Tuesday 16 April 2024

The Scapegoat


Leviticus 16:20-23

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

 I will repeat that last verse that reads:

And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited; and he shall let the goat go into the wilderness.

Today we have turned to the Old Testament, to Leviticus, that book that deals with the old Jewish religious laws. 

What we have read deals with the ritual of that law, its description and how it was meant to be carried out.  The most obvious thing about this religion was that it was a sacrificial religion.  At one stage, we might say in the early development of Judaism as it arose from a pagan world, that it engaged not only in the sacrifice of animals but potentially, engaged in that of human sacrifice too.  In the book of Genesis 22 we have God’s initial instructions to Abraham to offer up his son Isaac to offer him up, to sacrifice his only son, as a burnt offering to God.  We know though that it was God’s intention that in the event this should not come to pass, because God uttered these words saying:

Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him. for now I know that thou fearest God seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me (22:12)

Thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. There’s a resonance here with a text from the New Testament a text that readily springs to mind, which are these words from the Gospel of John (3:16)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

But there the similarity ends because Jesus’ death on the cross took place and was an act of sacrificial love.  We see this in the words of Jesus when he says:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends (15:13)

Or, I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.  10:11

What can we say about Abraham, Abraham who loved or feared God enough to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice?  I think we can say that in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac, that Abraham had a particular relationship with God, a relationship that I think would have evaded most of us, so perhaps we cannot make a judgement.  But we can say that that relationship of Abraham to God led to God’s judgement, a judgement as always, a judgement of infinite wisdom and love.  I think before we go any further it has to be said, though perhaps it hardly needs saying that Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac did not take place, and secondly the death of Christ on the cross was a once and for all sacrifice and as Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews (12:2)

Jesus endured the cross, despised the cross and is now set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So, having alluded to the story of Abraham and Isaac and the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we stay with the theme of sacrifice, and we return to our reading from Leviticus - the story of the goat.

In fact, that particular ordinance described in the Mosaic law in Leviticus, is about the ritual slaughter and sacrifice of animals it was thus ordained that the priest, Aaron could only enter into the holy places of the tabernacle (the holy tent) after he had offered a young bullock as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering.

Later in that same ritual, at the same event, two goats would be presented before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation (7).  Then lots would be cast to decide which of the two goats would be ritually slaughtered as a sin offering. 

What we may ask now, becomes of the second goat? The goat on which the lot did not fall.  And herein lies the story of the scapegoat.  In modern life, of course, we have all heard that expression, ‘the scapegoat’, and we know what it means when it is said in day-to-day conversation, or on the news, we know what it means when they say that a particular person, a certain individual is being scapegoated for political or corporate failure.  In American slang that person becomes the “fall guy” for a failure, a failure that’s really integral to the organisation, or a failure caused by someone else’s poor decision making at the most powerful level or levels of the organization or the company or even the government. A fall guy, a scapegoat to take the blame.

 So, for those two poor goats waiting outside the tent of the Tabernacle there is no good news, one is going to be slaughtered and offered up as a sin offering before being eaten and the other is going to become the ‘fall guy’; the scapegoat. Now we come to a curious bit.

We know, don’t we, that William Tyndale (1494- 1536) was the first to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English?  Well, it was Tyndale who invented that word, the ‘scapegoat’, bringing it for the first time into the English language because actually there was no equivalent for the word in Hebrew.

So how does this scapegoat thing work out?  Well in Tyndale's, I suppose more humane reasoning, the goat who wins the lottery so to speak, (doesn’t get selected for immediate slaughter) becomes the scapegoat – it means the goat gets to escape, hence the term scapegoat.  But of course, the poor old goat doesn’t get off Scot free, because as we have seen the sins of Israel at that yearly event would be symbolically placed on a goat’s head by the priest and that goat would then be driven into the wilderness. 

To the assembled watching congregation, we can easily see that this very visual ritual, this powerful symbolic act, could help to unite people in their faith and to ease them, in the short term at least, from their perceived burden of sin, it could help to alleviate their troubled consciences.

That scapegoat carrying all their sins away.  A bit like standing at the window watching your wheelie bin being emptied and that dust cart carrying all your rubbish away – till next week.

But, back to the scapegoat, the fall guy in this scenario – the innocent animal that carries the sins of Israel, far away into the wilderness.  Now, there are other interpretations of this story, for example in Jewish legend a there’s tradition that says that the scapegoat did not get to be released into the wilderness but was thrown from a cliff and killed as a sacrifice to the demon Azazel the idea being that the sins committed are thus returned to Satan.  But I suppose, whichever way we look at this question, the blood of an innocent animal is still used to expiate the sins of the guilty.

The scapegoating mechanism is really fundamental to the human condition.  It exists in all times and places.  I once read a story of a country where when things went wrong, as they would, from time to time – that the common response would be then to blame the devil saying, “the devil’s in it”.  In that country, one day a farmer was driving a cart full of produce to market, when a wheel fell off the cart.  Without thinking the farmer shouted ‘the devil’s in it’ Later that day the farmer arrived at the market only to be met by the devil who asked him “Why did you blame me when the wheel came off your cart?  I’ve been told what you said, but I was nowhere near you at the time!” 

That simple story may give us pause for thought and to reflect on those words of William Shakespeare who wrote, and I paraphrase “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.

What do I mean? Well, I’m sure you’ve worked it out. When I say to you that when we cannot find an external solution to an inner problem when really the sin, the deficit, the mistake, call it what you will, belongs to and resides within each one of us, it’s always easier and more convenient to blame external forces or outside of our control. We conveniently forget that in some way we too need to look closer to home, to find the source of the problem, to look to ourselves and to shoulder the blame or responsibility. 

This blaming and looking down on others is really part of the hypocrisy of religion that Jesus confronted, but we are not done with the theme of sacrifice yet.  We do not forget that recurring Christian symbol, the holy lamb of God is the lamb who is sacrificed on the cross for our sins.  In the Gospel of John, verse 1:29, John the Baptist greeted Jesus’ arrival on the scene with these words:

Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!

If we examine that statement, we realise that the Lamb of God takes away not the sins of the world but the sin of the world and the sin of the world is to project our own sins or shortcomings onto others.  It’s called hypocrisy and it means when we blame others or point the finger at others we remain in the shadows of our own darkness and imperfection.  In other words, this is what Jesus meant when he said (8:12) 

I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.

The purpose of the light of the world was to reveal the glory of God to us, to see in that light, his perfect holiness and then see our own imperfections, in that pure light, see our own sins, and to repent.  Not sin that we can project on to the head of a sacrificial animal, or lay on someone else rather than ourselves, but rather our own sin which we need to own and to see that, through confession, through repentance, through believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, we may truly be reconciled to God and by His grace be forgiven.

That saying, “the lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world”.   I know, you might be sitting there trying to work it all out.  And Jesus knew that his disciples, ordinary people like you and me might have some difficulty in understanding so he summed up the blindness and hypocrisy, the sin of the world when he said:

They shall put you out of the synagogue yea the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.

And we can see that’s true, there are religious killings taking place today and everyday throughout the world by men who think that they are doing God’s work, killing others in the name of God because they too are in darkness.  You might say well, I’m not responsible for that, or well, I wasn’t there when they crucified the messenger, crucified the Lord Jesus Christ, I wasn’t there with the mob crying for his blood, but the question is where are you today, where are we today, as we look back at Easter now and remember Jesus’ cry from the cross:

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34) 

The question is this: have we turned to the light of Christ, have we been convicted of our own sin or are we still in the darkness? One word: repent!  Let us give thanks to God for Christ, the light of the world.

Photograph: William Holman Hunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons