Leviticus 16:22
Great Texts of the Bible
The Scapegoat

The goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a solitary land.—Leviticus 16:22.


The Day of Atonement

This is part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement. Now the Day of Atonement represents the culminating institution of the Levitical system. Not only, from a merely formal point of view, does Leviticus 16 form the climax of the sacrificial and purificatory ordinances contained in Leviticus 1-15, but the ceremonial itself is of a peculiarly comprehensive and representative character. It was a yearly atonement for the nation as a whole (including the priests); and not only for the nation, but also for the sanctuary, in its various parts, in so far as this had been defined during the past year by the sins of the people in whose midst it stood.

In Rabbinical literature the Day of Atonement becomes practically the great Day of Repentance, the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance. It brings with itself purification, the Father in Heaven making white the sin committed by the son, by His forgiveness and pardon. “It is the Day of the Lord, great and very terrible,” inasmuch as it becomes a day of judgment, but also the Day of Salvation. “Israel is steeped in sin through the Evil Yezer in their body, but they do repentance and the Lord forgives their sins every year, and renews their heart to fear Him.” “On the Day of Atonement I will create you a new creation.” It is thus a penitential day in the full and in the best sense of the word.1 [Note: S. Schechter.]

The Talmudical treatise on the ritual of the Day of Atonement is entitled Yoma, “the day,” which sufficiently expresses its importance in the series of sacrificial observances. It was the confession of the incompleteness of them all, a ceremonial proclamation that ceremonies do not avail to take away sin; and it was also a declaration that the true end of worship is not reached till the worshipper has free access to the holy place of the Most High. Thus the prophetic element is the very life-breath of this supreme institution of the old covenant, which therein acknowledges its own defects, and feeds the hopes of a future better thing.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]


The Two Goats

1. On this day the Congregation of Israel brought two goats for the purpose of atonement. For these, lots were cast at the door of the sanctuary, “one lot for Jehovah, and the other lot for Azazel.” The one on which the lot of Jehovah fell was then slain as a sin-offering. The other was brought before God “to make atonement over it, to send it away for Azazel into the wilderness.” Then, after the sins of the congregation had been confessed, this animal was made the bearer of all the sins of the now reconciled Israel, and was led away into the wilderness and there let loose “in a solitary land.”

Most solemn as the services had hitherto been, the worshippers would chiefly think with awe of the high-priest going into the immediate presence of God, coming out thence alive, and securing for them by the blood the continuance of the Old Testament privileges of sacrifices and of access unto God through them. What now took place concerned them, if possible, even more nearly. Their own personal guilt and sins were now to be removed from them, and that in a symbolical rite, at one and the same time the most mysterious and the most significant of all. All this while the “scapegoat,” with the “scarlet-tongue,” telling of the guilt it was to bear, had stood looking eastwards, confronting the people, and waiting for the terrible load which it was to carry away “unto a land not inhabited.” Laying both his hands on the head of this goat, the high-priest now confessed and pleaded: “Ah, Jehovah! they have committed iniquity; they have transgressed; they have sinned—Thy people, the house of Israel. Oh, then, Jehovah! cover over (atone for), I intreat Thee, upon their iniquities, their transgressions, and their sins, which they have wickedly committed, transgressed, and sinned before Thee—Thy people, the house of Israel. As it is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant, saying: “For on that day shall it be covered over (atoned) for you, to make you clean; from all your sins before Jehovah, ye shall be cleansed.” And while the prostrate multitude worshipped at the name of Jehovah, the high-priest turned his face towards them as he uttered the last words, “Ye shall be cleansed!” as if to declare to them the absolution and remission of their sins. Then a strange scene would be witnessed. The priests led the sin-burdened goat out through “Solomon’s Porch,” and, as tradition has it, through the eastern gate, which opened upon the Mount of Olives. Here an arched bridge spanned the intervening valley, and over it they brought the goat to the Mount of Olives, where one, specially appointed for the purpose, took him in charge. Tradition enjoins that he should be a stranger, a non-Israelite, as if to make still more striking the type of Him who was delivered over by Israel unto the Gentiles. Scripture tells us no more of the destiny of the goat that bore upon him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, than that they “shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness,” and that “he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” But tradition supplements this information. The distance between Jerusalem and the beginning of “the wilderness” is computed at ninety stadia, making precisely ten intervals, each half a Sabbath-day’s journey from the other. At the end of each of these intervals there was a station, occupied by one or more persons, detailed for the purpose, who offered refreshment to the man leading the goat, and then accompanied him to the next station. By this arrangement two results were secured: some trusted persons accompanied the goat all along his journey, and yet none of them walked more than a Sabbath-day’s journey—that is, half a journey going and the other half returning. At last they reached the edge of the wilderness. Here they halted, viewing afar off, while the man led forth the goat, tore off half the “scarlet-tongue,” and stuck it on a projecting cliff; then, leading the animal backwards, he pushed it over the projecting ledge of rock. There was a moment’s pause, and the man, now defiled by contact with the sin-bearer, retraced his steps to the last of the ten stations, where he spent the rest of the day and the night. But the arrival of the goat in the wilderness was immediately telegraphed, by the waving of flags, from station to station, till, a few minutes after its occurrence, it was known in the Temple, and whispered from ear to ear, that “the goat had borne upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited.”1 [Note: Edersheim, The Temple, 317.]

