Scapegoat

SCAPEGOAT (Heb. ‘ăzā’zēl). A term that occurs only in Lev.16.8, Lev.16.10, Lev.16.26 and has been interpreted variously. It is used to refer to the second of two goats for which lots were cast on the Day of Atonement. The first was sacrificed as a sin offering (Lev.16.9), but the second scapegoat (Lev.16.26) had the people’s sins transferred to it by prayer and the laying on of hands and was then taken into the wilderness.

The Hebrew term translated “scapegoat” is thought to be related to an Arabic word meaning “remove”; thus it is often translated “removal” (i.e., scapegoat). The actual meaning of the term and its use in the context of Lev.16.1-Lev.16.34 are very uncertain.

Some authorities regard the term to be the name of a solitary place to which the goat was taken. This does not seem very likely. Others (as kjv) regard it as a qualifying word for goat—i.e., the goat that removes the guilt of the people, the scapegoat. Some scholars see in the word the name of a personal being—a demon of the wilderness or a fallen angel who seduces people to evil (as in the Book of Enoch), or an epithet applied to the devil.

A parallel to the scapegoat may be seen in the Scriptures. In the ritual for a recovered leper, a living bird was released in the country to carry the evil away, and the leper was declared clean (Lev.14.6). In the Babylonian new year’s day festival a similar rite was practiced, when a slain sheep was taken and thrown into the rivers, its bearers being regarded as unclean (cf. Lev.16.26). Certainly the general idea of the scapegoat is clear: guilty Israel’s sin had been removed and forgotten by God.

Bibliography: G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 1979, pp. 233-35.——JBG

See also

  • Azazel