The Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:20-22, 29-31, 34

When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then 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.

This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD. It is a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever.

This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins. And Moses did as the LORD had commanded him.

This passage from Leviticus instructs the people of Israel how to celebrate what today would be called the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. It is an annual day of fasting and prayer, a time of repentance for all the sins committed during the previous year. The priest of the temple takes the sins of all the people and places them on the live goat. Unlike the usual sin offerings at the temple, the animal is not slain or sacrificed upon the altar. It is not eaten in a feast that unites God and God’s people. It takes the sins of the people away, never to be seen again.

For many Christians throughout history, this is an image of the Christ. Jesus is the perfect scapegoat who takes away the sins of the people once and for all. However, unlike Christ, the scapegoat does not return triumphant. It dies alone in the desert and is never seen again. It is, therefore, an incomplete symbol, a less than perfect icon of the Christ, who takes upon himself the sins of his people, but returns sinless and alive to remind us that we, too, will one day share in his eternal life.