2. What, then, was the meaning of a rite on which such momentous issues depended? Everything about it seems strange and mysterious—the lot that designated it, and that “to Azazel”, the fact that, though the highest of all sin-offerings, it was neither sacrificed nor its blood sprinkled in the Temple; and the circumstance that it really was only part of a sacrifice—the two goats together forming one sacrifice, one of them being killed, and the other “let go,” there being no other analogous case of the kind except at the purification of a leper, when one bird was killed, and the other dipped in its blood, and let go free. For the common worshipper, then, the broad impression of this Day of Atonement was that the sins of the people were not only atoned for by the death of a victim, but separated from them and banished to forgetfulness through the same offering in another phase. While in the typical sacrifice this could be effected only by means of two victims, in the eternal reality to which it pointed the one Saviour who died and rose again becomes at once the atoning Sacrifice and the risen Sanctifier by whom our sin is removed.

These two goats were not for Aaron, but for the people. We must regard them as if they were but one offering, for it needed both of them to set forth the divine plan by which sin is put away; one was to die, and the other was typically to bear away the sins of the people. One goat was to show how sin is put away in reference to God by sacrifice, and the other goat was to show how it is put away in reference to us, God’s people, by being carried into oblivion.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

Man hath not done anything on the day of sacrifice more pleasing to God than spilling blood; for verily the animal sacrificed will come on the day of resurrection with its horns, its hair, its hoofs, and will make the scale of his good actions heavy: and verily its blood reacheth the acceptance of God, before it falleth upon the ground: therefore be joyful in it.2 [Note: Saying of Muhammad.]


For Azazel

1. Of the two goats it is stated (Exodus 16:8) that the one was “for Jehovah,” the other “for Azazel” (R.V.; the A.V. uses here the word “scapegoat”). “Azazel” is not mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, and its meaning is much disputed. In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, Azazel is a spirit, the leader of the evil angels who formed unholy alliances with the “daughters of men” (Genesis 6:2; Genesis 6:4). But whatever the precise attributes with which Azazel was invested at the time when the ritual of Leviticus 16 was framed, there can be little doubt that the ceremonial was intended as a symbolical declaration that the land and people are now purged from guilt, their sins being handed over to the evil spirit to whom they are held to belong, and whose home is in the desolate wilderness, remote from human habitations (Exodus 16:22, “into a land cut off”). No doubt the rite is a survival from an older stage of popular belief, engrafted on, and accommodated to, the sacrificial system of the Hebrews. For the expulsion of evils, whether maladies or sins, from a community, by their being laid symbolically upon a material medium, there are many analogies in other countries. The belief in goblins, or demons (Jinn), haunting the wilderness and vexing the traveller, is particularly common in Arabia: in the Old Testament it is found in Leviticus 17:7; Isaiah 13:21; Isaiah 34:14 (“satyrs,” lit. he-goats, and Lilith, the night-monster). Azazel must have been such a spirit, sufficiently distinguished from the rest, in popular imagination, to receive a special name, and no doubt invested with attributes which, though unknown to us, were perfectly familiar to those for whom the ceremonial of Leviticus 16 was first designed.

