The Scapegoat Dilemma

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (19 Jan 2009).
©2009 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

Index, Home

1. The Scapegoat
1.1 The Ceremony
1.2 Christian Interpretation
1.3 The Enigma
2. Barabbas
3. The Book of Enoch
3.1 Azazel is Satan
3.2 Satan Responsible for Sin
3.3 Cast into the Bottomless Pit
4. Conclusion
In the law of Moses, the scapegoat bore the burden of the sins of the people. Did the goat represent Christ or Satan?

The elaborate "scapegoat" ceremony from the Law of Moses is one of the most puzzling rites of all. Alfred Edersheim, a noted scholar in the field, admitted, "Everything about it seems strange and mysterious."[1] This article looks at the ceremony in some detail to appreciate the enigma, considers two opposite interpretations, and then offers a proposed solution.

1. The Scapegoat

What is a "scapegoat" and what is the origin of that word? The word scapegoat has two meanings. The most common is "one that bears the blame for others." That person may or may not be guilty. The original meaning was "a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur" (the Day of Atonement).[2] The word was invented by William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible. He translated the Hebrew word "Azazel", which only occurs in connection with this ceremony, as "ez azel" the "goat" (ez) which "escapes" (azel). That seems like a good translation because in the ceremony the goat is indeed released in the wilderness. The King James version followed his lead, as have many modern translations.

This brings us already to the first confusing meaning of this word and of the ceremony itself. On the one hand, the goat takes upon him the sins of the people, and on the other hand, he is set free in the wilderness. The first meaning of the word given above refers to one who is blamed (and usually punished) for the sins of others, but the ceremonial goat seems to be more of an "escape goat" who ends up going free. That is the first clue that there may be a puzzle here that needs to be solved. So let us look more carefully at the ancient Biblical ceremony.

1.1 The Ceremony

The day 10 Tishri on the Hebrew Calendar is the "Day of Atonement" (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the year. There were several rituals to be performed annually on that day (usually in late September or early October), but there was one which especially dealt with making atonement for the sins of the people. It is described in part in Leviticus 16, with more detail given in other Hebrew sources such as the Talmud and Mishnah as to how it was actually performed.

Two nearly identical he-goats were chosen from the congregation of the children of Israel and presented to the high priest. He would "cast lots" to determine which was "for Jehovah" and which "for Azazel" (Lev. 16:2,7,8, where Azazel is often translated "scapegoat"). Tradition is that he did this by reaching with both hands into a large golden urn which contained two lots, which were identical in size, shape and material. He picked one in each hand, one reading "for Jehovah" and the other "for Azazel". Each goat stood by one side of the priest, and the fate of each was determined by the lot chosen by the hand on that side.[3]

Figure 1. The Scapegoat
The goat selected "for Jehovah" was sacrificed for a sin offering to atone for the sins of the people, and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat (Lev. 16:9, 15-16). Afterward, the high priest laid both hands on the head of the living goat chosen "for Azazel" and put upon him all the iniquities of the children of Israel. Then, as prescribed by the law, an appointed man would lead the goat into the wilderness, to a land not inhabited, and there release the goat. That man then had to ritually wash to be cleansed (Lev. 16:21, 22, 26).

There is an interesting twist to be learned from the Jewish records of how this was actually performed. The goat was taken to a certain place in the wilderness to the projecting edge of a steep cliff below which were many jagged rocks. It was steep enough to insure the death of the goat from the fall. So technically, it was "released" in the wilderness, but over the edge of a cliff! That reverses the entire fate of the goat from what is usually assumed. In actual practice it was not released to freedom but to die a miserable death. Most commentators are quick to point out that the custom must have been added after the law had been given,[4] but even so, it clearly indicates that the understanding of those doing the ceremony at that time was not that the goat was released to freedom.

An explanation from a bible dictionary may be helpful here:

". . . the man in whose charge the goat was sent out, while setting him free, was instructed to push the unhappy beast down the slope of the mountainside, which was so steep as to insure the death of the goat, whose bones were broken by the fall. The reason for this barbarous custom was that on one occasion the scapegoat returned to Jerusalem after being set free, which was considered such an evil omen that its recurrence was prevented for the future by the death of the goat."[5]

If this quote correctly explains the origin of the custom of sending the goat to its death, it at least shows us their interpretation of the symbolism of releasing the goat. The Hebrew word "azel" which Tyndale translated "escape" is better translated as "go away completely" or "go away forever" as in "their power is gone" (Deut. 32:36).[6] My suggestion for the best translation of Azazel is "banished goat". The scapegoat is not intended to "escape" but instead to be cast out into an uninhabited wilderness to be "gone" forever from the people. That much is in the actual law of Moses, as understood by those who performed the ceremony.

