What Is the Day of Atonement in the Bible?

Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement is one of the most solemn of all Bible feasts

Day of Atonement
Andrew Penner / Getty Images

The Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur is the highest holy day of the Jewish calendar. In the Old Testament, the High Priest made an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. This act of paying the penalty for sin brought reconciliation (a restored relationship) between the people and God. After the blood sacrifice was offered to the Lord, a goat was released into the wilderness to symbolically carry away the sins of the people. This "scapegoat" was never to return.

Day of Atonement

  • The Day of Atonement was a yearly feast instituted by God to completely cover (pay the penalty) for all the sins of the people of Israel.
  • When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, the Jewish people could no longer present the required sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, so it came to be observed as a day of repentance, self-denial, charitable works, prayer, and fasting.
  • Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath. No work is done on this day.
  • Today, Orthodox Jews observe many restrictions and customs on the Day of Atonement.
  • The book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur in remembrance of God's forgiveness and mercy.

When Is Yom Kippur Observed?

Yom Kippur is celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh Hebrew month of Tishri (corresponds to mid-September through mid-October). For the actual dates of Yom Kippur, check this Bible Feasts Calendar.

Day of Atonement in the Bible

The main description of the Day of Atonement is found in Leviticus 16:8-34. Additional regulations pertaining to the feast are outlined in Leviticus 23:26-32 and Numbers 29:7-11. In the New Testament, the Day of Atonement is mentioned in Acts 27:9, where some Bible versions refer to as "the Fast."

Historical Context

In ancient Israel, the Day of Atonement laid the foundation for God to forgive the people of any sins committed since the previous year's feast. Thus, the Day of Atonement was a yearly reminder that all of Israel's daily, weekly, and monthly ritual sacrifices and offerings were not sufficient to permanently atone for sin.

Yom Kippur was the only time during the year when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the innermost chamber of the Temple (or the Tabernacle) to make atonement for the sins of all Israel.

Atonement means "covering." The purpose of the sacrifice was to repair the broken relationship between humans and God by covering the sins of the people. On this day, the high priest would remove his official priestly garments, which were radiant vestments. He would bathe and put on a pure white linen robe to symbolize repentance.

Next, he would make a sin offering for himself and the other priests by sacrificing a young bull and a ram for a burnt offering. Then he would enter the Holy of Holies with a pan of glowing coals from the altar of incense, filling the air with a smoky cloud and aroma of incense. Using his fingers, he would sprinkle the blood of the bull on the mercy seat and the floor before the ark of the covenant.

Altar of Burnt Offering
High Priest at the Altar of Burnt Offering (Exodus 29), wood engraving, published 1886. ZU_09 / Getty Images

The high priest would then cast lots between two live goats that had been brought by the people. One goat was killed as a sin offering for the nation. Its blood was then added by the high priest to the blood already sprinkled inside the Holy of Holies. With this act, he atoned even for the Holy Place.

With grand ceremony, the high priest would then place his hands on the head of the live goat and confess the sins of the whole nation before the altar of burnt offering. Finally, he would give the live goat to an appointed person who carried it outside the camp and set it free into the wilderness. Symbolically, the "scapegoat" would carry away the sins of the people.

After these ceremonies, the high priest would enter the tent of meeting, bathe again, and redress in his official garments. Taking the fat of the sin offering, he would present a burnt offering for himself and one for the people. The remaining flesh of the young bull would be burned outside the camp.

Today, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of repentance, when Jews express remorse for their sins through prayer and fasting. Yom Kippur is the final day of judgment when each person's fate is sealed by God for the upcoming year.

Jewish tradition tells how God opens the Book of Life and studies the words, actions, and thoughts of every person whose name he has written there. If a person's good deeds outweigh or outnumber their sinful acts, his or her name will remain inscribed in the book for another year. On Yom Kippur, the ram's horn (shofar) is blown at the end of evening prayer services for the first time since Rosh Hashanah.

Jesus and the Day of Atonement

The Tabernacle and the Temple gave a clear picture of how sin separates humans from the holiness of God. In Bible times, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies by passing through the heavy veil that hung from ceiling to floor, creating a barrier between the people and the presence of God.

Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter and offer the blood sacrifice to cover the sins of the people. However, at the very moment when Jesus died on the cross, Matthew 27:51 says, "the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split." (NKJV)

Thus, Good Friday, the day Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross of Calvary is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. Hebrews chapters 8 through 10 beautifully explain how Jesus Christ became our High Priest and entered heaven (the Holy of Holies), once and for all, not by the blood of sacrificial animals, but by his own precious blood on the cross. Christ himself was the atoning sacrifice for our sins; thus, he secured for us eternal redemption. As believers, we accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, the full and final atonement for sin.