Scapegoat (Leviticus)

This morning, as we continue to work our way through the Bible, we come to the book of Leviticus.  Leviticus used to be the very first book that Jewish children studied in the synagogue.  For Christians, though, Leviticus tends to be one of the last books we study.

            I think a lot of us are like the lady who was asked if she had ever read the Bible all the way through and she said, “I’ve started to read it through three times, but each time I got bogged down in the book of Leviticus.  I enjoy Genesis and Exodus, but Leviticus seemed such dull reading that I became discouraged and gave up.”

            And I think a lot of us would tend to agree with her assessment.  There’s sort of a mental block that most Christians seem to have about certain books — especially Old Testament books, and particularly, the book of Leviticus. 

            And it’s easy to see why.  Leviticus is one of the books of the law, and in fact, it’s just full of laws and regulations, especially rules for the priesthood.  In fact, that’s why it’s called Leviticus, because it has so much to say about the Levitical priesthood and their sacrifices.

            I once heard someone refer to the book of Leviticus as the “liver and onions” book of the Bible.  They said, “I know that it must be good for me, but I just don’t seem to have a taste for the stuff.”  To others, the book of Leviticus is sorta like camping … they tried it once and that was enough to last them a lifetime. 

            And I get it.  If I’m being honest, the book of Leviticus is rather boring.  It seems rather dull after all the excitement of Genesis and Exodus.   And if I had to make a choice between reading the exciting stories in Genesis or Exodus and reading the Levitical codes, I would much rather read from Genesis and Exodus.  Compared to other portions of the Bible, Leviticus is dull.

            But I would also note that our culture has concluded that anything which is not entertaining is not worth listening to.  Media has the task of grabbing a person’s attention, of taking them from whatever they are doing and focusing their eyes and their minds on the printed page or the television screen.  And they do this by trying to make it more exciting than all other media who are trying to do the same thing.  And so, we’ve come to the conclusion that everything we see and read needs to be entertaining and exciting.

            But I would also note that the value of something is not to be determined by how entertaining it is, but by how relevant it is.  For example, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were not written to entertain us, but they are extremely important.  If we want to be entertained, we turn to writings which begin “once upon a time,” and end with “they lived happily after.”  But if we want to be informed about things that are essential to our life both here in the present and for all eternity, we need to get beyond our desire for entertainment.

            I don’t think there’s anybody here who go to the Cumberland County Public Library and check out the county code book for the sake of entertainment.  Nobody does that, but I can tell you that while we were building this church building, Joey and I spent a lot of time reading those county codes very carefully.  Because it was relevant to what we were doing.  

            The book of Leviticus is not at all exciting, but it is a book that is filled with regulations concerning how people are to relate to God and to their neighbors.   And while it is filled with regulations which were specifically for the Israelites, it foreshadows some very important things for those of us who are Christians. 

            Let’s watch this video that will give us an overview of Leviticus, then I’ll come back to talk with you about what I think is one of the most important themes in this book.

            Watch VIDEO  (

            As the video showed, the two most important themes in Leviticus are the sacrifices and the feasts.  This morning, I want to focus on the sacrifices, and especially that sacrifice found in the middle of the book that took place on the Day of Atonement.

            We’re familiar with the term “scapegoat”.  Whenever we find ourselves in trouble, one of the first things that we tend to do is to blame somebody else.  From the time we’re children, we look for someone else to blame when things go wrong.  It’s what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden.  God asks them why they’ve eaten the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and Adam says, “It’s not my fault.  She gave it to me.”  Eve says, “It’s not my fault.  The serpent deceived me.”

            And so, we understand what a scapegoat is – it’s someone you place the blame on — but what a lot of folks don’t know is that the idea of a scapegoat originated in the book of Leviticus.   Turn with me to Leviticus chapter 16.

            This chapter deals with the Day of Atonement.  Now, in the Jewish feast calendar there are seven major feasts — four in the spring, three in the fall.  The first of the fall feasts is the Feast of Trumpets, also known as Rosh Hashanah.  It’s the first day of the Jewish calendar, what we would refer to as New Year’s Day. 

            This Feast of Trumpets is the beginning of ten days of repentance and soul searching.  The Jews wanted to begin the New Year by getting right with God.  And so, you would fast, deny yourself, search your heart.  You would pray, “God, I want to start the New Year off right.  We as a community want to start this New Year by letting you restore us.”

            So, these ten days of repentance lead up to the Day of Atonement.  Today, Jews refer to this day as Yom Kippur.  And here’s what happened on the Day of Atonement.  In verse 3, “But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place…” (Leviticus 16:3)

            Now I want you to get the picture here.  At the time of Christ, you could fit about 200,000 people on the temple mount.  This was a huge, huge building.  So, picture a couple of hundred thousand people, gathered together after ten days of weeping, fasting, and denying themselves — searching their souls so they can come before God to have their sins removed.  And there is one man, the high priest, who is charged with the awesome responsibility of going into the presence of God on behalf of all the people.

            Aaron goes through a series of rituals to make sure he is cleansed, he is washed, he is sanctified; so that he can then go to God on behalf of the people.  And here’s what he does.

            Verse 5: “And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering….Then 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 over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.  And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use 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, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” (Leviticus 16:5,7-10)

            Imagine hundreds of thousands of worshipers, coming together to begin the new year by having their sins forgiven; to be reminded of God’s mercy and grace.  The high point of the day’s ceremonies is when the high priest brings out these two goats.  One of them is to be sacrificed; the other one is to be brought out alive.

            And this live goat is very important because when you see how the goat and the high priest interact, it will help you to understand some things in the New Testament.  Keep in mind that people in the Eastern world think in terms of pictures.  Those of us here in the Western world tend to think better with words.  When we want to learn something, we say, “Define it.  Give me three points.  Give me two things to take home.”  

            But the Eastern mind thinks in terms of pictures, metaphors, images.  So, the picture here is important.

            In verse 20, “When he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.  And 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.

            “And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness.  The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:20-22)

            So, after the high priest has finished making atonement for the people, which is done by killing the first goat, he then brings out the second goat.  He lays his hands on the head of the goat and confesses all the sins of the Israelites and puts them on the goat’s head.  Then he sends the goat away into the wilderness by way of a man who has been appointed for this task.  That goat will carry all of their sins out of the camp, and then the man will release the goat into the desert so that it can disappear, never to be seen again.

            Now all of this raises an interesting question – Who’s the guy who gets to do this job?  If this goat has got all the sins of all your neighbors on it, do you really want to be the one leading that thing out into the wilderness?  Tradition has it that the man who was assigned this task was always a Gentile who had no connection with the people of Israel.  Because when this goat got sent away, they didn’t want to see it walking around town three days later.  This is a goat loaded with sin.

            There’s another Jewish tradition about the scapegoat that involves a red cord.  The tradition says the Jews would take a red cord — red being symbolic of blood, judgment, and punishment — and that cord would be placed on the head of the goat.  That red cord was symbolic of their sin.

            And so, the Jews placed their sins on the head of this goat.  Now, the Eastern mind not only thinks in terms of pictures, but it also thinks communally.  Most of us think individually. We think of my guilt before God.  The Eastern mind also thinks individually but far more important would be the community.  What are we guilty of as the people of God that needs to be placed on the head of this goat?

            And I wonder what would it be like for this congregation to capture a sense of, “What are we guilty of?”  What would it be like for us to say, What do we need as a group need to confess to God?

            And so, the high priest would place his hands on the goat to put all the sins of all the Jewish people on it.  Then the man appointed for the task would lead the goat out into the wilderness. The word for this scapegoat is Azazel.  Azazel carries with it the idea of “taking something away.”  The Gentile who was given this task would Azazel the goat, he would take it away.  

            Now that you have this image of the scapegoat in your mind, turn with me to John chapter 19 where we find Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate.  The high priest and the teachers of the law have demanded that Jesus be killed.  They placed “guilt” on his head. “Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.  And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head…” (John 19:1-2)   Now if you have a crown of thorns on your head and it punctures your skin, you’re going to get what color lines around your head?  Red.  Just like the red on the head of the scapegoat.

