Study Guide

Leviticus Chapter 16

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Chapter 16

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

  • After the yuck-filled tedium of the purity laws, the writer loops back to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu to at least pretend he's telling a story.
  • God tells Aaron that if he and his leftover sons don't want to die, Aaron has to make atonement for his whole family. It's a lot like the end of the last chapter, except instead of bodily fluids at home, there are dead bodies in the Tabernacle.
  • Do you see what he did there? The book so far has been going on about how unclean and sinful things at home also pollute the holy Tabernacle. Well, hey, whaddaya know, it's exactly like having dead bodies pollute the Tabernacle.
  • And Leviticus just happens to have the perfect ritual that will take all this away.
  • In English, it's called the day of atonement, but its Hebrew name is much more famous: Yom Kippur.

It Was the Best of Goats, It Was the Worst of Goats

  • The rest of the chapter describes a religious ceremony that is the basis of this important Jewish holiday.
  • It also helps explain the ending of The Dark Knight. Except the hero of our tale is not a bat. It's a goat.
  • Here's what happens. Aaron takes a young bull to the Tabernacle courtyard to be sacrificed. Then a goat wearing a cape rushes in and kicks the knife out of Aaron's hands before he can kill again.
  • Well, not really. What actually happens is much more dramatic.
  • First, Aaron brings to the Tabernacle a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. For the high priest, this is just like going to work with a briefcase and Blackberry, except in this case, they smell pretty bad.
  • Then, he goes to the regular Israelites and gets a ram for a burnt offering and two he-goats for a sin offering.
  • Confused? No problem. The most important thing to know here is that following Aaron's example, the high priest in the traditional Yom Kippur ceremony gets animals to atone for himself and animals to atone for all of Israel.

Luck Be a He-Goat Tonight

  • But he doesn't sacrifice them right away. This ceremony is much more elaborate.
  • Aaron—again setting the example for future high priests—takes out a couple of lots, which in ancient Israel can refer to flat stones, sticks, or dice a lot like the ones used today except with far less plastic.
  • Whatever the lots look like, Aaron marks one "God" and the other, "Azazel" or "scapegoat," depending on which version of the English Bible he happens to be reading.
  • What are Israelites talking about when they talk about Azazel? The dirty Levitical secret is that no one's really sure.
  • Some think he's an old, forgotten demon who lives in the wilderness. Because he's not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, all we know about this Azazel is that he has a killer goat collection.
  • Anthropologist Mary Douglas observes that "Azazel" can be translated as "the one that God (el) sent away." Which, by the way, is exactly what is going to happen in this ritual.
  • The writer of Leviticus likes names that are punny. When death is poised to strike in Leviticus 24, he will pun four times.
  • For our purposes, from here on out we'll just call the goat the Azazel goat, since that's the word in the original Hebrew.
  • According to the long-lost rules of Bible Yahtzee, the roll of the dice decides which goat is the God goat and which goat is the Azazel goat.
  • Guess which one of these two goats gets sacrificed as a sin offering?
  • If you picked the Azazel goat, sorry. The God goat's reward for winning the atonement lottery is to get grilled and eaten.

Sprinkler of the Lost Ark

  • But again, not right away. Aaron first has to purify himself, which he does by sacrificing his own young bull, which he's been careful not to name because then his sons would just want to keep it as a pet.
  • Now that Aaron has been purified, he takes from the altar, goes into the Tabernacle, and burns so much incense that the smoke fills the whole place—so much so that the smoke covers the Ark of the Covenant.
  • Remember how frankincense has psycho-active effects? At this point in the ceremony, Aaron is feeling gooooooooooood.
  • Free from all his inhibitions, he takes bull blood and sprinkles it on the Ark's atonement cover.
  • Now he's really stoked, so he sacrifices the God goat as a sin offering and sprinkles the goat's blood on the atonement cover to purify it from all the people's sins that have polluted it.
  • As if that weren't enough, he spikes the ball by going back to the altar and using the blood of both the bull and the goat to cleanse it of all of the people's uncleanness.
  • This part of the ceremony ends with Aaron, the father of all future high priests, high-fiving the Israelites in the front row and shouting, "Who da man?"

Carry on Our Wayward Goat

  • Here's where the Azazel goat takes his heroic turn.
  • Aaron lays his hands on the head of the Azazel goat and confesses all of Israel's sins.
  • This puts all of the sins of the Israelites on the Azazel goat's head. Though none of these sins were his fault, he continues to be a trooper and doesn't bleat any complaints.
  • Aaron's hand-picked Goat-Driver-Outer then, true to his title, drives the goat out to the wilderness and sets the plucky little fellow free to live on his own.
  • That done, he goes back into the Tabernacle, takes off his clothes and settles in for a nice long holy bath.
  • Once intermission is over and the congregation has a chance to visit the kosher locust crisps stand, Aaron puts on new clothes and heads back to his audience for an encore.
  • Chanting the traditional hymn, "Bet you thought I forgot about the other two rams for the burnt offering," Aaron offers the other two rams as burnt offerings.
  • The Tabernacle is pure. The people are pure. And every year on the tenth day of the seventh month, it's wash, rinse, repeat.

The Dark Knight Returns

  • Don't feel too bad about the Azazel goat roaming around the wilderness. The upshot of this funky Day of Atonement ceremony is that the goat doesn't end up being altar blood. And since the ritual ended up being repeated every year by high priests for centuries, eventually there was probably a whole flock of goats out in the wilderness to greet the new guy with a hoof-shake and a welcoming smile.
  • SPOILER ALERT: If this ceremony seems too alien to make any sense at all, re-watch The Dark Knight and pay careful attention to Batman's decision to make Gotham safe by taking the blame for the breakdown of law and order.
  • Substitute Batman for the Azazel goat, Commissioner Gordon for Aaron, the Gotham police for the Goat-Driver-Outer et voilà, Leviticus 16 with skyscrapers. The police chase Batman out of town, and he takes all the city's darkness with him.

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