A Statute Forever: Reading Leviticus 16 Symbolically.

Troy TrombleySymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023


In my last article I suggested Saint Ambrose’s approach to the Old Testament as a way of deepening engagement with the Scriptures. The task that remains is to apply this style of reading to specific texts. This practice will both illustrate the richness of symbolic interpretation and demonstrate how such readings work. The primary text for this article is Leviticus 16, which explains the rites of the Day of Atonement. However, as I noted last time, symbolic interpretation is a communal effort. I will therefore develop my reading in conversation first with the New Testament and then go on to draw insights from three patristic sources: The Epistle of Barnabas, St. Justin Martyr, and Theodoret of Cyrus.

Setting the Stage: Leviticus 16

Leviticus 16 details the various rituals to be performed on the Day of Atonement. God begins his instructions by telling Moses that Aaron, as the priest, is not to enter the inner part of the Tabernacle whenever he wants (Lev. 16:2). Instead, he is to enter on the Day of Atonement which falls on “the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month” (Lev. 16:29). It’s on this day that all the rituals described in this chapter are to be performed.

There are several different stages of the rituals for the Day of Atonement. They begin with Aaron, and any subsequent priest, washing himself and donning his vestments (Lev. 16:4). Then he is commanded to give a bull and a ram as an offering for the sins of himself and his household. Two goats are afterward to be brought before the Tabernacle as well as a second ram for a burnt offering. One of the goats is selected by lot for sacrifice, and the other is chosen to be cast out into the wilderness. The blood of the bull and the first goat is to be brought into the Holy Place and sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant to purify the Tabernacle. Afterward, Aaron is commanded to pronounce the sins of the people over the second goat and have a delegated person set it free in the wilderness. He is then to bathe again before finally making a burnt offering for the people. Then the remains of the bull and goat are taken by someone outside the camp and burned entirely.

This ritual is complex and multilayered. There are several ritual washings, multiple sacrifices, cleansing with blood, and the strange requirement that the second goat be released. To modern ears all this detail seems arbitrary. A Marcionite might point to just such a text to insist that the God of the Old Testament is unjust or cruel. In contrast, the witness of the Church through the ages shows that Christ is signified in each facet of the rites.

The Epistle to the Hebrews

The most thorough use of Leviticus 16 in the New Testament is found in Hebrews 9. This passage, like much of the New Testament, reflects St. Paul’s conviction that “these things occurred as examples for us” (1 Cor. 10:6). In Hebrews 9, the Apostle reflects on Christ’s role as high priest in comparison with the old covenant. He states that as high priest Christ “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Note the similarities with the Day of Atonement. Aaron entered the Holy Place and sprinkled the blood of the goat and the bull for purification. Christ offered his own body on the cross and in the resurrection and ascension entered into the true heavenly Holy Place. Thus, Christ fulfills the roles of both priest and sacrifice.

Later, in Hebrews 13, the imagery of the Day of Atonement returns. In this instance the focus is on the last part of the ritual in which the bull and goat are taken outside the camp and burned entirely. We learn that “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Heb. 13:12-13). The destruction of the bull and the goat prefigures the Lord’s crucifixion, which explains why this form of sacrifice was instituted to cleanse the Israelites. Nothing about the rituals is arbitrary. Instead, the various details communicate Christ Himself. These sacrifices pointed to, and mystically participated in, Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice.

Hebrews exhibits all three senses of symbolic interpretation. It begins with the historical sense. God commanded the Israelites to fast and perform these sacrifices yearly as “a statute forever” (Lev. 16:31). A Marcionite would stop at this point and argue that Christians have abolished this statute and thus do not follow the God of the Old Testament, but the spiritual sense of the text corrects such an error. These sacrifices were not ends in themselves but anticipated and were fulfilled in Christ. Hebrews also points to the moral sense of the text by exhorting us to follow Christ’s example and embrace rejection and suffering to join ourselves to Him. Here we see that all three aspects of symbolic interpretation, though they were beautifully expressed by Saint Ambrose, originate in Scripture.

The Epistle of Barnabas

Outside the New Testament, the Epistle of Barnabas might be the earliest Christian writing that interprets Leviticus 16. The Epistle of Barnabas is an early Christian text, dating from somewhere between AD 70 and AD 135.1 The epistle contains symbolic readings of several Old Testament texts, including Leviticus 16. The author sees the second goat, in particular, as a “type of Jesus, who was destined to suffer.”2 As the goat was cursed and cast out of the camp, so was Christ cursed and sent out of Jerusalem to be crucified. One already observes similarities with Hebrews which identified the sacrificed goat and bull as a type of Christ’s rejection.

Barnabas also refers to traditions that are not explicitly recorded in Leviticus 16. He states that the goat was mocked, prodded, and crowned by the people with scarlet hyssop.3 Here the author sees an anticipation of Christ’s mock-crowning by the Roman soldiers. Finally, Barnabas identifies the second goat with the Church. Similar to what we saw in Hebrews, he exhorts his readers “those who desire to see me [Jesus] and to gain my kingdom must receive me through affliction and suffering.”4 Here again the author reads the text with all three senses in mind. Moreover, we can observe different layers of symbolism emerging. Hebrews focuses on Christ as both priest and sacrifice, while Barnabas hones in on Christ’s rejection and suffering. Both deal primarily with the first coming of Christ. In the mid-second century St. Justin Martyr would provide an eschatologically focused reading.

