The Nature of God and the Day of Atonement

Theology/Religious Studies – Biblical studies

In each and every society, religion is an integral part of the complex whole, and it helps to explain what human beings cannot explain as well as enforcing social order in the society. Religion is made up of belief systems that can be described as interrelated values which are mutually independent and are held to be true in society, and they are passed on from one generation to the next. Belief systems determine how a society communicates with the supernatural being. A community may belief in the existence of one super natural being e.g. the Jews while others may belief in existence of may gods and deities. This is the case for the Babylonians and the Sumerians. All these societies are found in the same region and although they ascribe to different religious systems they have a lot of similarity which will be explored in this essay. Differences also occur and will also be highlighted when necessary. The similarities are brought by the various rituals that are held in order to maintain the well being of the society.

The famous Christian Day of Atonement originated from the Jews holiday known as the Yom Kippur which represents the 10th and the final day of repentance. The Jews commemorates this day by fasting for twenty five hours and no meal is taken during this day. In addition the Jews spent most of the time during this day in the synagogues praying and during this period it is a prime time for an individual to repent his/ her sins and get reunited with his/ her God. Apart from food avoidance there are other prohibitions which are related to this day and they include: prohibition on sexual activities, putting on leather shoes, taking a shower or general washing and no perfumes or colognes are used the whole day. This is according to Leviticus 23:27. (NKJV).

Among the Christians the Day of Atonement is a little bit different from the Jews Yom Kippur. Jews commemorate this day for a period of twenty five hours non stop while Christians commemorate it for only twenty four hours i.e. a single day only. The origin of this practice among the Christians is evidence in the bible in the following books; Leviticus chapters16:9-10, and chapter 23:27-32, Numbers 29:6-12, and in Exodus chapter 30:10 and 11. This year this day was celebrated on 9th October all over the world by all Christians. In the bible this day is important because it involves a sacrifice of two goats which serves different purposes. The first goat is killed for the sins of Israel and today it represents the sins of Christians at large and the second goat is killed in order to afflict the soul. In this respect Leviticus 16:9-10 states ‘and Aaron shall bring the goat on which the lord lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the lord, to make atonement upon it, and let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.(NKJV) Note that the goat here although is brought for ritual purposes it is not killed and it will not be killed at all.

Sacrificing the first goat for the sin of Israel is directed by instructions contained in Leviticus 16:15-16. ‘then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the holly place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.’ (NKJV).This sacrifice therefore serves the purpose of reconciliation between god and the Israelites and was important because it was a source of life for the Israelites. The second goat which is killed as a way of afflicting soul on the day of atonement is stipulated in Leviticus 16:29 whish states ‘this shall be a statute forever for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do not work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you.’ (NKJV).This means that we accept Gods teaching and part with Satan way and all her evils. From this scripture we also get the reasons which made this day to be commemorated on the tenth day.

Akitu festival

Van der Toorn (1990) points out that ‘Akitu which refers to Babylonians New Year festival was celebrated to honor the supreme god Marduk, Nabu and other gods.’ This day was celebrated on the first day of the New Year which starts in March/ April according to the Babylonian calendar. In addition the festivals were held in two different places; in the house of the supreme god and in the house temple of the New Year. This festival lasted for around eight days and it begun on 4th Nissanu when the highest priest opened the new festival saying the new year has begun and ended on 11th Nissanu when the gods returned to the house of new year using ships. On the 4th Nissanu when the festival begun the king visits the Nabu and he is given the royal scepter. He then traveled to Borsippa and he spent the night there. At the same time the highest priest recited the creation epic of the people in the house of new festival.

On 5th Nissanu he returns to Babylon and carries a long the statue of Nabu, he leaves it at Uras gate and proceeds to the house of new year festive to great Marduk and he kneels down before the high priest. As the king talks to the priest while kneeling down the priest continues to hit the king on the face and tears flows from the kings’ eyes which is an indication of kings’ humility. Later in the day the two performs a ritual using a white bull. On 6th Nissanu the statue of Nabu visits the temple of Ninurta and then proceeds to the new year house where it meets with all other gods that are present among the Babylonians. On the 7th Nissanu all statues are cleaned and new dresses are used to cover them. On 8th Nissanu all the statues are taken out for the crowd to see them. Marduk is honored bay all the other gods and the parliament takes this opportunity to announce its plans for the one year. The crowd also sung all kind of songs to praise their deities. Later on the gods tour the city through the river first and later on they return to the house of new year in ships.

No one knows what happened between the 9-10th Nissanu because no records are available for this analysis but on the 11th the festival ends by the gods returning to the new year house repeat their parliament whereby they determine the destiny of the society and then bid Nabu farewell and later on the go back to where they came from i.e. their real places of residence. This festival enables us to realize the challenges that both Nabu and the king faced. These challenges are supposed to make Nabu and the king prove the importance of their position to the society. Arguing a long the same line Bidmead (2004) notes that ‘Nabu by symbolically slaying the two rivals deities portrays his power over the other deities represented by the smaller statues while the king shows that he can lead his society even through tough times since he has passed the test of humiliation.’ Remember that the king was slapped by the priest during his visit on 5th Nissanu.

Nanshe New Year celebration

Sumerians like any other society that lived in Mesopotamia had a very strong religious background. They believed in existence of a supreme being as well as in the existence of other deities who were part ands parcel of their religious life. Among the very many deities we have Nanshe who was a daughter of Enki and she played various roles as a goddess. She acted as goddesses of social justice and prophecy and while serving in this capacity she ensured that the wicked especially the poor people in the society were given equal opportunities like the others members. She was well known among the Sumers because she provided for the poor and windowed and raised orphans on her own.

