Leviticus 16b – Contagious Holiness and the High Priest’s Rope

Leviticus 16b – Contagious Holiness and the High Priest’s Rope

I always feel like with communion Sundays I have more to say with less time to say it, and this week was no exception!  There were two bigger things that I had to cut from sermon due to time and focus.

Contagious Holiness

            Leviticus 16:24 says that the High Priest must change and bathe before offering the Burnt Offerings after having gone into the Holy of Holies twice (once for each of the Sin Offerings).  Now usually, an Israelite would bathe in order to purify his uncleanness.  And that’s what I think is the case here.  Before the High Priest can offer the Burnt Offerings, he must be purified.  He put his hands on the goat, and the sins of Israel passed through the High Priest onto the goat.  That means he has to wash before doing anymore sacrifices.

            But some commentators think that it’s possibly the reverse here.  It’s not his uncleanness that makes him bathe at this point, but it’s his super-holiness.  Instead of washing away the uncleanness, the High Priest is washing away the ultra-contagious holiness of God.  He’s been inside the Holy of Holies.  He’s been within reach of God glorious presence.

            Just like Moses had to wear a veil over his face after encountering God, so the High Priest had to wash just so people were not exposed to too much of the holiness of God.

            Now, I appreciate where that view comes from.  God is holy.  So holy that unholy things like people cannot stand to be in His presence and remain alive.

            But I think Leviticus consistently shows bathing as an act of removing unclean things, not the other way around.  So I lean more towards the view that Aaron must ritually wash off the uncleanness contracted from the goat.  (See verses 26 and 28 for confirmation of this too.)

The High Priest’s Rope

            You may have heard before that on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest prepared to enter the Holy of Holies, he would tie a scarlet rope to his ankle.  That way, if the bells on his robe stopped jingling because he happened to drop dead due to his sinfulness or because he did something wrong, the other priests could yank him out without having to go in there to get him.

            It illustrates the deadly business of coming before God’s holy presence.  God should be taken seriously.  Leviticus 10 reveals the deadly consequences of failing to do so.

            Unfortunately, the whole rope trick can’t be found anywhere in Scripture.

            The High Priest did have bells attached to his robe (Exodus 28:35), which were explicitly linked to keeping him from death when he went before God in the Holy of Holies.  However, there’s no mention of an ankle rope.

            You won’t find the ankle rope in the Mishna, the Talmud, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha either.  Those are all extra-biblical writings that reflect Jewish tradition and belief.  If it happened at the Tabernacle or Temple, usually you’d find it in there.                  

So at the end of the day, I’m not sure we know whether the Jews really did tie a rope to the High Priest’s ankle, and if so, where that tradition came from.  But we know it’s not in the Bible.  At the very least, it reflects a serious view of God’s holiness.


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