All of the holy days picture the steps God is taking to reconcile mankind to Himself, and the Day of Atonement is in many ways the culmination of that. Atonement is a mirror of the Passover, when Christ’s sacrifice is applied to the entire world rather than just a select group of God’s firstfruits.
According to Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement was when Adam and Eve, at the serpent’s urging, ate of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If that is the case (and it makes sense), then this day marks both the exact moment that mankind was separated from God, and fittingly pictures the restoring of that connection.
One aspect of the Day of Atonement that God gave Israel was the ceremony of the two goats. It involves a high priest made symbolically sinless by a separate sin offering, taking two unblemished young goats as a sin offering for the people. After Aaron cast lots for the two goats, the one chosen “for the Lord” was killed and its blood used to pay the price of the nation’s sins. The other goat had the nation’s sins laid on it and was led out into the wilderness and left there.
This is not a ceremony that is often talked about or studied in-depth. For many decades, most of the churches of God have taught that the second goat, who is sent into the wilderness after having the sins of the congregation placed on him, symbolizes Satan. The theory was that this represented Satan’s culpability in mankind’s downfall and the sin that permeates this world, and that the goat taken into the wilderness symbolizes Satan being bound in Revelation 20.
This interpretation, though, is not consistent with what the bible tells us in this particular passage, nor is it consistent with what we read throughout the rest of the bible regarding the sacrificial system, the role of Jesus Christ, and our personal accountability for our sins.
In this study we’re going to go through what both of the goats picture in God’s plan. I know it seems somewhat distant and esoteric, but stay with me—I promise this is actually going somewhere real and weighty and relevant to us today.
Two goats, one unblemished sin offering
We see first that the high priest could only come into the Holy of Holies one time a year, and he first had to offer a sin offering for himself, wash himself, and put on special garments. This was because the sin offering could only be accomplished by a sinless high priest, picturing Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9 and 10 cover this in-depth).
After the high priest had performed the sacrifice for his own sins, he then started the rest of the ceremony:
“And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering…then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the azazel [goat of departure]” (Lev. 16:5)
The first thing that Leviticus 16:5 tells us is that both goats are for a sin offering—each is a distinct necessary element and together they constituted a single sin offering. They could not be complete or accepted separately. This was a unique requirement since most sin offerings were only one animal, and it signals to us that God was accomplishing something additional in this ritual beyond just payment for sin.