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How the biblical ceremony of the scapegoat informs us about the enduring nature of forgiveness through Messiah


Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has always been the highest of the holy days of Judaism. The complete work of atonement on Yom Kippur in biblical times was comprised of two elements:

1. The covering of sin by virtue of sprinkling blood on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant inside the holy place.

2. The sending away of sin by virtue of releasing a scapegoat into the wilderness.

Both elements entailed physical actions that were carried out by haKohen haGadol—the high priest, who was the mediator between God and humanity. Those actions were done in a symbolic manner that God accepted as sufficient basis for Him to complete the actual spiritual work of atonement in the spiritual realm.

The high priest was instructed to cast lots made of gold in order to determine the individual roles of two male goats (Lev 16:8). On one of the lots it was written, "la-Yahweh—for the LORD." The goat receiving that designation would be sacrificed as a sin offering (v. 9). And the other one had the term "la-Azazel—for scapegoat." The goat with that designation would be released into the wilderness (v. 10).

Scripture does not record every detail that went in to performing an act such as this, for there are logistical matters that had to be accommodated in the real world. But the Talmud is a good source for such things because it has a record of the Mishnah—oral accounts that were passed on from generation to generation until they were written down beginning in the second century. These were the directions for carrying out the various tasks of the priests that would be comparable to the way that the supervisors and workers of any institution verbally instruct new workers until a written manual can be completed.

We need to recognize that it is not inspired Scripture and thus not a reliable source for theology and interpretation of the priestly acts, but it is a good source for historical and practical material, in the same way that Josephus and the Maccabees can be helpful. So the Talmud provides some additional details regarding what transpired related to the scapegoat on Yom Kippur.

There we learn that if the lot for the LORD was drawn in the right hand, it was considered to be a good omen. But if it was drawn in the left hand, it was thought to be an omen of something bad to come. Regardless of which lot was in each hand, the high priest would raise his hand holding the lot for the LORD and he would place it on the head of the goat standing in front of him and say aloud, "La-Yahweh."

Since this was the only time during the year when the personal name of God was pronounced verbally, and the rest of the time the name Adonai (Lord) was substituted out of reverence for the personal name, this was a significant moment for the people assembled around the ceremony outside the tabernacle or later in the temple courtyard. So they would respond in unison: "Baruch Shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed—Blessed be His Name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever." (Mishnah, Yoma 39a).

The high priest then placed the other lot on the head of the remaining goat and the designations were finalized. The goat designated "for the LORD" was then slaughtered along with a bull, and the blood of those two animals was used for the sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat (Lev 16:14-15). The goat designated "for the scapegoat" was then prepared for its symbolic rite:

Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness (Lev 16:21-22).

Another detail regarding this practice is found in the Mishnah. It was not specifically commanded by God, but the priests came up with a way to know that the goat’s journey to the wilderness was successful. The high priest "tied a cord of crimson wool to the head of the goat that was to be sent away" (Mishnah, Yoma 41b). So this animal would be clearly identified as the scapegoat being led out of the city into the wilderness. The Mishnah goes on to say:

A cord of crimson wool [presumably a portion torn from the cord tied to the horns of the goat] was tied to the door of the temple, and when the he-goat reached the wilderness the cord turned white, as it is written: though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow (Mishnah, Yoma 68b).

This latter quotation is from Isaiah 1:18. So that tells us that the people understood the symbolic nature of forgiveness. The cord tied to its neck was the color of blood. And in Scripture, blood is both symbolic of life (Lev. 17:11) and guilt (Isa 59:2,3), which are interrelated. Because we are guilty due to sin, the penalty is our loss of life. But the penalty was paid by a substitute. So the cord was a symbol of the consequences of sin being sent away along with the goat as the substitute.

The color changing from red to white wool represented the purity of God’s forgiveness and His acceptance of the consequence transferred to the goat. So it is evident that God accommodated their way of getting confirmation by miraculously changing the color of the cord each year during Yom Kippur. And so it went year after year in this manner regarding the scapegoat.

But that is not the entire story. The Talmud also tells us that when the high priest cast lots for the goats, he had to shake the box first so that he could not manipulate the results and make the lot "for the LORD" end up in his right hand, the good hand (Yoma 39a). And it was recorded every year which hand drew each lot. A purely random result would be a 50-50 split or an even distribution of the lots. But the Talmud records a peculiar trend in the last days of the second temple:

During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘for the LORD’] did not come up in the right hand. . . (Yoma 39b).

That means for 40 years in a row, the lot used to determine the sacrificed animal and the blood used for atonement went to the left hand, which was not a good sign. Was this pure chance? The probability of such an occurrence is 1 in 2 to the 40th power. That means you would get that result randomly just one time in 1,099,511,627,776 attempts. If it takes you ten seconds to cast a lot, that means it would take 1,393,640 years without taking a break before you could expect to do it 40 times in a row, considerably longer if you did in fact decide to take a break of any sort. All this to say that the likelihood of such an occurrence happening randomly is beyond imagination. There must be an outside influence that would actively cause the lots to perform in this way. We can conclude with confidence that God was at work in this situation.

But that’s not all. Just as the lot ceased falling to the right hand of the high priest 40 years before the destruction of the temple, another element of the ritual ceased functioning at the same time. The red cord stopped turning white at the same time (Yoma 39b). The high priest continued tying the cord to the horns of the goat and to the door of the temple, and the goat was released into the wilderness. But the cord stayed red year after year until the temple was demolished by Rome.

