The Day of Atonement and the Surprising Joy of Leviticus

The Day of Atonement and the Surprising Joy of Leviticus September 23, 2015
Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: enterline / 123RF Stock Photo

Jews throughout the world are celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year and it’s full of joy.

The Christian view of Atonement is rarely understood in terms of joy. Instead, it’s often understood like this: You are a sinner and God is mad at you. But not just at you, God is angry at the whole human race. The infinitely holy God created a good world and humans screwed it up. Since Adam and Eve, we have offended God’s infinite holiness. We owe a massive debt to God. Because we are finite creatures, we can’t pay of the debt. Only an infinite payment would satisfy God’s anger. So, God decided to atone for human sin by sending his Son to us, as a fully human and fully divine person to take God’s wrath upon himself, thus saving those who believe in this theory of Atonement.

Many of us grew up with some version of that Atonement theory. It starts with guilt and sin and God’s anger. But that’s the wrong place to start.

Atonement has its roots in Judaism, specifically in the book of Leviticus and the Day of Atonement. Now, if you’ve ever tried to read the Bible all the way through, you likely made it past Genesis and Exodus. Then you came to Leviticus, which, to the modern Christian reader, is like a really bad b-grade slasher flick. Humans feel guilty about sin, so you sacrifice an animal here, poor some blood and guts out over there, eat some food, burn some stuff, and, voila, you no longer feel guilty.

But that’s a misreading of Leviticus. It’s important to realize that Leviticus and the Day of Atonement do not start with guilt. They start with joy. In other words, Atonement isn’t about our existential guilt and offering a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. Rather, Atonement is about humans joyfully coming to God, who has already drawn near to us. Hebrew Bible scholar Samuel Balentine puts it like this in his commentary on Leviticus,

In an evocative reversal of expectations, Leviticus begins with an emphasis not on sin and its required atonement but on joy and its spontaneous expression through voluntary gifts. From a priestly perspective, the God who covenants with such a frail and faulty people still hopes and expects that joy, not guilt, will be the primary motivation for the worship Israel will offer. (Leviticus, 38)

Many people read Leviticus and think, “See, this is why the Bible is so archaic and backwards.” But surprisingly, Leviticus is a huge step forward in the human understanding of the divine – and we are still trying to catch up to Leviticus!

Indeed, Leviticus provides “an evocative reversal of expectations” about our relationship with God. It’s to be a relationship based on joy. How many Christians today start explaining Atonement with joy? Not very many. Atonement usually starts with the idea that humans screwed up, we’re all guilty, and we owe a debt to God.

But a proper understanding of Atonement doesn’t start with guilt; it starts with joy. God created the world and it was good. Indeed, it was very good, according to Genesis. God created bunnies and flowers and books and wine and butterflies and toasted cheese sandwiches.

I love toasted cheese sandwiches.

Yet, we also know that there is something wrong with the world. We know that conflict, rivalry, violence, economic injustice, and war threaten our existence. We also know that each of us has played a role in the problems of the world. The good news, according to Judaism and Christianity, is that God is working in the world to set things right and to set humans free from our sins.

God gives that freedom on the Day of Atonement. Back in the day, the ancient High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He would put on a white robe and a crown that had the Name of the Lord on it. The High Priest would become Yahweh and be given the title “Son of God.”

As Yahweh, the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to offer forgiveness to the people.  Atonement was about God entering into the world in the spirit of love to set people free and to restore the world. It had nothing to do with wrath. In his book Undergoing God, James Alison states,

The rite of atonement was about the Lord himself, the Creator, emerging from the Holy of Holies so as to set the people free from their impurities and sins and transgressions … it was actually God who was doing the work, it was God who was coming out wanting to restore creation, out of his love for his people. And so it is YHWH who emerges from the Holy of Holies dressed in white in order to forgive the people their sins and, more importantly, in order to allow creation to flow. (53)

The flow of creation is the flow of love. As Leviticus claims, the central ethical teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we stop loving our neighbors as ourselves, we fall into sin and stop the divine flow of creation.

For Christians, Jesus, our High Priest and the Son of God, enacted the high priestly tradition of Atonement on the cross and in the resurrection. The cross has often been used to make people feel guilty and promote a wrathful god, but the cross isn’t about God’s wrath. Nor should it be used to make people feel guilty. It should be used to spread divine joy. In line with Leviticus and the Day of Atonement, it’s about God coming to us in the spirit of forgiveness. As Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

That spirit continued in the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus didn’t seek revenge against those who abandoned and betrayed him. Rather, he offered them peace.

From Leviticus, the Jewish High Priests, and Jesus, we learn that God isn’t full of wrath. Instead, God comes to us in the spirit of peace and forgiveness so that creation can continue to flow with God’s love.

That’s what Atonement is all about. And for that, we can be joyful.

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