Monday, July 14, 2008

Why Did Jesus Die? (11) Jesus Didn’t Have to Die to be our Scapegoat

Ever wondered where the term “scapegoat” came from? No? Well, please allow me to tell you anyway.

In the Old Testament, we read of Aaron, Moses’ brother, being commanded to

take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle…Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD's lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:7-10)

Then Aaron was to sacrifice the goat upon which the Lord’s lot had fallen, according to specific instructions that occupy the next ten verses of this story, and after that was done,

Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

As a model for Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the scapegoat has its pros and cons.

One of the cons is that this passage, running through verse 26, is the only mention of the scapegoat in the whole Bible (that I have found, at least). The scapegoat simply isn't a very big deal. He provides a minor type of Christ, in that he carries away sins. But there is no major prefiguring going on here, no big billing given the scapegoat, as you would expect if it were to be a central way of thinking about Christ. Nobody says, "Behold, the Goat of God, that takes away the sins of the world!" even though the scapegoat did. This is very little here to make into Pen-Sub Atonement.

Here indeed is a clear instance, unique as far as I know, of symbolic transfer of guilt to the goat. (Does anyone know whether the meaning of the priest laying his hand on the head of sin offerings is anywhere specified?) But the scapegoat wasn’t ritually slaughtered for that guilt! His flesh was not offered up on the altar and he gave no blood. He was released alive. Granted the goat’s life-expectancy in the desert was short; still, the point obviously wasn’t whether he lived or died. The point was to get rid of the nation’s sins by taking them off into never-never-land (as it were).

Death has to be combated by death, specifically by the death of the God-Man, who alone can destroy it; but guilt is something God simply takes away. He is the Scapegoat. He is the King in the parable, who forgave his servant’s great debt. He is the Owner of the vineyard, who paid his late-coming workers more than their bargain called for; in fact, there wasn't actually any bargain at all! He only said, "You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive." (Matthew 20:7) He is the Father of the Prodigal Son, who required no payback or punishment, but immediately ordered up a feast and said, “Let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'

And they began to be merry. (Luke 15:23-24)

Shall we?



Anonymous said...

See the material by Margaret Barker at

While not all of her ideas are acceptable, there is some worthwhile material.

Anonymous said...

See the material by Margaret Barker at

While not all of her ideas are acceptable, there is some worthwhile material.

Patrick Fodor