St. Justin Martyr

St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, is a well-known source for early Christian doctrine and practice. His work Dialogue with Trypho (AD 155–160) contains his most extensive engagement with the Old Testament. The text takes the form of a dialogue between Justin and a Jewish refugee named Trypho. Throughout, Justin argues from the Old Testament that Jesus is the Messiah and responds to objections put forth by Trypho. In chapter 40 of the Dialogue, Justin provides a symbolic reading of Leviticus 16. He argues that the two goats “were an announcement of the two advents of Christ.”5 That is, the first goat represents Christ coming as a sacrifice and the second denotes his second coming in glory.

At first sight, Justin’s reading is strange. He describes the first advent as that in which Christ was both cast out and sacrificed6. This would appear to cover the meaning of both goats. How then is the second coming prefigured here? Justin says that it is “because in that same place of Jerusalem you shall recognize Him whom you had subjected to shame,”6 suggesting that the expelled goat will return and be recognized as the same as the one which was sacrificed. In short, at the second coming everyone will see the Lord for who he is (cf. Lk. 21:27). Barnabas makes a similar interpretive move. He states that the two goats are identical so that “when they see him coming then, they may be amazed at the similarity of the goat.”7 When Christ returns all people will recognize that He who was crucified is the Son of God. Therefore, according to these early witnesses, Leviticus 16 foretells the priesthood, sacrifice, and second coming of Christ.

Theodoret of Cyrus

Theodoret of Cyrus was bishop of Cyrus (a Syrian city) from AD 423 to around AD 460.8 He was originally opposed to Saint Cyril of Alexandria in the Nestorian controversy and was deposed from his office at the Robber Council of Ephesus (AD 449). The Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (AD 451) reinstated him to the episcopacy. It was after this time that he wrote his Questions on the Octateuch, which is a commentary on the first eight books of the Bible (Genesis–Ruth). Questions are a genre of commentary in which the author focuses on specific parts of the text rather than simply going line by line.

In his questions on Leviticus, Theodoret has four sections dealing with chapter 16. Like Barnabas and Justin, he focuses on the symbolism of the two goats. However, his reading is slightly different. He views the two goats as signifying the two natures of Christ. Theodoret explains that God used both goats so that “the one sacrificed would prefigure the passibility of the flesh, and the one set free would manifest the impassibility of the divinity.”9 In short, Christ’s human nature enabled him to die so that, being God, he might destroy death. The goats not only symbolize the two comings of Christ and his role as sacrifice, but also the fullness of His Person as both God and man.

One last layer of meaning that Theodoret points to is the yearly occurrence of the Day of Atonement. He regards this too as anticipating Christ’s work. Just as the high priest made atonement for Israel once a year, “so Christ the Lord endured the saving passion and ascended to heaven once.”10 This insight gestures back to Hebrews, which calls attention to the same priestly work of Christ. Through these various patristic writers, we see how Christ is revealed so abundantly in one passage of Scripture.


The above writers exemplify Christ’s declaration that he “came not to destroy but to fulfill” the Law (Mt. 5:18). Their interpretations of Leviticus 16 show a common conviction that Christ is truly revealed in the Old Testament. Saint Cyril of Alexandria put it succinctly in his own explanation of the two goats. According to Cyril, the mystery of the text is that Christ “in both was one, both in suffering and beyond suffering, and in death and over death.”11 Though he is symbolized by the goats, the high priest, and the other sacrifices, Christ is one. This is the mystery which the great cloud of witnesses we have surveyed reveals to us.

Our exploration of this passage also shows why God commanded the sacrifices He did. Hebrews clearly states that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). The rites of the Day of Atonement, then, had no efficacy in themselves. They were effective signs of Christ’s work. The Lord did not simply overturn or cast off these rituals. He is rather their authentic fulfillment, and every aspect of the Day of Atonement can be understood in this lens.

Just as Christ is one yet is revealed through the many different layers of symbolism, so too do these layers harmonize with and enrich each other. One is not left with a dichotomy between the goats representing Christ’s two comings or his two natures. Christ could not come again if he was not God, nor could he be both priest and sacrifice if he was not truly human. Similarly, Christ’s flesh and blood purify His people because they are divine. Like the Israelites of that time the Church lives in this world as sojourners in the wilderness waiting for “the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). All these strokes of meaning form a beautiful picture of Christ which calls the Church to respond by faithfully joining Him “outside the camp” so that we might receive Him.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

Linked Premium Articles & Posts

No items found.
  1. Michael Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers, at 373. Baker Academic, 2007.
  2. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers, at 403.
  3. Ibid
  4. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers, at 404
  5. St. Justin Martyr. The Writings of Justin Martyr, at 209. Catholic University of America Press, 1948.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers, at 403. Holmes’ translation says the goats are “almost identical”, but the Greek word ἴσους can mean something more truly identical, as in John 5:18.
  8. See Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch, at xix. Catholic University of America Press, 2007.
  9. Theodoret. Questions on the Octateuch, at 53.
  10. Theodoret. Questions on the Octateuch, at 57.
  11. St. Cyril of Alexandria. Letters 1-50, at 181. Catholic University of America Press, 1987.
Please log in or register to view the comment section for this post and to add your own.
Please click here to create your community profile to view comments, add your own, and participate in discussions!
Follow us on social media: