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Vayikra/Leviticus 16:22 And the goat will carry on himself all their iniquities to a cut-off land, and he shall send away the goat in the desert.
This verse comes from the detailed instructions occupying the whole of Vayikra chapter sixteen thatHaShem relays to Aharon, the Cohen Gadol through Moshe. The goat in question is the second goat - the first one having been slaughtered and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies by Aharon to atone for the sins of the people. This goat if often described as the scapegoat, although the use of that term in contemporary English has drifted somewhat from the meaning as originally proposed. Aharon has been instructed to "lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat" (Vayikra 16:21, NJPS), with several rabbinic commentators pointing out that the verb "lay hands" - also used for the process of ordination - should here be translated as "press firmly" to address the weight of the transfer happening as the sins of the people for the whole year are symbolically transferred to the goat. Mark Rooker notes that "The first goat pictures the means of atonement, the shedding of blood in the sacrificial death. The second goat pictures the effect of atonement, the removal of guilt."1
Our text is concerned with what happens to this second goat. The verb is used many times in the Hebrew Scriptures and its most frequent means are to lift, to carry and to raise up. We find the verb being used in exactly the same way in Isaiah's fourth servant song in the phrases "Surely He has borne our griefs" (Isaiah 53:4, ESV) and "He bore the sin of many" (v. 12, ESV). This scapegoat ritual may well have been in the mind of Isaiah when he described the suffering of the Servant when "the L-RD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6, ESV). The goat carries (or bears) the sins of Israel out of the camp and is sent away into the wilderness. The text uses the phrase to describe the place; means 'land' and is translated above as "cut off" but - as ahapax legomenon - its meaning is debated. Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew to the Aramaic to mean a land without dwelling. The Hebrew root (which is only used thirteen times in the Tanakh) means "to cut, separate, cut down, decide, decree". Clines lists as one of four nouns derived from the root, including 'piece' and 'axe'.2
Drazin and Wagner suggest that "the term could mean (1) a land cut of from vegetation (as understood by b. Yoma 67b) or (2) desolate of people (from its meaning in Isaiah 53:8). It could refer to (3) an area that is separate from the rest of the Israelite camp, a deep valley with no chance for the goat to return, where the goat's life would be 'cut' short. It could also be (4) a precipitously descending slope with many jagged edges that would tear a body cast down its sides." TheRashbam opts for "a dry, waste region, where nothing grows, one that is (literally) 'cut off; from anything good", while Chizkuni offers "a wasteland where no-one lived, for if the goat were taken to a fertile area, nothing would ever grow there again."
Taking a step further on, Gordon Wenham reports that "'Cutting off' could refer to the fact that the place to which the goat was led was 'cut off' from the camp, perhaps by a deep valley, so that the animal had no chance of returning to Israel and bringing back the guilt of their sins. Alternatively, it could refer to the fact that it was taken to a place where its life was 'cut off'. In later times, the Mishnah records that the goat was led to a steep cliff and pushed over backward to kill it. (m. Yoma 6:6)."3 Baruch Levine explains that "According to m. Yoma 6:3, a priest was assigned this task in order to make certain that the scapegoat did not return to the settled area." It seems that there is deliberate intent within Judaism, from the time of the Torah onwards, even though the Torah itself makes only ambiguous reference to the idea, that the goat must not be permitted to return to the people, still carrying all the sins that were symbolically transferred onto it. How should we understand this extension to the regulations that HaShem gave Moshe for the High Priest and the people in the ritual for Yom Kippur?
RabbiHirsch sees the goat "carrying all the errors and sins which emanate therefrom, as an acknowledgement and vow that they are cut off, that is 'shall have no future' in the lives of the people." More, John Hartley explains, "this goat, which carries these sins away from the camp, is to leave them in an 'inaccessible area', believed by the ancients to be the abode of demons and evil spirits. Thus the goat takes these sins to the place of their origin and leaves them there, breaking the power that they had of binding and oppressing the people."4 Put another way, the separation must be permanent, not just temporary The people wanted to know that those sins were completely gone and would not come walking (or, should that be, bleating) round the corner to bite them when they weren't looking!
Writing in the Psalms, David marvels at how "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love" (Psalm 103:8, ESV) the L-rd is. He then says that, "As east is far from west, so far has He removed our sins from us" (v. 12, ESV). G-d has taken our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west. As 'east' and 'west' are points at the opposite infinite ends of a straight line, they should never meet. Our sin is gone, forever. The prophet Micah, in what Frances Andersen and David Noel Freedman refer to as "the highly figurative language of hurling sin into the sea,"5 makes a dramatic connection to the Exodus from Egypt, saying "You will hurl all our sins Into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19, ESV). This echoes Moshe telling the fearful Israelites that "the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again" (Shemot 14:13, NJPS) and then after crossing the Reed Sea and seeing the Egyptians consumed by the returning waters, leading the people to sing: "Pharaoh's chariots and his army He has cast into the sea" (15:4, NJPS). Bruce Waltke says that the verb 'hurls' signifies "the inherently large and complex sea, and so connotes the complete removal of Israel's sins."6
The goat in our text, then, is the goat that takes away the sins of the people. Do those words sound familiar? They should do, because they remind us of, "Behold, the Lamb of G-d, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, ESV). Without understanding what they were doing, the senior Jewish leadership of His time tried to make certain that Yeshua went away and did not return; they wanted to ensure that He was "cut off out of the land of the living" (Isaiah 53:8, ESV). So, metaphorically speaking, they handed him over to the Romans who led Him to a place of cutting off and cut off His life by crucifying Him. The Roman soldiers and military apparatus acted as the priests, the intermediaries who were charged with making sure that Yeshua didn't just wander around in the desert for a while and then come back again to make more trouble for the Jewish leadership. Yeshua bore our sins on the cross and they never came back, although He did!
The writer to the Hebrews understands the difference between Yeshua and the scapegoat. He writes about the ineffectiveness of the Temple sacrifices to provide a permanent solution to sin. Why else, he asks, are the same sacrifices repeated year after year? "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 10:3-4, ESV). Then he makes the contrast direct: "Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Messiah had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of G-d" (vv. 11-12, ESV). Do you see it? One sacrifice - the cross - for all time, for all sin, for all people. Unlike the goat, where measures had to be taken to stop it returning, Yeshua takes our sins permanently and completely away. When we have confessed our sins and G-d, through the blood of Yeshua, has been "faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, ESV), they are gone!
1. - Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 221.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 65.
3. - Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), pages 233-234.
4. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 241
5. - Frances I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Micah, Anchor Bible 24E (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), page 598.
6. - Bruce K. Waltke, A Commentary on Micah, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), page 447.
Further Study: Isaiah 38:17-20; Romans 6:12-14; 1 John 1:7-9
Application: Do you live in the absolute security of completely forgiven sin? If you are missing out on this and are instead plagued with uncertainty about the past, you need to read and re-read these passages again and come to the assurance that G-d, who isn't bound by our reasoning or our ideas of what is fair, has done what no-one else can or could do: in Yeshua, you are forgiven!
22:10 28Apr19 Karen: I have been plagued by uncertainty about the past and have felt continual guilt and shame about my unloving treatment of my mother and father in their last days. No matter how many times I asked the Lord for forgiveness, I did not feel forgiven. Now today on reading these words, I see how I have had such a limited view of Gods mercy and loving kindness to me in forgiving my sin because of Jesus. I see in a new way the gift of forgiveness and I am so
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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