The idea of a scapegoat as someone who takes the blame or the punishment for someone else is familiar to many people today. This term has its origins in a complex purification ritual in the Hebrew Bible, in which one goat is tasked with carrying the most severe sins of the people out of the community.
Where does the idea of a scapegoat come from?
The word scapegoat itself is a modern interpretation of the perplexing phrase “a goat for Azazel” found in a description of the Day of Atonement ritual in
What is the relationship between a scapegoat and sins?
The Day of Atonement ritual as a whole is designed to remove the accumulated contamination, caused by the impurities and sins of the Israelites, from the tabernacle. This contamination was understood to physically accumulate in the tabernacle, and different types of contamination required different procedures for removal. The scapegoat is part of one such procedure and has a specific function: to remove the contamination caused by the intentional sins of the Israelites from the tabernacle complex by physically carrying the contamination into the wilderness. The scapegoat is laden with the Israelites’ iniquities and sent to Azazel after the priests complete the two other purification offerings in this ritual. As the scholar Jacob Milgrom has argued, the first two purification offerings serve to clean up and remove contamination caused by the impurities and unintentional sins of the Israelites; however, their intentional sins cannot be removed in the same way. In fact, the contamination caused by intentional sins is so severe that it cannot be neutralized at all. Instead, it must be physically relocated to a place far away from Yahweh and his tabernacle. This is why the scapegoat exists. The high priest confesses the people’s sins while laying two hands on the head of the goat, ritually transferring those sins from the tabernacle to the goat, and then sends that goat out into the wilderness, to an area beyond the bounds of human habitation. In the mishnaic tractate about Yom Kippur in rabbinic literature, the ritual described in Lev 16 is supplemented with a directive to drive the goat off of a cliff so that it dies, perhaps reflecting a concern that the sin-laden animal would find its way back into the community if it was allowed to live.
Despite the fact that it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, the idea of a scapegoat existed
throughout the ancient world. Scapegoat-like figures are present in several Mesopotamian and
Hittite texts that predate the Hebrew Bible. This concept also appears in the New Testament and
is used in at least two places to describe Jesus, the Gospel of John (
the Hebrews (