To atone for something is defined as: make amends for, make reparation for, make restitution for, make up for, compensate for, pay for, recompense for, expiate, redress, make good, offset; do penance for.
In the Old Testament an animal sacrifice was required to make atonement for sin. In the New Testament we learn that Christ paid the price that God’s justice demanded because of our sin against Him (1 Peter 3:18).
Leviticus 16 describes what went on inside the Tent of Meeting and around the altar where only the High Priest went and what happened outside of the Tent of Meeting as a visible expression to the people of the payment made to remove the guilt of their rebellion against God. Here we are introduced to the scapegoat.
The story is told of a prince whose father didn’t think it was appropriate for royalty to be punished for wrongdoing so he sent out his servants to find another boy who would serve as “whipping boy,” the boy who would be punished as a substitute for his son. The idea behind the scapegoat is similar.
“Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat” (Leviticus 16:6-10).
But it wasn’t simply a matter of releasing the goat into the wilderness. A little further on in the passage we read: “He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place and the man shall release it in the desert” (16:21, 22).
This is a beautiful picture of how Christ, as our “whipping boy,” our scapegoat, carried away our sins when He made atonement, restitution, for them on the cross.
At the end of the chapter the Lord makes clear that this “Day of Atonement” was to be regarded as a holy day. Like the sabbath it was to be a day of rest and reflection. No work was to be done even by those foreigners present within the camp at the time (16:29-32) “because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
The closest we would come as believers in Christ to this “Day of Atonement” is Good Friday, the day we commemorate the death of Christ. On this day we remember the price He pay to make restitution, atonement, for our sins. There are some faith traditions that take Easter Week very seriously. Unhappily evangelicals have become more and more lax about how seriously we take what is the foundation of the faith we profess—to our shame.
I suspect that the prince didn’t pay much attention to the whipping boy who took his punishment either.