God commanded that once a year, on the tenth day of the Hebrew month Tishrei, Israel’s high priest was to enter the Most Holy Place—the Holy of Holies—and atone for the sins of the Jewish people. This day, called the Day of Atonement, or in Hebrew, “Yom Kippur,” (literally the Day of Covering), was the most solemn day of the Hebrew calendar, and it remains the most sober and reflective holiday among Jewish people today.
The Lord gave Moses strict instructions for Aaron and succeeding high priests to follow regarding how to enter the holy place and how to perform the atoning sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. First, the high priest was required to ritually cleanse himself in water. Then he had to adorn himself with special linen vestments: a tunic, turban, undergarments, and sash around his waist (Leviticus 16:3–4).
After the high priest readied himself, he then filled an incense burner with coals so that smoke would rise and cover the Ark of the Covenant as he entered the Holy of Holies (v. 13). No one was even permitted to be in the Tabernacle or Temple once the high priest entered this holy room (v. 17).
The first offering the Lord instructed the high priest to make in the holy place was a bull offering to atone for his sins and those of his family. The high priest would dip his finger in a bull’s blood, sprinkle it on the east side of the mercy seat (the Ark’s lid or cover), and then sprinkle it seven times in front of the mercy seat (vv. 11, 14).
After the bull offering, the high priest would cast lots between two goats, “one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat” (v. 8). The goat on which the “lot for the Lord” fell would then be offered as a sin offering for the people of Israel. He would sacrifice the goat on the altar, take its blood into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkle it on and in front of the mercy seat, just as he did with the bull’s blood (v. 15).
After the sacrifices and sprinkling of the blood in the Holy of Holies, the high priest would exit the room and sprinkle more blood on the altar itself. He would sprinkle some of the bull’s blood and the goat’s blood “on the horns of the altar on all sides” seven times to cleanse it “from the impurities of the sons of Israel” (vv. 18, 19).
Last, the high priest would take the live scapegoat and place both his hands on the goat’s head, symbolically transferring Israel’s sins onto the goat. Someone would then take the goat into the wilderness and release it (vv. 20–22). According to Jewish tradition the one leading the goat into the wilderness would push the animal down a cliff emphasizing the role of the animal in removing the sins of the Jewish people.
All of this was done year after year on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies to atone for Israel’s sins. These sacrifices provided a picture of the coming, once-for-all sacrifice of the Messiah, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Hebrews 10:4). Praise the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that now “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh” (vv. 19–20).