The Beauty of God’s Forgiveness and Forgetfulness

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.– Leviticus 16:6-22 ESV

God ordered Aaron to bring a bull, one ram, and two male goats to the Tabernacle for use as sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. Each of these animals had a different role to play in the annual ceremony and verses 6-10 provide a succinct summary of their use. The bull was to be offered by Aaron himself as a sin offering that was intended to provide purification for him and his family members. Once this process of atonement was complete, he was properly prepared to act on behalf of the people of Israel.

The next step in the process was to cast lots over the two goats. This was done to determine which goat would serve as a blood sacrifice and which goat would be released into the wilderness. It remains unclear how the casting of lots took place, but the Hebrews practiced this form of divination as a way to determine God’s will. The Book of Proverbs states that the “lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33 ESV).

By casting lots, Aaron was allowing God to make the determination as to the fate of each of the goats. One was to be slaughtered for the sins of the people, with its blood used to purify the Tabernacle, the altar, and the Holy of Holies. The life of this innocent animal would serve as a form of substitutionary atonement so that all of the sins the people had committed that year could be forgiven and forgotten. King David wrote the following Psalm to celebrate the goodness and graciousness of God.

He revealed his character to Moses
    and his deeds to the people of Israel.
The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
    nor remain angry forever.
He does not punish us for all our sins;
    he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west. – Psalm 103:7-12 NLT

The imagery of the two goats aptly illustrates David’s point. The first goat died so that the Israelites might live. But the second goat lived so that the sins of the Israelites might be symbolically removed from them. This goat has come to be known as the “scapegoat,” a term first coined by William Tyndale. The Hebrew term used for this goat is עֲזָאזֵל (ʿazaʾzel), and it appears four times in the Scriptures, all in this passage. The exact meaning of the term has been much debated over the centuries.

The passage suggests that one goat was chosen “for the Lord,” while the other was to be for Azazel.” Over the centuries, many scholars have determined that the word, “Azazel” could best be defined as “the goat that departs.” This is what led Tyndale and others to refer to this animal as the “scapegoat.” Even the modern definition of the term, “scapegoat” reflects the practice of using this animal as a substitute or proxy for the people. defines a scapegoat as “a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.”

Yet, more recent scholarship has arrived at a different meaning for the name, “Azazel.”

“The most common view among scholars today is that it is the proper name of a particular demon (perhaps even the Devil himself) associated with the wilderness desert regions.…Even if a demon or the demonic realm is the source for the name, however, there is no intention here of appeasing the demons. The goal is to remove the impurity and iniquity from the community in order to avoid offending the Lord and the repercussions of such.” – NET Bible Study Notes

Whatever the exact meaning of the word, Azazel, it is clear that this goat, like its companion, was intended to serve as a substitute. The only difference was that its life was spared. It was allowed to live but was forcibly banned from the community and sent out into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the entire nation.

He will lay both of his hands on the goat’s head and confess over it all the wickedness, rebellion, and sins of the people of Israel. In this way, he will transfer the people’s sins to the head of the goat. Then a man specially chosen for the task will drive the goat into the wilderness. As the goat goes into the wilderness, it will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land. – Leviticus 16:21-22 NLT

These two goats served two separate but connected roles. One provided its blood as atonement for the sins of the people. This blood was sprinkled on the altar in order to “cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel” (Leviticus 16:19 ESV). The presence of unconfessed and unatoned-for sin among the people had ended up contaminating the Tabernacle which required its purification. So, Aaron was required to sprinkle the blood “over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:14 ESV). In doing so, he would “make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (Leviticus 16:16 ESV).

But the second goat served a different but no less important purpose. The sins of the people were ceremonially transferred to this goat by the laying on of hands. As the God-ordained representative of the people, Aaron verbally confessed their sins and placed them on the “scapegoat.” If the name, Azazel, was meant to represent Satan, perhaps this ritual was intended to send the people’s sins back to where they belonged, back to the one who was the ultimate cause of all sin. By sending the goat into the wilderness, they were returning their sins to their source. The blood of the first goat provided purification and cleansing from their sins. But the life of the second goat provided a permanent separation from those sins.

Amazingly, both goats represent the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). The apostle Peter describes how Jesus served as both the source of our atonement and the means of permanent separation from our sin.

He never sinned,
    nor ever deceived anyone.
He did not retaliate when he was insulted,
    nor threaten revenge when he suffered.
He left his case in the hands of God,
    who always judges fairly.
He personally carried our sins
    in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
    and live for what is right.
By his wounds
    you are healed.
Once you were like sheep
    who wandered away.
But now you have turned to your Shepherd,
    the Guardian of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:22-25 NLT

The “scapegoat” was exiled to the wilderness, where it would ultimately die from either exposure or by being eaten by a predator. Symbolically, the sins it carried would die along with it. In the same sense, Jesus bore our sins on the cross, and when He died, our sins died with Him. In a way, before coming to faith in Christ, each believer lived under the weight of sin and, like the scapegoat, wandered the wilderness of life waiting for death. But Jesus provided a means by which those sins could be paid for, forgiven, and removed forever. He paid the debt we owed with His own blood, atoning for all our sins – past, present, and future – and removing any trace of them from our record.

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

As the Israelites stood and watched as that second goat was led into the wilderness, they must have felt a palpable sense of relief and thanksgiving. Sins they didn’t even know they had committed were disappearing into the distance. Sins they had committed but had refused to confess had been removed from their record and transferred to that innocent animal, never to be seen or heard from again. Many of them had lived with the burden of unconfessed sin all year long. But now, they were able to enjoy God’s forgiveness as well as His gracious forgetfulness. As the goat disappeared into the distance, so did the memory of their sin. That’s why the apostle John reminded his readers:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


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