Dietary Laws and The Day of Atonement


Leviticus 11-16


Dietary Laws (Lev. 11)

After instituting the priesthood (8-10), God continues by giving a list of restrictions upon the Israelites' diet. For most of us, the following is going to be quite tedious and unnecessary in light of the NT which claims that these restrictions are no longer in force (Mark 7:18-19); however, a look at the subsequent history of Israel shows that the Israelites took these restrictions very seriously. For example, Daniel and the other 3 Hebrew children risked their lives by insisting that they eat only kosher food instead of the palace regimen. In 168 BC the Jews rebelled against the Greeks because they were forcing the Jews to eat pork. This feeling of concern for the dietary restrictions lasted well into the Christian church where Jewish Christians tended to judge Gentile Christians negatively who disregarded the diet, while the Gentile Christians tended to look down upon the Jewish Christians because they felt they were not exercising their Christian freedom from such dietary laws (Rom 15). Why did God command the Jews to keep these dietary laws in the OT when He did away with them during the NT times?

Moses does not give a complete list of animals which the Israelites could and could not eat; however, he did list several principles which did determine which animals could be eaten and which could not.

The question remains why God gave these detailed instructions regarding the Israelites' diet? A recent interpretation of God's motive may be operating here. Many OT commentators today claim that God laid down these dietary laws for health reasons. Pork, not properly cooked, can give a person trichinosis, whereas rabbits can give a person tularemia. Most of the animals declared unclean appear to present health problems, especially for an ancient society.

More appears to be operating here, though. At the end of the passage, God declares that the children of Israel are to follow these instructions so that they will be holy just as He is holy *11:44). What does God mean by "holy"? Holiness refers to a moral characteristic about God. It means he is so superior in His morality that He is different from everybody else. Well, God wants His people to be superior morally in comparison to those not His people. Moreover, since God is God, He does not have to worry about health, and since these instructions relate specifically to His character, they seem to go beyond the realm of personal health. These instructions are based upon the holiness of God. So does God's holiness extent to food? Or rather, does our holiness extend to food? How does food affect our holiness?

Probably a better way to put it is that we are not to compartmentalize holiness. Holiness does not involve just what we do on Sunday. Instead, it touches every part of our existence. We see this especially in the life of Jesus. Was there ever a time in Jesus' life in which He was not holy? He was just as holy when He ate with His friends or at play as He was when He sat in the synagogue during the Sabbath. His life demonstrates that holiness should touch every area of our lives. In order to emphasize this in the OT, God uses food to stress the principle that holiness is all pervasive; it should touch each and every part of our lives. Dietary regulations serve merely as an illustration that holiness is to be all-pervasive. We know that it is only an illustration because Jesus during His time on earth and later in the book of Acts declares that the time of considering foods clean or unclean is over (Mark 7:18-19; Acts 10:9-16). By the time of the NT, God is saying that we need no longer worry about the illustration—keeping the dietary laws; we just need to honor the principle that holiness is to be all-pervasive.

(Some of us need to be careful with a lot of these OT injunctions. Some well-meaning Christians are beginning to think themselves better Christians because they are observing these dietary restrictions and even Jewish holidays. The fact is that these injunctions are good for one's health; however, food does not improve your relationship with God, nor does it hurt it—1 Cor. 8:8. The cute comment goes like this: "Will eating unclean foods keep you from going to heaven?" "No, in fact, eating them may get you there sooner!")


The centerpiece of the book of Leviticus concerns the Day of Atonement. Everything in Leviticus leads up to chapter 16 and everything which follows chapter 16 is based upon it. The Day of Atonement was the most important element of the Israelites' faith because it, more than any other ritual, reconciled them to God and made them God's people.

Why was the Day of Atonement necessary when you had all these other sacrifices being offered for the people? According to Keil and Delitzsch, the sacrifice of sin offering, burnt offering, etc., dealt with unintentional sins, sins committed unwittingly. The truth, though, is that many, if not most of our sins are intentional, that at times we openly rebel in our hearts against God. The Day of Atonement, while covering sins committed unintentionally, especially provided for those sins committed intentionally.

