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.
According to the requirements of the sacrificial system, both goats had to be unblemished, representing them as sinless (Deut. 17:1, Mal. 1:7-8). Since both goats were perfect and without blemish, neither can picture Satan. Instead, both unblemished animals picture our perfect and blameless Savior (I Pet. 1:19).
The first goat—paying the penalty for sin
“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil…sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy of Holies, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins” (Lev. 16:15-16)
The first goat shed its blood to pay the death penalty incurred by the people’s sin. This was payment for (atonement of) the sin, and this portion of the sin offering was very familiar, a part of everyday life in ancient Israel. For us today, it’s also familiar in Christ’s Passover sacrifice, where our sinless Redeemer gave His life in the place of each and every one of us—paying the life debt that we’ve earned ourselves.
Why was this necessary? We know that any sin automatically earns the death penalty, and that only the shedding of blood can make atonement for our sin (Rom. 6:23, Lev. 17:11, Heb. 9:22). While the temple sacrifices and ceremonies performed by the Levitical priesthood could not actually wipe away the sins of ancient Israel, they were a picture of what would be accomplished by the Messiah (Heb. 10:4).
The second goat—permanent removal of sins
“…[Then] he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:20-20)
So now we come to the second goat, called the azazel in scripture. This is wrongly rendered as scapegoat in many translations, or is left in the text as Azazel (a proper noun). Fascinatingly, the regular word “azazel” morphed over the centuries in Jewish beliefs (based on this ceremony) to be a fallen angel or demon, similar to or the same as the devil.
What azazel ACTUALLY means is simply “goat who departs (or disappears)”. As we saw with the first goat, the focus of a sin offering is usually just on the penalty, the sacrifice required as a result of sin. By adding this second goat to the sin offering ceremony, God was showing us that He will accomplish something over and above just paying the debt of sin. This component then focuses on the sins themselves—and more importantly, what God does with them.
Once the high priest had made atonement for himself and then for the people, he took the second goat and laid his hands on the head of the animal. He confessed the sins of the people over the head of the unblemished, innocent goat—symbolically transferring the sins (and the guilt thereof) to the goat. This laying on of hands is a requirement for all sin offerings (Lev. 4:4, 15, 24, 29 and Ex. 29:10).
The goat bearing the sins of the people was then taken out to an uninhabited land (wilderness), or “a land cut off”. The goat was released alone and alive in the wilderness, where it could never find its way back.
So…I get it. To us today, this is weird, and it’s hard to read this passage in Leviticus and understand what on earth it means for us now. But what should we really be taking away from this second goat?
“I will remember your sins no more”
As we said earlier on, this second part of the sin offering was unique, and showed us that God was accomplishing something else. The first goat’s sacrifice pictured Christ paying the price for our sins—wiping away the required death penalty that each and every one of us has incurred. With the second goat, God went a step further, picturing removing the existence of the sins themselves and thereby making true reconciliation possible.
Isaiah tells us that our sins “have separated you from your God…and have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Is. 59:2). As Jesus Christ was hanging on the stake and about to die, He took on all the sins of the world, from creation to today. In a moment before His death, God had to remove His presence and His spirit from Christ because at that moment the sins separated the Son from the Father.
At that moment, Jesus was cut off (separated) from God, and it was excruciating for Him. He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Because He had never sinned, Jesus had never experienced a moment of being cut off from God. But because He went through that separation and paid the price, He became “the Lamb of God who takes away [carries away, removes] the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
And that’s what the second goat really means to us—the true removal or carrying away of our sins. God promised that once He makes a new covenant with His firstfruits, then later with the whole world, that “I will put My laws into their hearts and into their minds…their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:33-34; Heb. 10:16-17).
This word “remember” doesn’t mean forgetfulness, like God is incapable of remembering them (study on this topic here). It’s more along the lines of to make mention, to keep a record, to bring to remembrance. It’s that thing you do with your spouse or friends in an argument when you bring up something that happened a long time ago that they wish you’d forget.
Instead, He tells us this is how He will treat our sins—“for as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Isaiah describes this as casting all our sins behind His back, and the prophet Micah says that He “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Is. 38:17; Mic. 7:19).
In other words, it will be as though they never existed, and they will never come back. The distance between east and west is infinite. Just as the goat bearing the sins of the people was led out into the wilderness and could never return, our sins will be banished and can no longer separate us from God.
As I mentioned in the intro, the prevailing belief in the churches of God for decades has been that the second goat represented Satan. But putting the responsibility for humanity’s sins on Satan’s head implies that Satan is the reason for sin and that mankind cannot be reconciled to God until Satan is out of the way.
While Satan himself has sinned, and certainly does what he can to encourage our worst impulses, the fact is that he is not the ultimate cause of our sins. Each and every one of us bears full responsibility for our sins, and it is our own carnal nature that causes them.
Satan is not what keeps us separated from God. Our sins are. And the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the only way to atone for—pay the legal price required for—the debt we have incurred from those sins, and pave the way for true reconciliation with God and receiving His spirit to live in us. That is what ultimately can allow us to become “at-one” with God and stop sinning moving forward.
For those of us called now, who have committed ourselves to God’s way, repented, been baptized, and received His spirit, we are already living the reality of and reaping the benefits of what is pictured by the second goat in the Atonement ceremony. But the Day of Atonement is in the fall holy day season and so therefore pictures how this comes to life for the whole of humanity, when Christ returns and can begin to reconcile the world to Him.
True freedom from sin
The Day of Atonement’s name in Hebrew gives us a beautiful picture of what this day will mean for the whole world. Kippur means “expiation”—making amends for something, reparation of guilt and that guilt being cancelled, or when another takes the punishment for sin. It comes from a root word that means to reconcile, extend mercy, cancel, or cover over.
There’s another ceremony tied to Atonement that directly connects to the two goats ceremony. On every 50th year, the Jubilee year was proclaimed on Atonement. Debts were forgiven, bondsmen were freed, shackles were loosed, and inheritances were reclaimed. It was a picture of mercy and forgiveness, restoration and reclamation.
The Day of Atonement pictures a true, eternal year of Jubilee, when Christ will return and Satan will be bound, and the world will slowly but surely get the opportunity to see what life is like when they’re not separated by sin from God. The passage from Isaiah that Jesus used to announce the start of His ministry encapsulates the peace, healing, and excitement that will be possible when our sins are removed from us:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed—to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Is. 61:1-2)
Credit: Seeds Of Faith Designs