The Scapegoat of Yom Kippur
Traditionally during Yom Kippur, a lottery was held between two goats, identical in appearance and worth, such that their fates were intertwined. Both were brought before the High Priest, bearing the words “to the Lord” and the other bearing “to Azazel”, who would cast lots in random selection. One goat would die bearing the sins of my people. The other goat would be sacrificed to God along with a young bull. Their blood together was brought into the Holy of Holies of the Temple. That sacrifice atoned for the High Priest, the nation, and the sanctuary.
Over the scapegoat bearing the words “to Azazel”, the High Priest would confess all of Israel’s sins and lead it into the barren wilderness. Tradition offers that the goat would be led to a rocky cliff where it would fall to its death, and the crimson thread tied to the door of the sanctuary would turn white, symbolizing the promise of Isaiah: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (1:18).
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is prescribed in Leviticus 16 for a twofold purpose as highlighted in verse 30: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.”
Cleansing, purification, ritual sacrifice were God’s mechanism for Israel in the Old Testament. God commanded my people not only to be clean, but also to be in right relationship with Him. Due to our sin nature, we cannot be in right relationship with Him unless a blood sacrifice is made (Leviticus 17:11). This was ultimately bestowed by Messiah Jesus, humanity’s scapegoat (Hebrews 9:22; Mark 14:24). Like the Yom Kippur scapegoat, who bore the sins of a nation, so the Messiah of Israel bore the sins of the world. Yet, the scapegoat took the sins for a time only, while Jesus for all time.
Charles Lee Feinberg wrote in the Journal Bibliotheca Sacra that “no more significant truths could possibly engage the mind of the believer than those set forth in this chapter of Leviticus.” We might think of the Day of Atonement like Good Friday. It was a one-time, once-a-year removal of sins, including those committed willfully as well as unwittingly. If every ritual sacrifice prescribed in the Old Testament foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Yom Kippur in particular points to Him most poignantly. The scapegoat was the living sacrifice for my people. Jesus is the ultimate living sacrifice:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
This year Yom Kippur begins on the evening of October 5. My Jewish people around the world will pray and fast and perform good deeds, hoping their sins have been forgiven and their names sealed in The Book of Life for one more year. There is no longer a priest to cast lots, no scapegoats to send into the wilderness, and no blood to be poured on the mercy seat. Jesus Himself has declared “it is finished” for He paid our sin debt in full.