1.2 Christian Interpretation

After the Savior lived, it became evident to Christians that the law of Moses had been given to symbolize Christ. For example, Paul explained that the law of Moses "was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (Gal. 3:24), a "shadow of good things to come" (Heb. 10:1). Early Christians immediately noted that the Passover lamb which was sacrificed each spring symbolized the Savior (1 Cor. 5:7).

The Christian interpretation of the scapegoat has seemed obvious. The scapegoat bore all the sins of Israel and so did Christ. The scriptures make it clear that Christ suffered for our sins and paid for them in full. That is the whole point of the Atonement, and that is a core belief of true Christians. The scriptures proclaim, "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (Isa 53:4). Indeed, William H. Hunt, who painted in 1854 the magnificent scapegoat shown in Fig. 1, had it framed with an inscription including that very verse. In every Christian interpretation known to me, the scapegoat is said to represent Christ.[7]

1.3 The Enigma

There are several problems with that interpretation, or at least many questions remain unanswered. For starters, the goat usually represents evil. Christ compared his followers to sheep, but those who did evil to goats (see Mat. 25:32-46). The scriptures testify that Jesus was the "Lamb of God" (John 1:36; Rev. 5:6, 12), which is consistent with that symbolism. But why would an (evil) goat be used to symbolize Christ? Where does scripture even suggest that He was the "Goat of God"?

And even if He is a goat in this case, the other goat of this pair seems like a much better candidate. After all, he was the one chosen to be "for Jehovah", and he was sacrificed to atone for the sins of mankind, as was Christ. If the scapegoat represents Christ who bore all of our sins, then what was the point of the other goat which was sacrificed to pay for them? Most commentators conclude that both goats represent Christ, but have no compelling explanation for the difference between them.

Why were two goats necessary? Both of them were said to atone for or bear mankind's sins. Have there been two people in history who have done that? If so, did the one who is not Christ have any experience similar to that of the scapegoat? The standard answer is that only Christ suffered for our sins, so they must both symbolize Him. But when was it that Christ was led into the uninhabited wilderness to be banished forever? Why is it worth mentioning that the scapegoat was led by an "appointed" (translated "fit" in the KJV) man? Does he represent someone in particular? And if it was Christ he was leading, why was that man "unclean" afterward?

Is the additional feature of sending the goat to its death off a cliff into jagged stones a barbaric perversion which reverses the whole concept of freeing the goat, or does it capture the intended symbolism of sending both goats to their death by different means? If the scapegoat was intended to be freed, then why does it get off with no suffering, if it is bearing the sins of all mankind? That certainly doesn't seem to be like Christ, who suffered more than is humanly possible. And if the cliff death is a correct symbolism, or even being exiled, then what does it correspond to in the life of Christ?

What is the point of the elaborate ceremony where lots are chosen to determine the fate of each? If two animals are needed for some reason, why not just sacrifice one and let the other one go as was done with birds in the cleansing of a leper (Lev. 14:1-7)? Why have spectators witness the high priest determine which goat was which? Who cares which goat is chosen? Surely the answer has something to do with the fact that one was "for Jehovah" and the other "for Azazel", so another question is, what does Azazel really mean?

Let us dig deeper to answer all of these questions.

2. Barabbas

Choosing between Barabbas and Christ.
Consider one event in the life of the Savior that seems to match the symbolism of this ceremony, and which answers about half of these questions. Jesus was judged by Pilate, who found no guilt in him. There was a tradition of releasing one prisoner at Passover, the festival of liberation, so Pilate asked "Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus?" The multitude chose Barabbas to be released. Pilate then asked, "What shall I do then with Jesus?" They all said unto him, "Let him be crucified!" Pilate asked them, "What evil hath he done?" Although they had no answer, he could not dissuade them, so he washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person" and they answered, "His blood be on us and on our children." Then he released Barabbas unto them (Mat. 27:15-26).

