by Doug Ward

Christian interpreters, beginning with the author of the book of Hebrews, have always recognized in Israel's sacrificial system a wealth of symbolism foreshadowing the atoning work of Jesus Christ. For example, the great degree of physical perfection required of high priests and sacrificial animals (Lev. 21-22) has been associated with Jesus as both a perfect priest (Heb. 7:26-28) and a perfect sacrifice for sin (Heb. 9:11-14).


The most momentous day of the year for the high priest was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew), when he had the special task of cleansing the sanctuary and making atonement for the people. While carrying out these duties, the high priest did not wear his usual colorful and sumptuous attire. Instead, he wore simpler white linen garments (Lev. 16:4), a symbol of humility that Christians also find significant [5]. Just as the high priest dressed simply when he performed his Day of Atonement duties on behalf of the Israelites, so Jesus acted as a humble servant in giving his life for mankind (Phil. 2:5-8).


A key part of the Day of Atonement liturgy at the tabernacle and temple was a sin offering involving two goats (Lev. 16:5-10). One of the goats was killed, and its blood was sprinkled in the Most Holy Place, the inner chamber of the sanctuary (v. 15). The second goat, however, was not sacrificed on the altar. The high priest placed his hands on the head of this goat and confessed over it all of Israel's sins. The goat was then led by a designated man into "the wilderness" and released (v. 21).


Many Christian interpreters (see e.g. [3], [4], [5]) agree that the two goats, which together comprise a single sin offering (v. 5), picture two parts of Christ's atoning work on the cross. Through Jesus' sacrificial death, our sins are both forgiven and forgotten. R. Laird Harris, in his comments on Lev. 16 in [4], gives a succinct statement of this view:


"Two goats were taken to bear the people's sins. One was killed as a sin offering; the other was sent off into the desert to bear away the sins of the people into an uninhabited place. The two goats thus symbolized both propitiation for sins by death and complete removal of the sins for which atonement was made."


Harris cites Ps. 103:12 and Micah 7:19 as promises of the complete removal of forgiven sins. Scriptures that seem to connect this aspect of atonement with the Messiah include Isa. 53:6 (". . . and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all") and John 1:29 ("Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.").


Beyond these two aspects of atonement, there has been much discussion through the centuries about additional symbolism that might have been intended in the ritual of the two goats (see [3], [6]). Various possibilities have been suggested, especially with regard to the typology of the live goat, the one released into the wilderness. Since there is often much to learn from studying the thoughts of our predecessors in the faith, let's take a look at some of these possibilities.


Second Temple Tradition and Christian Interpretation

When considering the typology of the two goats, Christians have often supplemented the information given in Lev. 16 with traditions of Day of Atonement observance that had developed by the time of Jesus. Good summaries of these traditions, which are mentioned in both the Talmud and in early Christian writings, can be found in [2] and [6].


According to the Mishnah (Yoma 6:1), during the Second Temple period the two goats were purchased at the same time and were chosen, as nearly as possible, to be identical in appearance, height, and value. After lots were cast to determine which goat would play which role, crimson threads were tied around the throat of the goat that was to be sacrificed and around a horn of the goat that was to be escorted to the wilderness (Yoma 4:2; [2], chapter 16).


In keeping with the instructions in Lev. 16:21, the high priest laid both hands on the head of the live goat and confessed over it the sins of the Israelites (Yoma 6:2). Other priests then led the goat out the eastern gate of Jerusalem and across a bridge to the Mount of Olives, accompanied by taunts of "take and go, take and go" (in other words, "take those sins and get out of here!") from some onlookers. On the Mount of Olives the priests handed the goat over to the man designated to take it to the wilderness. The Mishnah (Yoma 6:3) indicates that this man was often a Gentile.


