The Day of Atonement
If you look at the structure of the Pentateuch, we’ve got five books. Right in the middle, we’ve got Leviticus. So that suggests maybe Leviticus is central, at least structurally. We could also observe that, if we break it up a little bit differently, we’ve got five books; but also, in the flow of the Pentateuch we have this theme of Sinai.
And so in Exodus 19:1, Israel arrives at Sinai where they receive the instruction from Yahweh. And it isn’t until Numbers 10:12 that they set out from Sinai. And so we could say everything before Exodus 19:1 is before Sinai. Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:12—which encompasses all of Leviticus as well—is at Sinai, receiving instruction from Yahweh. And Numbers 10:12 to the end of Deuteronomy is after Sinai. And all three chunks are a similar length.
We remember that the Pentateuch is five books, but it’s also the book of Moses. We could also divide it as before Sinai, at Sinai, and after Sinai. Right in the middle is Leviticus. But also right in the middle of Sinai is the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16.
And you see in the beginning of Leviticus that you’ve got this building up of sacrifices and offerings all the way to the Day of Atonement, where blood atonement is made once a year for the sin of the people. And I would suggest that—along with others; Michael Morales draws this out really well—that, really, Leviticus 16 is the center of the center of the Pentateuch.
I’d also suggest this is beautiful because it highlights grace. A lot of us, when we approach the Old Testament—especially the Pentateuch, and especially the latter half of Exodus and the book of Leviticus—we think works. We think Here’s what you need to do.
But as we get looking at the material, the opposite is the case. Grace is everywhere. In fact, the ten words—the ten commandments—begin with I am Yahweh (or God) who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Here is a gracious provision from your awesome, loving, covenant God for how to continue on as his people.
So what the text is basically saying is Before I tell you how to live, I want to remind you that you are already my people. What I’m about to say is not how to become my people. You are my people. Now, this is how to live.
In a similar way with Leviticus 16 as the center of the center of the Pentateuch, it’s basically highlighting grace: Here is a gracious provision from your awesome, loving, covenant God for how to continue on as his people.
You need the provision of the Day of Atonement, so it’s highlighted at the very center of the center of the Pentateuch.
Ian J. Vaillancourt is the author of The Dawning of Redemption: The Story of the Pentateuch and the Hope of the Gospel.
Just like missing the first fifteen minutes of a movie will spoil our ability to fully enjoy its plot line, a lack of familiarity with the Pentateuch will compromise our ability to fully appreciate the Bible’s overarching story.
What does the Bible say about Christ's death and atoning sacrifice for sinners? Learn more from this look into the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible.
In our sin, we—who were created to know, love, and obey the God of all glory—stand guilty and condemned before him; we cannot save ourselves.
If we are Christians who want to understand the gospel better, the Pentateuch is a great place to start.