Does anything in that episode sound reminiscent of the scapegoat ritual? Let's see. Both men had been condemned of crimes, hence the goat is an apt symbol for each. They both appeared before a man whose decision held their life in the balance, to die or to be set free. And then one man was sacrificed and one was indeed released. So if this event was prefigured by the ceremony, it could explain a) why Christ was symbolized as a goat, b) the meaning of choosing lots as judging between them,[8] and c) that the scapegoat did not also represent Christ, hence the need for two goats. But then who does the scapegoat really represent? Would it be just some random prisoner?

The full names of both men may throw some light on the subject, for both men were misnamed. Jesus was called Jesus bar Joseph (Jesus, son of Joseph), but he was really the "Son of the Highest" (Luke 1:32), the son of God the Father, not the son of Joseph. The full name of the other man was Jesus bar Abbas, meaning Jesus, son of the high father.[9] So the one with what should have been Christ's full name (Barabbas) was not the Christ at all.

Was this similarity of names due to random chance, or is it a clue we can use to solve the puzzle? Let us hypothesize that the idea being symbolized is that the judgment is being made between the true Christ and a false Christ. In other words, Barabbas was not just a random prisoner, but someone who in one sense appeared to be the Christ. That would explain the use of two nearly identical looking goats.

If this incident was indeed symbolized by the scapegoat ceremony, several questions remain. If the scapegoat represents a false Christ, then what about bearing the weight of the sins of all mankind? And what about being led by an appointed man into the wilderness? We may be on the right track but we need some more answers.

3. The Book of Enoch

The Book of Enoch was removed from the collection of books which later became our modern Bible, but it was considered during Christ's ministry both to be scripture and to have actually been written by Enoch. The book was lost for centuries, but has been found, translated into English, and is readily available.[10] Scholarly opinion is that it is spurious, but to me it appears to be authentic and to contain a wealth of truth.[11] Let us consider three of its teachings which might just answer the remaining questions.

3.1 Azazel is Satan

The Book of Enoch explains that Azazel is a name for Satan.[12] The book is clearly of ancient origin and was considered authentic, so that would have been known to those officiating in the ceremony. To them there would have been no question on the meaning: one goat was "for Jehovah" and the other was "for Satan". In fact, a Wikipedia article points out that even "today in modern Hebrew Azazel is used derogatorily, as in lekh la-Azazel ('go to Azazel'), as in 'go to hell'".[13]

If so, then the scapegoat does not represent just any false Christ, but the greatest false Christ of all. In fact, it brings to mind the scene before this earth was created, where two great spirits stood before God, one being Jesus Christ (Jehovah) and the other Satan (Azazel):

And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. (Abraham 3:27)
At that time, Satan used the identical wording of Jesus. It is as if he were trying to appear to be an equally good choice to be the Christ. Moreover, God himself is making the judgment between the two candidates. And afterward Satan is cast out of heaven, down to the earth where presumably no man had yet dwelt.

That episode truly seems to match the scapegoat ceremony well. Two nearly identical sounding candidates to be the Christ appear before God, who is represented by the high priest, and who judges between them to pick the true Christ. That emphasizes why the decision made by lots was important enough to be done publically by the high priest. And then one goat goes on to become the atoning sacrifice and the other is cast out (released into the wilderness). If that scene was indeed intended to be represented by the scapegoat ceremony, then the symbolism is truly rich.

If Azazel is Satan, then what about the fact that all sins of mankind are put on the scapegoat? It is that single point that has caused Christian scholars to reject this hypothesis and to identify both goats as Christ. Edersheim, in his 18-page description of this one ceremony, rejects this possibility in one sentence, stating that it has "insurmountable difficulties" and implying that they are so obvious as not to require even mentioning.[14]

So is Satan responsible for all sin? Does he in fact carry the weight of the sins of all mankind?

3.2 Satan Responsible for Sin

When shown to be guilty of sin, people have offered the defense, "The devil made me do it." We can chuckle at that because it would mean that man is not accountable for his actions, and hence should not be punished for sin. Clearly the devil never "makes" us do anything; we have our agency. Great discourses have been given about how we are each responsible for our own actions, and that it is our job to resist Satan's temptations. Of course that is true, so there is no need to belabor that point.

