Even as the instructions in Leviticus 16 follow a significant failure on the part of the priesthood, we can also credibly link the Day of Atonement with an infamous failure of the whole nation, the Golden Calf incident. By piecing together the dates and spans of time from the scriptural record, a significant possibility arises. Notice these time markers:
» Israel left Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month (Exodus 13:3-4).
» Sometime within the following week—between the sixteenth and the twenty-second day—the fifty-day count to Pentecost began.
» It is generally accepted that Pentecost occurred when God gave the law to Israel from Mount Sinai. No verse directly says this, but the text puts Israel at Sinai in the general timeframe of Pentecost. Exodus 16:1 shows that Israel was already near Sinai on the fifteenth day of the second month. Israel was still camped at Sinai “in the third month” (Exodus 19:1), when Pentecost occurs.
» After giving the law, Moses was on the Mount with God for forty days and nights to receive the tablets of stone (Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9).
» When Moses came down and saw Israel worshipping the Golden Calf, he broke the stone tablets and spent a second period of forty days and nights beseeching God not to destroy Aaron and the rest of the nation (Deuteronomy 9:15-20).
» Moses returned to the mountain for a third forty-day period to receive a new copy of the stone tablets (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 10:10).
The three forty-day periods mean that there were 120 days between Pentecost and the new copy of the tablets. Adding the fifty-day count to Pentecost brings us to 170 days. The count to Pentecost began between the sixteenth and twenty-second days from the beginning of the year, so the time between Abib 1 and the new copy of the tablets was between 186 and 192 days. This span of days is significant because the Day of Atonement falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, 187 days into the Hebrew calendar.
The Day of Atonement, then, may have occurred when Moses returned with his face reflecting God's glory (Exodus 34:29-32). It may also have been the day when he gave the law to Israel a second time, after their blatant sin. Again, this timeline is not definitive, but we are in the ballpark.
If this timeline is valid, then the Day of Atonement contains a reminder of a colossal failure, such that the law had to be inscribed a second time by the finger of God. God does not waste effort, and He does not repeat Himself or duplicate things unnecessarily. Thus, the Day of Atonement could well provide a reminder that the whole nation was on the brink of destruction, and it was through God's mercy and Moses' intercession that the people and high priest were not all blotted out.
It is no wonder that the Day of Atonement is such a solemn day! It is tied to the failure of Aaron's sons, and perhaps to the more widespread failure of the nation, resulting in the addition of the sacrificial law. It may also have been when the Creator had to repeat His holy law. The law defines sin, and breaking it requires atonement. When the author of Hebrews 10:3 writes that the sacrifices were a reminder of sins each year, he may have had some highly significant national failures in mind.
David C. Grabbe
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