The Lamb (not Goat) of God

The Lamb (not Goat) of God April 19, 2019

Working through the Gospel of John in my Sunday school class, we conveniently reached the passion narrative close to Holy Week. Of course, we’ll still be talking about these texts for weeks to come, and so it is not as though there’s a precise alignment. But there is still something nice about having this sort of convergence occur.

We considered what appears to be John’s creative change to the timing of Jesus’ last supper and crucifixion, making the final meal not a Passover celebration so that Jesus can die at the time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. But what, I asked, is the connection between Jesus and Passover? I brought us back to the imagery offered towards the beginning of the Gospel of John: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Does that have anything to do with Passover?

At first glance, it wouldn’t seem to. Passover was not about sacrifice of the ordinary sort, nor was it like Yom Kippur, the use of animals in a manner that explicitly has to do with forgiveness. The placement of blood on lintels in the Exodus story doesn’t seem to have anything to do with forgiving the sins of firstborn sons. And the ongoing celebration of Passover was likewise not focused on rituals of forgiveness or atonement.

In a sense the most natural place to look for an animal taking away sin is the “scapegoat” from the Day of Atonement ritual. Precisely because sins were symbolically transferred to the animal, it was not slaughtered as a sacrifice.

But John doesn’t say Jesus is the “Goat of God” who takes away the sin of the world.

(As an aside, Exodus says that the Passover lamb can be taken from among the sheep or the goats, which means that the “Goat of God” still could have had a Passover connection. But could anyone have heard “Lamb of God” and thought of the scapegoat?)

And so I suggested that perhaps the appropriate thing to do is to revisit and reconsider the language in John 1 in light of the way John draws to a close with a focus on Jesus as Passover lamb. Does Passover have anything to do with “taking away the sin of the world”? The answer will only seem to be “no” if one understands sin in narrowly individualistic terms. But if one recognizes in the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt a portrait of what sin in the world can look like, then there clearly is a relationship. To take away the sin of the world cannot be a purely individualistic thing, if we think about it. Some might believe that dealing with individual sin sorts out communal and societal problems. But there is significant evidence to the contrary. And if one thinks of “dealing with sin” as a matter of forgiveness rather than transformation – whether individual, communal, or ideally both – then the problem is compounded.

What do others think? It is commonplace to note how John highlights connection between Jesus’ death and Passover. But it is much less common to encounter detailed reflection on what the connection might be, what the author of the Gospel might have wanted readers to understand and take away. How do you understand the connection the Gospel of John makes?

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  • Another possibility is “take away the sins of the world” is more skewed to rectifying the situation that sin has brought about rather than a metaphysical thing. For instance, in Matthew 1:21, saving his people from their sins is talking about the Messiah delivering Israel from the situation her sins have brought about, not performing a metaphysical act of sin transference.

    I admit a phrase like “takes away the sins of the world” sounds more… forensic… than “save his people from their sins,” but just noting that it’s possible that John means that phrase in a less technical and more general world-situation sense. If John means that Jesus is the lamb of God who will rectify the situation that sin has brought about, then the Passover lamb/Exodus imagery would fit.

  • Sorry for the double comment, but after further reflection, is this maybe an allusion to Isaiah 53?

    All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
    and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

    He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
    like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.

    We can debate on who specifically the servant is from Isaiah’s perspective (the prophet, Judah, returning exiles, etc.), but it’s a subset of Israel that suffers the afflictions that should fall on Israel as a whole so that Israel will be reconciled to God and restored.

    So, perhaps in John’s prophetic imagination, Jesus is the “lamb of God”of Isaiah, led to the slaughter for the welfare of the nation, perhaps not making a direction connection to either Passover or the sacrificial system. (cf. John 11:50-51)

    • It might be – but the question of how that lamb imagery relates to other lambs just compounds the question, doesn’t it? 🙂

      • Could be, could be. Although, in this case, it might just be that “lamb” is an image for something about to be slaughtered, especially after comparing Israel to sheep that have gone astray. I guess, for all that, the image could have been “calf of God,” but maybe that wouldn’t parallel the straying image quite as much.

        But to your point about whether the other lamb imagery from the Johannine tradition is relevant, I guess we could ask the same question about the “lamb slain before the foundation of the world” on the throne in Rev.