3.2.2 Goat: The Sin Bearer
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.2
Goat: The Sin Bearer
Sheep and goats are often linked or seen side by side in scripture, the same way we might see cars and trucks (or in my world, maybe guitars and basses)—they are “birds of a feather who flock together.” As we have seen, sehseh is the oft-used Hebrew word for “one of the flock” without particular regard to which animal is in view. Both are Levitically “clean,” meaning they are specifically designated in the Torah as animals that are safe to eat, provided they’re butchered properly. Like cattle, sheep and goats both have four compartments in their stomachs (called the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasums, if you must know). The complexity of their digestive tracts (as compared to monogastric animals like pigs, horses, or donkeys, for instance) accounts for their ability to process and eliminate toxic wastes rather than absorb them into their musculature. Yahweh wasn’t pointlessly micromanaging our lives when He told us what animals we could and couldn’t eat; He was protecting us from things we wouldn’t even comprehend for the next thirty-five hundred years. We really need to learn to take His word for stuff we don’t quite understand.
On the other hand, sheep and goats are different, and these differences, I believe, are the key to their divergent symbologies. Lambs are presented as the picture of innocence, whereas goats are seen as being more mischievous, so—while not actually being evil or malicious—they are associated with sin. Why this should be so is due to the way the two species are “wired.” Sheep are grazing animals, like cattle. Goats, on the other hand are browsers—more like deer than cattle in this respect. They prefer shrubbery, leaves and weeds to grasses. Further, they are equipped with a prehensile upper lip and tongue, not to mention a high degree of intelligence and a curious nature, all of which conspire to give goats a reputation as mischief makers: they’ll chew on just about anything in order to determine its suitability as food—tasting, nibbling, and sampling anything they deem worthy of investigation, which, in the end, is pretty much everything.
Goats are less gregarious than sheep, and more aggressive. They’re also notorious “escape artists,” having an uncanny propensity for getting out of their pens—one more thing to make them a natural metaphor for sin. There’s a difference between wandering off (as sheep are wont to do) and running away like an escaped convict, something any self-respecting goat will do if he’s found a hole in the fence. I think there’s a reason our Messiah is called the Good Shepherd and not the Good Goat-Herder. You see, goats knows their master’s voice too; they just don’t pay much attention to what he says.
And you can chalk this one up to coincidence if you want, but certain varieties of Western European-origin goats without horns frequently produce intersex offspring—basically, female animals with male characteristics. While I imagine the advocates of homosexual/bisexual/transgender behavior might applaud this development as a “natural” confirmation of their own deviant moral choices, I would hasten to remind the reader that these goat offspring are infertile. Their genetic posterity is a dead end. If all of their offspring had these aberrant traits, the species would die out in one generation. The inherent unfruitfulness of such a monstrosity is thus an apt metaphor for those who choose to carry their own sin instead of accepting God’s grace. It’s the very picture of what goats symbolically represent in scripture: they are the sin bearers.
Let us, then, get down to the scriptural specifics. As with sheep and lambs, there are several Hebrew words used to describe goats—all of which are used in the context of Levitical sacrifices. But it is the exceptions—the figurative usages of these words—that will help us zero in on what God meant for us to know about goats as a symbol.
The generic designation for “a goat” is the Hebrew word ’ez. Being a feminine noun, it most directly indicates a she-goat or a kid. It is used seventy-four times in scripture, about half of these in references to Torah sacrifices. The word is derived from the root ‘azaz, meaning to be strong or to prevail, reflecting the independent nature of goats in general, but let’s face it: goats aren’t elephants—they don’t have much weight to throw around. So we read, “And the people of Israel were mustered and were provisioned and went against them. The people of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats [’ez], but the Syrians filled the country.” (I Kings 20:27) That’s an evocative picture of bravado in the face of overwhelming odds.
