 1998, p. 236; Milgrom 1991, p. 1019 
  5. Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 6206-6209 
  6. 1 Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4-8; 13:1-2; 54:5; 55:4; 69:2 
  7. Milgrom 1991, p. 1021 
  8. Levine 1989, p. 103 
  9. Hartley 1998, p. 240; Milgrom 1991, p. 1034 
  10. Hartley 1998, p. 241 
  11. Wenham 1979, loc. 3112-3115 
  12. Wenham 1979, loc. 3139 
  13. Hartley 1998, p. 242; Rooker and Cole 2000-05-01, loc. 6379-6381 

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