21 April, 2003
Updated 29 October 2011

"(Aaron) shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, ..... And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.

And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD'S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness ......

Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail ..... and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness ..... And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness." (Levit 16:5-22 - KJV)


Leviticus says only that the Goat was to be “let go” in the wilderness. (Levit 16:22)


In later years the ritual was “redefined” by the religious leaders, to ensure that the scapegoat was killed, by hurling it backwards off a cliff. The distance to the edge of the wilderness was formalised -- TEN half sabbath day journeys -- about 11 kilometres. It took a “relay team” of ten men to get it there -- each of them leading the goat on a “half sabbath leg” to deliver it to the next man in the chain, and then walking another half sabbath day’s journey to return home. [1]


1. “The Temple - Its Ministry and Services”, Alfred Edersheim, Chap. 16


There doesn’t seem to be any historical record of when and why they decided to do it that way. However, it might be reasonable to speculate that, sooner or later, the scapegoat for a particular year must have found its way home! There is of course, no Biblical record that this ever happened. However it would provide a compelling “religious reason” for this addition to the ritual spelled out in Leviticus.


Think about it. Can you imagine the “Church business meetings” the Jews would have held about THAT? What embarrassment! What consternation! What PANIC! The coming home of the goat would have been interpreted as God’s rejection of their “Atonement” for that year! Who would they blame? The people? Unthinkable! And very “politically incorrect” and unpopular! The high Priest? Equally unthinkable! He might find himself out of work! So instead they simply changed the ritual to ensure that -- without regard to the state of their hearts before God -- it could never happen again.


Of course all that is SPECULATION about why the ritual was changed. What is NOT speculative, is the far better answer they could have had, if the whole nation had been willing to make a REAL individual heartfelt repentance -- before the ritual was undertaken!.


That would have ensured, far more effectively, that no scapegoat could ever come back -- NOT EVER! God would have taken care of that! And how much more satisfying that would have been for those who wanted complete God guaranteed assurance of their forgiveness! Instead all they had was a man made ritual “add on”, which left them for ever uncertain about what might really have happened  if the goat had been let go alive -- just as God said it should be! How very sad that men should so far lose their trust in the power of God, and take matters into their own hands.


There is of course a VERY important lesson in that for us.


We may not invent theories of “grace” which require nothing from us! We may not change the “ritual” to suit our personal preferences. Nor may we claim to be forgiven when we are not! In order to have the complete assurance that our “scapegoat” (Jesus) has truly born our iniquities away beyond all possibility of return, we must meet the Scriptural conditions on which forgiveness and pardon from the penalty of our sins is offered.




The Hebrew for “scapegoat” is AZAZEL. It appears only THREE times in the OT, (all of them in this passage in Leviticus) and is of uncertain meaning. According to the Thayers Hebrew Lexicon in the On-Line Bible, its literal meaning is “entire removal”. According to Alfred Edersheim, it comes from a Jewish root word which means “wholly to put aside”, or “wholly to go away”.[2]


2. “The Temple - Its Ministry and Services”, Alfred Edersheim, Chap. 16


The English word "scapegoat" seems to have been “coined” by Tyndal in his1530 translation, to render the Latin Vulgate’s “caper emissaries”, or "emissary goat". Tyndale’s "(e)scape goat", is probably not an adequate rendering of the Hebrew, but it was certainly descriptive of what was actually achieved by the ritual.  This translation was later appropriated in the King James Version of the Bible.




It is unfortunate that some modern translations have obscured the meaning of this beautiful “Day of Atonement ritual”, by choosing to simply transliterate “Azazel” as a proper name. From there commentators with over fertile imaginations have speculated that it refers to:


1. The Devil.

2. A mythical demon inhabiting the wilderness of Israel!

3. The leader of the “fallen angels” mentioned in the apocryphal book of Enoch.

4. A description of a PLACE, or a PLACE NAME to which the goat was led before it was “let go”.

    (in later times,it was”let go” by hurling it backwards over a cliff!)


However all of those are mere SPECULATION. Indeed from a Biblical view, the first three are completely UNTENABLE speculation! And the fourth, whilst being a “possible speculation”, has no supporting Scripture. The “scholars” don’t help”. There is a wide diversity of opinion, far beyond the reach of the layman, for which they don’t seem to be able to offer reliable sources to support their “opinions”.




We all know what a scapegoat is. He is an innocent party who is made to take the blame for wrongdoings or mistakes of others. And as long as we don’t try to push that to mean more than it actually does, it describes beautifully what Jesus has done for us! He has “carried away our sins” into a “wilderness place” where they are gone forever. He has completely removed from the records kept in heaven, all mention of the guilt and penalty of our truly repented sins!


“The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)


“As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us”. (Psalm 103:12)


“None of the sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him”. (Ezek 33:16)