Literature

A Summary and Analysis of the Biblical Scapegoat Story

The term ‘scapegoat’ is well-known: it refers to an innocent person who has to carry the blame for something on behalf of other people. But where does the term ‘scapegoat’ originate?

‘Scapegoating’ originates in the Bible, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, which tells of how two goats would be ritually chosen, with one being killed as a sacrifice and the other being released into the wilderness. This second goat would be allowed to ‘escape’, in the hope that any punishment would befall the escaped goat rather than the people of Israel themselves. ‘Escaped goat’ is rendered in English translations of Leviticus as ‘scapegoat’.

But oddly enough, the whole thing is founded on an error. Before we come to that matter, though, let’s briefly summarise the story of the scapegoat before we provide an analysis of the story’s meaning.

Scapegoat: summary

We find the scapegoat in the Old Testament, in the Book of Leviticus. Let’s take a closer look at what the Bible says (quotations are from the King James Version):

16:6 And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house.

16:7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

16:8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.

Here we have the first mention of the ‘scapegoat’. The first goat would be killed for God (‘the LORD’, or Yahweh), while the second would be let loose into the wilderness.

16:9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.

16:10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.

Note that both goats are ‘sacrificed’ in a sense: one is slaughtered as an offering to God, but the other is for the Israelites’ own benefit, as they hope that this goat will bear any punishment for the sins of the tribe, rather than some terrible punishment befalling the Israelites themselves.

16:20 And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: 16:21 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: 16:22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

There is a strong ritualistic element to the scapegoating: Aaron will confess all of the sins of the Israelites while placing his hands on the animal’s head, as if imparting the sins into the goat’s body. This is because the scapegoat ritual is part of the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur: one of the holiest festivals in Judaism.

Scapegoat: analysis

It’s easy to see how the term ‘scapegoat’ came to be applied to a person who, although innocent like the goat, has to assume all of the blame or punishment for other people’s sins or transgressions. Thus we talking of ‘scapegoating’ someone for the crimes of another person or group of people.

The practice of scapegoating in the Old Testament can also be said to prefigure the ultimate scapegoat in the New Testament: Jesus Christ. For Christians, Jesus took all the sins of mankind upon himself and allowed himself to be crucified for them, so that those who follow him might be forgiven for those sins.

Oddly, though, the term ‘scapegoat’ is something of a translation error (as these things so often are). The original Hebrew text of Leviticus should more properly be translated into English as ‘And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel’. ‘For Azazel’: not ‘for the scapegoat’. But who, then, was Azazel?

Azazel is thought to have been a desert spirit the Israelites believed in. Thus Azazel is the proper name for this spirit: it would be like saying ‘for Satan’ or ‘for Beelzebub’. Nobody is quite sure where the name Azazel comes from or what it means. It’s been speculated that Azazel was linked to field-spirits and satyrs (who were part-goat, as in Greek mythology, and associated with the sin of lust), but whoever he was, it’s clear that he stands in corresponding position to ‘the LORD’ and that one goat is meant for God and the other for Azazel.

But the early English translators of the Bible decided to translate the mysterious Azazel as ‘the scapegoat’, which conceals the true meaning somewhat. (More recent translations tend to restore the proper name of Azazel to the verse.)

Later legends dreamt up all sorts of fanciful ideas concerning Azazel’s true identity, including the notion that he was a fallen angel who was exiled from heaven because he refused to accept man – God’s new invention – as superior. But the association with goats makes the satyr-like spirit or minor deity more probable.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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