The rendering of the A.V., “scapegoat,” inherited from the “Great Bible” of 1539, may be traced back through Seb. Münster (“caper abiturus”), Coverdale (“the free goat”), Luther (“der ledige Bock”), and Jerome (“caper emissarius”) to the Greek translation of Symmachus; but it implies a derivation opposed to the genius of the Hebrew language, besides being inconsistent with the marked antithesis between “for Azazel” and “for Jehovah,” which does not leave it open to doubt that the former is conceived as a personal being, to whom (cf. Exodus 16:26) the goat is sent. All the principal modern authorities agree in explaining Azazel as a personal name. “Scapegoat” is, however, a felicitous expression; it has become classical in English; and there is no reason why it should not be retained as a term descriptive of the goat sent into the wilderness, provided it be clearly understood that it is in no way a rendering of the Hebrew.1 [Note: S. R. Driver.]

2. The Jewish rite presents marks of strong kinship with similar rites which are still observed in every part of the world. It was originally a rite of exorcism, and was modified into an object-parable of those great ethical lessons which God wished to impress upon the conscience of the chosen people, and in due time upon the human race. On the four great continents, and in many islands of the sea, it is carried out, with the variation due to local conditions, at fixed seasons of the year, or in times of epidemic. In some form or other it must have been in vogue before the dispersion of the primitive races, or at least have been suggested by ideas common to mankind in the cradle-lands of the prehistoric dawn. It was practised amongst unlettered and classical races alike, and in some parts of Europe variant types of the ceremony have survived the spread of the Christian faith.

In some of the islands of South-Eastern Asia the ceremony is found in one of its most elementary forms. The custom has, of course, adapted itself to conditions where domestic animals are unknown and the inland areas present no deserts into which a scape-victim bearing the ills of the people could be dismissed. A ship is prepared on board which rice, eggs, and tobacco are placed, whilst a priest cries out: “All ye sicknesses, measles, agues, depart!” The ship is carried down to the shore, launched when a breeze begins to blow from off the land, and left to drift out to sea. The priest then cries out, “All the sicknesses are gone!” and the people who had shut themselves up in their homes through fear come forth again with a sense of relief. In the inland parts of the island the priests brush the people with branches of trees which are supposed to gather up all the evil influences that cleave to their bodies, and then throw the infected branches into the river to be carried out to sea.

A tribe of American Indians make white dogs their scape-victims, and drive them off into the prairie, whilst another tribe paint a man black to represent a demon and at last chase him from the village. A similar custom prevails amongst the aborigines of the Chinese Highlands. In times of epidemic a man is chosen for the victim, his face is smeared with paint, and with curses and tomtoms he is then driven forth from the hamlet and forbidden to return.1 [Note: T. G. Selby.]

3. The Jewish religion took hold upon a truth in this crude observance common to all races, and taught the multitude to look for release from sin by one who should be made sin for them. In the prefigurative ceremony the burden of the assembly’s sin was transferred to a pair of victims, one of which was slain at the altar where its life was offered to an offended God, whilst the other was driven forth into the wilderness, carrying into inaccessible places the burden placed upon it. The principle needed fine definitions and careful safeguards in the after-ages, but it expressed a rough and enduring truth without which social and religious life are alike impossible. The vicarious principle is not ordained to compromise or destroy responsibility, but the denial of its presence and working, within divinely appointed limits, involves the denial of that providential order under which mankind is placed.

But how is the modern world to be taught the vicarious principle when it has so little knowledge of the meaning of sin? No doubt ignorance of the nature of sin is largely due to ignorance of the Bible. Holman Hunt tells us his experience of this double ignorance when he returned from Palestine with his great picture, “The Scapegoat.”

Mr. Gambart, the picture-dealer, was ever shrewd and entertaining. He came in his turn to my studio, and I led him to “The Scapegoat.”

