The Origin of the “Scapegoat”

Leviticus 16

3“When Aaron enters the sanctuary area, he must follow these instructions fully. He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a whole burnt offering. 4Then he must wash his entire body and put on his linen tunic and the undergarments worn next to his body. He must tie the linen sash around his waist and put the linen turban on his head. These are his sacred garments. 5The people of Israel must then bring him two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a whole burnt offering.

6“Aaron will present the bull as a sin offering, to make atonement for himself and his family. 7Then he must bring the two male goats and present them to the LORD at the entrance of the Tabernacle. 8He is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be sacrificed to the LORD and which one will be the scapegoat. 9The goat chosen to be sacrificed to the LORD will be presented by Aaron as a sin offering. 10The goat chosen to be the scapegoat will be presented to the LORD alive. When it is sent away into the wilderness, it will make atonement for the people.

11“Then Aaron will present the young bull as a sin offering for himself and his family. After he has slaughtered this bull for the sin offering, 12he will fill an incense burner with burning coals from the altar that stands before the LORD. Then, after filling both his hands with fragrant incense, he will carry the burner and incense behind the inner curtain. 13There in the LORD’s presence, he will put the incense on the burning coals so that a cloud of incense will rise over the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—that rests on the Ark of the Covenant. If he follows these instructions, he will not die. 14Then he must dip his finger into the blood of the bull and sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover and then seven times against the front of the Ark.

15“Then Aaron must slaughter the goat as a sin offering for the people and bring its blood behind the inner curtain. There he will sprinkle the blood on the atonement cover and against the front of the Ark, just as he did with the bull’s blood. 16In this way, he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place, and he will do the same for the entire Tabernacle, because of the defiling sin and rebellion of the Israelites. 17No one else is allowed inside the Tabernacle while Aaron goes in to make atonement for the Most Holy Place. No one may enter until he comes out again after making atonement for himself, his family, and all the Israelites.

18“Then Aaron will go out to make atonement for the altar that stands before the LORD by smearing some of the blood from the bull and the goat on each of the altar’s horns. 19Then he must dip his finger into the blood and sprinkle it seven times over the altar. In this way, he will cleanse it from Israel’s defilement and return it to its former holiness.

20“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tabernacle, and the altar, he must bring the living goat forward. 21He is to lay both of his hands on the goat’s head and confess over it all the sins and rebellion of the Israelites. In this way, he will lay the people’s sins on the head of the goat; then he will send it out into the wilderness, led by a man chosen for this task. 22After the man sets it free in the wilderness, the goat will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land. (Leviticus 16:3-22, NLT)

Psalm 103

10He has not punished us for all our sins, nor does he deal with us as we deserve.

11For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

12He has removed our rebellious acts as far away from us as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:10-12, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

A few days ago, I wrote here about the different sacrifices and offerings that are described in great detail in the early chapters of Leviticus. Knowing the purpose of these sacrifices is helpful for understanding the means by which the Israelites maintained fellowship with a holy God.

Leviticus 16 gives details on what is probably the most important day of the year for an Israelite – the day of atonement. On this day, the high priest offered up sacrifices to make atonement for the entire nation.

The details surrounding the events of this day were very precise, beginning with the high priest cleansing himself and wearing the proper attire for the sacrifice.

The first thing required of the high priest was to present two randomly selected goats to the Lord outside of the entrance to the tabernacle.

The high priest then offered a bull as a sin offering to make atonement for himself and his family. Remember that the sin offering was made to atone for any unintentional sins that one may have committed.

After making the sin offering for himself and his family, the high priest was to take fragrant incense behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies and place the incense on the burning coals in order to create a fragrant cloud of incense within the Holy of Holies. This was the only day of the year the high priest was allowed to enter this sacred part of the tabernacle and he alone was allowed to enter.

In addition to the incense, the high priest was to take some of the blood of the bull that was sacrificed and sprinkle it on the atonement cover (the Ark of the Covenant).

Next, the high priest was to take one of the goats and offer it up as a sin offering for the entire nation of Israel. He then took some of the blood from that sacrifice and just as he did with the bull’s blood, he entered into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled this goat’s blood on the Ark, making atonement for the entire nation.

After doing all of this, the high priest would then bring the living goat forward. He would place both of his hands on the living goat’s head and confess the sins and the rebellion of the nation. This is the origin of the term scapegoat, as the sins of the nation were symbolically transferred to this living goat.

This living goat was then led out into the wilderness by a person appointed for this specific task. The picture of leading the goat into the wilderness was symbolic of the sins of the nation being cast away and permanently removed from the presence of the community.

The psalmist, in Psalm 103:12, states it this way:

He has removed our rebellious acts as far away from us as the east is from the west.

So two things are at work in these events. First, the goat that was sacrificed demonstrated that the punishment for sin is death. This goat was sacrificed in the place of the community. The blood, which is symbolic of life, was shed in the place of the people.

Secondly, the scapegoat was used to “take the blame” for the community so that the people in the community could be cleansed and restored to their previous version of holiness, thereby maintaining a right standing before God.

The goat being led into the wilderness was meant to be a picture for the Israelites demonstrating what God does with our sin once it is atoned for. He removes it from our presence and He casts it into the wilderness, as far as the east is from the west.

Today, we use the term “scapegoat” as a way to blame another person or group for something they didn’t do, in order to avoid consequences or retribution for our offense. But the term originally was used to demonstrate how God takes the sins of the community that have been atoned for by an innocent surrogate animal and He removes those sins from the community and permanently casts them away.

Reflection

What is your experience with either a person or group that was labeled as a “scapegoat”? What were the circumstances? When have you been a scapegoat for others?

God has removed our sins “as far as the east is from the west”. Since east and west never meet, this means our sins are removed an “infinite” distance from us. What effect does knowing that our sins are “infinitely” removed from us have on you? How does it impact your view of God and His capacity to forgive?

The entire sacrificial system was meant to provide a word-picture for the people to see the magnitude of God’s holiness, the depth and seriousness of the people’s sin, and the means by which God would demonstrate both His justice and His mercy. In what ways do you see these word-pictures being carried out in the sacrifice Jesus made? What parallels do you see between the sacrifices made in the Old Testament and the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross?

 

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash