Yom Kippur Diaries 4: Getting My Goat

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That crazy “scapegoat” thing in the Day of Atonement passages  (Lev. 16:6-10, 20-28; 17:7) has always bugged me. Scholars have a field day figuring this one out. The NIV 2011 for Lev. 16:8 reads:

He [Aaron] is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.

The problem with this is, of course, the Hebrew. It reads rather clearly:

 וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל־שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גּוֹרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַיהוָה וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל׃

There, now. That helps, doesn’t it! Let me try a “literal” translation, i.e. just one that is formally equivalent (but might still be wrong!).

And Aaron shall cast lots over/for the two goats; one lot for Yahweh and one lot for Azazel.

“Azazel” is the term normally translated “scapegoat,” but as early as the RSV (1950’s) perpetuated today via the ESV, the rendering “for Azazel” has been around. The main scholarly dictionary of biblical Hebrew includes notes that the term could designate a demon of the wilderness. Early Jewish (aka “inter-testamental”) literature understood Azazel to be the Prince of Demons, or Satan. The main thing in favor of this is the parallel between “one lot for Yahweh” and “one lot for Azazel,” that is, both are proper names of beings who could conceivably receive a goat-gift.

The scholarly literature cylces through three options. First, the name is indeed thought to be a proper name for a fierce demon of the wilderness. Our poor goat not only must bear all the guilt of the nation, but is surrendered up to some fierce creature haunting the remote places. My qualm with this is actually not any disquiet with the ancient Hebrew believing such things, nor any distaste of my own. Rather, it’s two thing. First, I have never found the extra-biblical ancient text actually documenting the idenitity and moniker of this denizen of the desert and his voracious appetite for guilt-laden male caprovids. Second, no early translation of the OT takes this direction. All the early Jewish and Christian translators had a lively belief in demons, and never hesitated to name them when they thought they saw them. No ancient translation that I’ve checked picks up this idea, though. I have no problem thinking the Hebrews believed in Big Ugly Bad Things In the Desert. Heck, I’ve got some stuff in closets that scare me more! But as an explanation of what this text is about, I have my doubts.

A second view sees “Azazel” simply as the name of the desert place to which our guilty goat is dismissed. A whiff of this shows up in the NLT, “to the wilderness of Azazel,” kind of like “the land of Oz.” But the problem there is that the Israelites in the wilderness were always on the move, so I guess “the Land of Azazel” either varied in distance, or moved around. How far was Azazel from the tabernacle? Did all the goats go there? Somewhere out in the wilderness of Sinai, is there a small archaeological tell containing the remains of 40 or so guilt-ridden goats? How did they know where to find it? It just doesn’t work in the text when you push it.

The best option is the one I really didn’t want to accept, but sometimes, the un-mystical, un-romantic, un-spooky but reasonable meaning fitting the context is the right one. The term seems to be a combination of the words “goat” and an admittedly rare word meaning “go away,” i.e. “the go-away goat.” Those early translators who didn’t jump on the chance to find the Devil in the OT rendered the term with this sense, i.e. simply the goat that is to go away, to be dismissed. Perhaps the phrase became a technical term, almost like a proper name, so it could parallel “one for Yahweh” and “one for/as go-away-goat.”

I wish it were original, but somewhere I heard this view called the “escape-goat” interpretation, and I pretty much think it’s the right one. Apologies to any devotees of desert devils among my readers!

So… I don’t know how a silly goat picked literally at the roll of the dice can bear a community’s sin. There are some truly ludicrous legends circulating around about this that are utterly devoid of scriptural support and void also of real historical basis. If you want to hear more of this foolishness, find Rob Bell’s sermons on the day of atonement and the “red thread that became white” story, which I won’t even link you to…but I digress…

I can tell you one thing about this Tale of Two Goats, and it’s just the text, admittedly read in my rather oblique fashion. Imagine you’re a goat. You’re just munching away at about 5 blades of dry, hard grass, your buddy goat is maybe 15  yards away hunting for 2 or 3 blades of grass in this rocky wilderness. And you both get caught and taken to the tabernacle. There, the priest mumbles some stuff and rolls the dice, and then pulls you over and presses his hand hard, really hard, on your head. Then some guy puts a rope on you and leads you out toward the wilderness and just lets you go. You have no idea what’s going on here, but at the last moment, at the edge of camp, or town, you stop and look back.

Here’s what you see.

Your buddy has had his throat slashed in a single, devastating draw of the knife by the High Priest. Blood is gushing everywhere. The priest seems to be playing around with the blood, he’s dabbing it on people and stuff, spattering it around on things, flicking it on furniture and equipment around the sanctuary. You start to feel sick. To your shocked amazement, the priest then butchers your buddy and sets him on fire! He’s standing there holding up his bloody hands, his blood-spattered robes swung wide as if this is some really great thing!

WIth a shiver, you suddenly get what that rolling the dice was about. Your buddy came up snake eyes, you rolled sevens and elevens.

One of you was doomed to die.

You didn’t know it, but one of you was going to die because of the sins of the whole nation. That blood would be the very life of that goat, spilled, spattered, dabbed and dribbled on every person and piece of equipment and furniture in the whole tabernacle. Somehow this blood-painting was going to make all that stuff clean, acceptable to God. The other goat (that turned out to be you) was going to go free. The “escape goat.” Sure, you’re bearing the guilt of the nation, but hey it beats being lashed, slashed, splashed and torched!

So you now face a rather tough life. The wilderness isn’t fun. And what if the desert-demon thing is true and you might meet up with a hairy, scary devil with a predilection for guilty goat-meat. You don’t know if this thing actually exists but really, you’d rather take your chances with a mythological hairy goat demon than face a High Priest with a never-fail kosher-knife!

Suddenly…you get something else. You could have been that butchered-and-burned goat. But you aren’t. You’re free. Your future is uncertain, but you’re free. And why? What makes you different from that other goat, the one butchered and burned for the sins of the whole nation? Was it that you were more handsome? Why were you the “escape goat?” More valuable? No…it was nothing at all that you did at all. In it’s own strange way, that roll of the dice, in its utter disregard for merit, represented sheer mercy.

You’re the goat that got away.

…aren’t we all.

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for bringing Yom Kippur alive this year as it has never come alive before. Looking forward to the thoughts on Succoth, once it is over. I think there is a connection between it and the campmeeting experience as a time of disconnection and remembrance past and preparation forward.

  2. Hi Dwight!
    Thanks so much for reading. I don’t think I’ll be doing a Succoth series, maybe one post. I have a lot of other stuff I want to do here and writing on a Holy Day puts a lot of pressure on. So I’ll probably move back to some other things I have. But who knows, maybe I’ll “camp” a bit on Succoth.

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