2 October 2018
The Importance of Bathing to the Day of Atonement
In Leviticus 16, the Lord gives Moses a strict set of instructions that must be followed each year on the Day of Atonement. The purpose of this ceremony is to purify the people of Israel and rid them of their sins from the past year. Specifically, the detailed process that the Lord describes includes various ritual acts that the High Priest, Aaron, and other priests, are to perform as a means to prepare the Israelites and the Tent of Meeting for the presence of God. These ritual acts include a bull of sin offering, a goat sin offering, the cleansing of the Holy Place and the tent of meeting with the blood from the bull and the goat, and a presentation of a live goat that is sent into the wilderness. A common thread seen throughout all of these ritual acts is the presence of bathing. The reason for all of this bathing is to cleanse the people that are taking part in the rituals is in order to be clean and pure not only for the purpose of the ceremony, but to be clean and pure for the Lord. Earlier in Leviticus. “Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward, ad washed them with water. He put the tunic on him, fastened the sash around him, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him.” (Lev. 8:6-7). This action creates and establishes the precedent that the position of the priest is sacred and holy. They must remain holy in order to enter the tent of meeting or to be in the same space as the Lord. The simplest of an impurity can cause the priest to be impure and therefore unable to interact with the Lord. The same goes for the entire population of Israel. That is why there is the Day of Atonement Ceremony. Each year, starting in the time of Aaron’s priesthood, the Jewish people are expected to atone for their sins of the year. A major part of this ceremony is the bathing because it contributes to the overall cleansing of the Israelites.
One of the first steps in the Day of Atonement ceremony, as described by the Lord, is for Aaron to dress in the holy vestments. The Lord says that Aaron cannot just go “into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die” (Lev. 16:2). In order to enter the sanctuary, or the tent of meeting, Aaron “shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on” (Lev. 16:4). This simple action is extremely significant. Before the ceremony even really begins, Aaron, and all high priests that are to follow him, are supposed to wash themselves before they even begin the rituals that atone for their sins. When Aaron bathes himself, he is preparing for the ceremony. This initial act cleanses and washes away Aaron’s impurities, which could include simply dirt or some small transgressions, so that he can wear the holy vestments. The outfit that the Lord picked out for him include the holy linen tunic, linen undergarments, a linen sash, and a linen turban. All of these pieces of clothing are holy by the words of the Lord, which means that Aaron cannot just put the vestments on without first bathing, or else he might end up like his sons in Leviticus 10. They perished because they did not properly prepare for the entrance into the tent of meeting. So, Aaron too must properly prepare for the entrance into the tent of meeting and the rest of this holy ceremony.
After Aaron performs the ritual sacrifices of the bull and the goat for the sin offerings and “sprinkles” their blood all over the tent of meeting and the equipment inside, he also has to place the sins of the Israelites onto a live goat and send it into the wilderness. Once these tasks are completed, Aaron “shall bathe his body in water in a holy place” (Lev 16:24). The purpose of Aaron bathing the second time is to purify his body of all of the transgressions that he came into contact with during these rituals. According to the Lord himself, “he who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days” (Num. 17:11). That being the case, Aaron is unclean after performing the bull of sin offering and the bull of goat offering. The act of slaughtering the animals itself is not impure and the blood is not impure because “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11), meaning that the blood is what has the power to atone the Israelites of their sins in the Day of Atonement ceremony. Thus, it is the contact with the dead carcasses of the bull and the goat that make Aaron impure again, along with the sins of the Israelites that he personally placed onto the live goat. The reason Aaron bathes the second time before re-entering the Holy Place is to clean himself and rid his body of the impure and contaminated things that he came into contact with so that he can continue with the rituals of the ceremony.
Another instance of the Lord’s insistence of bathing to be a part of the Day of Atonement Ceremony is seen with the man that was entrusted to lead the goat into the wilderness. The man’s job was to take the goat that Aaron had “confessed over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat” and leave it in the middle of the wilderness. The purpose of this ritual is to remove the sins of the Israelite people and send them away, far from the city and the sanctuary and the presence of God. This ritual makes atonement for all of the people of Israel for the past year, but leaves the person that was tasked with taking the goat into wilderness still attached to the Israelites’ sins. Consequently, that man “shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward may come into the camp” (Lev. 16:26). He is unable to come back into the city of Israel before he washes away all of the sins that were appointed to the goat. The purpose of the goat is to get rid of the sins of the Israelites by banishing an animal from the city, not a man. So, it is necessary for the man that led the goat out of Jerusalem to cleanse himself of Israel’s sins so that he is not forced into exile. He simply has to bathe and he will be clean of all sins and transgressions that might have transferred from the goat to him.
The last occasion during the Day of Atonement ceremony that the Lord demands someone to bathe is the case of the man that has the job of burning the bodies of the bull and goat from the sin offerings. Aaron slaughtered the bull and the goat in order to use their blood to spread all over the walls of the tent of meeting and the equipment inside as a means to atone for the sins of Aaron and the Priesthood and purify the tent of meeting. Once Aaron is done with the performance of this ritual, then there is no longer any use for the bodies of the sacrificed animals. The bodies, therefore, must be burned, to remove the uncleanliness that was acquired during Aaron’s ritual. The man whose job it is to take the animals outside of the camp must burn “their skin and their flesh and their dung” (Lev. 16:27). After he properly disposes of the remains of the bull and the goat, then the man has to “wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp” (Lev. 16:28). By coming into contact with the caracasses, the man becomes unclean because a vessel that no longer has life is impure and not supposed to be touched or handled. In this case, the Lord demands that whoever is tasked with taking the bodies outside of the camp and burning them has to bathe so that the uncleanliness associated with this task is removed from his body.
The simple act of bathing in water is not the part of the ceremony that atones for all of the sins of the Israelites. That is done through the blood. Some people might argue that bathing cannot actually be that significant since it does not have the power to atone. The water is just a mechanism to clean the bodies of Aaron and the priests and whoever else takes part in the ritual acts of the ceremony. The act of bathing, however, does have extreme importance. Without all of the bathing, Aaron would be unable to put on the holy vestments and enter the holy place. Aaron is instructed to bath twice because he has multiple task to complete. After completing the bull of sin and goat of sin offerings he has to wash off all of the impurities that he came into contact with so that he can go on to complete the burnt offerings. So, the water itself may not atone, but it creates a platform for Aaron and the other priests to be able to make atonement.
The act of bathing is required by the Lord on four separate occasions during the Day of Atonement Ceremony. The frequency of the specific demand to bathe in water indicates that the act is extremely significant, otherwise the Lord would not have demanded it in such great detail. The Lord orders the bathing because it is necessary for the ceremony to be successful. Aaron and the other participants are expected to bathe with water and wash off all of the impurities that make them metaphorically dirty. Without bathing, they would remain impure and be incapable of successfully completing the ceremony and atoning for Aaron and the priesthood, the people of Israel, and the tent of meeting. The tabernacle, which is an element of the tent of meeting and thought the be where the Lord resides, is the most holy place. And the Lord himself is the holiest, purest, and cleanest of beings. Because of this, it is crucial that once a year, they atone for their sins and purify the tent of meeting so that it is clean and holy for the presence of God. This cannot happen if there is no bathing. Bathing cleans the participants of the ceremony so that they have the ability to perform the tasks that will purify Israel.