From Book of Leviticus:
When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 16:20-22 (NRSV) – May 20, 2014)
The scapegoat! One of the little-known but very often mentioned figures of the Old Testament is the scapegoat. If I were a betting man, I would bet that very few people actually know the origin of this term that nearly everyone has used at some time or another. Well, here it is in Israel’s ancient ritual of atonement.
The scapegoat is one of two that Aaron has taken from the flock for the atonement ritual. Part of yesterday’s Old Testament reading explained how he was to make the choice between the two:
He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin-offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Lev 16:7-10)
Who or what “Azazel” may be, or even what the word means, is a matter of debate and has been for centuries. Azazel is identified in the Talmud as a demon, and this understanding repeated in the pseudepigraphic apocalypse, the Book of Enoch. (Some elements of the recent Russell Crowe movie Noah, particularly “the Watchers” who assist Noah, were taken from this book.) But some scholars of the Hebrew language suggest that, instead, the word is an emphatic form of an ancient root, azel, which is believed to mean “to remove.” It may be what is called a “reduplicative intensive” meaning not merely “to remove,” but “to remove completely.”
If the goat is sent off into the desert to be eaten by a demon, that’s one thing. That means the innocent scapegoat, although set free, dies because of someone else’s wrong doing. But if there is no demon, if the goat is just set free “to remove completely” another’s fault, what does that mean? It occurs to me that (if there’s no demon to catch and destroy it) the goat gets away.
“You got away with it!” I remember childhood friends saying that to one another when we thought we had pulled the wool over our parents’ or teachers’ eyes, when we had committed some discretion and it apparently had gone unnoticed because no one was punished. “He got away with murder,” people said of O.J. Simpson. When someone “gets away” with something, we human beings both celebrate and revile that fact — I guess it depends on how flagrant the misdeed is.
The scapegoat, on Israel’s behalf, gets away with Israel’s sin (assuming no devouring demon). The sins aren’t actually removed, except in the sense that the goat carries them into the desert; what happens is that God choses not to notice them. In fact, God’s detailed directions for this ritual mean that God actively conspires with the People to let them, through the scapegoat, get away with their wrong-doings.
Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, has suggested that, when we are baptized into the body of Christ, Jesus wraps us with his love, and that when God looks at us, God sees Jesus, sees Jesus’ perfection and, therefore, doesn’t see our sins. I’ve come to a rather different belief. I think God sees us in all our glorious imperfection; God is aware of our indiscretions and our short-comings. But God chooses to overlook them, just as God chose to let the Hebrews “get away” with their iniquities through the setting free of the scapegoat.
As an adult, I look back on the childhood misbehavior of me and my friends, and I now know perfectly well that we hadn’t fooled anyone. Our parents and our teachers knew what we were up to; they let us get away with it. They hoped (rightly, I hope) that we would grow up and put aside such behavior. I believe that that was God’s hope with respect to the Hebrews and is God’s hope with respect to human beings in general. God hopes we’ll grow up.
But the fact that we still create scapegoats sometimes makes me wonder.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.