One symbolically significant mention of the goat—as something other than a blood sacrifice—is as a source of hair for making cloth. Moses was instructed, “You shall also make curtains of goats’“You shall also make curtains of goats’ [’ez] hair for a tent over the tabernacle; eleven curtains shall you make.” hair for a tent over the tabernacle; eleven curtains shall you make.” (Exodus 26:7) This was to be the second of four layers (as counted from the inside out) covering the tabernacle. The source of the goats’ hair was to be the contributions of the Israelites—one type of raw material among many. Yahweh told Moses to make the need known, and the people responded, supplying everything that was necessary for the construction of the sanctuary: “Take from among you a contribution to Yahweh. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring Yahweh’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.” (Exodus 35:5-9) It’s worth noting that God didn’t ask for anything He hadn’t already provided. There’s no plutonium or chocolate sprinkles on the list—just things that were available and would serve in some symbolic capacity to introduce Israel (and through her, the whole world) to the Messiah, our redeemer.
Nor did God present Israel with a ready-made pre-fab tabernacle: He let them participate in its construction, like a parent letting the kids “help” in the kitchen. “All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair.” (Exodus 35:26) Once the ladies had made the thread, it was incorporated into the grand design: “He [i.e., the gifted “art director” Bezaleel and his team of skilled artisans] also made curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle. He made eleven curtains. “The length of each curtain was thirty cubits, and the breadth of each curtain four cubits. The eleven curtains were the same size. He coupled five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves. And he made fifty loops on the edge of the outermost curtain of the one set, and fifty loops on the edge of the other connecting curtain. And he made fifty clasps of bronze to couple the tent together that it might be a single whole. And he made for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and goatskins.” (Exodus 36:14-19) There’s a lot going on here, but as always, if we’re willing to look for the metaphorical significance of the components and their mandated arrangement, we’ll see Yahweh’s beautiful picture emerge. (If we’re not willing to ponder the symbols however, this all devolves into so much pointless minutiae.)
The first (or inner) set of curtains—ten of them—were made of linen, symbolic of imputed righteousness. They were twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide (roughly 42 feet by 6). They were to be tied together in groups of five (the number of grace), and these sub-assemblies were to be joined together with golden clasps (gold indicating immutable purity). This linen layer could be seen only from inside the tabernacle, for it was concealed by three other layers, the next of which was the one made of goats’ hair, as described in our text. But there were eleven goats’ hair curtains, six (the number of man) in one section and five (again, read: grace) in the other. This tells me (if I’m seeing this correctly) that one section (the one with five panels) represents the ekklesia, and the other (with six) Israel, which in turn symbolizes the entire human race. Since there was to be one extra goats’ hair curtain, they were to overlap the linen set in an offset fashion, ensuring that there were no gaps, no visible seams. And these two goat-hair sub-assemblies were held together not with golden clasps, as before, but with bronze clips—indicative this time of judgment.
The emerging picture is that, from our vantage point (as priests) inside the holy place, our sin is hidden—covered—by the imputed righteousness provided by Christ’s sacrifice. Since the tabernacle coverings are made of two separate sub-assemblies, it is apparent that the basis of our salvation is the same whether we’re Jews or Gentiles: it’s Yahshua. Moreover, the goats’ hair curtains were to be longer than the linen ones—just long enough (at thirty cubits) to touch the ground on either side of the tabernacle structure. The point is that while our sin (the goats’ hair curtain) touches the earth, and vice versa, the imputed righteousness (the linen layer) we experience within the tabernacle cannot be soiled by contact with the world in which we live. We are separated from it, holy, called out—kept, quite literally (since it’s a cubit short on either side), at arm’s length from it.
Outside the goats’ hair curtains there were to be two more layers, the symbology of which we’ll discuss later in this chapter. For now, just note that this means our sin (represented by the goats’ hair) is hidden: it is apparent neither from within the tent nor from outside it. Though it is there (as God well knows), it cannot be seen from any vantage point in heaven or on the earth.
A second word translated “goat” is ’attuwd, a male goat, he-goat, or ram, thus figuratively, a leader, chief one, or even a goat herder. It is used in this sense to warn the leaders of Israel: “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders [’attuwd]; for Yahweh of hosts cares for His flock, the house of Judah.” (Zechariah 10:3) Bearing in mind that the primary symbolic meaning assigned to goats is sin (or being a sin-bearer) we have thus been informed in no uncertain terms that the leaders of Judah have, in Yahweh’s estimation, led the people astray. Note also that He describes Judah as His flock. He is their Owner. That makes the ’attuwd-leaders mere hirelings—and we should all remember what Yahshua said (in John 10, above) about the hired hands—they are not to be trusted.
