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.


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

Making Sense of Leviticus

Leviticus 1

3“If your sacrifice for a whole burnt offering is from the herd, bring a bull with no physical defects to the entrance of the Tabernacle so it will be accepted by the LORD. 4Lay your hand on its head so the LORD will accept it as your substitute, thus making atonement for you. 5Then slaughter the animal in the LORD’s presence, and Aaron’s sons, the priests, will present the blood by sprinkling it against the sides of the altar that stands in front of the Tabernacle.

10“If your sacrifice for a whole burnt offering is from the flock, bring a male sheep or goat with no physical defects.

14“If you bring a bird as a burnt offering to the LORD, choose either a turtledove or a young pigeon.
(Leviticus 1:3-5, 10, 14, NLT)

Leviticus 2

4“When you present some kind of baked bread as a grain offering, it must be made of choice flour mixed with olive oil but without any yeast. It may be presented in the form of cakes mixed with olive oil or wafers spread with olive oil. 5If your grain offering is cooked on a griddle, it must be made of choice flour and olive oil, and it must contain no yeast. 6Break it into pieces and pour oil on it; it is a kind of grain offering. 7If your offering is prepared in a pan, it also must be made of choice flour and olive oil.

8“No matter how a grain offering has been prepared before being offered to the LORD, bring it to the priests who will present it at the altar. 9The priests will take a token portion of the grain offering and burn it on the altar as an offering made by fire, and it will be very pleasing to the LORD. 10The rest of the grain offering will be given to Aaron and his sons as their food. It will be considered a most holy part of the offerings given to the LORD by fire.
(Leviticus 2:4-10, NLT)

Leviticus 3

1“If you want to present a peace offering from the herd, use either a bull or a cow. The animal you offer to the LORD must have no physical defects.

6“If you present a peace offering to the LORD from the flock, you may bring either a goat or a sheep. It may be either male or female, and it must have no physical defects.
(Leviticus 3:1, 6, NLT)

Leviticus 4

1Then the LORD said to Moses, 2“Give the Israelites the following instructions for dealing with those who sin unintentionally by doing anything forbidden by the LORD’s commands.

3“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must bring to the LORD a young bull with no physical defects. 4He must present the bull to the LORD at the entrance of the Tabernacle, lay his hand on the bull’s head, and slaughter it there in the LORD’s presence.
(Leviticus 4:1-4, NLT)

The Daily DAVEotional

When I started going to Sunday School as a kid, I remember being told that it was good for Christians to read their Bible. EVERY DAY! The really serious followers would read through the entire Bible in a year. I was advised that I could accomplish this feat if I would read about 3 chapters every day.

I remember multiple times I made New Year’s resolutions that I was going to read my Bible more consistently and, on multiple occasions, I embarked on a daily “read through the Bible in a year” program. I never made it very far, partly because I was always easily distracted whenever I would read and also because I could never make it through the book of Leviticus.

Genesis was pretty interesting and though Exodus had it’s lengthy sections regarding the construction details for the tabernacle, there were also interesting narratives to keep my attention.

But whenever I would get to Leviticus, it was like slogging through a phone book. It all seemed the same, with endless instructions on the precise details and particulars for sacrifices and offerings which had no apparent connection to me. In short, it was boring and I usually gave up on the daily reading somewhere in this book.

The truth is, the book of Leviticus is more manageable and even interesting if you know what it’s about. The book is a set of instructions detailing for the Israelites how they could continue to live in a right relationship with God. The primary means of doing this was through sacrifices and offerings.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to think of the Old Testament sacrificial system as being primarily about atonement. But Leviticus outlines a number of offerings, not all of which are atoning in nature.

Leviticus 1 details the Burnt Offering, which was an offering of an animal from the herd, flock or in the case of the poor, a bird, made by a person as a primary means of making atonement for sin.

Leviticus 2 details the Grain Offering, which was a non-atoning offering of a baked good that was made for the purpose of expressing thanks to God for His provision. It was meant as a reminder that God provides all of our needs including our basic sustenance.

Leviticus 3 details the Peace Offering, which was an offering of an animal from the herd or flock that was made to show gratitude to God for fellowship with Him (hence, also referred to as “Fellowship Offering”).

Leviticus 4 outlines the details of the Sin Offering, which was a sacrifice of a bull that was made to atone for unintentional sins.

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “Why do I need to worry myself about any of this? After all, Jesus died as a once for all sacrifice to pay for sin so there is no longer any sacrifice needed to pay for sin.”

This assessment is true, but as has been pointed out already, not all of the sacrifices and offerings were for the purpose of atonement. The grain offering was typically an offering from the first fruits of the harvest that was given as a means of demonstrating thankfulness to God. It was seen as an act of worship toward God that also had the added benefit of providing bread to the Levites, who had no land of their own to grow and harvest crops. In this way, the Levites were dependent on the Israelites for their own sustenance, via the Grain offering.

The Peace Offering, also known as the Fellowship offering, was the only sacrifice where the animal was eaten by the one making the offering, thus demonstrating fellowship with God (see Leviticus 7:15).

What does this have to do with us today?

It’s true that Jesus has made a once for all sacrifice of atonement on our behalf, so we’re no longer required to make sacrifices for the purpose of atonement. But what about the Grain offering and Peace offering? Those offerings were made out of the person’s material goods (whether crops or flock/herd) as a means of honoring God and also expressing gratitude toward Him for His material provision.

Today, we don’t offer up animals to pay for our sins. Most of us wouldn’t be able to do that even if was still required because we aren’t farmers and we likely don’t have our own sheep, goats, cows or birds.

But we do have material possessions from which we can make an offering.

Just as the Israelites gave from their material possessions to honor and/or worship God, so we too can give from our material possessions as an act of worship to demonstrate our commitment and gratitude to God.

The most common way we do that in the church is by giving our money. Giving a portion of our money to the church is a means of honoring and worshiping God by bringing the first-fruits of our labor to Him.

Interestingly, just as the Grain offering served the additional purpose of providing food for the Levites, so also, our monetary offerings provide sustenance for religious leaders and workers.

So maybe the book of Leviticus isn’t the most exciting book in the Bible as it contains a lot of details regarding the presentation of various sacrifices and offerings as opposed to the stories of Genesis and Exodus. However, we can still learn a lot from this book about God’s holiness and the means by which the Israelites maintained fellowship with God and demonstrated worship and commitment to Him.

Though we no longer need the sacrificial system as a means of atoning for sin and receiving forgiveness, we can still use the grain and peace offerings as a model for us to demonstrate gratitude to the Lord through the giving of our material possessions.


What has been your experience in reading through the Bible daily? Have you ever read through the entire Bible? If so, how were you able to do it? What kept you motivated? If not, what were some of the barriers that kept you from reading through the Bible in its entirety?

What has been your experience with offerings? How is the offerings of today the same and also different from the offerings that were made in the Old Testament?

Research and data show that many Christians to not give to their church and to the needs of Christian ministries. Why do you think Christians don’t give? What might be some of the reasons and/or barriers keeping those who follow Jesus from worshiping Him via their monetary offerings?

What steps can you take to begin to express your worship to God more consistently through your “offerings”? 


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