Leviticus 16-18
(The Scapegoat)
February 2nd

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verses

“This is standard practice for you, a perpetual ordinance. On the tenth day of the seventh month, both the citizen and the foreigner living with you are to enter into a solemn fast and refrain from all work, because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. In the presence of God you will be made clean of all your sins. It is a Sabbath of all Sabbaths. You must fast. It is a perpetual ordinance."

- Leviticus 16:29-31 (MSG)

Summary of Chapters

This group of chapters provides instructions for an annual day of atonement, defines rules against eating blood, and declares forbidden sexual relations. The beginning of chapter 16 picks up where chapter 10 left off - after the death of Nabab and Abihu for not following the rules of the tabernacle. The LORD warns Aaron that he is not to go into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle “whenever he chooses (Leviticus 16:2 - NIV).” There will be times when he is authorized to go there – although he can only go at those times, or face the same punishment as his two sons.

After putting the fear of God into Aaron, the LORD explains how he wants Aaron to conduct an annual atonement ceremony. He would be authorized to go to the Most Holy Place during this ceremony, but only after following a strict series of rituals. According to the LORD's instructions, the high priest would enter the tabernacle from the east side and then approach the altar, which stood near the entrance.

After preparing the sacrifice at the altar, the high priest would be allowed to enter the Holy Place, which occupied a space on the other side of the tabernacle, near the west wall. The Holy Place was an enclosed area separated from the rest of the tabernacle by a curtain. The high priest would be allowed to enter the Holy Place while carrying the burning coals, incense, and bull's blood as the LORD instructed. He then would approach another curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. When he goes through that curtain he would be in the same room as the Ark of the Covenant, but would not see it because, as the LORD explained " the smoke of the incense will cover the Atonement-Cover which is over The Testimony so that he doesn't die (Leviticus 16:13 - MSG)."

The next part of this elaborate ceremony involves the use of two goats. Aaron is told to use the Umin and Thurmin to determine which one of the goats will be sacrificed. The other then is released in the desert as a scapegoat that symbolically absorbs the sins of the people:

    "But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness."

    “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place and the man shall release it into the wilderness."

    - Leviticus 16:10,22 (NIV)

This ceremony will only be conducted by Aaron and his successors as high priest. On this day the people must "deny" themselves (fast) and rest because it is the day of their cleansing.

Chapter 17 describes the LORD’s restrictions against eating the blood of any animal because it is the life of the animal and is to be preserved for sacrifices, not eaten by man. He also warns against conducting unauthorized sacrificial ceremonies outside of the camp, as these were essentially pagan rituals. This chapter concludes the first half of Leviticus, which focused on proper sacrifices.

Chapter 18 begins the second half of Leviticus, which focuses on how the people should live a holy life. In chapter 18, the LORD begins this instruction by providing an explicit list of sexual relations that he will not tolerate. These are rules to be applied to this maturing nation going forward and are not retroactive.

Reflection and Application

The atonement ceremony described in chapter 16 is mentioned again in chapter 23 when the LORD summarizes the list of required festivals. This atonement day, now referred to as Yom Kippur, continues to be celebrated by people of the Jewish faith in the 21st century. By doing so they uphold the LORD's commandment to make the day "a lasting ordinance (Leviticus 16:31 - NIV)."

The Day of Atonement occurs in September or October of the Gregorian calendar, but it is always on the 10th day of the 7th month (Tishri) on the Hebrew calendar, according to the LORD's instructions (Leviticus 16:29). In the modern day celebrations, a 25-hour period of fasting begins at sunset on the day before Yom Kippur and ends at sunset on the day of Yom Kippur (pregnant woman and young children are exempted). At some point after the inaugural Day of Atonement there were additional rules added, as documented in the Jewish Talmud. For example, the people are prohibited from bathing, applying deodorant, or wearing leather shoes - but sneakers are okay. Services at the synagogue take up most of the day and ends with a blast of the shofar, which is a traditional musical horn (1).

What does a shofar look and sound like? Check out this brief video of the blowing of the shofar near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the last remaining portion of the second temple built in Jerusalem.

