Two Hairy Goats and the “Day of Covering”

Being “washed in the blood of the lamb” has become a more appealing cultural image to our minds than “washed in the blood of the hairy goat,” but it seems that neither image, in connection to the removal or “atonement” of sins, is related to the Day of Atonement or Covering.

One of the strangest ceremonies of ancient Israel was that carried out on Yom Kippur (literally=”day of covering”) involving the mysterious choice of “two hairy goats.” The ritual is described in Leviticus 16 in full detail and is called “Yom Kipurrim,” in the plural: the “Day of Coverings.”

Two male goats were selected for Yom Kippur, one was “for YHVH” and the other was “for Azazel.” Both are said to be “for a sin offering” (v. 5). One is slain and the other is sent away into the wilderness. What has been confusing to many is that both goats are spoken of as somehow providing “atonement,” or better translated “covering.” So why the difference? Why two goats, essentially identical, rather than one?

One common interpretation makes the two goats positive and negative, and it is the case that Azazel in ancient Jewish texts (1 Enoch, etc.) is the name for an “angel” who opposes YHVH. But if one is negative and one positive, how can both provide “covering”? In looking more closely at the text one notices that the first goat, the one that is “for YHVH,” that is slain, makes “covering for the Holy Place because of the uncleanness of the people and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (v. 16). In other words, the blood of that goat is to cleanse the Tabernacle that has become unclean because of the sins of the people, NOT to remove the sins of the people per se. In contrast, the sins of the people themselves are put on the head of the live goat. That goat is not killed, yet that goat too is spoken of as a “sin offering” (v.5) ,making atonement/covering (v. 10), and that goat “bears all their iniquities” into a remote area. This distinction might be an important one in trying to understand the meanings intended in this ancient ceremony.

Early Christians were able to find in the slain goat, given Paul’s interpretation of the death of Jesus by crucifixion, a symbol of “Christ” dying for the forgiveness of the sins of the people. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews elaborates this point in great detail (Hebrews 9). But there seems to be no reference in the text to the blood of the slain goat related to the forgiveness of the sins of the people. The second goat, the one sent away into the desert, is not dealt with at all in the interpretation given in Hebrews, and yet in the biblical text of Leviticus that goat is clearly the “sin bearer.”

The Christian overlay to this text is a significant obstacle to reading it with new eyes. One often hears a quotation from the New Testament book of Hebrews that asserts: “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins”–a quotation that occurs nowhere in the Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament.”  Clearly such is not the case as this example of the “live goat” makes clear. The goat that really “bears the sins” is the one sent away, into the desert (v. 22). All the sins and iniquities and transgressions are put on the head of this live goat and he is sent away to Azazel. The sending away of this living goat effects the removal of the sins of the people. What this implies then is that in this ancient ceremony the ultimate “covering” of sins that comes on Yom Kippur is not by the shedding of blood but by casting far away, away from the camp of the living to the desert places where Azazel and the demons dwell. This means that the main image of “atonement” or covering on this day is not that of an animal slain for the forgiveness of sins, but the removal of sins from the land of the living.

The rabbis seem to pick up on this in arranging the Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur. There are the special supplementary readings from the Prophets. First, the story of Jonah is read, which is a story of an entire city being saved from destruction because of repentance from sin. Then Micah 7:18-20 is read, where sins are cast away into the depths of the sea. Being “washed in the blood of the lamb” has become a more appealing cultural image to our minds than “washed in the blood of the hairy goat,” but it seems that neither image, in connection to the removal or “atonement” of sins, is related to the Day of Atonement or Covering.

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