Atonement: A Story of Bulls, Scapegoats and the Lamb of God

Aaron, the high priest, sighed heavily and buried his face in his almost shivering palms. These are never his favourite days. Perez, the five-year-old from next-door, stood at the doorway and watched Aaron looking very, very disturbed. This was quite strange. Grandpa Aaron usually had an easy smile on his face and he always had countless exciting stories to share—stories about their people, the Israelites.

Impulsively, Perez ran in and touched Aaron’s left shoulder. “Is something wrong, Grandpa?” he queried with sincere concern.

“Oh, hello! My dear Perez. I am OK. It’s about Yom haKippurim that I’m a little unsettled. It’s tomorrow again, you see.”

Yom haKippurim? What in the world is that?”

“It’s the Day of Atonement, my dear boy. And I, as the high priest, have lots to do; tasks which are not easy at all, not even for a grown-up like me.” Aaron held the little boy tight and wished for a brief moment that he were as pure and free as him again.

… It’s the whole process involved before the beautiful ending that I sometimes dread awfully. The killing part, the shedding of blood, the pain of beholding a life taken, the knowledge of the enormity of wrongs and sinful acts your own people have committed against the Most Holy God.

“Tomorrow’s the day, did you say? What’s atonement, anyway?”

“Sit down here, my boy. Let me explain. Atonement simply means bringing those who are estranged into unity again; it is about making peace. The Day of Atonement is the most solemn holy day for our people. It comes once every year. On this day, the high priest has to symbolically make things right again between the Almighty God and the people. Through sacrifices and offerings, the high priest, as the representative of the people, seeks forgiveness from God so that peace is restored.”

“Isn’t that a great job? So what’s eating you?”

“Perez, my dear, it’s not as simple as it sounds. I can’t show you how I feel deep down in my heart but this task which God Himself has assigned to me is extremely crucial. I just cannot take it casually. Yes, it is about bringing reconciliation, meaning making peace, but it’s the whole process involved before the beautiful ending that I sometimes dread awfully. The killing part, the shedding of blood, the pain of beholding a life taken, the knowledge of the enormity of wrongs and sinful acts your own people have committed against the Most Holy God and many more. It’s true, the lives taken are those of animals—a bull and a he-goat, and yet it is utterly traumatic, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh! That will be tough. Our sheep gave birth last night. I won’t want anybody to kill the sweet two lambs we got. In fact I came to tell you about them!”

“That’s lovely! I sure would love to come and look at them myself as soon as I can, Perez.”

“But tell me more, Grandpa. Do you have to do all that by yourself? The killing of animals…?”

“Yes, dear, I have to. And after I have killed and sprinkled the blood of the animals at the altar as sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of sins, I am to lay my hands upon the head of a second goat and confess over it the sins of Israel. This goat will then be driven out into the lonely desert and it will symbolically carry away the sins of the people.”

“A scapegoat! Poor animal, for no fault of his own, he has to be driven out like that! And you mean, you have to do all that once every year?”

“Yes, indeed.”

If sin is not removed, death is the only final reward awaiting the sinner. And God does not desire that anyone should die. And that is why atonement can never be cheap or easy. It is a bloody and heart-wrenching battle against sin and death.

“Well, that surely must be so hard. I won’t be able to do anything like that. And I won’t also want to be that bull or the scapegoat! I feel sorry for the animals too.”

“No, no one would want to be the bull or the scapegoat. It’s anguishing and humiliating, to say the least. But that’s the way the Lord Almighty has planned.”

“But, Grandpa Aaron, why the killings and the shedding of blood? Why can’t you just say a long, loud prayer, say, for an hour if necessary, on behalf of all the people? Won’t that work?”

“I know, Perez. How I wish there was an alternative. But the Scriptures say, ‘without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.’”

“Does God really take sin so seriously?”

“Yes, He surely does. If sin is not removed, death is the only final reward awaiting the sinner. And God does not desire that anyone should die. And that is why atonement can never be cheap or easy. It is a bloody and heart-wrenching battle against sin and death. It is all very difficult for me personally, Perez my dear boy. But once it’s over, I understand what it means to be really free; to be forgiven. I can’t really explain but I feel good, real good. You will also understand one day. Now, why don’t you let me show you the animals outside? It’s getting late and we both could do with some good rest before tomorrow comes.”

“I’ve seen the animals. You know, I saw them while running down the hill earlier. I thought they were exceptionally fit and I’d wondered if you were switching jobs and going into animal farming. For a moment, I thought you might even be interested in my two little lambs! But now that I know what’s going to happen tomorrow, I feel so sorry for the poor animals. They looked so healthy and blissful!”

“That’s true. You know, the Lord also demands that the sacrificial victim be unblemished, to symbolize the necessity for perfection. It’s no ordinary event and that is why it’s all the more draining.”

“Oh, Grandpa Aaron, I wish I could stay on with you until daybreak but Mama will be worried. I must go now but please know that I’ll be thinking of you a great deal tomorrow. I promise. Can I give you a hug before I go?”

“Sure, Perez, I’d love nothing better than that. Yes, you must be on your way. Thank you for dropping by. The Lord bless you and keep you, my dear boy.”

Some thousands of years later, we are told, ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son Jesus Christ…’ (John 3:16). We are also told that ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with His stripes we are healed… the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53:5f). And, ‘Unlike the other high priests, He does not need to offer sacrifices day after day…He sacrificed for their sins once and for all when He offered Himself.’ (Hebrews 7:27).

‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29).

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