The location specified as "the wilderness" was a distance of five sabbath days' journey away, and elaborate precautions were taken to ensure that the goat was led there and would never return. At equal intervals along the route from the Mount of Olives to that location, ten stations were set up, each staffed by one or more people. Whenever the designated man and the goat reached one of the stations, the man was offered refreshments. Then a person from that station accompanied the man and goat to the next station (Yoma 6:4-5, [2]).


After the man and goat reached the tenth station, they continued alone to the edge of the wilderness. There the man removed the crimson thread from the goat and divided it in half. One half he tied to a rock; the other he tied between the horns of the goat. He then pushed the goat backward over a cliff, so that it fell to its death in a ravine below (Yoma 6:6).


Meanwhile the high priest waited at the Temple for word that the goat had reached the wilderness. After the goat was pushed into the ravine, someone at the tenth station waved a flag to indicate that the designated man had accomplished his task. Someone at the ninth station saw that flag and responded by waving another flag, and so on until the news reached the high priest. The Mishnah (Yoma 6:8) mentions that there was also another sign that the sacrifice had been completed. When the goat went into the ravine another crimson thread-this one tied to the door of the sanctuary-would turn white, symbolizing the promise of Isa. 1:18: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, they shall be like wool."1


Christians familiar with these details of Second Temple Day of Atonement observance have often noted possible connections to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. For example, Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889) viewed the handing over of the live goat to a Gentile as a prefiguration of the time when Jesus was turned over to the Romans to be put to death [2].


Early Christian apologists saw in these temple rituals part of an answer to a question that must have been posed to them frequently by those Jews who were skeptical of Christian claims: Where does the Bible say anything about the Messiah coming twice? In response to this question they could point out that the two goats of Lev. 16, deliberately chosen to be as similar as possible, implied two appearances of the same Messiah.


There are some variations in the details of early Christian explanations of the symbolism of the two goats. (For an excellent summary, see chapter 4 of [6].) The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100 A.D.) identified the goat that was sacrificed as a type of the crucified Christ who died for the sins of mankind. The live goat, led out of the city with a red thread on one horn amidst the jeers of onlookers, it associated with the resurrected Christ who was rejected but will return in glory:


" ... and why [do you behold] the one that is accursed crowned? Because they shall see Him then in that day having a scarlet robe about his body down to his feet; and they shall say, Is not this He whom we once despised, and pierced, and mocked, and crucified? Truly this is He who then declared Himself to be the Son of God. For how like is He to Him! With a view to this, [He required] the goats to be of goodly aspect, and similar, that, when they see Him then coming, they may be amazed by the likeness of the goat" (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 7).


On the other hand, Justin Martyr (c. 100 A.D.-c. 165 A.D.) in Dialogue with Trypho made the reverse identification. Apparently taking into account the fact that the second goat was pushed over a cliff to its death, he saw this goat as a type of Christ rejected and crucified, while the goat sacrificed in Jerusalem he connected with the Christ who will one day return to Jerusalem:


"And the two goats which were ordered to be offered during the fast, of which one was sent away as the scape [goat], and the other sacrificed, were similarly declarative of the two appearances of Christ: the first, in which the elders of your people, and the priests, having laid hands on Him and put Him to death, sent Him away as the scape [goat]; and His second appearance, because in the same place in Jerusalem you shall recognize Him whom you have dishonored, and who was an offering for all sinners willing to repent ..." (Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 40).


Tertullian (c. 160 A.D.-c. 230 A.D.), in his apologetic works Contra Marcion and Contra Judaeos, linked the live goat to Christ's first coming and the sacrificed goat to his second coming, as Justin did. In explaining his typology, he made use of one additional piece of traditional Day of Atonement observance-the fact that if the Day of Atonement fell on a Friday, the sacrificed goat would be eaten by the priests after sunset when the fast was over (M. Menahoth 11:7).


