The Holy of Holies was the innermost and most sacred area of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and was separated from the rest of the temple by a thick curtain. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. This was to make atonement for the sins of the people of Israel. The High Priest’s entrance into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement was a solemn and risky occasion, as God’s presence resided there.
There is no biblical evidence that the High Priest had a rope tied to him when he entered the Holy of Holies. The main biblical passages describing the Day of Atonement rituals do not mention anything about a rope (Leviticus 16, Hebrews 9:7). However, there is a tradition that the High Priest did have a rope tied around his ankle or waist when he entered the Holy of Holies. Where does this tradition come from and is it accurate?
The tradition about the rope is not found in the Bible but rather in extra-biblical Jewish traditional literature. The earliest reference comes from the Mishnah, which was written around 200 AD but records earlier oral traditions. It states that “He tied a rope to his foot and went in” (Mishnah Yoma 3:1). A similar reference to the High Priest’s rope is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 53b).
According to these Jewish traditions, the rope was tied to the High Priest so that if he died or was incapacitated in the Holy of Holies, he could be dragged out without anyone else having to enter the sacred space. This reflects the extreme sanctity and danger ascribed to entering the Holy of Holies. The High Priest had to perform intricate rituals perfectly to avoid being struck dead in God’s presence.
However, it is unclear how ancient this tradition about the rope really is. The biblical accounts do not mention it. Scholars debate whether the tradition could date back as far as the Second Temple period (516 BC to 70 AD) when the Day of Atonement ritual was still practiced. Or it may have developed later after 70 AD when the temple was destroyed.
Those who argue against the antiquity of the rope tradition point out:
- The Bible does not mention a rope, even though it goes into much detail about the Day of Atonement rituals.
- No ropes have been found in archaeological excavations of the temple.
- A rope would get in the way of the rituals the High Priest had to perform.
- The Holy of Holies was not very large, so it would have been difficult to maneuver with a rope.
- The High Priest wore bells and pomegranates on his ephod so others outside could hear him moving and know he was alive (Exodus 28:33-35).
On the other hand, supporters of the antiquity of the rope tradition argue:
- The oral law and Jewish traditions contain accurate historical memories alongside later interpretations and embellishments.
- A rope may have been useful to carefully guide the High Priest as he moved in complete darkness.
- The rope gave reassurance that the High Priest could be retrieved if necessary.
- The bells on the ephod could have simply gotten caught on something, so the rope provided an additional fail safe.
Overall, while intriguing, the tradition about a rope tied to the High Priest remains questionable from a biblical standpoint. The Bible gives no indication of any rope being used on the Day of Atonement. Archaeological evidence is also lacking. The tradition first appears in sources written long after the temple was destroyed. Nevertheless, the rationale behind the tradition does fit with the sacredness and peril ascribed to entering the Holy of Holies in ancient Judaism. The High Priest needed to be purified and follow the rituals perfectly to be safe in God’s presence. So a rope may have provided reassurance, though the Bible neither confirms nor denies this tradition. The ropes’ historical status remains speculative based on current evidence.
The Significance of the Holy of Holies
To further understand the traditions about ropes and the High Priest, it is helpful to explore what the Bible does say about the sacredness of the Holy of Holies. Exodus 26:31-35 describes the veil or curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the tabernacle. The Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant, which represented God’s presence. The area was seen as Yahweh’s dwelling place on earth. The curtain kept unauthorized people from accessing the divine presence and being struck dead (Numbers 18:7).
Leviticus 16 outlines the rituals for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. This was the one day a year when the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people’s sins. Hebrews 9:7 notes he went in “once a year, not without taking blood.” The blood was sprinkled on the atonement cover of the Ark according to Leviticus 16:14. The Hebrews writer explains this symbolized atonement for sin bringing impurity into God’s presence (Hebrews 9:21-22).
Entering the Holy of Holies improperly brought severe consequences. Leviticus 10:1-7 describes how Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire from the Lord’s presence for improperly offering “unauthorized fire.” Nadab and Abihu may have been drunk when they thoughtlessly burst into the Holy of Holies.
Overall, the biblical texts emphasize the extreme sanctity of the inner sanctum that housed God’s presence. Contact with the divine without proper consecration, purification and atonement was perilous. So the High Priest needed thorough preparations and clearly defined rituals to enter safely on the Day of Atonement. This extreme sacredness and danger likely motivated the extrabiblical tradition about using a rope to retrieve the High Priest if necessary.