            And in verse 15, we read that, “They cried out.”  But notice what they cried out. “They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” (John 19:15).  Take him away!  Azazel!

            And so, Jesus is led away.  And here you have Jesus with a red ring around his head, the crowd chanting, “Azazel, Azazel! and then a Gentile leads him out of Jerusalem, where he is killed.  Do you suppose any of the Jews saw the significance of what was happening that day?  Did any of them get it?  That Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat.

            The Hebrews writer tells us that everything that happened in the Old Testament, everything that happened in the book of Leviticus, was intended to point us to Jesus.  In Hebrews 10:1:  “The law…can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.  Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered…?  But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.  For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4)

            The Hebrew writer says the Day of Atonement didn’t happen just once.  It happened over and over, year after year after year.  Every year they had to find another goat and the high priest had to go through the process all over again.  Why?  Because while the scapegoat was a picture of what forgiveness was all about, it couldn’t really take away sin.  It’s a goat.

            Verse 11: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)

            Can you imagine what good news it was for the Jews when they finally realized that they didn’t have to go through the rituals of the Day of Atonement every year?

            As Isaiah prophesied, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)

            Jesus Christ is our scapegoat.  The difference is, first of all, that (unlike the Jew’s scapegoat) Jesus truly did take our sins.  And secondly, he only had to do it one time. 

            Let me tell you why I think this lesson is so very important for those of us who are Christians.  Because, sometimes we have a hard time getting rid of the guilt we feel regarding sins we have committed in the past.  Sins that maybe were committed before we became Christians, sins that were washed away in the waters of baptism.  Or maybe sins that we’ve committed since becoming Christians that we have acknowledged and repented of, sins that we know are forgiven because God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9)

            But sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for something we’ve done.  We feel so bad about it, so guilty over letting God down.  Maybe even this morning you feel beaten down with shame and guilt.  And one of the things that Satan just loves to do is to make you feel like God could never forgive you.  You’re a terrible person.  You’ve done so much wrong and you just can’t imagine that God would ever forgive you.

            It’s at times like that that we need to be reminded that “the goat is Azazel.”  Our scapegoat has been released and our sins have been carried away.  This is especially important when somebody reminds you about your past and wants to hold your failures against you.

            I love the story that Robert Heffler tells.  He says,

            There was a little boy visiting his grandparents on their farm.  He was given a slingshot to play with, out in the woods.  He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit the target.  Getting discouraged, he headed back to dinner.

            As he was walking back, he saw Grandma’s pet duck.  Just out of impulse, he let a stone fly, hit the duck square in the head and killed it.  He was shocked and grieved.   In a panic, he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to see his sister watching.  Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.

            After lunch that day Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.”  But Sally said, “Grandma, Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today, didn’t you Johnny?”  And then she whispered to him, “Remember the duck?”  So Johnny did the dishes.

            Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing, and Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help me make supper.”

            But Sally smiled and said, “Well, that’s all right because Johnny told me he wanted to help.”  And she whispered again, “Remember the duck?” Sally went fishing and Johnny stayed back.

            After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally’s, he finally couldn’t stand it any longer.  He went to Grandma and confessed that he killed her duck.  She knelt down, gave him a hug, and said, “Sweetheart, I know.  You see, I was standing at the window and I saw the whole thing.  Because I love you, I forgive you.  But, I was just wondering how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”

            You see, even after God forgives us, there are times when we let Satan continue to make us a slave of us.  And so, Paul writes in the book of Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

            Why is there no condemnation?  Because we have a scapegoat.  Jesus Christ is not someone we blame, but he is someone who took our blame.  And the result is, as the Psalmist put it, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

            It may be that someone right here right now is carrying a heavy load of guilt.  Maybe you had a rough week this past week.  Maybe you’ve got some sort of addiction you’re struggling with.  Maybe you’re carrying a load of guilt because of sin you’ve committed in the past.             I want you to picture the Jewish High Priest placing his hands on the head of the goat and sending it out – Azazel – and as you do, remember that that’s what Jesus did for us.  He’s our scapegoat.  And maybe you’re ready to say, “God, I’ve been carrying around this junk, this sin, for way too long.  I’m ready to put it on the head of the scapegoat and let it go.”

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