The Scapegoat

Leviticus 16 may be one of the most significant chapters in the Bible, and many of us may have skipped right over it in our reading of Scripture. If you have, take another look. It’s the instructions for The Day of Atonement, or in Hebrew, Yom Kippur. And if you were part of the Mosaic Covenant community, your relationship with God depended on this day each year since your sins were atoned for by the blood of a goat. Of two goats involved in this day, Goat #1 was slain and its blood sprinkled by the high priest of Israel on the mercy seat inside the Holy of Holies. This was the inner workings of atonement for all people of the covenant community. But the high priest was the only human witness to God’s acceptance of blood of life as substitution for sin. What about a public display of the reality of atonement?

Hence the need for Goat #2. After the inner workings of atonement inside the sanctuary, the high priest came back outside, laid his hands on the live goat, and confessed the sins of all the covenant community. It was an act of transference of sin onto the head of another…in a very public manner. And then this second goat was led into the wilderness where it was released far away from the camp of people, carrying the people’s sins with it to a distant land. This live goat was known as “The Scapegoat.”

So what do Israel’s goats from 3,000 years ago have to do with me? Look closely, and you will see anticipation of Jesus in each of these goats. When Jesus makes atonement for sin and I accept that atonement, there is an inner cleansing and covering by His blood (Goat #1). But the cross itself is a public display of the absorption and removal of my sin when He carries it away (Goat #2). Here’s how Karl Barth describes Jesus as our scapegoat:

What takes place in the crucifixion of Christ is that God’s Son takes to Himself that which must come to the creature existing in revolt, which wants to deliver itself from its creatureliness and itself be the Creator. He put Himself into this creature’s need and does not abandon it to itself. Moreover, He does not only help it from without and greet it only from afar off; He makes the misery of His creature His own. To what end? So that His creature may go out freely, so that the burden which it has laid upon itself may be borne, borne away. The creature itself must have gone to pieces, but God does not want that; He wants it to be saved. So great is the ruin of the creature that less than the self-surrender of God would not suffice for its rescue. But so great is God, that it is His will to render up Himself. Reconciliation means God taking man’s place.

God doesn’t order someone else to be the scapegoat, as many of us would do so someone else could take the fall for fault that we shared in. The only One completely without fault voluntarily becomes the scapegoat for His sinful, rebellious creations. Wow.

To His Glory,