“What do you call that?”

“ ‘The Scapegoat.’ ”

“Yes; but what is it doing?”

“You will understand by the title, Le bouc errant.”

“But why errant?” he asked.

“Well, there is a book called the Bible, which gives au account of the animal. You will remember.”

“No,” he replied; “I never heard of it.”

“Ah, I forgot, the book is not known in France, but English people read it more or less,” I said, “and they would all understand the story of the beast being driven into the wilderness.”

“You are mistaken. No one would know anything about it, and if I bought the picture it would be left on my hands. Now, we will see,” replied the dealer. “My wife is an English lady; there is a friend of hers, an English girl, in the carriage with her. We will ask them up; you shall tell them the title; we will see. Do not say more.”

The ladies were conducted into the room.

“Oh, how pretty! what is it?” they asked.

“It is ‘The Scapegoat,’ ” I said.

There was a pause. “Oh yes,” they commented to one another, “it is a peculiar goat; you can see by the ears, they droop so.”

The dealer then, nodding with a smile towards me, said to them, “It is in the wilderness.”

The ladies: “Is that the wilderness now? Are you intending to introduce any others of the flock?” And so the dealer was proved to be right, and I had over-counted on the picture’s intelligibility.1 [Note: W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, ii. 107.]

4. This rite also provided a form of absolution which comforted the conscience-stricken Israelite, and gave fresh courage to his soul. It addressed itself to the imagination, and accomplished this specific end in a more vivid and impressive way than the common sacrifices of the tabernacle. This action-parable, in which perhaps there was much of condescension to the superstition of the age, helped men to feel that the load of guilt was gone, that clouds of gathering wrath had been dispersed, and that the sky from which God looked down was fair and smiling once more. In many places where similar rites were observed, the people crouched with fear in their houses, and some trace of this feature of the custom appears in the Book of Leviticus, which forbade the people entering into the tabernacle whilst the goat for sacrifice was being offered. When the rite had been accomplished, men and women breathed freely once more, as though the world were no longer a place of penalty and a prison-house. The sense of fear was dispelled from the heart as the dim figure of the man leading the scapegoat disappeared over the tops of the hills, and no news of the year was received with greater gladness than the word signalled back to the city that the victim with its burden had passed into the waste wilderness. The rite was obviously adopted to keep alive the expectation of a time when evil should be cast forth into the desolate spaces of the Universe, and the last trace of sin and its curse should be taken away from the city and the people of God. The ceremony was surely a prophecy in symbol of the true Day of Atonement, when the Man of God’s choice should carry the burdens of the race into the land of forgetfulness and gracious oblivion.

No sins are reckoned against us by God; on His side they are all put away—in relation to Him they have no existence. Hence our Lord says (Matthew 9:2): “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins have been done away.” “Son”—for He is speaking to him as to a child of God, and tells him, without any solicitation on his part, an eternal fact, viz.—that his sins have no existence as in the mind or eye of God. The same truth is expressed in the parable of the prodigal son—there is no reckoning of sin against the prodigal on the father’s side.1 [Note: R. W. Corbet, Letters from a Mystic of the Present Day, 71.]

Rest, weary heart!

The penalty is borne, the ransom paid,

For all thy sins full satisfaction made!

Strive not to do thyself what Christ has done,

Claim the free gift, and make the joy thine own;

No more by pangs of guilt and fear distrest,

Rest! calmly rest!


Sacrifice and Separation

Once a year the sins of the people were thus solemnly atoned for, and the nation’s lost holiness was restored (Exodus 16:30, “to cleanse you: from all your sins shall ye be clean before Jehovah”). The slain goat made atonement for the people’s sins, and restored their peace and fellowship with God; the goat over which the people’s sins were confessed, and which was afterwards sent away to Azazel in the wilderness, symbolized visibly their complete removal from the nation’s midst (Psalm 103:12; Micah 7:19): a life was given up for the altar, and yet a living being survived to carry away all sin and uncleanness: the entire ceremonial thus symbolized as completely as possible both the atonement for sin and the entire removal of the cause of God’s alienation.