Pit and Flames combined.
Nevertheless, there is still truth in the concept that Satan is ultimately responsible for all sin. Clearly he deserves some guilt because he does not usually lay evil out in the open, with all its consequences, or he would get very few followers. Rather, he deceives, lies, ensnares, tricks and only shows the "instant gratification" side of his ways, rather than being up front about the whole package deal he is offering. His goal is to enslave all mankind into his power.

Thus, it could well be that at the Judgment Day many will indeed use the defense that they really have been hornswoggled and never would have sinned if only they had not been deceived. But part of our test here on earth is to see if we can discern the difference between Christ and Satan. That is the very "scapegoat dilemma" each of us must face: "Which is the True Voice to heed?" Christ's sheep know His voice (John 10:3-4). Those who choose Satan may not qualify for either the celestial or terrestrial kingdoms. But the final judgment between the telestial kingdom and sons of perdition is deferred until the end of the Millennium, after Satan has been bound for a thousand years. It has been suggested that the whole purpose of binding Satan might be to determine who was really deceived (telestial) and who actually prefers to follow Satan (sons of perdition).[15]

With all that in mind, consider what the Book of Enoch has to say on the subject. Raphael, one of the seven chief angels of God, is told by the Lord, "And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin" (Enoch 10:12).[16] There it is in one sentence. Satan is said to bear the responsibility and guilt for all sin on earth.

If so, then it makes perfect sense to lay all our guilt on the goat representing Azazel. In that sense, Satan is entirely guilty and responsible for all sin, but Christ is perfectly innocent and yet suffers and pays for all our sins. So two goats are indeed necessary to show the complete picture.

Now we come to the question of whether Azazel gets off the hook and is released to run free in the wilderness because of Christ's atonement, or whether he too must suffer for his sins. Indeed, will he someday also be punished for all the sins of mankind?

3.3 Cast into the Bottomless Pit

Let us read more of the quote just cited from the Book of Enoch.

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 forever, 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 the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin." (Enoch 10:4-6, 12)

The Key to the Bottomless Pit.
So here we see that Raphael is appointed to take Azazel to the desert (wilderness), and to cast him down into a cavern of jagged stones, that he might be entirely gone forever. That is now really beginning to sound like the scapegoat being led into the uninhabited wilderness and pushed off a cliff to die by being crushed on jagged stones. It would also indicate that the "appointed" man would represent the angel Raphael. Maybe those who extended the ceremony beyond what is found in Leviticus knew exactly what they were doing. Even if that final scene was not commanded by the Lord, it showed that they understood "for Azazel" to refer to Azazel of the Book of Enoch, and they arranged for the scapegoat to meet his demise as described therein.

Note the close comparison to the description of the final end of Satan in the Book of Revelation.

And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. . . .

And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Revelation 20:1-3, 10)

Here John clearly saw an angel cast Satan into a bottomless pit, apparently with the express reason to prevent him from deceiving the nations. Combining this with the above quote from Enoch implies that Raphael was the angel who binds Satan, and that the bottomless pit corresponds to the cavern opening up in the earth filled with jagged stones.[17] Then both books agree that the final end of Satan is that he is cast into the lake of fire (see also 2 Nephi 9:16,19; 28:23; Jacob 3:11; D&C 76:36).

4. Conclusion

Christ at the left hand of Pilate.
The results of this investigation suggest that the standard Christian interpretation of the scapegoat as representing Christ is probably in error. The more straightforward Hebrew interpretation that Azazel is Satan can be explained in terms of Christian doctrine by the Book of Enoch. In particular, the goat "for Jehovah" is indeed Jesus Christ, who atoned and was sacrificed for all the sins of mankind. But the other goat, the scapegoat "for Azazel," also bears the weight of the sins of all mankind because Satan (Azazel) is ultimately responsible for them all. And he will be punished for them, first by being cast into the bottomless pit, and later by being thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone at the last day. This ceremony teaches these two truths simultaneously.

One practical lesson to be learned is that it can be very difficult to judge between the two nearly identical goats, representing Christ and a false Christ. Jesus appeared to the Jews to be a false Christ. They believed He performed His miracles by Satan's power (Luke 11:15) and some may have thought they were doing Jehovah a service by crucifying Him (compare John 16:2). Even though they were fulfilling scriptural prophecy, the Jews chose poorly between Barabbas and Christ.

