Patheos Public Square is featuring essays on “The Sacrifice: Religions and the Role of the Scapegoat.” In the history of religions, I don’t think there has ever been any greater focus on sacrifice and scapegoat than what the nation of Israel did during antiquity on its most important religious holiday of the year–Yom Kippur, which means “the Day of Atonement.” The seriousness of this holy day was further indicated by requiring all Israelites to fast throughout this day and confess their sins to God.
On Yom Kippur at the temple in Jerusalem, the High Priest stood before the altar facing east with two goats on either side of him. Two priests assisted him, with each holding a rope attached to each of the two goats. Then they cast lots, in which a box had two stones with writing on them. The High Priest would put his hand into the box, pull out one of the stones, and place it on the head of one of the goats. Then he would do the same with the other goat. One of the lots read in Hebrew la-yhwh, which meant “for Yahweh,” or however this name for God should be written with vowels. The other stone read la-azazel, which meant “for Azazel.”
The High Priest then had the goat sacrificed that had the lot on its head that read la-yhwh. But the other goat, the one “for Azazel,” was not sacrificed. Instead, a man chosen for this task escorted this live goat eastward, over the Mount of Olives, in an elaborate and mysterious ritual through the Judean wilderness. At about one mile increments there were makeshift stations, each with another man waiting there. Each man then took the goat further eastward to the next station. This process continued until the last fellow and the live goat arrived about ten miles east of Jerusalem and thus halfway to the north end of the Dead Sea. What next happened changed through history.
Instructions for this two-goat ritual on Yom Kippur are developed in Leviticus 16. It says in the NRSV, “Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel” (Lev 16.9-10). But first, “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (vv. 21-22).
Jews and Christians have variously interpreted “Azazel” and “the goat for Azazel” in this Yom Kippur ritual. Eventually, Jews called this goat set free “the scapegoat.” Thus, some English Bible versions do not even transliterate “Azazel,” as does the NRSV and ESV, but translate it “scapegoat” without justification, as in the NASB and NIV. Yet scapegoat is an apt description for “the goat for Azazel.”
I wrote a chapter on this subject entitled “The Scapegoat” in my book Warrior from Heaven (2009). In it, I follow Professor George Bush–an authority on Hebrew and Oriental languages–in his commentary on Leviticus published in 1843. He is the only commentator that I discovered in my research who treats Azazel as a name for Satan as is repeatedly stated in the non-canonical book of 1 Enoch (1 En 8.1; 9.6; 10.4, 8; 13.1; 69.3). The following excerpts are taken from my book:
“the goat sacrificed for Yahweh on Yom Kippur symbolizes Jesus in his atoning death for the sins of others. The unsacrificed goat for Azazel represents disobedient Israel bearing its own sins, being unforgiven, unredeemed, and abandoned by God, thus no longer under God’s protection, banned from the Holy Land, dispersed throughout the wilderness of the nations, and handed over to Satan to be buffeted by him.
“This symbolism of the goat for Azazel being released into the desert was fulfilled completely in the Diaspora, which began in 135 CE. God removed the Israelites from their land, just as Moses had predicted. He did so earlier, but only partially, when the Assyrians removed the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonians later removed the two tribes during the exile.
“Even the order of the disposal of these two goats coincides with Israel’s history. The goat for Yahweh was sacrificed on Yom Kippur first, depicting Jesus’ death in 30 CE. Later that day, the goat for Azazel was released into the wilderness, indicating Israel’s complete Diaspora beginning in 135 CE.”
To conclude, no people has ever been treated as a scapegoat for the world’s ills more than has the Jewish people. This fact further substantiates the above interpretation of the two-goat ritual on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, when the resurrected and heavenly-exalted Jesus returns from heaven to earth in great glory, he will establish his worldwide kingdom with Jerusalem as his capital and Israel as chief of the nations and a blessing to all nations of the earth.