Goats in Matthew 25 and Leviticus 16


by Doug Ward

A number of English expressions are based on biblical passages. For example, we speak of "separating the sheep from the goats" when we want to distinguish superior and inferior members of a group. This expression comes from Mt 25:31-46, where Jesus describes the final judgment as a separation of sheep and goats. Those that help the needy are the sheep, who will receive an eternal reward; while those that do not are the goats, who will receive eternal punishment.


The negative portrayal of goats in Mt 25 has puzzled scholars. Generally in the Bible goats are associated with sheep, not contrasted with sheep, and both are viewed positively (e.g. Dt 32:14; Isa 11:6). Both were sacrificial animals (Ex 12:5), and flocks of both were seen as a sign of wealth (Ge 32:14; 1 Sa 25:2). The hair and skins of goats were among the valuable materials used in the Israelite tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex 25:4-5). An honored guest might be served a meal featuring a young goat (Jdg 13:15).


There is one notable exception to the otherwise positive depiction of goats in the Hebrew Scriptures. In a ritual conducted each year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew) in the days of the tabernacle and temple, the Israelite high priest laid his hands on the head of a goat selected by lot from two candidates and confessed over it the sins of the people. The goat was then led away to a remote area to symbolize the removal of those sins from Israel (Lev 16:21-22).


The goat, of course, was not to blame for the people's sins. Bible translator William Tyndale (1494-1536) coined the English word "scapegoat" (meaning "goat that escapes") for this goat. The word has since come to be used for someone who is blamed for the wrongdoings of another.


Even though this goat was innocent, over time it came to be identified with the sins that it carried. When the ritual was conducted in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, people would spit on the goat or pull on its hair as it was being led out of the city, and some would shout, "Bear our sins and be gone!" Measures were taken to ensure that the goat did not come back, so that those sins did not return. After the goat was led to "the wilderness," a location five Sabbath days' journey from the city, it was pushed backward over a cliff and fell to its death in a ravine below.1


Comparing Matthew 25 and Leviticus 16

There are parallels between Leviticus 16 and Matthew 25. In both the ancient ritual and the future judgment scene, goats associated with sin are cursed and sent away from the presence of God. Moreover, both involve two lots or options. In Mt 25 the Son of Man places sheep on his right hand and goats on his left (v. 33). In Lev 16 there are two goats, one being sacrificed for the sins of the people and the other carrying those sins away. Jewish traditions associate the sacrificed goat with the high priest's right hand and the scapegoat with his left hand.2


In Matthew 25 one of the options is positive, the other one negative. The sheep inherit the kingdom of God (v. 34), while the goats go "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (v. 41). With the two lots on the Day of Atonement, the one for the sacrificed goat was designated "for the Lord," the one for the scapegoat "for Azazel" (Lev 16:8). The Hebrew word Azazel appears in the Bible only in Lev 16. Anciently the word was often interpreted as a proper name denoting an entity being contrasted with God. In this reading Azazel is a name of the devil or a demon. The ritual, by having the scapegoat "sent away into the wilderness to Azazel," (v. 10), assigned to Azazel ultimate responsibility for the sin that he brought into the world.


A prominent fallen angel named Azazel appears in the apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period. In particular, 1 Enoch 55:4 has God announcing to the kings of the earth, "Ye shall have to behold Mine Elect One, how he sits on the throne of glory and judges Azazel, and all his associates ... " We can see a parallel with Mt 25, where the Son of Man "will sit on his glorious throne" (v. 31) and judge the goats.


In Matthew 25 people are separated into two groups, the sheep and goats. Similarly, ancient interpreters associated the two lots of Lev 16 with groups of people. For example, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, associated people who seek heavenly wisdom with the lot of the sacrificed goat and people who seek carnal things with the lot of the scapegoat.3


Implications of the Goat Imagery

The parallels between Leviticus and Matthew suggest that the goats of Lev 16 lie behind the goat imagery in Mt 25. Since the ritual of Lev 16 accomplished the cleansing of the tabernacle or temple, the connection between Lev 16 and Mt 25 implies that the judgment of Mt 25:31-46 can be described as a sort of cleansing of the cosmos.


The festivals of Israel foreshadow key milestones in salvation history. Passover is a prophecy of "Christ our Passover" (1 Co 5:7), while Pentecost points to the firstfruits in a harvest of salvation (1 Th 2:13; Jas 1:18; Rev 14:4). The Feast of Trumpets looks forward to the return of Jesus, announced by the sound of a trumpet (Mt 24:30-31; 1 Th 4:16-17). Based on the goat imagery of Mt 25, one event predicted by the Day of Atonement is the judgment that will follow Jesus' return.


1These traditions are described in the Mishnah in tractate Yoma, chapter 6.

2See Hans M. Moscicke, "The Final Judgement as Ritual Purgation of the Cosmos: The Influence of Scapegoat Traditions on Matt 25:31-46," New Testament Studies 67 (2021), pp. 241-259.

3Moscicke, p. 253.

Issue 36


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