In past readings we have tried to understand biblical laws handed down by the Lord and character stories that have preceded such rules. These laws arise because the ancient authors saw fault in the actions of the characters. Leviticus 16 proves to be no different. In this passage we find the Lord speaking to Moses; telling him to inform his brother Aaron about how he must proceed in the act of atonement for his sins. The rules God hands down stem from the story of Joseph, where his brothers never properly atoned for their sin of abandoning him in a pit. God’s ruling goes even further to atone for the sins of all of Israel as well.
The story of Joseph is much more than a tale of forgiveness, but that aspect is what I will focus on in this analysis. In Genesis 45:4, after Joseph exclaimed to his brothers, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!” they were frightened. Earlier in the story Joseph overheard his brother Rueben speaking to the others; “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood,” (Genesis 42:22). There also seems to be a hint of guilt attached to the quote. The fear is created because of the power that Joseph holds over them.
He controlled the distribution of food in a time of famine, and this made him a very important person. The time came where the father of Joseph and his brothers, Jacob, passed away. The brothers still had not atoned for their sin against him. They eventually used the death of their father as a way to force the forgiveness out of Joseph. They said to him, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brother’s the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly,’” (Genesis 50:16-17).
There are two important problems that the biblical laws of Leviticus 16 address. The first is the proper way to ask for forgiveness. In his atonement, Aaron was made to supply two goats, one for sacrifice to the Lord and one to be for Azazel (Leviticus 16:7-9). Azazel does not have a definition, but many believe it to mean scapegoat. The author saw that in Genesis, Joseph’s brothers did not atone for their actions correctly. Therefore in Leviticus 16:21, the Lord says, “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of [Azazel], and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.”
Instead of forcing forgiveness, Aaron must confess his sins. The goat is made to be sent away to the wilderness for the Lord to have, so in a way by confessing his sins to the goat, his confession transfers to the audience of God. He knowingly sends the goat away but does not know what the Lord will do with it. In this sequence, Aaron does not force forgiveness out of God; he confesses and leaves his fate in the Lord’s hands.
The second issue with the story of Joseph that the ancient author addresses is the reaction to which the brothers received after their supposed atonement. There was no punishment handed to them! In fact, they were promised to be looked over by Joseph himself, the man whom they had wronged. If they had atoned in the proper fashion it would be reasonable to expect forgiveness, but their forgiveness was granted out of their trickery. Because of this, the ancient author created rules that had to be followed in order to be cleansed of one’s sins.
The Lord said, “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you— 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you.,” (Leviticus 16:29-30). Without following this set of rules, forgiveness will not be given. It even proceeds to give a specific day dedicated to atonement each year in order to insure the proper actions take place. The Lord has Aaron ask for the forgiveness of all of Israel’s wrongs; a potential reference to the fact that Joseph’s brothers were the sons of Israel. God says, “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites,” (Leviticus 16:34).
The origin of the Day of Atonement lies with the ritual that Aaron performed. Yet, it was the story of Joseph that helps us understand biblical laws within Leviticus. The ancient author saw a flaw in the actions of Joseph’s brothers and therefore created a solution to the issue.