Even for those who do not wish to call the Day of Atonement the Day of At-one-ment as is the fashion with some, this day is particularly known for being a festival of reconciliation between mankind and God and between mankind and others. Today I would like to briefly examine that reconciliation as well as what will be required for that reconciliation to occur, as a way of pointing out that all of our longings for reconciliation require a heavy price to be paid, which make it a more poignant aspect o life as well as all the more precious and valuable. If we realized the cost of estrangement and reconciliation, we might not be so quick to divide. Of course, principled unity is not an easy course to maintain in this world, not at all, especially not in our present age.
The classic prophetic vision of the removal that brings a partial reconciliation between God and man (and between mankind and each other) is found in Revelation 20:1-3: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.”
It is striking to note that imprisonment is not the general long-term punishment of criminals according to biblical law. The only sort of crime that led to a sort of imprisonment was manslaughter, where the perpetrator had to flee to the city of refuge until the high priest was dead (discussed in detail in Numbers 35:9-34). Other people (like Sheba) were given sentences of remaining within city limits because of their treason. The sentence of Satan, known by a variety of names in this passage and throughout scripture, is more like a sentence of solitary confinement than the sentence of having to remain within the city of refuge. The sentence of solitary confinement would seem like a particularly horrific sentence to a being who thrives on the influence he has on minds and the deception that he is able to undertake. Only being in touch with his own mind would be a deeply distressing sort of matter, even for the being which most deserved it. Ordinarily, I tend to think if imprisonment with horror because of my disinclination to be trapped inside of my own mind without much interaction with others.
There is a particularly mysterious ceremony in Leviticus 16 which occurred on the Day of Atonement that pictures the relationship between isolation and reconciliation. Let us look particularly at Leviticus 16:20-22: “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.”
On this most solemn of festivals, the reconciliation of Israel and God depended, at least in ritual, depended on the exile into the lonely and isolated wilderness of a goat who was chosen by lot to bear the sins of the nation. In later times the “suitable man” would drive the azazel goat to his death off of a cliff, but that defeats the whole purpose of the symbolism, which is to lead the goat into the wilderness far beyond the habitation of man, so that the goat may dwell alone in desolate places, a symbol of the isolation that man faces when cut off from God apart from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the restoration of relationship with his Creator. When we reflect upon the reconciliation that we desire with God, to fill the longing in our hearts for His presence and His love, let us not forget that those who bear our sins or their own apart from their reconciliation are cut off from God. For some to be chosen, others must be at least temporarily rejected. Let us reflect on this fact, and not act in such a way as to treat our reconciliation as a light and casual thing to be easily taken for granted.