Whenever the Israelites had the privilege of encountering the living God, they were terrified: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips . . . . My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,” the prophet Isaiah exclaimed in terror (Isa. 6:5). Imagine what it would have been like to see what Isaiah saw—to experience the depth of his shame before the holy God!
The Israelites at Mount Sinai had a similar experience. Each of them visually experienced the glory of the Lord “like a consuming fire on the mountain top” (Exodus 24:17), and they learned that “the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Here is how Exodus describes the people’s initial response to their experience of God:
All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.” (Ex. 20:18–19)
The people were ill-prepared to stand in the presence of God. After reassuring them of God’s purposes, Moses alone climbed to the top of Mount Sinai to hear from God (Ex. 20:20–21). God spoke to Moses (v. 20:22ff.) and later “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Although God desired a close relationship with all Israel, the relationship between Moses and God was unique and intimate. At the request of the people (v. 20:19), God allowed Moses to stand in an intercessory place between Him and the nation.
The God of Israel had called the Jewish people to receive His promised covenant blessings sworn to Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3). The Lord also chose the children of Israel to be a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), but throughout biblical history, we see that their sins often alienated the chosen people from God.
Thankfully, the Lord of Israel is also a compassionate and gracious God (Exodus 34:6). By His mercy, He provided sacrifices and Levitical intercessors so Israel could be restored and live in fruitfulness and joy in the Promised Land. Moses was the first and most significant of the intercessors between Israel and God. He was the first mediator; he alone ascended Sinai and appealed to the Lord on behalf of Israel, standing in Israel’s place as the nation’s representative. Moses passed his intercessory role on to his elder brother, Aaron, and his sons. Aaron had the privilege of serving as Israel’s first high priest (Exodus 28:1).
The Lord instructed Aaron and his sons “to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses” (Leviticus 10:10–11). The function of the high priest was also to be the final judge of the nation, the leader of the high court (cf., 2 Chronicles 19:11).
Teaching the sons and daughters of Israel was an essential role for Aaron and the priesthood, but their most important responsibility was interceding for the people of Israel.
The Hebrew Bible uses a variety of terms to describe sin. One term, avon, ןוֹ ָע, is usually translated “iniquity.” The Hebrew root means “bent or crooked,” thus envisioning our iniquity as causing our souls to appear bent and misshapen when compared to the straight line of the perfect image of God in which we were created. Sin is also portrayed as a weight that rests upon a person’s soul, which is why the Bible describes the individual sinner as “bearing his iniquity” (Leviticus 7:18, 17:16). This phrase vividly pictures a person weighed down with sin, laboring as he or she carries this weight upon his or her shoulders until atonement lifts the burden through an acceptable sacrifice.
The Hebrew Scriptures describe the burden of iniquity as transferable. When a Jewish person committed a sin, they were required to select a clean and healthy animal, often described as one without blemish, and bring it to the priests. The priest would sacrifice the offering, thereby transferring the burden of sin to the animal. As Leviticus 17:11 affirms, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”
Nowhere is this transferable burden of iniquity displayed more powerfully than on the Day of Atonement. God provides a vivid picture in the biblical teaching of the scapegoat:
Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21–22)
The process of atonement is worth noting carefully. As the priest confesses Israel’s sins, he places his hands on the goat, symbolically transferring the nation’s iniquities upon the animal. The scapegoat then carries the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness, far away from the Jewish people. The goat would perish, according to the instruction in Leviticus chapter 16, and carry the sins of Israel away with his death.
The scapegoat and the work of Aaron and his sons serving as Israel’s intercessors pointed to something greater! As the centuries went by, God began filling in the details of this hope and expectation of a greater and more permanent atonement. Ezekiel spoke of a day when God himself would atone for the people’s sins (Ezek. 45:17). Daniel prophesied a day when there would be a final end of sin and atonement for iniquity (Dan. 9:24).
The pinnacle of this prophetic expectation is in Isaiah 53, where we encounter the Suffering Servant who would one day bear our sins and take them away, just as the scapegoat did. At the end of this glorious chapter, Isaiah exalts the Servant who would be pierced through for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The prophet announces that God will “allot [the Servant] a portion with the great . . . because he poured out Himself to death,” whereby He “bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12).
Thankfully, we are not left without a high priest today. Although the Temple was destroyed in ad 70, extinguishing the flames upon the altar fanned by the Aaronic priesthood, Yeshua the Messiah established a greater priesthood through His resurrection for all who believe. Now, our Messiah intercedes as our high priest, carrying our burdens day in and day out…if we let Him!
As the author of Hebrews wrote,
But Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:24–26)