1. Sacrifice.—No specific mention is made of this rite in the subsequent books of the Bible, but it probably coloured the language of the prophet as he portrayed the Suffering Servant of Jehovah, who was despised and rejected, and from whom men hid their faces. The iniquity of the erring flock laid by a Divine hand upon His sacred person suggests the picture of the high priest transferring the common sin to the scape-victim by words of confession and the laying on of his hands. When the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews asserts that it is not possible for “the blood of bulls and of goats to take away sin,” he perhaps has in view at the moment the offerings of the great Day of Atonement. This rite of course is included without express mention in the statement that the meaning of all sacrifice is consummated and fulfilled in the death of Jesus Christ. Our Lord gathers up into His ministry and death the peculiar lines of thought indicated in this ceremony. In setting Himself to deal with the problem of suffering by first of all attacking the problem of sin, Jesus was bringing home to the multitude the fundamental lesson of this ancient ritual.

2. Separation.—We can almost see the figure of the scape-victim, looming through the shadows of the night, as Matthew describes the great healer casting out devils when the sick were brought to His feet in the Sabbath twilight. The evangelist seems to see the sicknesses He healed transferred to His weary form, and weighting His sympathetic soul, and sums up the picture in the memorable words of the prophet, “Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.” In Jesus Christ the rite comes back into some kind of external likeness to the primitive form, but with an unutterable difference, a difference consisting in an overwhelming contrast rather than a comparison. The scape-victim is the Man of Sorrows, chosen not by lot, but by the decree of the Most High, proclaimed through signs and wonders which God did by Him in the midst of the people. He is selected, if we may use the contrast without irreverence, not like the victim of primitive societies, who was singled out for the office by a degradation which seemed openly to challenge the wrath of the gods, but because of His transcendent dignity and holiness. It is no slave or war-captive who is dragged to this pathetic and ignominious ministry, but the Lord of heaven and the Prince of the kings of the earth, drawn by His own free compassions for the guilty and burdened race, made a curse to redeem us from the curse which cleaves to all offenders against God.

“Unto a solitary land.” The solitude of the Sin-bearer is something altogether distinct from the solitude of the Holy One. In His human life, our blessed Lord was, in a certain sense, solitary for this simple reason that He moved on a higher platform than others. He did not find Himself able to educate His own most intimate followers into sympathy with His own real aspirations, or to bring them under the law of life, under which He moved and acted. They remained of the earth, earthy, while He was above it, breathing a purer atmosphere, and living by a higher law. This solitude of holiness separated Him from sinners: but that very separation which, from time to time, made Him lead, in His humanity, a strange lonesome life, yet brought Him into such full contact with all the glorious beings and the realities of the spirit-world, that such a solitude could hardly be looked upon with any considerable regret, or be the source of any actual pain. But it was otherwise now. We are speaking, not of the solitude of the Representative of holiness and purity, but of the solitude of the Sin-bearer, because He was the sin-bearer.1 [Note: W. H. M. H. Aitken.]

It was a weary journey that the scapegoat took. It left the fertile fields, and the babbling brooks of Israel, far behind: the distant heights of Carmel disappeared on the far-off horizon; before it, there opened up a boundless waste of desert sand, while the “fit man” trudged on relentlessly, farther, and farther, many a weary mile, and still the scapegoat followed him, bearing the sins of the people. The grassy plains have disappeared; the last palm tree is lost in the distance; the sound of running waters has long since died upon the ear; and all around there is the barren waste of desert sand; and still the man trudges on, and still the scapegoat follows him. All alone in the desolate wilds, all alone in a blighted land, and not inhabited. And then the fit man disappears. He had led the goat into the solitude, and lo, it is left alone—all alone. Wistfully it gazes round on the dreary scene. Oh, for one blade of grass! oh, for one drop of water! Its eyes are strained, its nostrils dilated, if by chance it may catch a breath of something like fertility borne in the gale from the distance: but no. In solitude and weariness it still goes wandering on, and every step it takes, brings it farther, and farther still, into the silent desolate desert: the scapegoat is all alone. The weary day drags out its long hours: the dark and mournful night closes in; the morning sun rises up with blistering heat; its lips are parched, its limbs are trembling: it sinks amidst the desert sand, and dies. For it must be remembered that it was a late custom that threw it over the rock; at the first it was simply left to die.

And so the scapegoat bore the sins of the people into the land of separation. Leave it there, and come to Calvary.

We seem to see the Scapegoat of the human family led by the hand of the “fit man.” We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews that the Lord Jesus Christ, “by the eternal Spirit” offered Himself to God. That same Spirit of God that led Him alone into the wilderness, not that He might find comfort, but that He might meet with temptation, has led Him right up to Jerusalem. He set His face like a flint to go; but still the Spirit led, and still He pursued His leading, until He finds Himself in Gethsemane. The terrible darkness is beginning to gather round Him, and the agony to oppress His soul; but the Spirit of God leads on, and the Scapegoat continues to follow. He finds Himself all alone in the judgment hall, separated from those who were dearest to Him, and not one friendly voice raised up on behalf of the dying Son of God: but the Spirit still leads on, and the Scapegoat must still follow. He finds Himself nailed to the cross, and His lips are parched with thirst, and His body quails in agony. Will He not now pause and call for the ten legions of angels? Might He not raise those languid, dying eyes, and demand a draught of the sparkling waters of life from His Father’s hand? But the Spirit still leads on; and the Scapegoat must follow. Deeper and deeper, into the darkness; down into the solitude of sorrow, down into the desolate land not inhabited; and, by and by, from the breaking heart, there rings throughout God’s universe the cry of “the Forsaken,” “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” The Scapegoat has found the land of separation at last, all alone in the darkness. The isolating influences of sin have done their work. He is shut out from the light of His Father’s eye, or to Himself He seems to be: the joy, the delight of His Life is gone: the blessed fellowship seems broken: there is a horrible sense of loneliness within His heart, and a terrible desolation within His guiltless soul. So He sinks, He staggers, He dies: Jesus, “the Forsaken.”

And so He bore our sins into the land not inhabited. No witnessing spirit can find them there; no denizen of those dreary regions can rediscover them. They are left amid the wastes of desolation; they are sunk like a stone into the depths of the vast ocean of infinite love. They are lost sight of by man; the very devils of hell cannot rediscover them; the angels find them obliterated from their view, and God Himself has turned His back upon them, and left them in the land of separation.1 [Note: W. H. M. H. Aitken.]

“Now have I won a marvel and a Truth;”

So spake the soul and trembled, “dread and ruth

Together mixed, a sweet and bitter core

Closed in one rind; for I did sin of yore,

But this (so said I oft) was long ago;

So put it from me far away, but, lo!

With Thee is neither After nor Before,

O Lord, and clear within the noon-light set

Of one illimitable Present, yet

Thou lookest on my fault as it were now.

So will I mourn and humble me; yet Thou

Art not as man that oft forgives a wrong

Because he half forgets it, Time being strong

To wear the crimson of guilt’s stain away;

For Thou, forgiving, dost so in the Day

That shows it clearest, in the boundless Sea

Of Mercy and Atonement, utterly

Casting our pardoned trespasses behind,

No more remembered, or to come in mind;

Set wide from us as East from West away:

So now this bitter turns to solace kind;

And I will comfort me that once of old

A deadly sorrow struck me, and its cold

Runs through me still; but this was long ago.

My grief is dull through age, and friends outworn,

And wearied comforters have long forborne

To sit and weep beside me: Lord, yet Thou

Dost look upon my pang as it were now!”1 [Note: Dora Greenwell.]


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), Mission Sermons, iii. 267.

Driver (S. R.), in the Dictionary of the Bible, i. 207.

Edersheim (A.), The Temple, 302.

Frazer (J. G.), The Golden Bough, iii. 93.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, 254.

Nestle (Eb.), in the Encyclopœdia of Religion and Ethics, ii. 282.

Schechter (S.), Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, 301.

Selby (T. G.), The God of the Patriarchs, 221.

Thomas (N. W.), in Folk-lore, xvii. 258.

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