Nov 9, 2010 David Lang

Why Doesn't the Scapegoat Get to 'Scape?

We all know what a "scapegoat" is: it's someone who takes the blame—willingly or not—for someone else's wrongdoing. Yet few people realize that the term "scapegoat" comes from the Bible. Search the King James Bible for scapegoat and you'll find the following practice described in Leviticus 16:

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. —Lev 16:8–10, KJV

What's going on here? What exactly is the role of this goat sent out to the wilderness? It sounds a little like the "scapegoat" was the more fortunate of the two goats, since it merely got released into the wild while its counterpart got sacrificed.

The situation becomes even more intriguing when you see that many newer translations no longer use the term "scapegoat." Instead, they speak of this goat as being "for Azazel." And here I thought newer translations were supposed to be easier to understand!

Background resources like the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament (ZIBBCOT) and some of the Carta books on Jerusalem and the Temple explain and illustrate ancient rituals like this one in far more detail than you get with most standard commentaries.

For example, if you open ZIBBCOT in parallel with the Leviticus passage, you'll learn about other Ancient Near Eastern rituals in which sins are transferred to a substitute which is then sent away. You'll also read that the term "Azazel" is probably a proper name of some sort rather than a description of the goat's function.

Another way to find out more about the scapegoat is to select the word "scapegoat" or "azazel" (depending on the translation) and then amplify to a resource like Carta’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This incredible resource includes artistic depictions of the tabernacle and temple throughout history. It also chronicles how Jewish festivals such as Yom Kippur were performed in painstaking detail. This includes the scapegoat ceremony, each stage of which is carefully described and vividly illustrated. You'll see the priest laying hands on the scapegoat and confessing Israel's sins over it. You'll see the scapegoat being led out of the city of Jerusalem and into the wilderness. And you'll see the scapegoat being pushed off a cliff to its doom!

A study of the scapegoat ceremony using ZIBBCOT and Carta's Enclyclopedia of the Temple

Clearly, the scapegoat didn't get off any easier than its counterpart who was offered as a sin offering. Then again, that shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. After all, the one who escapes punishment by means of a scapegoat is not the scapegoat himself, but the one whose wrongdoing gets blamed on the scapegoat.

This is just one example of how the background commentaries from Zondervan and the richly illustrated books from Carta can make the more obscure passages of the Bible absolutely come to life. If you were preaching a sermon about the scapegoat, the sequence of illustrations from the Encyclopedia of the Temple would make for a great Keynote presentation. And if you wanted to draw parallels between the scapegoat ceremony and the crucifixion of Jesus, you could finish your Keynote with images of Jesus carrying his cross and being crucified outside the city walls. Even if you don't typically utilize visuals in your teaching, you'll be better equipped to describe those aspects of the ceremony which you have now seen illustrated.

Remember, we're currently offering an introductory special on ZEB, ZIBBCOT, and ZIBBCNT until November 15. You can also save money on the Carta books by buying the bundle best suited to your needs.

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Archived Comments


November 09, 2010 3:20 PM

I think this ritual depicts final sin solution by the sacrifice of Jesus who took all our sins on himself, on one hand, and by placing all sins in the end on the head of their originator — Satan — on the other. Rev 19:11ff.

David Lang

November 09, 2010 3:44 PM

Guntis, that understanding actually accords well with ZIBBCOT's explanation, which I really only glossed over. Identifying Azazel as a supernatural being who should be understand to be the enemy of God, ZIBBCOT concludes, "The biblical ritual expels moral faults to Azazel, who is apparently the ultimate source of their sins."

Ron Bailey

November 10, 2010 4:36 AM

"And you'll see the scapegoat being pushed off a cliff to its doom!" This certainly became the pattern but was not the pattern given to Moses by God.  The symbol is that the Escape Goat bears away the sins of Israel from the presence of God. For Israel a goat, for the world The Lamb.

Christ, of course,'became sin' (2Cor 5). We have a sobering picture here of the Saviour as the 'goat' whose life is forfeit and the 'goat' carries away the sins.  Both goats fused together give the fuller shadow of the coming reality.

The later addition of 'pushing the goat off the cliff' confuses the separate idea of punishment and function.  The first goat speaks of the punishment, the second of the result of that punishment.  Human addition to divine instruction seldom makes the story clearer.

Ron Bailey

November 10, 2010 4:41 AM

Sorry, a ps

the first goat is the picture of the punishment of sin, the second is the picture of the remission of sin.  In fact, this 'letting go' of sins is the foundation stone of the Bible concept of 'remission'.  Sins are remitted, sinners are forgiven.  Many translations obscure this distinction.

David Lang

November 10, 2010 10:15 AM

Ron, you're absolutely correct that the killing of the scapegoat was the practice during the Second Temple Period but that the original command was that the scapegoat merely just be sent into exile in the wilderness. It would be interesting to know at what point the practice of killing the scapegoat began and what the reasoning was behind it.

David Lang

November 10, 2010 10:41 AM

Did I just write "merely just"? I need to submit that to the Department of Redundancy Department!

Ron Bailey

November 11, 2010 5:03 AM


Edersheim, who I consulted later, in the Temple and its sacrifices comments that if the practice had been in force during the time of the Septuagint we might have expected some clues in the LXX text.  If he is right then it might not have been during the second Temple era but that of Herod's temple.

Edersheim writes..."We may here at once state, that the later Jewish practice of pushing the goat over a rocky precipice was undoubtedly on innovation, in no wise sanctioned by the law of Moses, and not even introduced at the time the Septuagint translation was made, as its rendering of Leviticus 16:26 shows. "