This theme of “following the sinful leader” takes on new and sinister proportions as Isaiah rails against the “king of Babylon.” As he begins, he seems to be talking about a human king, but since Babylon was barely a blip on the radar screen in Isaiah’s day (Assyria being the big dog on the block at the time), it soon becomes apparent that the prophet is describing the monarch of a spiritual kingdom, one metaphorically called “Babylon” throughout scripture—a kingdom characterized by idolatry and rebellion against the true and living God. “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come. It rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders [’attuwd] of the earth.” These “goats” (or goat herders) are those leaders who followed “Babylon’s king,” and in doing so, led their people astray. “It raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will answer and say to you [a person whose identity will be made clear in a moment]: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’ Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps. Maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers….”
Who is this unexpected worm feast, whom the ’attuwd leader-goats of the world followed, presuming he was immune to such horrors? It’s none other than Satan himself. “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!...” “Day Star” here in the ESV is translated “Lucifer” in the King James; it’s the only time Satan’s “name” is mentioned in the Bible. How sadly ironic it is that everybody seems to know the devil’s name (in reality, more of a description), but relatively few relate to God by His self-revealed name, Yahweh, “mentioned” seven thousand times in the original scriptures (only to be edited out of virtually every popular Bible translation). “Day Star,” or “Lucifer,” is the Hebrew heylel, a variant or derivative of halal, meaning to shine, to praise, to boast, or to act like a madman. In a fascinating twist, halal is also the root of the familiar expression of glory to God: hallelujah literally means “praise Yah,” or “radiate Yahweh’s light.” That such a versatile word should have been chosen as Satan’s descriptive name indicates Yahweh’s willingness to let us make up our own minds on the matter: is Satan the “angel of light” as he’d like us to believe, or merely a boasting fool? (“Satan,” by the way—Hebrew ha-shatan—means “the adversary.” Make no mistake: he is no one’s ally.)
Anyway, the goats who followed him are somewhat surprised to see that even the mighty Lucifer has, in the end, been reduced to maggot food (so to speak). “How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.” (Isaiah 14:9-15) The goats finally realize, a bit sheepishly, that they backed the wrong horse.
Jeremiah points out that although Yahweh’s people have been led astray into Babylon, they can be led back into the paths of righteousness. What’s fascinating about that is how he describes the potential ring-leaders of the escape from Babylon—as ’attuwd, he-goats. “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, ‘We are not guilty, for they have sinned against Yahweh, their habitation of righteousness, Yahweh, the hope of their fathers.’ Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as male goats [’attuwd—leaders] before the flock.” (Jeremiah 50:6-8) Remember what goats do: they try the fences, looking for weak spots; and they invariably bolt for freedom if they get the chance. Yahweh is encouraging us to lead whomever we can away from bondage in Babylon: look for ways to escape, seizing every opportunity to flee from idolatry. Step number one is to realize that you do indeed live “in the land of the Chaldeans.” If your cultural norms or religious traditions take precedence in your life over God’s word, it’s time to wake up and shake off your chains.
Note the lame excuse that Babylon offers: “We are not guilty, for they have sinned against Yahweh.” While it’s true that we have all sinned, it’s a mistake for Babylon to assume that this gives them carte blanche to oppress God’s people forever. Those who live in Babylon are like prisoners of war: it is their job to try to escape. It is their duty. On a more literal level, this should be taken as a stern rebuke to “Christians” who somehow feel justified in persecuting Israel. It’s a myth that stretches from Constantine to Hitler, and beyond: Jews are “Christ killers” who need to be run out of town at the earliest opportunity Really? Note that as bad as their sins were, Yahweh turned Judah over to Babylonian captivity for only seventy years—until the last of the actual guilty parties had died. And then, He destroyed political Babylon for her unwarranted enthusiasm in punishing the Jews (see Daniel 5). Although some misguided “Christian” denominations today may deny it, Yahweh isn’t through with Israel: their national restoration and spiritual redemption are by far the most prevalent theme in the Old Testament prophetic texts. To deny Israel’s future glory is to deny the very word of God; to declare oneself an enemy of Israel is to fight against Yahweh Himself!