Perhaps next time the choice will be between two lambs instead of two goats (Rev. 13:11). Satan is the great deceiver and can do miracles (Rev. 13:13-15). He disguises himself in sheep's clothing (Mat. 7:15). The Savior warned us not to be deceived by false Christs who will show great signs and wonders, who will, were it possible, deceive the very elect (Mat. 24:24).

If we had to choose between two candidates, both of whom claimed to be Christ, to do miracles and to have the power to save us, would we vote for the One who is indeed the true Savior? Would we go along with the screaming crowd and cast our vote against Christ, or would we have the courage to stand against the throng and heed the still, small voice that testifies of the true Son of God?


  1. Edersheim, Alfred, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as they were at the time of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's, 1986), p. 319.
  2. Both definitions are from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, (Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster, 1999).
  3. Details not in Leviticus were taken from Edersheim, pp. 311-312.
  4. Edersheim, p. 319, 324.
  5. Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary, quoted at
  6. The word is number 235 in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible which he translates as "to go away, hence, to disappear". Compare Edersheim, p. 324 who translates it as "wholly to go away".
  7. See for example "Scapegoat" in Wikipedia, under Christian interpretation. This is Edersheim's conclusion, who states, "Assuredly a more marked type of Christ could not be conceived", p. 312. This interpretation also seems obvious to LDS commentators, such as Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1966) "Scapegoat", p. 678: "This ordinance was ... done in similitude of the fact that Christ would atone for the sins of the world."
  8. Another whole dimension is introduced into the meaning of the lots if we remember that the high priest used both his right and left hands to draw them, and that the right hand signifies righteousness and the left wickedness (see Mat. 25:32-46). Thus, even without the goats, there was meaning in the high priest picking "for Jehovah" with his right hand. That was considered to be a good omen for Israel. During the 40 years that Simeon the Righteous was high priest at the time of Alexander the Great, it was said that he picked "for Jehovah" with his right hand every time. On the other hand, during the forty years before the fall of the temple in AD 70, which would include the entire minsitry of Christ from AD 30-33, the Jewish records state that the high priest chose "for Jehovah" in his left hand every time. That was considered a very bad omen. See Robert Reiland, Jesus and the Third Temple, (Silver Springs, NV: Your Own World Books, 2007), p. 131. The odds against forty identical picks happening consecutively by chance are 1 in a trillion (1 in 240).
  9. Reiland, p. 133, quoting Origen. It was Reiland who gave me the idea that the scapegoat represents Barabbas, which, after I discovered the quotes in the Book of Enoch, led to this article.
  10. The Laurence translation is on my website in its entirety at
  11. Pratt, John P., "Enoch Calendar Testifies of Christ" Meridian Magazine (11 Sep 2001) Sec. 1: "Christ Quotes Enoch".
  12. One must read carefully to deduce that Azazel is Satan. The names of several evil spirits and also of several fallen angels (called Watchers) are given. The Watchers appear to me to have been members the City of Enoch after it had been translated, who had the task of "watching" after mankind. Unfortunately they watch womankind more and were cast out for begetting children with them. Their leader was Samyaza (Enoch 7:3). On the other hand Azazel was the leader of seven evil spirits who taught mankind to sin (Enoch 8:1). His identity with Satan is implied by verses which refer to all the wicked on earth both as the "hosts of Azazel" and also the "ministers of Satan" (Enoch 53:5-6). As in this case, whenever the father of all evil is mentioned in the Book of Enoch, it is either Satan or Azazel interchangeably.
  13. See "Scapegoat" in Wikipedia.
  14. Edersheim, p. 323.
  15. Pratt, John P, "Constellations Testify of Seven Angels" Meridian Magazine (28 Sep 2006) Sec. 1.1, "Sheep and Goats".
  16. Charles, R.H., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English (London: Oxford, 1913), p. 194.
  17. How would you represent a bottomless pit? How about a pit or cavern without a flat floor? That could be done with a rough, unfinished floor, or even one with many jagged rocks. My brother James pointed this out to me, and that the lowest subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid has a rough floor which archaeologists have assumed was just not completed. As Master Po said to Grasshopper "Not to understand a man's purpose does not make him confused."