"So, again, I will make an interpretation of the two goats which were habitually offered on the fast-day. Do not they, too, point to each successive stage in the character of the Christ who is already come? A pair, on the one hand, and consimilar (they were), because of the identity of the Lord's general appearance, inasmuch as He is not to come in some other form, seeing that He has to be recognized by those by whom He was once hurt. But the one of them, begirt with scarlet, amid cursing and universal spitting, and tearing, and piercing, was cast away by the People outside the city into perdition, marked with manifest tokens of Christ's passion; who, after being begirt with scarlet garment, and subjected to universal spitting, and afflicted with all contumelies, was crucified outside the city. The other, however: offered for sins, and given as food to the priests merely of the temple, gave signal evidences of the second appearance; in so far as, after the expiation of all sins, the priests of the spiritual temple, that is, of the church, were to enjoy a spiritual public distribution (as it were) of the Lord's grace, while all others are fasting from salvation" (Contra Judaeos, chapter 14).


The award for the most ingenious Christian interpretation of the Lev. 16 symbolism probably goes to the prolific theologian Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-c. 254 A.D.). Origen, who is known for his allegorical readings of scripture, suggested several different interpretations of Lev. 16 in his extensive body of writing (see [6], pp. 68-71). In his tenth homily on Leviticus, Origen associated the sacrificed goat with Jesus and the live goat with Barabbas, who was released from Roman custody on the day of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:15-26). In this scenario Pilate, who set Barabbas free, played the role of the designated man who released the live goat into the wilderness. Origen noted that the designated man was required to wash his clothes and bathe after coming in contact with the goat (Lev. 16:26), while Pilate washed his hands to symbolically absolve himself of guilt after making the decision to crucify Jesus and release Barabbas.


The Goats and Christological Controversy

Two centuries after Tertullian and Origen, Cyril of Alexandria (c. 370 A.D.-444 A.D.) revisited the subject of the two goats at the request of Acacius, bishop of Scythopolis. In his Letter 41, written to Acacius, Cyril discussed at length the typology of Lev. 16. Unlike Justin and Tertullian, who wrote about the goats as part of an ongoing debate with the Jewish community, Cyril was addressing strictly Christian concerns. He seems especially to have had in mind the christological controversies that were so prominent in his time (and in which he was a leading participant). Like the author of the Epistle of Barnabas, Cyril associated the sacrificed goat with the Christ who died for our sins and the the live goat with the resurrected Christ. But in contrast to the early apologists, he focused on the two natures in Christ rather than the two comings of Christ. In section 14 of his letter, he stated,


"Consider, therefore, how he calls the second goat the living one, although the first goat was sacrificed. For, as I said, the one and only Son and Lord, Jesus Christ, was depicted in both as in suffering in his own flesh, and beyond suffering, as in death and above death. For the Word of God lived, even though his holy flesh tasted death, and the Word of God remained impassible, although he made his own the suffering of his own body and took it upon himself."


Cyril also emphasized the similarity between the two goats, but again for a different reason than the second-century apologists. Anticipating that Lev. 16 might be used by followers of Nestorius, who held that Christ was two distinct persons, he wanted to make the point that Christ's two natures-human and divine-were combined in one person (see sections 18-22).


Another theologian who saw the two goats as representing the two natures of Christ was Theodoret of Cyr (c. 393-c. 458 A.D.), a younger contemporary-and personal enemy-of Cyril. Theodoret and Cyril clashed on the issue of how to deal with Theodoret's friend Nestorius, whom Theodoret felt had been misunderstood. But despite their differences, they gave similar explanations of the goat symbolism. Theodoret wrote,


"In these two goats there is an anticipative image of the two natures of the Savior; in the one let go, of the impassible Godhead, in the one slain, of the passible manhood" (Dialogue 3, quoted in [7], p. 185).


With the christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries far behind us, it would probably not occur to many Christian exegetes today to associate the goats with the two natures of Christ. However, the basic idea that the sacrificed goat represents the crucified Christ and the goat released into the wilderness the resurrected Christ has remained popular in Christian circles ([6], pp. 72-73).