New Year celebrations among the Sumerians took place in her temple which was known as the Sirara temple. During this festival people came from different part of the region to see her and get wisdom from her because she was believed to be one of the wise people in the region. Other people also came for various reasons such as searching justice from her because she conducted court proceeding in a very upright manner. She was neither corrupt nor biased and that is why even the poorest people could go to her for help. It is worth to note that all the visitors had to be cleansed in the river of ordeal before they could see her and this ritual was very important in this festival since it had far reaching religious implication that will be highlighted later on. From time to time Nanshe also served as the goddess of prophecy and she could even predict the future of the society through dream analysis.

During the New Year celebrations judgment of humane fate takes place. This is on of the duty performed by the Nanshe goddess. In this capacity Nanshe Looks at the performance of an individual through the whole year and especially his/her services to the wholly shrine. If she is satisfied the person is blessed and ushered in into the New Year. If Nanshe Is not satisfied with ones work he/she is punished. According to Gane (2005) ‘the festival enacts renewal of relationship between deities and their human subjects.’ This gives the New Year celebrations meaning because once accountability to the deity is evaluated and the judgment given is solely based on adherence to the divine rules that are clearly spell by the society. In addition this explains why strong loyalty towards their deities’s existed among the ancient Sumerians. Thus divine benefits were enjoyed only by those who kept the cultic and ethical standards of the deity during the past one year. Those who failed to keep the cultic and ethical standards were punished and the society looked down upon them because they could easily cause problems in the society.

Hittite Purgation Ritual

Purgation rituals were traditionally used by the Hittite people for cleansing purposes and thus they were observed by the people because this was the only way people could purify themselves from ritual impurities before they could talk to their deities. Walton et al (2000) point out that ‘animals are used in this ritual because they are believed to carry the impurity back to its source. In addition, the Hittite purgation ritual is similar to the scapegoat ritual and is discussed in Leviticus (16: 16-26) and two goats are involved in this ritual. On this atonement day two goats are selected and they are taken to Aaron who used to cast lots on them in accordance with the peoples tradition.

One goat represents an Israelite deity and the other one represents Azzel. The highest priest then proceeded with the ritual by laying his hand on the goat that represented Azzel and recited all the sins of Israelites and after the procedures are fulfilled then he sent the goat to the wilderness. This goat is escorted to the wilderness by a person who is selected by the priest. Olupa (2004).Leviticus (16: 26) further points out that ‘the person who sent the goat away to the wilderness was seen as unclean and could not return to the camp until he had ritually bathed. This means that the contact with the ritual goat was contagious and it invited impurity which could then be transferred to the other people. The sole purpose of the whole ritual was to remove impurity, diseases or evil by taking them out from the people, and placing them on an animal which is sent off to a supernatural being that lives in the wilderness.

It is vital to note that a clear contrast emerges when we compare this ritual with the biblical atonement day. The difference here arises from the fact that the Hittite ritual according to Olupa (2004) involves two things ‘transfer or disposal of the evil and appeasement of the deity, while the biblical scapegoat ritual is only a rite of disposal.’ In addition it is clear from the scriptures that the biblical scapegoat was not decorated at all.Among the Israelites decorations during rituals represented appeasement and once decorations are not used it means that appeasement did not take place.

There are a lot of similarities that are exhibited by these festivals as indicated earlier on. For example, similarities exist between the Nanshe New Year celebrations and Israelite Day of Atonement. During Nanshe new year deities do judge the capability of men continuing to enjoy their and keep in touch with other cults in their religion. In this respect Gane (2005) reports that temple servants who performs their work properly have their yearly contract renewed but unfaithful workers are terminated.’ his scenario also applies to the most hard working poor and orphan who are rewarded by the goddess for their positive contribution throughout the year. People also used to be cleaned, restored to very good standings during this festival especially during the ordeal river ceremony. The similarity here occurs because during this festival the past one year behaviors is considered and this also applies to the Atonement day where an account of a whole year’s behavior is evaluated.

Another similarity originates from the purification rituals that take place during the festival. The Nanshe house was purified using g water that was sprinkled on the floor and on the walls and this was symbolic in a way because it purpose was to remove ordinary dirt which was though to bring ritual impurity. This is because the sprinkling of water could not be equated with the purgation that took place in the Yahweh place of residence. A similarity between Babylonian ceremonies of Akitu especially Nissanu 5 and the Israelite atonement day occurs. Gone (2005) notes that “This ceremony involves cleansing of the temple precincts and divine judgment at an early time of renewal where the religious and social order is re affirmed. Three rites are performed in both ceremony and they are; regular, festive and special.

To begin with they are regular because in both rituals or during the ceremony the high priests are known to purify themselves using water. This occurs every time they want to say or lead a prayer session, both in the morning and the afternoon session. Festival offering were very explicit during this festivals.For instance, although Nabu could visit Babylon and be fed on this festive he was to be fed only during the afternoon hours upon his arrival. He took the festive mean only on the 5th day of Nissanu. Various rituals also accompanied this festival. They include the purification of the temple which I have already talked about a burnt offering was also involved and it was offered by the highest priest and the king on behalf of the people. The offering included things such as honey and ghee which was placed in a pit and the white bull I had discussed earlier on was also placed on the side of the pit.


In conclusion all this societies religious beliefs revolves around beliefs in a supreme being who is assisted by other gods. Thus it is correct to call these societies polytheistic. They believed that the gods could punish people if they failed to keep their teaching especially observing the rituals s 9of the atonement day and the New Year celebrations. At the same time these deities lived in holy places which needed to visited at specific time of the year and stringent rule had to be followed while one was visiting this places. These gods could also purify people, save them from their sins and ensure their survival for the next one year until the celebrations and ceremonies are held again. Majority of these rituals are also anchored on the premise of scapegoat ceremony although goats are not physically killed in some of the rituals.


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