The Ultimate Scapegoat

by Josh Sofaer | August 18 2015

Scapegoats are never hard to find. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” Most of us at some time in our lives have been a scapegoat for others, or perhaps we’ve scapegoated others for our benefit. The most common definition of a scapegoat is a person or thing blamed for misdeeds of others, akin to being a fall-guy or being thrown under the bus. Scapegoats and those who use them are often looked on with pity and contempt.

The idea of the scapegoat, however, is a biblical one. The term scapegoat is a translation of the Hebrew word Azazel. The Azazel was part of the Yom Kippur ritual of animal sacrifice.

It was literally a goat that carried the sins of the nation into the wilderness. Though not technically a sacrifice, the scapegoat would visually and ritually cleanse the nation from the guilt of their sins. Surprised to know this is part of Yom Kippur? For many Jews today, or at least the Jews I grew up around in Berkeley, California, Yom Kippur and animal sacrifice have nothing to do with each other. In our house, I was told great tales of long dreary days and of hunger and boredom. Those who got the most attention in the stories were the ones brazen enough to attempt sneaking out of the house to grab a slice of pizza! Yom Kippur in my world was a holiday of fasting and a never-ending day. It certainly had nothing to do with animals being killed. This was driven home to me a few years ago when a close family member told me he was unaware that animals were ever sacrificed as part of Yom Kippur. His response was, “Huh, Who knew!” So, what is the purpose for these sacrifices? Why do they even exist and how do they play into the purpose of Yom Kippur? The answer begins with the biblical text itself.

In the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, we read about what God wanted to happen on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Spoiler alert—it had nothing to do with pizza! This chapter in Leviticus tells us both the purpose for the Day of Atonement and the important details of what we were expected to do.

“For on this day [Yom Kippur] shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.” (Leviticus 16:30)

The purpose of the holiday was twofold—first, to “be clean.” The idea of cleansing and purification is a fairly standard one in most every tradition. Most of the world religions have standards for purity and make provision when the adherents of that religion fall short. The holiday of Yom Kippur and its corresponding ritual of sacrifices function as the mechanism to purify and cleanse.

The second purpose of Yom Kippur is just as important, but easily missed: to be “before the Lord.” Here is where we find the Bible making a significant break from other religious traditions. Rather than having a God that simply needs to be appeased, the God of the Bible requires cleansing for the purpose of relationship, because He wants to be with us. Much like a parent welcoming home a child after a summer’s day at the park—a child who is probably hot, sweaty and dirty—God wants us to be clean because He wants to enjoy our company. Our impurity is not something God permits in His presence. And so, He says to us much the same thing a parent would say to that child—go wash up before you come to the table to eat because I want a person who is clean at my table.

So, if being clean and being with the Lord are the dual purposes of the holiday, how was it supposed to work? If you’re only familiar with fasting on Yom Kippur, the fuller answer may surprise you. Leviticus chapter 16 lays out in vivid detail a system of sacrifice. Though it may be unfamiliar and maybe even shocking to modern readers, physical sacrifices were indispensible to the celebration of Yom Kippur.

The ritual began with the High Priest (Aaron in the Leviticus passage) preparing himself by bathing and changing into a special set of holiday vestments that included a turban and sash! He then selected three animals as sacrifices—two young goats and one bull. The goats each had a purpose—one as a sacrificial offering and the other as a scapegoat. Aaron cast lots (not unlike a roll of a die) to select one goat as the offering and the other as scapegoat . This random selection ensured that the high priest would not be able to sway the decision; God Himself would make the decision. The goat selected as an offering was killed along with the young bull. Their blood together was brought into the center, most holy place of the Temple. That sacrifice atoned for (cleansed, purified) the High Priest, the people and the sanctuary. The stage was set for the next goat, the scapegoat.

What followed next was very dramatic . The High Priest placed both hands upon the head of the goat and confessed aloud the sins of the nation, transferring them to the goat. This casting of the sins was more than symbolic; it was ritual. As the previous goat was killed as a representative of the nation before God, this goat would carry away the sins as a representative of the nation. In our world today, this kind of confession is rare. Today, we would think of the scapegoat as needing some kind of written contract releasing the nation from its guilt and contractually placing that guilt onto the goat. In the biblical world, a person’s word, their confession, was as valid as any written contract.

The goat was then brought deep into the wilderness by a trusted man and released in a barren place. Ancient Jewish tradition records that the goat would be led to a rocky place, or a place of jagged rocks to ensure the death of the goat in the wilderness. Evidently the rabbis wanted to make sure the sins wouldn’t make their way back into the camp looking for something to eat! This is the tradition of the Azazel, the scapegoat.

Of the myriad of theories about Azazel, two are the most common. The first says that Azazel is a combination of the Hebrew word for goat (az) and the Hebrew word for to carry or to take away (azel). This is the basis for the translation of the word Azazel as scapegoat—literally, the goat who would carry away the sin of Israel, the “tote-goat.” When the text says that the goat would be “for Azazel,” the meaning is better rendered “as Azazel” or “as the scapegoat.”

The second theory is that Azazel is a proper name of an individual, perhaps a demonic being who lives in the wilderness.

One thing is certainly clear: in the biblical tradition of Yom Kippur, God calls for two goats—one a sin offering for Himself and one as a vehicle to remove the sins from the nation. It’s clear from the text why God wanted this done—so the people would be clean before Him.

In this Yom Kippur tradition we’re told, clearly and dramatically, what God wants. He wants us to be cleansed from our sin and He wants for us to be with Him. We learn that though sin is not welcome in God’s presence, sinners are. Though impurity cannot dwell with God, the impure can.

So how do we appropriate this Yom Kippur tradition today? Do we still need to deal with sin in our modern lives? New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks so:

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.1

While Brooks doesn’t ascribe a means to “atone” for one’s sin, he at least acknowledges that sin does exist. In this article, I’m offering a look at what the Bible says we need to do about it.

In the liturgy of Yom Kippur, we confess that we have sinned. Confession, however, is only one part of being cleansed. Our admission of sinfulness needs to be coupled with God’s prescribed remedy. But when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., so was the sacrificial system.

So the rabbis devised another plan. They said that in the absence of the Temple, repentance, prayer and tzedekah (charity) would become the means of atonement. They cited Hosea 6:6 as justification: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Our people have followed that plan ever since, yet the inner renewal the Day of Atonement was to bring eludes us. Why is that? Could it be that we are never quite sure if our sin problem has truly been dealt with?

But God wants us to have that assurance so that we can enter into close relationship with Him. So, some 40 years before the Temple was destroyed, He provided a once-and-for-all scapegoat who suffered and died a horrific death on a wooden cross. The prophet Isaiah spoke of him, declaring, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

He has already taken the blame for all of our wrongdoing. But we must acknowledge him as God’s scapegoat, the atonement for our sins.

Are you willing to be made clean?


1. David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” The New York Times, April 11, 2015.