THE SCAPEGOAT AND THE LAMB OF GOD
Being a goat may not always be a bad thing, in spite of the press it has received thanks to the famous parable of the sheep and goats at the end of Matthew 25.
Yes, goats represent those who fail to live according to the Corporal Works of Mercy, and who are accordingly sent to their damnation. And yes, the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 is loaded with the community’s sins and then taken away. But I want to think through this latter image especially from the point of view of atonement and redemption.
What we call the scapegoat is named more accurately the goat for Azazel and was part of the solemn rites of the Yom Kippur,the Day of Atonement. The goat, through the laying on of hands of the high priest, carried the sins of the people; it was then sent out to the desert demon as an expiation. It is as though to say Let the sins go where they belong, and let this goat carry them there. As for us, we will make peace with the LORD with the sacrifices offered in the Temple. So the goat has a place of great importance for the community—a vicarious vehicle of mercy for the people.
It is good to remember that young goats could have an even more specialized place in Jewish religious life: at Passover. The year-old sheep to be sacrificed could be either a lamb or a kid goat (Ex 12:5). It seems that for all their differences, goats were precious animals whose blood was equal to that of lambs in marking the dwellings of the Hebrews, as a sign to warn the destroying angel to pass over them.
This leads me to wonder about the relationship and the distinction between the goat for Azazel and the Lamb of God. Both become vehicles of salvation, but in the words of John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) Jesus would not simply carry but actually take away the sin, not of just the people but of the whole world. He would cause the sin of the world to cease to exist.
In a strange kind of way, perhaps Mark was thinking of the goat for Azazel. As the goat was sent out into the desert to encounter and be a satisfaction for the demon Azazel, so the spirit wasdriving out Jesus into the desert after his baptism—there he encountered was tested by Satan, and he overcame him. Jesus as the Lamb of God would not only take away (eliminate) the sin of the world, he would also bring ultimate defeat to Satan, not just hold him in abeyance temporarily.
Images of the “harrowing of hell” (particularly as described by Melito of Sardis) suggest the hiddenness of God’s plan to undo Satan precisely by granting him “his due.” Jesus’ death sets in motion the destruction of the gates of hell; the cross becomes a bridge to bring people out of the grasp of Death: “to shine on those in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). Death has been dealt a death blow: Satan can still writhe and rage and cause great harm, but his end is certain. It is why I can imagine Jesus on the Cross at the moment of Satan’s seeming victory—that moment that turns out to be Satan’s undoing. I imagine that Jesus thought, in his last seconds of life, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10:18); “It is finished!” (John 19:30); “I did it!” In the words of the great Easter hymn: The strife is o’er, the battle done/Now is the victor’s triumph won/Now be the song of praise begun/Alleluia!
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews would surely want me, at this point, to note that there is no longer need for an annual “goat for Azazel.” The Lamb of God has become the perfect, the definitive, the once for all, “scapegoat.” And if I may think in Johannine terms, perhaps it would have been possible for the Fourth Gospel to have had Jesus say, “I am the true scapegoat. Your ancestors sent the goat to Azazel, but their sins continued. I am the true Lamb come down from heaven—whoever comes to me confessing will have sins forever taken away. My mercy will be upon them who place their hope in me.”