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Acharei Mot - the Mystery of the Scapegoat

Mystery of the Scapegoat

Further thoughts on Yom Kippur / Acharei Mot

by John J. Parsons
www.hebrew4christians.com

The following entry provides a brief discussion about the role of the "two goats" used in the Yom Kippur service as described in this week's Torah reading (Acharei Mot).

Our Torah portion focuses on the solemn occasion of Yom Kippur (the "Day of Atonement"), which (among other things) included the mysterious rite of the se'ir mishtale'ach - the "sent goat" (a term later translated into English as "scapegoat" by William Tyndale). During a special ceremony, Aaron selected two male goats over which lots were to be drawn. Both goats were to be unblemished, healthy, and as much alike as possible. On one lot was inscribed "for the LORD" (לַיהוָה) and on the other was inscribed "for Azazel" (לַעֲזָאזֵל). After the lot was selected, the goat designated "for the LORD" was to be slaughtered as sin offering for the people, whereas the other goat was marked with a red band around its horns and left at the gate of the Tabernacle courtyard. Later in the service, Aaron would confess the sins of the entire community of Israel over this goat, which would then be "sent to Azazel" in the desert (Lev. 16:5-10; 21-22). Notice that in some ways the ritual of the "two goats" of the Yom Kippur service was similar to the ritual of the "two birds" used for the cleansing of the leper we saw earlier in parashat Metzora, since in both cases the focus was on purification from uncleanness (tumah) secured through the mediation of a priest...

The sending away of the goat "to Azazel" is regarded as one of the central rites of the entire Yom Kippur service, though it has puzzled many of the traditional Jewish commentators. The sages ask how the idea of ritually "transferring" the sins of the people onto a goat can be reconciled with the Torah's clearly expressed commandments that each person has a moral duty to undergo teshuvah and take responsibility for his or her own actions... In light of this paradox the sages wonder why the Torah commands that on the holiest day of the year a "scapegoat" for sins should become the focal point...

While many Christian scholars think "Azazel" comes from the verb azal (אָזַל), meaning to "go away" (i.e., to banish), the Jewish sages generally regarded the name as a reference to a geographical location of some kind, perhaps to a mountainous region with precipitous cliffs  (Bavli Yoma 67b). According to Jewish tradition, the "designated man" assigned to run the goat away from the camp would go to this location to push the goat off a cliff to its death (Lev. 16:21-22). But notice that the idea of killing the goat is a Rabbinical fiction, since the Torah simply states that the goat should be "sent away" (וְשִׁלַּח) into the wilderness. After all, if the animal was meant to be killed as a sacrifice for sin, why wasn't it slaughtered at the Tabernacle, as was required for all other sin offerings? Moreover, it is clear that the goat was not intended to be a sacrifice offered to "Azazel" or some other angelic being, since the Torah repeatedly forbids such acts of idolatry (e.g., Lev. 17:7).

According to Maimonides, "Azazel" symbolically represented the "extreme" point of being "outside of the camp," and the goat's exile was intended to instill fear that the same fate awaited those who refused to repent. Other commentators have said that since some of the Israelites made offerings to demons (i.e., se'irim [שְׂעִירִם], the same word for "goats"), the rite of the "sent goat" was intended to destroy the idolatrous impulse of the people (Lev. 17:7). Still others have suggested that the two goats represented the struggle between Jacob and Esau, who were similar in appearance but had very different destinies. Jacob represented holy sacrifice (i.e., the goat "for the LORD" at Zion) whereas Esau represented exile (i.e., Mount Seir, the "mountain of goat"). The midrash states that the "sons of god" (בְּנֵי־הָאֱלהִים) who intermarried with human women (Gen. 6:1-2) were actually two angels - Aza and Azael - who originally asked God to allow them to enter human history to prove their loyalty. These two angels rebelled, however, and introduced gross perversions into the human family, and the "sent goat" was therefore offered to atone for the sins of gross sexual perversions and other horrendous evils. Most of the sages regard this midrash as an allegory intended to warn against sexual sin, and therefore the description of the Yom Kippur service is immediately followed by a list of forbidden sexual relationships (Lev. 18).

Finally, a few commentators have suggested that the ritual of the sent goat was a sort of "concession" made to the devil. They argue that the name "Azazel" refers to a name of a particular demon (perhaps even of the devil himself) that was associated with the wilderness regions (see Matt. 4:1). Instead of allowing illegitimate sacrifices made to the "goat demons" (Lev. 17:7), the ritual of "banishing the goat" acknowledged the power of spiritual darkness, and constituted a repudiation of "the force that rules desolate places, whose power is revealed in bloodshed, war, destruction, and under whose authority are the demons, the se'irim, the he-goats" (Nachmanides, Moreh Nevuchim).  "Azazel" therefore represents the dread of sin and evil, which is regarded as essential to genuine teshuvah, and the "banishing of the goat" is symbolic of the need to resist the power of the devil... The ritual of the sent goat is therefore not intended to "appease the devil" but is meant to banish impurity and perversity from the community in order to avoid offending the LORD. After all, the goat was not sacrificed but rather sent away from the Presence of God...

The author of the Book of Hebrews writes, "When the Messiah appeared as Kohen Gadol (high priest) of the good things to come, then, through the greater and more perfect Tabernacle which is not made with human hands (that is, not of this creation), he entered into the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies) once and for all - not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing for us eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:11-12). The Levitical system of worship was a shadow of a greater reality to come, since "it is impossible (ἀδύνατος) for the blood of bulls and goats to take away (i.e., ἀφαιρέω, used to translate the Hebrew כָּרַת, to "cut off") sins" (Heb. 10:4).

In light of the ministry of Yeshua as our great High Priest of the New Covenant, we understand the blood of the sin offering "to the LORD" to represent the blood of atonement that was shed upon the cross for our purification from sin, whereas the offering made "to Azazel" represents the additional aspect of removing of our sins far "outside the camp." Just as both of the goats of the Yom Kippur ritual constituted a single offering made to God (i.e., Lev. 16:5 states "he [Aaron] shall take ... two male goats for a (singular) sin offering"), so the sacrifice of Yeshua represents two aspects of a single offering before God. The blood of the first goat was given "to the LORD" for atonement, but the exile of the second goat was given to banish sins from the Divine Presence. Likewise Yeshua served as both our atoning sacrifice before the Father and as our "scapegoat" who "carries away our sins" (Isa. 53:4, 5; Matt. 8:17; 1 Pet. 2:24). The "sent away goat" represents the separation from God that Yeshua experienced on our behalf as He bore the wrath of God in our place... Because of the Messiah's sacrifice, our sins are now put away "as far as the east is from the west" and are forever buried in the bottom of the sea, never to be remembered again (Psalm 103:12; Mic. 7:19; Isa. 38:17; Jer 31:34). Yeshua is both our Sin Offering whose blood cleanses us from sin as well as our "Scapegoat" who forever banishes our sins from God's holy Presence.

יְהִי שֵׁם יְהוָה מְברָךְ - "Blessed be the Name of the Lord." 

 


Note: Jewish tradition states that Yom Kippur is the date when Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments, after the first set were shattered when Moses descended Mount Sinai. This second set of tablets foreshadowed the surpassing glory that would be later revealed in the New Covenant of Yeshua. For more on this subject, see parashat Ki Tisa and the various other articles on this site, including "The Eight Aliyot of Moses," and "The Surpassing Glory - Paul's Midrash of the Veil of Moses," and so on.


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