On the Day of Atonement, little was left to chance. Because so much hinged on the high priest getting the holiest of days right, Jewish history tells us that 7 days prior he would leave his home and set out for the temple. The Jews assumed uncleanness would be less likely in a more holy locale. While at the temple over the next few days, the high priest went through dress rehearsal after dress rehearsal to ensure he nailed every jot of Leviticus 16. He practiced his lines; he pretended to clean the altar; he burned the incense.
However, the most interesting part of preparation, in my opinion, concerned the animals. On the eve of the Day of Atonement, the animals to be sacrificed the following day would be brought to the high priest so they might get better acquainted. The Israelites had a vested interest in eliminating all variables. Since the way the animals related to the high priest would be an integral part of the ritual, we safely assume he sought to gain their trust.
A number of animals died that day, but the Day of Atonement centered on two goats. This post will barely touch the hem, attempting to hint briefly at the significance.
The First Goat
The high priest would slay the first goat as a sin offering “for the people” (Lev 16:15). The transgressions and impurity of those people made ongoing access to God impossible (Lev 16:16). Mark Dever notes, “The relationship is the challenge. Substitution is the solution.” In sprinkling the goat’s blood over the mercy seat––the place of propitiation––the high priest made atonement for the Holy Place, granting sinful people access to a Holy God. Atonement is “at–one”–ment.
The Second Goat
The second goat functioned as the scapegoat. Aaron laid both his hands on the head of the live goat, confessing “ . . . over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away” (Lev 16:21). The assigned Israelite took this goat miles and miles into the wilderness. Eventually he’d stop walking to watch the animal amble along farther and farther away until he could see it no longer. Then he’d return to camp. The scapegoat would never be seen again, representing the removal of the Israelites’ sin.
When these goats met the high priest the day before, neither one knew what the next day would bring. It’s doubtful either would’ve volunteered. Later tradition appears to indicate both might have been manipulated into a misplaced trust.
But there’s a true and better Day of Atonement because there’s a true and better sacrifice. Like the first goat, this sacrifice was put forward as propitiation, appeasing the wrath of God by blood (Rom 3:25). Like the scapegoat, this sacrifice suffered outside the camp, removing the guilt of sin (Heb 13:12). But, in stark contrast, this sacrifice knew that which He’d soon face. Then He gladly set His face toward Jerusalem.