The Day of Atonement Rituals in Leviticus 16
Leviticus 16 gives the most detail about the rituals performed by the High Priest when entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Understanding these intricate rituals provides insight into the solemnity and fear associated with approaching God’s presence.
Washing and dressing ritual: The High Priest had to wash himself thoroughly and put on special garments of linen just for this day (Leviticus 16:4). He wore simple linen rather than his usual ornate robes and golden vestments, probably to avoid anything glittering detracting from the solemnity.
Bull and goat for sin offerings: The High Priest sacrificed a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household (Leviticus 16:6, 11). Shedding its blood purified him so he could approach the Holy of Holies. He also had two goats; one was sacrificed as a sin offering and the other released as the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:7-10, 15-22).
Incense cloud: The High Priest filled a censor with hot coals from the altar and two handfuls of incense to create a cloud of smoke that concealed the atonement cover of the Ark so he would not die (Leviticus 16:12-13).
Sprinkling blood: The High Priest took the bull’s blood and sprinkled it on the front of the atonement cover, as well as his own blood and the goat’s blood (Leviticus 16:14-15). This made atonement for his own sins and the people’s sins.
After finishing these intricate rituals and exiting alive, the High Priest removed his linen garments, bathed, and put on his regular priestly attire (Leviticus 16:23-24). The whole process vividly impressed on the Israelites both the reality of sin and its seriousness in God’s eyes, while also the gracious provision of atonement.
This detailed biblical account highlights why traditions developed about additional precautions like a rope. The Day of Atonement rituals left no room for error by the High Priest. They ingrained an acute awareness of human sinfulness and divine holiness. Approaching God without proper atonement meant certain death. A rope may have provided some added assurance, even if the Bible does neither confirms nor denies this particular tradition.
New Testament Perspective on the Holy of Holies
For Christians today, the death and resurrection of Jesus provides access to God’s presence through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus serves as High Priest and perfect sacrifice for the new covenant (Hebrews 9:11-14). The torn curtain in the temple at Jesus’ death signified access to God’s presence through Christ’s atonement, not just for the High Priest but also all people who believe (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 10:19-22).
So the intense restrictions around the physical Holy of Holies find fulfillment in Christ. The New Testament book of Hebrews expounds this theology of access to God’s presence bought by Christ’s blood. However, as Hebrews 4:16 notes, Christians can still approach God’s throne “with confidence” yet not flippancy. There remains a reverence and godly fear even with sins forgiven and fellowship restored.
In this sense, the High Priest’s precautions resonate for believers today. Through Christ, sin no longer cuts people off from entering God’s presence. The physical Holy of Holies foreshadowed access opened up by Jesus’ atonement. Yet entering God’s presence, whether communally during worship or individually in prayer and meditation, still requires solemnity and awe. The intimacy of approaching the Holy One comes with responsibility to draw near with sincerity, humility, thankfulness, and moral seriousness.
For Christians, the heavy curtain separating the Holy of Holies has been opened through the grace of Christ (Hebrews 10:20). But the pathway remains one of reverent worship, not careless familiarity. In this sense, the High Priest’s rituals and traditions about ropes and peril, though fulfilled in Christ, still convey something of the awesomeness of encountering a holy God.
In summary, the biblical texts contain no clear evidence about the High Priest having a rope tied to him when entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. This tradition first appears in Jewish literature centuries after the temple’s destruction in 70 AD. The rationale behind the tradition does fit with the sacredness and potential danger ascribed to improperly approaching the divine presence. A rope may have provided assurance that the High Priest could be retrieved. However, the biblical accounts do not confirm this. They focus instead on the atonement rituals for purification.
While intriguing, the historical validity of the rope tradition remains speculative. The Bible’s silence combined with the lateness of written references, plus the lack of archaeological evidence, suggest the tradition may not extend back to actual temple practices. However, ropes do resonate symbolically with the precautions necessary for sinful humans to draw near the holy God. For Christians today, Christ’s atonement grants access to God’s presence with reverent humility rather than flippant casualness. So ropes for retrieval may not be needed, but an attitude of awe before the Holy One remains essential.