Summary: Two innocent goats, and one sacrifice--one to receive what we deserve, the other to carry our sins away.
“Our Scapegoat” Leviticus 16:6-10, 20-22 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
A “lame duck” President met with his successor in the Oval Office. Near the end of the orientation, he presented the incoming leader three numbered envelopes, with specific instructions to open them, in order, when great difficulties arose. After the new President completed his “honeymoon” period with the media and the public, the nation experienced an economic downturn. He opened the first envelope. Inside was a card that read: “Blame me.” So he did, criticizing the former administration. After a while, social upheaval brought about a critical domestic crisis. The President opened the second envelope. Inside was a card that read: “Blame my party.” He did so, in an overt display of partisan politics. About a year later, foreign policy resulted in serious problems and the President opened the third envelope. Inside, the card read: “Prepare three envelopes.”
It’s been said, “He who smiles in a crisis has found someone to blame”--rather than seek solutions or accept personal responsibility. Some enterprising business came up with an idea for offering a unique service. The company was called “Rent-A-Scapegoat.” They advertised that they would gladly come to any business and accept blame for whatever happened, admitting to nearly anything. I’m surprised Enron didn’t hire this firm! We regard a scapegoat as someone we blame for our misfortune.
The idea of the scapegoat originates in Leviticus 16, where God explains to Israel the necessity for an annual Day of Atonement. Known as Yom Kippur (occurring in September), this was a day of national fasting, repentance and forgiveness. It is still observed today as a solemn Sabbath, but without the Temple sacrifice for sin. Yom Kippur has been called “The Good Friday of the Old Testament”.
In Leviticus, the worship focal point of the transitory Jewish nation was the Tabernacle, a temporary, mobile tent eventually replaced in the Promised Land by the Temple. When I served as an Army Chaplain, a GP-Medium tent often served as my chapel. God directed Aaron the High Priest and brother of Moses to select two goats. These two animals constituted one sin offering. Aaron placed his hands on the head of the one that was slain, transferring the sins of the people. Then the blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, within the Tabernacle.
The goat that escaped death was chosen by lot and released into the desert wilderness, never to be seen again. The Hebrew word for scapegoat is azazel, combining two words, “goat” and “depart” (some scholars translate azazel as “banish”). According to Jewish tradition, a cloth was tied to the horns of the scapegoat containing the sins of the tribes. The scapegoat was led out of the Tabernacle, past the tents of the people, out of the encampment and released into the wilderness. The people could not see the blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat, but this was an act everyone could observe. The releasing of the scapegoat was clearly symbolic. This release represented the sins of the people being carried away, never to be held against them again. What a powerful image! One goat takes on punishment, the other carries away iniquity.
The image presented by the scapegoat is vicarious, substitutionary atonement provided by God. The teaching in simpler terms is this: Either we pay the penalty for our sins, or we accept a sacrifice made in our behalf to cover the debt of our sins. We all deserve eternal punishment. We find ourselves in a moral wilderness. The Biblical term “atonement” means “to cover or reconcile”. Sin alienates--it defiles and separates us from God. Atonement provides a bridge to life, the removal of guilt. Before Christ, forgiveness came through animal sacrifice. These sacrifices found their fulfillment in the death of Christ, the Lamb of God. This is how God delivers us from evil.
A parallel to the image of the scapegoat is seen in the Jewish ritual for a recovered leper (Lev 14:1-9). The disease of leprosy was regarded as a symbol of sin. When lepers were believed to be healed, they were examined by a priest. Then two birds were chosen. One was slain and both the leper and the living bird were sprinkled with its blood. Then the living bird was released. The bird symbolically carried away the evil, the leprosy, and the leper was pronounced ceremonially clean and was permitted to rejoin the community. Through Christ we are cleansed, we enjoy the fellowship of God’s family and are made fit for Heaven.
The scapegoat is a picture of Christ. Our sins are carried away by Jesus, our Scapegoat and sin Substitute. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:13). The blood of Christ seals and ratifies the New Covenant. In the book of Hebrews we’re told how Jesus entered the Heavenly sanctuary before the presence of God-the-Father, to intervene for us. He secured a lasting deliverance, forever satisfying divine justice, fully removing our guilt, once-and-for-all. Temple and Tabernacle sacrifices needed to be repeated, but our Lord’s one-time, enduring sacrifice upon the Cross fully frees us from the penalty of our sins.