A-Z: Famous stories from the Bible: The scapegoat

Definition

The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament contains God’s instructions to his people the Jews, concerning what they should do when any of them had committed a wrong act or sin, either against God or against another person. They had to make amends for their wrongdoing by offering one of best of their own animals to God in a special tent called the Tent of Meeting. The priests, who were all from the family of Aaron, would receive the offering and kill the animal at the entrance of the tent, sprinkling its blood on the altar inside. In this way the animal would be sacrificed in place of the guilty person and the transgressor would then be forgiven. This process, whereby a wrong-doer could be reconciled to God by the punishing of an animal in the person’s place, was known as atonement

ScapegoatGod then instituted a special day each year called the Day of Atonement. On this day the high priest offered sacrifices for the sins of the Israelite people as a whole. In addition to slaughtering sacrificial animals, two goats were set aside. One was chosen for sacrifice but the other had a different symbolic role and was referred to as a ‘scapegoat.’

The high priest would place his hands on the scapegoat’s head and confess over it all the wrongdoings of the Jewish community. Then a specially chosen man would lead the goat into the desert, where he would release it. In this way, God declared all the Israelites free from the guilt of their wrong-doing – the (innocent) goat symbolically carried all the people’s sins on itself, and carried them away from the community. This ritual was repeated each year on the Day of Atonement to cleanse the people and allow them a ‘fresh start’.

The story illustrates:

  • The serious implications of wrong-doing – justice demands that it must be punished or ‘paid for’
  • God’s provision of a way that his people could be forgiven and thus reconciled with him
  • Christians see the atonement won by the scapegoat as a forerunner of Jesus’ role in taking the guilt of humankind’s sin on himself (when, though innocent, he was condemned). By removing it from the people, they could have a ‘fresh start’ with God.

Related topics

Big Ideas from the Bible: Goats

Bible References

Leviticus 16:20-22
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