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  • Stephen HRM

Yom Kippur and the problem of Justice and Mercy

Leviticus 16 – Yom Kippur and the problem of Justice and Mercy

The Yom Kippur festival as outlined in Leviticus 16 provides an insight into how our Messiah freed us from sin, which this article will examine using the NIV Application Commentary for Leviticus and Numbers by Roy Gane.

Gane starts by dispelling a common and incorrect belief about Yom Kippur, that this festival leads to forgiveness of sins. He writes, “Contrary to widespread misconception dating as early as the Second Temple, none of the rituals unique to the Day of Purgation lead to forgiveness at all”.

Gane explains that “The root slh (forgive) does not appear once in Leviticus 16 or any other passage that has to do with the Day of Purgation (Yom Kippur)”.

It is an astounding fact that is often overlooked when we come to Yom Kippur. The removal of evil, moral fault, occurs throughout the year during the various offerings and rituals at the Temple which serve to remove moral fault from the offerer. But as Gane highlights, these moral faults, this evil, does not disappear into the ether, but is instead left in the sanctuary, where they accumulate. To put it another way, throughout the year people come to the Temple and rid themselves of moral fault, of sin, by leaving their sin in the sanctuary, with God.

On Yom Kippur, the direction of this purgation of moral fault is reversed, and instead of sin heading towards the inner sanctum, the evil is cast out of the sanctum, and from the midst of Israel, for ever. This results in the overall moral cleansing of Israel. Gane explains this process this way, “Whereas the Lord uniquely and paradoxically frees human beings from impurities and sins by allowing these evils to penetrate his holy domain through purification offerings, he then turns the evils around by the “purification offering of purgation”, sends them away, and gets rid of them forever”.

This process is made visible when one examines the direction the Priests move when undertaking the yearly offerings. During the yearly offerings, the High Priest and the community begin the process from the outer sanctum and move inwards, during Yom Kippur, this is reversed, the High Priest moves from the Inner Sanctum to the Outer Sanctum to the Outer Altar, performing his duties as he moves away from the Inner Sanctum.

This process raises an important question – why does forgiven sin defile the Lord’s sanctuary? And why does the removal of sin from Israel require such a process?

In basic terms, this process arises because of the need to balance justice and mercy, a need that is extremely difficult to balance. In this context, and one could apply this to any judicial and legal system, showing a guilty party mercy does not negate the cost of one’s guilt, that is, an act of mercy does not negate the need for justice. Mercy without justice leads to moral chaos, while justice without mercy leads to tyranny, and in the context of God’s covenant with us, death.

Therefore, God addresses this issue by taking on the cost of our guilt – as shown in the yearly rituals where the offerings move towards the sanctum - that is, he takes on the judicial cost of His mercy. David and the Teokite women in Samuel explore this theme of justice and mercy. The woman goes before David and explains that she is a widower, but one of her sons has killed her other son. The clan wants justice, i.e., to kill the murderer, but to do so means she would now have no son, so she wants mercy – but to give him mercy means not punishing him for his sin, which would threaten the social fabric of David’s kingdom. Eventually the woman says, “The culpability is on me, my lord the king, and on my father’s house, but the king and his throne are clean,” the woman offers to take on the cost of mercy and David grants her request as a result.

Yom Kippur then is not about forgiveness of sin, but about the purification of the inner sanctum from the sin accumulated throughout the year, and in the context of Jesus, it is about His death making available the way to eternity with God.

1 John 1:9 puts it this way, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” – note, forgiveness and then purification – Jesus takes on the sin, but the guilt of that sin remains and still requires a purification process.


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