The Israelite holy day we call the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) presents a fascinating imagery of community purification of sin. It may seem like a weird and bloody ritual from a barbaric time, therefore completely irrelevant to our modern age.
In some ways that is true, but for early Christians it had a great deal of symbolic meaning related to the life and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews uses many aspects of that ritual to point to how great a High Priest Jesus is due to his life, sacrifice and resurrection. He compares Jesus’ life and mission to various rituals of that ceremony and shows how Jesus fulfils them completely.
There is one allusion to “the blood of bulls and goats” that he makes that seems to indicate that Jesus has come to fulfil those types. And so it is. Jesus’ blood redeems both the priesthood and the people of Israel (and anyone else who “joins” them through acceptance of their Messiah as their Lord).
This has led many people to see a curious offering of two goats in Leviticus 16 in a certain way. Lots are drawn for the goats. One lot is “for the Lord,” while the other is “for azazel.” Uncertainty about the meaning of azazel has led many to assume that the reference is a name. This leads to the conclusion that one goat represents Christ, while the other represents the devil (or a goat-headed demon named Azazel).
The common understanding is that the “Jesus” goat is sacrificed on behalf of the people, while the “devil” goat is sent away into the wilderness with the sins of the people hanging on its head. This is a view I held for over 30 years myself.
Many people who keep the festival also have the view that the sending away of the “devil” goat represents the pre-millennial binding of Satan into the great abyss. In this way Satan is kept away from the great millennium of peace under Jesus Christ until he is set free to tempt the world again. I also held this view for as many years as the above.
Several elements of the Scriptures have helped me see this story differently. First of all, I note what John the Baptist calls Jesus in John 1:29, 36. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is referred to as the Lamb in Rev. 5:6, Rev. 15:3 and Rev. 22:1-3.
In one of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories the private detective’s first clue to solving the mystery involves “the curious incident of the barking dog.” Watson, dumbfounded, responds that there was no barking dog. “Precisely!” replies the detective. “The dog did not bark.”
In a similar vein, I refer to the curious incident of the slain lamb in Lev. 16.
Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus Christ called “the Goat of God who takes away the sin of the world
Once I realized that, I had to explore the meaning of the two goats further.
There was a second clue: lots were cast over the goats. What were lots used for? Two uses are noted in the Scriptures.
One use of the lot involves the determination of guilt or innocence in cases too difficult for the judges of Israel. The priest uses two items called Urim and Thummim to determine the will of the Lord in those cases (Deuteronomy 17:8-10). We presume that these are a kind of lot because they are stored in a pouch in the Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:30). In the one incident that mentions methodology in the determination of guilt the priest uses Urim and Thummim as lots to determine that Jonathan broke a command of King Saul (1 Samuel 14:41-42).
The second major use of lots was to determine the inheritance of land in Israel (Joshua 14:1-3). God chooses which tribe gets what land, and what families inherit which tracts within the tribe by lot.
The third clue involves what the lots are “for.”
The first lot is “for Yahweh.” We tend to think that this means it represents Yahweh, but it seems to be “for” Yahweh. In other words, Yahweh chooses this goat to belong to him.
The second goat is “for” azazel. This is the only time this particular Hebrew word appears in the Bible, and scholars cannot agree about what it means. Some believe azazel is a proper noun. However, it makes no sense for the goat to be sacrificed or offered to some pagan deity named Azazel – because the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice to other gods.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia entry about azazel presents a persuasive case for understanding the term to refer to “removal” or “sending away.” This agrees with the Brown Driver Briggs Theological Dictionary, which refers to an Arabic verb azala, meaning to banish or remove. The latter indicates that “entire removal” is the meaning of Azazel.
The online translation on Crosswalk.com that best matches that meaning is Leviticus 16:8 in Young’s Literal Translation: “And Aaron hath given lots over the two goats, one lot for Jehovah, and one lot for a goat of departure.”
For me, the best way to understand what is happening with the goats is to see one goat as selected to belong to the Lord, and the other selected for banishment. This works especially well if you see what happens to the goat. It is sent to the wilderness, never to return.
In fact, the ceremony of the two goats bears a remarkable similarity to a reference in Hebrews 11:4 about Cain and Abel. This references the story in Genesis 4:1-6. In that story Abel makes an acceptable offering while Cain’s is not accepted. Upon killing Abel, Cain is banished from the presence of the Lord to a wilderness that cannot support him. Remember also that the book of Hebrews contains many references to the ceremony in Leviticus 16. The writer of Hebrews notes that even though Abel is dead, his inheritance is assured in the Lord Jesus. One for Jesus. One for removal.
Let us get back to what lots are used for. They are used to determine God’s will in judgment and in inheritance.
Matthew 25:31-46 provides an interesting story involving both judgment and inheritance. The sheep and the goats are separated based on works. The sheep inherit the Kingdom prepared for them, while the goats are banished to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The Parable of Wheat & Tares in Matt. 13:24-30 and Matt. 13:36-43 and the Parable of Net in Matt. 13:47-52 also tell of a great dividing of people into two camps. One marked for inclusion and the other for exclusion.
If there is a prophetic fulfilment of the Day of Atonement in the book of Revelation it is most likely to be found in Rev. 20:7-15. After the Great White Throne Judgment all sin is finally dealt with by forgiveness of the repentant who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord (including doing “works worthy of repentance”) or banishment to the lake of fire for eternal destruction. Here we have again a judgment directly by God, in the person of Jesus Christ, that involves both guilt and inheritance. There is no return for the banished, whether angelic or human.
Only after this final judgment does the era of a new heavens and a new earth open up for those whose names are written in the Book of Life. Only then will there be no more tears and no more death. But that is a story for another Feast.