Before looking at some of the specifics of the Day of Atonement, we need to look at the definition of "atonement." Breaking down the English word "atonement" into its component parts reveals its meaning. The word "atonement" is built upon 3 words or phrases: "at," "one,” and "ment." It means "at one-ment," or even better, to be "at one“ with somebody else. It implies that at one time we were not "one" with a certain person, in this specific instance, God. Rather, we were 2, that is divided, at odds with, hostile with each other. By performing the rites, though, specified in Lev. 16, God declared that His people would be one with Him.

Notice some of the elements of the Day of Atonement. Once more the high priest had to take care of his sins and the sins of his family before he could make an offering for the sins of the people. In fact, the implication of 16:1 is that one of the major reasons God instituted the Day of Atonement was the sin Nadab and Abihu committed against the Lord by offering strange fire. God did not want to destroy any more of the priests; so he both provided a way to cover their sins and also specific instructions about the way the priests were to conduct themselves in the sanctuary. Only on the 10th day of the 7th month (sometime around Sept-October, depending upon the movement of the moon), Aaron was to enter the Holy of Holies and offer the blood of a bull for his sins and the blood of a ram for a burnt offering. (The way he was to present the blood will be looked at in just a moment as we look at the offerings for the people.) After that, he was to provide for the sins of the people.

Before offering sacrifices for the people, Aaron was to select 2 goats to be used as a sin offering for the people. Notice that whereas there are 2 parts to this sin offering, in actuality there was only one sin offering. The 2 goats simply represent 2 different aspects of the sin offering. Then Aaron would take incense in a censer, apply hot coals from the altar to the incense, and then enter into the Holy of Holies. The smoke arising from the incense would fill the Holy of Holies so that it covered the Ark of the Covenant. Two reasons are given for this act. First, some claim that the smoke was intended to serve as a shield to protect the high priest from God. The high priest would die if he were actually to behold God's face. The only problem with this interpretation is that it seems to contradict the very purpose of the Day of Atonement—to bring men to God! A second reason (and probably the better one) is at least by the time of the NT incense came to represent the prayers of God's people (see Rev. 8:3). The incense then represents the prayers of God's people that He would forgive them of their sins.

After providing for his own sins, Aaron then took one of the goats—the one dedicated to the Lord and laid his hands upon it. While his hands were on the goat, he would confess the sins of the Israelites. He most likely used the formula which in general covered all of Israel's sins. After confessing these sins, he took the goat dedicated to the Lord and sacrificed it. He took the blood of the goat and sprinkled it once on top of the Ark of the Covenant in order to cleanse the people of their sins and then 7 times in front of the Ark of the Covenant on the floor in order to cleanse the tabernacle which the people had defiled by their sins.

Why sprinkle the blood on top of the ark? Inside the ark at this time lay the stones on which were engraved the 10 Commandments. When God looked down upon the ark, He saw the 10 Commandments which His people had repeatedly broken. Whenever the blood, though, was sprinkled on top of the lid which covered the ark, God saw only the blood and not the tablets. The blood covered our violation of the 10 Commandments, thereby leading God to forgive us.

Afterwards, the high priest took the 2nd goat—the one dedicated to Azazel, once more laid his hands upon his head, and confessed Israel's sins. This time, though, instead of killing the goat, he had an associate take the goat into a desolate country and released it. By letting the goat escape (hence the phrase "scapegoat") into the wilderness, he was ensuring that the goat would not be able to return to the people. The sins upon that goat were gone once and forever. Those sins would never return to the people.

This ritual, more than any other, illustrates the truth that once our sins are atoned for, they are gone forever. Oh, your friend may not let your sins get away from you—maybe even your spouse, parents, children, enemies, YOURSELF, etc.; however, whenever anybody holds something against you that God has forgiven you for, then they don't have a problem with you but with God!

Moreover, this speaks to us as well. First, too many Christians continue to feel guilty about sins they've committed in the past. Well, God has removed those sins from the Christian and wants the Christian to press forward. Second, some Christians who have been forgiven of their sins return to their old sinful ways. Well, Christ's sacrifice means that He has removed those sins from us, and He does not want us to return to those sins. Moreover, He gives us His Holy Spirit so that we will have the spiritual power to be spiritually free from those sins permanently. However, if we do bring those sins back into our lives, God continues to offer us the gift of atonement so that we can be free of them again.