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Scapegoat Or Sacrifice?


The High Priest

I dare say most people today do not know the origin of the expression scape goat, though I expect that most readers of this blog realize it comes from Leviticus 16 in the Old Testament.

It happened on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – the holiest day of the Jewish year. This was the only day the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place in the depths of the Tabernacle. There is where Yahweh had made His presence known in Israel.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35 ESV)

The prime location of this glory was the Mercy Seat, or the top of the Ark of the Covenant. This is where the LORD came to dwell with His people. Not even Moses was able to enter into this awesome Presence; only the High Priest, and he only on one day each year.

Even he could not go into The Presence without sacrifice – for his own sins and for the sins of the people.

[A]nd the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 16:2-5 ESV)

The consecrated priest must put on the consecrated clothing – as he brings the animals for the sacrifice. It was a very holy ceremony, for which the High Priest must purify himself, “lest he die.” It was, indeed, a solemn occasion.
Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. (Leviticus 16:6 ESV)
Only after making atonement for himself could he act on behalf of the people.
Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use 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. (Leviticus 16:7-10 ESV)
What the ESV “translates” (actually transliterates) as Azazel, the KJV renders as scapegoat. Aaron chose one goat by lot as the sacrifice. The other goat was the scapegoat. One was sacrificed on the altar; the other was led out into the wilderness for release later in the ceremony. The word azazel literally means departure.
“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (Leviticus 16:15-16 ESV)
The offering of the blood on the mercy seat was for the purification of the Tabernacle/Temple itself. Since this is where God met his people and “tabernacled” with them, it must be purified from the sinfulness of the people. But, there is more.
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And 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. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22 ESV)
Aaron would confess the sins of the people over the head of the scapegoat before sending it out into the wilderness to be released.

Just a curious ritual given to the primitive Israelite nation? Or is there more in this than meets the eye?

Actually this ceremony tells us much about what happened when Jesus was crucified “outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12).
Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews all draw on this imagery to help us understand what happened at the cross – and afterward.
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished... (Romans 3:25 NIV)
For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. ( Hebrews 2:17 NIV)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 NIV)
Where the NIV translates atonement, the ESV uses propitiation. The words are virtually interchangeable for all practical purposes.
Propitiation in the Bible is very different from propitiation in the pagan religions. The pagan gods were vindictive and capricious. Those serving them would make sacrifices to placate the wrath of the gods and avert punishment – by poor crops, disaster on a city, etc.
In contrast, God Himself provides the propitiation for us. He provided the animals (for all creation is His) for the sacrifice that was brought to the Mercy Seat where He graciously received His people. In the New Testament, we discover that all of those animals that died were merely foreshadowing the time when the Son of God Himself would be sacrificed on the cross where he would, as our scapegoat, bear our sins.
The Hebrew writer also lets us know that He did not need to offer purification for His own sins – for He had none. When He ascended back to the Father following His resurrection:
When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! ( Hebrews 9:11-14 NIV)

In this blog yesterday, I mentioned an experience in a class discussion of the Day of Atonement and expressed amazement that even the regular teacher of that class who was an elder of that congregation did not know the gospel significance of Leviticus 16.

One reader suggested that I write concerning Leviticus 16 where the ritual for this solemn annual event is laid out. That is the background for this post. Do you now understand why I was amazed? I have not even explored the depths of the New Testament application of this ritual. This, alone, shows how we have short-changed our people by insisting that the Old Testament is virtually irrelevant to us today.


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