While chatting with a close friend who is currently on location filming a mega-budget Hollywood movie, he mentioned, as a “good Jew,” he was planning on attending a Yom Kippur service today in a beautiful historic temple.
Yom Kippur, for those who are unfamiliar, is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Playfully, I asked him if the rabbi would let loose a scapegoat in the temple but my friend did not understand why I had even asked such a question.
That is when I told him about the Yom Kippur scapegoat, an integral part of the Old Testament account of The Day of Atonement.
Since my friend was unfamiliar with the Yom Kippur scapegoat I thought perhaps others might be as well. So if you are attending temple today and familiar this Jewish Bible story, you are dismissed.
If not, keep reading because this ancient tale is not only interesting, but the word “scapegoat” is derived from it.
Now class, please open your Bibles to Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament, after Genesis and Exodus. Those first three books, along with the next two, Numbers and Deuteronomy comprise what is known as The Torah.
Leviticus chapter 16 is aptly named The Day of Atonement. It is a short chapter comprised of only 34 verses which I recommend reading if this piece piques your interest.
Here is the basic story.
While the Children of Israel were wandering in the desert during their 40 year odyssey between leaving Egypt and entering the Holy Land of Israel, God commanded Moses to make an annual atonement for their “uncleanness and rebellion” and “whatever their sins had been.” God then directed Moses to have his brother Aaron, the High Priest, obtain two goats for an atonement ceremony.
The first goat was designated as a “sin offering” and slaughtered for his blood. Then, the goat’s blood was to be sprinkled around the “Most Holy Place” which was inside the “Tent of Meeting” that housed the Ark of the Covenant.
Now, the second goat fared slightly better for it was to be the “goat of removal.” In Hebrew, it was known as the Azazel goat, and later translated to mean scapegoat in the English Bible’s King James Version.
Rather than me paraphrase the fate of the second goat, I will defer to GOD as HE gives Moses specific instructions for brother Aaron to carry out in Leviticus 16: 21- 22. The Bible translation is from the popular New International Version.
He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites –all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
There you have it, the scapegoat as the central figure of Yom Kippur.
The scapegoat’s original meaning was escape goat because unlike the first goat, the second was allowed to escape with its life, though heavily laden with the collective sin of the Israelites.
As you know, the modern meaning of scapegoat is some entity or person who is unfairly blamed or punished for the actions of others, but I would wager that most people are unaware this term is from the Old Testament.
So for those of the Jewish faith attending temple today, you might pause to remember that little goat, released into the desert bearing the sin burden of all your ancient relatives.
Furthermore, click here if you are interested in knowing the Biblical origin of other common phrases like Good Samaritan, a drop in the bucket, a broken heart, a peace offering, or a sign of the times, to only name a few.
The Bible is still the best selling book of all time and continues to be an amazing resource for faith, history, morality and language.
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