Goats and sheep were, and still are, kept together by many farmers. In the Bible, references to goats not only reflect the nomadic way of life of the early settlers of the Middle East, who travelled from pasture to pasture, but also have symbolic significance.

Goats used for sacrifice

Leviticus, one of the earliest books in the Old Testament of the Bible, records the laws given by God to the Israelites, including instructions about sacrifices, often using goats. For example, if a ruler offended against the laws of God, ‘when he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering a male goat without defect' (Leviticus 4:23).


Leviticus also states that there should be a day of atonement for sin, when the priest should lay his hands on the head of a living goat, confessing the sins of the people, and then the goat should be sent out into the wilderness, ceremonially and symbolically carrying away the sins of everyone (Leviticus 16:20-22). This was the scapegoat.

The Old Testament idea of a scapegoat also continues into the New Testament. The description of Jesus as the redeemer who carries the sins of humankind refers back to the idea of the Old Testament scapegoat. A similar, more frequent symbol of Jesus is as a sacrificial lamb (see Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb).


In the New Testament, goats appear in the story told by Jesus to describe the Last Judgement. He taught that those who have lived in obedience to God will be taken to heaven, whilst those who ignored God's commandments will be kept out. The imagery used is that God will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He ‘will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left' (Matthew 25:33).

Scapegoats in literature

The word scapegoat is still used today for someone who is made to take the blame for the wrong-doings of others.

George Orwell, in his novel 1984, invented a person, Goldstein, who is used by the government as the focus for the hatred of the masses and hence to draw attention away from the horrors of the regime. Orwell intensifies the idea of a goat by describing Goldstein as having ‘a small goatee beard' and a face ‘which resembled the face of a sheep.'

Related topics

Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb

Other cultural references

George Orwell's 1984

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