One wonders how many have used the term “scapegoat” without knowing its true significance. Most have a sense of what it means—a person blamed for the wrongs of another or one chosen for punishment to satisfy a need for public justice even though they haven’t done the wrong. We equate the scapegoat with the “fall guy” or the “whipping boy.” Though these connections resonate with some of the purpose of the scapegoat, they miss much of the richness of what the goat truly represented. Before we look closely at what the term “scapegoat” actually means, let us examine what was placed upon it.
And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness…
Aaron confessed over the scapegoat the iniquities, transgressions, and sins of all the people. But these sins had already been covered over, atoned for, by the blood of the sacrificial goat that was for YHWH. This is an important technicality that we cannot afford to forget if we are to understand the full significance of what this goat represented. Why is the Lord careful to command Aaron to confess iniquities, transgressions, and sins? Are these all the same thing?
Sin is a term we commonly use to describe all unholy acts. In this way, transgressions and iniquities could be called sins. But when sin is used in combination with these terms, the Lord is communicating a specific truth. Remember that we saw in the Mosaic system there was no sacrifice for intentional sins. The sin sacrifice was only for sins committed in ignorance, not rebellion. The Hebrew word for sin in this verse comes from a term that means “missing the mark.” The only way you miss a mark is if you were shooting at it in the first place. This is sin. We were heading for a goal, but we missed the bull’s eye. This isn’t intentional, it’s simply a mistake. Sin is “I was heading that way and just got a bit off track. I wanted to walk in love, but wound up on Bitterness Boulevard. I wanted a relationship with God, but found myself on Religious Road.” There is no intentionality to it.
Transgression isn’t that way. Whereas in sin we get off on the wrong road, in transgression we choose the evil way. Transgression is open rebellion; doing wrong when we know it’s wrong. It was only on the Day of Atonement that transgressions were atoned for. This day alone made provision for the willful disobedience of man.
Iniquity is different from sins or transgressions. One could call iniquity the root, sin the plant, and transgression the fruit. The Hebrew term means “bent, warped, or twisted.” If someone has a genetic disease or a congenital disease, it becomes manifested in his or her body. No one looks for a pathogen. As the person’s body degenerates or warps, they have to make peace with the fact that this is just how they are. Think of iniquity as a genetic or congenital disease of the soul. Iniquities are inherited from our ancestors or passed to us from the environment of our birth and upbringing. Iniquity is an innate tendency to head down the crooked path instead of the straight and narrow way. Culture and environment play a large role in setting us up for sin. But the lion’s share of iniquity is inherited from our fathers. How? Did your dad lay hands on you and say, “My child, I impart to you all of my iniquities for they must be passed down unto the third and fourth generation?” I doubt it! These iniquities come to us genetically through the bloodline. This is why Jesus Christ came from Adam in terms of the flesh, but not in terms of the life that was in His blood.
As iniquities are intrinsically tied to our flesh, sin tends to express itself from our soul. Transgressions are a matter of the spirit, for it is in the spirit of man that the will of man ultimately resides. If I will to sin, I am willing out of the spirit of man. And if I am saved but intentionally deciding to sin anyway, it means that I am committing the offense despite the Spirit of grace. Thank the Lord that He was pierced for our transgressions; but we need to remember that He also offers a stiff penalty to all who tread His blood underfoot as an unclean thing. Neither sin nor iniquity is good. He has saved us from both. And as our atoning sacrifice, He has cleansed us from transgressions as well. But once washed, let us not return to them lest we be condemned with the hypocrites!
The live goat carried the sins, transgressions, and iniquities of the people into the wilderness. In temple times he was led to a cliff and pushed over it backwards so that he plunged to the ground and died. But this was never part of the law. This would have been antithetical to this animal being referred to as “the live goat.” This goat was to be set free alive into the wilderness. In this sense, it is analogous to the live dove that was used in the cleansing of the leper. That ceremony also had two animals, doves, one which was killed and one which was dipped in its blood and set free. That is what was being done with the scapegoat. The blood had already been shed for the sins; now this goat was allowed to go free into the wilderness.
And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat.
Herein lies the language that has caused confusion and obscured the truth for so long. The translators have done us a disservice by calling this goat the “scapegoat.” The Hebrew term is Azazel and it only appears in Leviticus 16. But it is not the name of a place or a thing. Two lots were drawn, one for YHWH, the other “for Azazel.” The principle of antithesis demands that Azazel be a person even as YHWH is a Person.
Who is Azazel? Remember how in Leviticus 17:7 the children of Israel were told that they were no longer to offer their sacrifices to demons? These demons were sa’iyr—goat demons. We know them from mythology as satyrs, often represented as having the upper body of a man and a lower body of a goat. These apparently had their abode in the desert, as did Azazel. Only one evil spirit being has the ignominy or stature to be juxtaposed directly with YHWH in connection to the sins, iniquities, and transgressions of His people, and that is satan.
But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before Jehovah, to make atonement for him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. ASV
The live goat wasn’t chosen as a sacrifice to Azazel as though he were a deity to be appeased. This in no way would have been allowed or commanded of the covenant community. Remember, this goat had been presented before YHWH along with the sacrificial one and belonged to Him as well. Its job was to bear the atoned-for sins of the people out to Azazel, white ribbon fluttering in the dry wind, and prance about freely as if to say, “Aha! Look at that! All the sins you caused the people to commit are atoned for! YHWH has forgiven them! You lose again! Aha!” By way of the scapegoat, YHWH was in essence rubbing Azazel’s nose in his failure.
Once the goat was led away, Aaron went into the courtyard again and removed the white linen garments. He washed his body at the brazen laver and put on his golden vestments. Then he offered up his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, drawing to a close his special functions on the Day of Atonement.