That indicates the ritual of atonement being performed by the high priest was no longer working. Either atonement was no longer needed for sinful people, or it was still required and the means had changed. What happened 40 years before the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.? The answer is unmistakable. That was when Yeshua (Jesus) gave His life on the cross.

Surely this is a confirmation that in God’s plan for this world, the means of atonement had changed. He provided a better way by becoming the atonement Himself by dwelling on this earth as Yeshua, and then dying in our place, even though He was without sin. The better way was a perfect way and would never need to be repeated again. And the old way was now obsolete. So God permitted the temple to be destroyed and the office of the high priest was concluded.

It should be noted that the candid nature of the record in the Talmud, which otherwise is highly antagonistic toward Christianity, ironically supports the account of the New Testament. In fact the Talmud gives even more information that confirms the change that came with the death of Yeshua. It goes on to say that during those last 40 years of the temple, "the western light did not burn, and the gates of the temple opened by themselves." (Yoma 39b).

The seven-branched menorah in the holy place was positioned along the south wall with its branches aligned along an east-west axis. The large cups were refilled with oil at different times of the day, with the western-most branch being filled in the evening so that it would burn through the night (Menachot 89a). It was then used in the morning to light the other six lamps (Tamid 33a). So it served the role of the shammash—the servant light.

We are told that after the death of Yeshua, the when priests came to the temple each morning, the western or servant light was extinguished. For 40 years it was a sign that the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah as the suffering servant bearing the sins of humanity (Isa 53:11) had already come and had completed His calling. As Yeshua proclaimed:

"I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life" (Jn 8:12).

The final phenomenon is no less miraculous—the gates of the temple were opening by themselves. This was no small undertaking that could be explained by blowing wind, for example. Josephus, the Roman historian who lived during that period of time, describes one such opening:

The eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now those that kept watch in the temple came hereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up there, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. . . . So these publicly declared that the signal foreshowed the desolation that was coming upon them (Wars 6:5:3).

Clearly some people in Jerusalem rightly interpreted the strange behavior of the city gates as a sign of the coming destruction of the city. But they also should have recognized that the way of entering into the holy place of God had changed. As Yeshua had already made known, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved" (Jn 10:9).

These incredible admissions by Jewish opponents of Christianity are so beyond the realm of coincidence that it defies contradiction. It is a record of history that could not be manipulated by human hands. And it is a testimony of the validity of the Good News of salvation by faith through belief in Yeshua.

We all need to recognize that that the Word of God is true. It affirms principles that apply to all of us, most notably that we all will be separated from God eternally without atonement for our sins (Isa 59:2). And there is no means of atonement today except that which has been provided by Yeshua (Heb 9:22; 10:18), because it was His "lot" to be our atonement laYahweh—for the LORD and He is also the scapegoat who takes away our sins (1 Jn 3:5).

We have only one option for atonement today. But it is in fact a really good solution—one that we can count on and will endure. Scripture gives us a strong sense of the extent of God’s forgiveness of sin:

"I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isa 43:25).

When God makes such a statement, it is not like those of us who struggle to remember things from time to time. God is able to control what He remembers, specifically being able to forget as an act of His will.

We see that in the grammar of the verse just referenced in Isa 43:25. When He says, "lo ezkor—I will not remember your sins," it is in the active form of the verb (qal), which is used to describe something that you do, not in the passive form which describes something that happens to you. The same is true in the language of the prophecy of the New Covenant where God says, "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin lo ehzechar od—I will remember no more" (Jer 31:34). It is no different in the New Testament, where the language of the Greek is also active, not passive in nature: "For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more" (Heb 8:12).

The point is that the Word of God is clear in affirming that when it comes to forgetting our sins, God is not subject to a weakness like we have as human beings when we forget. Instead, He is fully in control of the act of forgetting. You might say that He remembers to forget. It is a matter of Him keeping His word and exercising His omnipotent ability.

God is also able to consider our sins as being completely removed, as if they no longer exist. Like the scapegoat sent into the wilderness, never to return, Yeshua took our sins upon Himself to be taken away forever. This is consistent with David’s affirmation: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Ps 103:12).

The directions of this figure of speech are important, and they are a reflection of the divine inspiration of Scripture because they reflect knowledge of the nature of the earth that was unknown to humanity at that time—that the earth is aligned along magnetic poles in the north and south. If you travel north from any point on the planet, you will reach the north pole and then if you continue on, you will reach the south pole. The same is true if you head the opposite direction. Either way, eventually north meets south. But that is not true if you head east or west. You just keep going in the same direction. East never meets west.

So in the context of the forgiveness of our sins, they are infinitely removed from us. In other words, the consequences of our sins will never return when we receive the enduring forgiveness of the Lord through faith in Yeshua as our atonement. Or to put it another way, once we are forgiven, it is impossible to be unforgiven.

In Ps 103 David bases that assurance on the extent of God’s chesed—lovingkindness or mercy, which David says is "as high as the heavens are above the earth" (v. 11). So God’s promise to forgive us completely and permanently are grounded in His perfect character, and in particular his perfect lovingkindness or mercy. Let it be said that when we believe in Yeshua, we receive a perfect gift of atonement.

For that reason, Yom Kippur does not need to be a time of uncertainty and sorrow and with the burden of having to perform acts of righteousness in order to prove one’s religious worthiness. Rather, it has become a time to remember what God has done on our behalf. It is a time for solemn reflection upon the great price that was paid for our forgiveness. It is a time to know for certain that we have received the atonement for our sins by agreeing that Yeshua died for us personally. And when we have done that, it is a time to claim without reservation that our forgiveness and our salvation are forever secure.

Dr. Galen Peterson
© 2014 American Remnant Mission