The Azazel Question

We have yet to consider one of the major issues in interpreting the symbolism of the two goats-the mysterious Hebrew word azazel, which appears in the Hebrew scriptures only in Lev. 16. Since the meaning and etymology of this word are uncertain (see [6], chapter 2), some English translations choose to leave it untranslated and simply transliterate it into English. For example, here is how the New Revised Standard Version renders the verses containing this word:


"... and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel" (v. 8).


"... but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel (v. 10).


"The one who sets the goat free for Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterwards may come into the camp" (v. 26).


In each of its four appearances in Lev. 16, the word azazel is preceded by the same Hebrew preposition. This preposition can have a wide range of meaning ([6], pp. 28-29), so its translation depends upon the meaning of azazel. In verse 10, translations differ as to whether the live goat is sent away `to', `for', or `as' Azazel.


Historically, the word azazel has been understood in four different ways [3]. One possibility is that azazel is a reference to the live goat itself as the goat that goes away or is sent out. According to Harris [4], "the first part (`az) can mean `goat' and the last part ('azel) is from a verb that means `go away.'"


This option has been followed by a number of translations, both ancient and modern. The Septuagint translates azazel with the Greek word apopompaiou, which means roughly "carrier-away" ([6], p. 33). Jerome in the Latin Vulgate uses caper emissarius or "emissary goat." In English, William Tyndale coined the word "scapegoat" (the "goat that escapes") for azazel, and this word has been used in a number of English translations, including the KJV and NIV. For example, the NIV in v. 10 says that the live goat is taken into the desert "as a scapegoat."


A second possibility, related to the first, is that azazel refers not to the goat itself but to its function, the entire removal of sins. This is the translation given in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon and favored by Feinberg in [3].


A third possibility is that azazel is a reference to the goat's destination. The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 67b) follows this option, saying that "Azazel means the hardest of mountains." Those who favor this translation point out that there are some Arabic words meaning "rough ground" or "jagged cliffs" that sound a lot like azazel ([6], p. 35).


Finally, azazel may be a proper name, perhaps a name for the devil or a demon. Proponents of this view (e.g. [1], [6]) point to the parallelism in Lev. 16:8 ("one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel"), which may suggest that Azazel is some personage being contrasted with "the Lord."


The idea that Azazel might be the name of a demon is over two thousand years old. Indeed, stories that involve a prominent fallen angel named Azazel (or some close variant thereof) appear in intertestamental apocalyptic literature (see [6], chapter 3). Especially relevant to this study is the story recorded in I Enoch 6-11, a section of I Enoch that probably dates back to the early second century B.C. In this story, which takes Gen. 6:1-4 as its jumping-off point, a group of two hundred fallen angels called "the Watchers" decides to come to earth and have children with human women. Eighteen leaders of this group are listed in I Enoch 6, including one named Asael.


The Watchers end up wreaking major havoc on earth, with the children they father turning out to be malicious giants (chapter 7). Asael (or Azazel) teaches people metallurgical skills that they use to make weapons of war and also introduces jewelry and cosmetics, leading to widespread licentiousness (chapter 8). As the world becomes increasingly chaotic, God sends archangels to warn Noah about a coming deluge and restrain the activities of Azazel:


"And again the Lord said to Raphael: `Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgement he shall be cast into the fire. And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons. And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin' " (I Enoch 10:4-9).


This excerpt from I Enoch shows that the author of the story had Lev. 16 in mind in describing Azazel and his punishment. Azazel bears the sins of the Watchers as the live goat carries the sins of Israel. (Notice the phrase "to him ascribe all sin.") Moreover, Azazel is to be taken to a rocky desert place and not allowed to return, like the live goat in the Day of Atonement ceremony.


The story also describes the punishment of the other Watchers and their offspring:


"And the Lord said unto Michael: `Go, bind Semjaza and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness. And when their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgement and of their consummation, till the judgement that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined for ever'" (I Enoch 10:11-14).


