The Purge is an American horror franchise that began in 2013, built around the premise that somewhere in the near future, society has become almost entirely crime-free. For 364 days of the year, you could walk across town at 2 o’clock in the morning with the reasonable expectation that you will not get mugged, attacked, or robbed. Crime rates have plummeted, prisons have emptied, unemployment has dropped below one per cent, and police forces have been left with little to do.
For 364 days a year.
How? Well, in this world, on one day each year, there is “The Purge.” On this day, all crime is legal, all law enforcement is removed and all emergency services are temporarily suspended. The rule of law is gone. For this one day, you either lock yourself in your house, or you go out into the night and do whatever you want.
The Purge draws on the sense we all possess that sin and evil accumulate; that sin and guilt, like waste, need a management system lest their toxicity takes over.
From Lady McBeth washing her hands to our modern fixation with “cleansing diets,” we know that sin needs to be dealt with, that its offence needs, somehow, to be removed from among us.
Leviticus and sin management
Leviticus is about managing the pollution of sin. For 364 days a year, Israel was given a system of sacrifices and rituals, categories of clean and unclean, and programmes of weekly and annual festivals. That’s what happens for 354 days a year.
In chapter 16 we hit the centre of the book, and with it, the centre-piece of this divinely given sin-management system. It’s called The Day of Atonement.
The Day of Atonement
The Day is called The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. “Yom” meaning “Day” and “Kippur” meaning “covering.” That’s literally what the word means.
The whole book of Leviticus has been about “covering.” The whole system of sacrifices and rituals and washings and so on—a system where sin and guilt are covered over, often by an animal covering for you.
But chapter 16 is the Day of Covering. The Day of Atonement. Notice four distinctive features of this day.
1. All In
First, everyone is involved. Lots of the sacrificial system was managed by individuals and in families. But on the Day of Covering the whole nation downs tools, takes a Sabbath, and gathers in a sacred assembly before the Lord.
2. The High Priest
Second, most of the day’s action is led by the high priest.
What does he do?
He washes himself and he changes his clothes. He takes off the regal clothes of the priesthood and puts on the plain clothes of a man about to meet a holy God.
3. Entering the Most Holy Place
The central activity of the high priest is to enter the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctum of the tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant is kept.
On each side of the ark is a carved angel, a Cherubim. Between them is The Mercy Seat also called the Covering.
What’s the significance? In an ancient pagan temple that’s where the idol would go.
But this is the God of Israel. Heaven is his throne, earth is his footstool. He is not represented by idols. So, what’s between the Cherubim?
Here is a central tension of the Old Testament. God is everywhere. And yet, in a special way, he is with Israel, specifically in the tent of meeting, and more specifically in the Most Holy Place. And even more specifically than that, his presence is manifest on the lid of the ark of the covenant. That’s where God is.
Leviticus 16:2 says “for I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.”
And that’s what Aaron is approaching. The Mercy Seat; the atonement cover, the presence of God. But as you can see, it’s like sending someone into Chernobyl! It’s radioactive.
Verse 16 says, “In this way, he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites.”
Why does it need atonement?
Remember: atone in this context is to purge, to cleanse, to cover over impurity. This is about purging sacred space. The uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites has infected all the way into the Most Holy Place.
Dishwashers need cleaning. They collect gunk. And every so often you need to clean them out. The Day of Atonement is like that.
4. The Two Goats.
Aaron takes the two goats from the people. One is to be to the Lord and the other is the scapegoat. Aaron puts his hands on its head and confesses the sins of Israel. And then it is sent out into the wilderness.
In many English translations, the goat is called “the scapegoat”. But literally, it is “the goat for Azazel.” There are three ways this can be interpreted:
a) The goat that goes away.
It could mean something like “the goat that goes away”.
b) The goat for Azazel
Others have argued that Azazel is a demon who lives in the wilderness and the Israelites are sacrificing a goat to that demon. There are a bunch of reasons to think this is not right, not least that they’re literally told in the next chapter not to sacrifice to demons! (See 17:7)
And so, for what it’s worth, I think it’s a third option.
c) The goat sent to the realm of Azazel.
You see, Israel is holy space. The tabernacle is the place of holiness, the presence of God and sin doesn’t belong there. It belongs in the wilderness, in the desert, in the unformed places, in the haunt of demons.
In the New Testament, where does Jesus get tempted by Satan? In the wilderness!
Why is Jesus always “casting out demons”? Where did they come from? Where does he send them?
Why does Paul hand someone over to Satan?
He’s handing them over to the realm of Satan, sending sin where it belongs. I think that’s what’s going on in Leviticus. Sin is being sent back to where it belongs.
Let’s stand back and take it in… Alistair Roberts describes the day as the “have you thought about turning the whole thing on and off again” day. That’s what’s going on. On the day of atonement, the whole system gets a reboot.
Next week we are exploring Hebrews, which is a sustained NT reflection on the sacrificial system. But for now, notice three things.
a) The Determination of God
Notice the determination of God to be with his people. In Leviticus, God pitched his tent amongst his people. He dwelt with them. That’s the spiritual equivalent of camping in Chernobyl!
But God does it. He wants to be with his people, whatever it takes.
b) The infecting power of sin.
Notice also the infecting nature of sin. It gets in everywhere; defiles everything, gets into everything. That’s the nature of sin.
c) The hilastarion of Jesus
And finally, you can become clean in Jesus.
We live in a moment where we have an infection without atonement. It’s like we understand one-half of the book of Leviticus. Think about our language: Toxic masculinity, cancel culture, call-out culture. We talk about the stain of colonialism. We have struggles, performative apologies, shaming & doxxing.
We have judgement without forgiveness, shame without atonement. Without God, as singer-songwriter Nick Cave describes:
As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.
But we have good news. God has put forth his son Jesus as the atonement cover, the place of atonement. Through his blood, sin in all its toxicity has been dealt.
As Susannah Black Roberts said in a recent tweet:
Christianity is a religion of and for vicious meth heads and MAGA chuds and annoying pink-haired woke activists and TERFs and Brooklyn wine moms and nice bourgeois Dave Ramsey-abiding debt-free suburbanites and that is just kinda wild. Everybody git in that water.
Amen! Come on in. Jesus can make you clean. It’s for you, and for me.
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