What on earth do the temple sacrifices of Ancient Israel have to do with the modern Christian? This is a valid question because the laws governing Israel’s sacrificial system are found in Scripture, and Scripture, as we know, is the inspired word of God—but not only this. We also know that this very same Scripture is without error and is, as we read in 2 Timothy “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
The Bible was given to us so that we may learn from it who we are, who God is, and why we must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son. Given the significance of Scripture, and the fact that books such as Leviticus are found within it, one must conclude that there are powerful, life-shaping lessons for the modern Christian that can be found in the laws of Ancient Israel, and even in those which pertain specifically to animal sacrifice.
With this post, it is my privilege to shed some light on an obscure Biblical text, one that doesn’t get talked about too much behind the pulpit. The text is Leviticus 16:7-10, and it is all about atonement. In fact, the whole chapter is one of three passages in the Old Testament that details the laws of the Day of Atonement. While I intend to give some background information about this Jewish holiday and its significance for Ancient Israel, my focus will be primarily on the two male goats that we read about in this chapter, the one designated for a sin-offering, and the other which was to be cast out into the wilderness.
“He shall then take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the Lord fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.” (Lev. 16:7-10)
My homily will be broken up into three main sections. I will begin by describing the significance of the goat ritual for Ancient Israel—why it was needed then and what it pointed to in the future (Pt. 1). Next, I will describe how the two goats can be seen as symbols for our experience of relating to God as human beings (Pt. 2). And lastly, I will speak about Jesus Christ and what these goats say about Him and of God’s plan for salvation (Also Pt. 2).
The Significance of the Goats for Ancient Israel
The two goats in today’s passage represent part of an annual set of rituals commanded by God for the people of Israel to perform one day each year. This unique and most holy day was called the Day of Atonement, and was intended to do just that, to make amends for the sins of God’s covenant people. Although offerings were made throughout the year to appease the Lord’s just wrath and to mend Israel’s covenant relationship with Him, another day was yet necessary to reconcile man and God.
As imperfect humans—which all humans are, save one—we sometimes break commandments knowingly and other times unknowingly; because many sins were left unacknowledged throughout the year in Ancient Israel, the Day of Atonement was instituted to make restitution for these sins and to purify the temple, God’s dwelling place on Earth. This special day provided for the people of Israel the most complete method of forgiveness that was available to mankind before the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus of Nazareth.
Aaron, the High Priest, did much of the heavy lifting on the Day of Atonement. He dressed in linen garments, made a sin offering to atone for himself and his household, sacrificed a ram for a burnt offering, and took two male goats from the congregation of Israel. The Scriptures tell us what the High Priest was instructed to do with these goats in verses 7-10 of Lev. 16 (above); this description is then continued in verses 20-22:
“When he finishes atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the wrongdoings of the sons of Israel and all their unlawful acts regarding all their sins; and he shall place them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands ready. Then the goat shall carry on itself all their wrongdoings to an isolated territory; he shall release the goat in the wilderness.”
An Assortment of Significance
This method of making the nation right with God, while elaborate, was not perfect. Nonetheless, it was significant for Israel in a number of ways:
- It was commanded by the Lord. if one is to maintain a covenant relationship with another person—especially if that person is God—it is crucial that they uphold their end of the deal. Deuteronomy 28 says in the words of Moses to Israel “The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” If the goat ritual was only meaningful in this way, that it was commanded by God, it would have been enough for the Israelites; it would have been all that was needed to deserve our attention even today in 2023. But that is not the only reason why this practice was significant.
- It taught God’s people of His holiness and welled up within them hearts of repentance. Indeed, we see in the two goats humanity’s utter need to be cleansed of sin so that it may stand before God, who is perfect, and perfectly holy. We are all persons of unclean lips, and likewise, if anyone of us were to be shown a vision of the likeness of the glory of God, we would, like the prophet Ezekiel, fall straight on our faces. The Ancient Israelites were no exception. In the ritual, they were taught through the use of the goats, the defiling nature of sin, and the need for purification, and atonement.
The scapegoat was driven into the wilderness with Israel’s sins, showing this very need to expel wrongdoing in order to dwell with God. There is no doubt that all who partook in this exercise reflected heavily on the nature of sin, and of its hostility to the Lord—but, it must be said, that it was more effective as a symbol than an actual means of purifying God’s people. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10:4) This brings me to my third point.
- It asserted the need for a “once for all” sacrifice that could only be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. As I mentioned earlier, the ritual of the goats, and all the other various forms of sacrifice and means of making reparations for sin in the Old Testament were imperfect, but imperfect only in the sense that they could not cure sin, only treat it. The illness always returned to Israel, and year after year the High Priest performed the ceremony of the two goats to treat this illness. For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the form of those things itself, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually every year, make those who approach perfect. (Heb. 10:1)
As the ultimate sin offering, Jesus became the fulfillment of the promise that was signified by the goat on which the lot of the Lord fell; Christ was without blemish like this goat—for all temple sacrifices were to be spotless—and was slain to satisfy the righteous judgment of God which was intended for sinful humanity. Jesus suffered and died in our stead, accepting the punishment that was due us as a result of our wrongdoing. All fall short of what is expected, and every person does not honor God in the manner that they should.
Because God is infinitely good, loving, just, merciful, and holy, only an infinitely perfect living sacrifice was fit to satisfy God’s wrath. And so, our savior, Jesus, who upheld the law completely, did just that; He laid down His life to save sinners. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
Here we see clearly that the goat that was made a sin offering on the Day of Atonement pointed forward to the work of Jesus, but what of the scapegoat? The same can be said of this animal as well. In Leviticus 16, the scapegoat is described as receiving the sins of Israel after Aaron confessed over it and laid his lands upon it. After this, the goat bore these wrongdoings as it departed from the sons of Israel. Christ did the same. Yet, He did not take on the sins of just a single nation; no, Jesus received the sins of all throughout history who would have faith in Him, and He bore these away from all humanity. He took them to His death.
For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
The two goats that Aaron, the High Priest, presented before the Lord on the Day of Atonement were significant for the Israelites because they, being limited in their ability to make one right with God, pointed to a time in the future when a single sacrifice would be sufficient for the covering and forgiveness of all sins. Ancient Israel looked forward to this day and had faith in the coming of its Messiah. Just like Abraham—Moses, Aaron, and many within the House of Israel had faith in God and in His plan for the future, and this was credited to them as righteousness.
Part two of this homily on Leviticus 16 is coming soon! Be on the lookout for the conclusion of “A Tale of Two He-Goats.”