"Blowing of the Shofar"

Etymologists concur that the word scapegoat originated from the English translation of chapter 16 of Leviticus. The hebrew word azazel was literally translated as the "goat that departs," which became scapegoat (2). This word is firmly implanted in our culture to reference a person or people who are blamed for something that has gone wrong. Evidence of it's significance includes its appearance in the news on almost any typical day.

On January 28th, 2011, for example, President Hosni Mubarak (1928 - current) of Egypt fired his entire cabinet as scapegoats in response to violent protests from the populace. However, this was not enough of a sacrifice to atone for his sins. He subsequently resigned on February 11th, 2011.

In Washington, D.C. it's common for politicians and the media to seek and identify scapegoats for political failures. However, the most emotional use of the word in this city is reserved for descriptions of local athletes. In an interview on January 7th, 2011, the former quarterback for the Washington Redskins football team, Jason Campbell, explained why he feels like the goat banished from the village. He had been sent to a city thousands of miles away, but was yet to recover from his experience in Washington. He described some of the reasons for the miserable performance of the team during his tenure and notes that "The fact that I was the scapegoat for all of that, it really stung a little bit. It was tough." The interview was immediately followed by a large volume of emotional online responses from fans who debated the veracity of these comments and opined on who on the team is currently being "scapegoated (3)."

Like all good teams, we eventually find ourselves coming up short of our goals, and try to work out what went wrong. If we have sinned we don’t have to "scapegoat" someone else. Instead, we can seek to reconcile with anyone we have offended, acknowledge our transgression to God, and give thanks that Jesus has already scapegoated himself – even though he was a blameless as a lamb.

During today's reading, you might have recognized that some of the forbidden relationships are ones that Jacob had participated in, most notably relations with the sister of his wife while his wife was still alive (which would have been in conflict with Leviticus 18:18). We read in Genesis 29 that Jacob married the sisters Rachel and Leah, had children with both, and had children with their maidservants. The twelve sons of these four women are the patriarchs and namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that the rule was not retroactive. In the days of Genesis there were fewer people and perhaps the gene pool was more pure, therefore these types of relationships were not yet forbidden.

The underlying theme of chapters 17-18 is that the Israelites were to distinguish themselves from the pagan practices of their neighbors in Canaan and other regions. They were intended to be a holy people - separate from others in the world. These other societies endorsed a variety of sacrifices to gods of convenience and apparently had no rules about who could have relations with whom. Some of these rules no longer apply to Christians, such as the prohibition against eating blood from animals. Consequently, those of us who are carnivores can enjoy juicy steaks without guilt – although we are probably wise to not overindulge in that area. Nevertheless, the general principle applies. God wants us to avoid conforming to the practices of the world around us but instead focus on obeying him.

For further reflection on the idea of holiness we recommend the performance below in which you will hear a traditional rendition of the Hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy." This theme was written almost 200 years ago by an Anglican minister, Reginald Heber, who served as the Bishop of Calcutta, India. It is one of the most frequently sung Christian hymn in churches around the world (4).

"Holy, Holy, Holy"

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What situation(s) can you think of where you were assigned the role of scapegoat?
    2. Can you think of any situations where you made someone else (or a group) a scapegoat?
    3. How can we distinguish ourselves from the world on a daily basis in a way that is consistent with God’s will for us?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, please help us to take responsibility for our actions, seek forgiveness from you and others and offer forgiveness to others

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    New Leaders in the Middle East


    (1)"Yom Kippur," Judaism 101, http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday4.htm
    (2) "Scapegoat," Online Etymology Dictionary
    (3) Boren, Cindy, "Jason Campbell: 'I was the scapegoat' in Washington and 'it really stung,' " Washington Post online , 10:22am ET, 01/7/2011
    (4) Strain, Michael L, "Great Hymns of the Faith," a sermon delivered at The Noroton Presbyterian Church, Darien, CT, February 11th, 1996

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Leviticus 19-20 (Crimes and Punishments)

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