Christians who read this section of I Enoch will be reminded not only of Lev. 16, but also of the fate of Satan and his demons described in the Book of Revelation. Note in particular the following passage:


"Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended" (Rev. 20:1-3, NRSV).


There are some notable parallels between I Enoch 10 and Rev. 20. Both Azazel and Satan are bound and imprisoned, awaiting a future judgment, so that they can no longer exert a harmful influence on humans. In addition, demons in both I Enoch and Rev. 20 are said to be destined for eternal torment (I Enoch 10:13; Rev. 20:10). Levy ([6], p. 74) comments,


"It may well be that the apostle John was familiar with the mishnaic Atonement customs and with the Enochic traditions, and that these were called to mind as types of the fate of Satan, as he received his visions on the island of Patmos. We cannot be certain, but in any case the literary assocations appear more than coincidental."


The story recorded in I Enoch 6-11, though fanciful, makes a sort of bridge between Lev. 16 and Rev. 20 and suggests a connection between the live goat and the future binding of Satan. Such a connection is supported by the context of Rev. 20. In the book of Revelation, the binding of Satan comes shortly after the return of Christ (Rev. 19). The Second Coming is announced by a trumpet blast (Rev. 11:15; I Thes. 4:16) and so can be associated with the Feast of Trumpets, which comes just nine days before the Day of Atonement in Israel's festival calendar. After the binding of Satan comes the establishment of the messianic kingdom, an era linked with the Feast Tabernacles, five days after the Day of Atonement.


On the strength of this data, some Christians-especially those from the Adventist tradition-have seen the live goat of Lev. 16 as a type of Satan and the man designated to take the goat to the wilderness as a type of the angel in Rev. 20:1-3 who binds Satan ([1], [6]). This interpretation emphasizes the justice of God in ultimately placing sin back upon its author, the devil.



In addition to bearing the sins of the Israelites, the live goat in Lev. 16 has borne the weight of the many symbolic associations attached to it over the centuries. It has been Christ resurrected, Christ led to the crucifixion, and the divine nature of Christ. It has been the devil, and it has even been Barabbas. This is enough to give any goat a major identity crisis. If it weren't going to be pushed off a cliff, it might decide to jump off on its own.


But in all seriousness, I believe that there is much to be gained from a study like this one. For one thing, such a study gives us a chance to listen to those from years past who have diligently searched the scriptures. Their concerns were often different from ours, but we can still benefit from their insights, which can bring up possibilities we otherwise might not have considered.


Moreover, this kind of study illustrates the fact that typology is far from an "exact science." The way that theologians from the past have viewed the goats was influenced to some degree by the major issues they faced in their times. Realizing this, we should keep our own speculations in perspective and not be dogmatic about them.


In the end, how do we interpret the typology of the live goat? Is the goat a type of Christ? Is it a type of Satan? Does it represent Christ taking away our sins and placing them upon Satan?  I will leave the details to the reader. In my own opinion, the main message of the two goats is the one mentioned at the start of this article: Through the sacrificial death of our Savior, Jesus Christ, our sins are both forgiven and forgotten. Praise God for this wonderful truth!



1.  Samuele Bacchiocchi, God’s Festivals in Scripture and History, Part 2:  The Fall Festivals, Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1996.

2.  Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: its Ministry and Services as they were at the Time of Jesus Christ, F.H. Revell, New York, 1874.

3.  Charles L. Feinberg, “The Scapegoat of Leviticus Sixteen,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 115, No. 4, 1958, pp. 320-333.

4.  R. Laird Harris, "Leviticus," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1990.

5.  Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "Leviticus," in The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994.

6.  Ralph D. Levy, The Symbolism of the Azazel Goat, Christian Universities Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1999.

7.  Joseph T. Lienhard, Editor, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Old Testament Vol. III of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2001.


Issue 20




1A further tradition says that this thread did not turn white, though, during the forty years leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple (see [2]).

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