Overt Satan worship is (thankfully) still a rare and esoteric phenomenon, at least in my neighborhood. But that being said, we’ve all seen evidence that such a thing exists. One of the symbols associated with it is the inverted five-pointed star (thus perhaps a graphic representation of the denial of grace), which forms a schematic or caricature of a goat’s head, betraying an enduring association of goats with satanic idolatry. Scripture doesn’t deny that such a thing exists; quite the contrary. But it uses a different Hebrew word than either ’ez or ’attuwd to describe this type of goat. The word is sa’ir, which means a he-goat or buck, but has the added connotation of being rough or hairy. Sa’ir is usually translated “kid” or “goat,” but occasionally it describes something sinister and demonic, a “satyr,” in King James parlance. “If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat [’ez] in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to Yahweh in front of the tabernacle of Yahweh, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people…. So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons [sa’ir], after whom they whore.” (Leviticus 17:3-4, 7) The point was not that you couldn’t eat meat anywhere other than at the tabernacle. (That point was made perfectly clear later, in the context of living in the Land of promise, in Deuteronomy 12:20-22.) But sacrifices for the purpose of ritual worship—even if made to honor Yahweh—were not to be done anywhere other than where He had directed: at the entrance of the tabernacle, on the altar provided for the purpose. Yahweh is saying as bluntly as He can: do-it-yourself religious rituals are an anathema to Him—they’re tantamount to murder. What was it Samuel said to King Saul? “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”
Due to Solomon’s disobedience in his old age, Israel split into two kingdoms after his death. Jerusalem (in Judah’s territory in the south) was where the temple was. And Jeroboam, the leader of the northern kingdom, knew which way the political winds were blowing: if he followed Yahweh’s Torah, his people would have to go to his rival’s capital city to worship three times a year. Since he obviously couldn’t have that, he made a clean break with sanity, truth, and Almighty God—exiling all of the priests and Levites living in the northern kingdom. “And the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel presented themselves to him [Rehoboam, king of Judah] from all places where they lived. For the Levites left their common lands and their holdings and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons cast them out from serving as priests of Yahweh, and he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols [sa’ir] and for the calves that he had made.” (II Chronicles 11:13-15) Israel (i.e., the northern kingdom, a.k.a. Ephraim or Samaria) would never again have a godly king. In order to gain nothing more substantial than political ascendency, the kings of Israel henceforth doomed their people to centuries of idolatry and superstition. (Gee, that sounds suspiciously familiar.) Having replaced Yahweh with goat-demons and calf-gods, things went steadily downhill for Israel, until they were swallowed whole by Sennacherib of Assyria—after a mere 209 years.
And did you ever wonder what happens to a place after Yahweh’s judgment has fallen upon it—when its people have been removed? He moves wild animals in to take up residence, including—you guessed it—wild goats, sa’ir. “[Babylon] will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations. No Arab will pitch his tent there; no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there. But wild animals will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures. There ostriches will dwell, and there wild goats [sa’ir] will dance.” (Isaiah 13:20-21) Babylon is know symbolically (and historically, for that matter) as the home of systematic idolatry. As Yahweh has physically eliminated its government and wiped its infrastructure off the map, so He intends to deal with what Babylon represents: any organized attempt to circumvent, diminish, or replace Him in the hearts and minds of men. When the systems (read: religion, whether overt or covert) are gone during the Millennial Kingdom of Yahshua, personal righteousness will at last have an opportunity to flourish. But as long as mortal man walks the earth, the goats of Babylon will still be dancing—mankind will still have the sin nature we inherited from Adam and Eve, so redemption through the shed blood of Christ will still be necessary to reconcile people to Yahweh.
We read something very similar in regard to Edom. “And wild animals shall meet with hyenas. The wild goat [sa’ir] shall cry to his fellow. Indeed, there the night bird settles and finds for herself a resting place.” (Isaiah 34:14) Edom (meaning “red,” after the red stew for which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob) is symbolic of man’s bad choices, of rebellion against God’s plan, and of self-centered ingratitude—all of which are, in the end, roughly the same thing. Several passages from the prophets inform us that Edom (southern Jordan) will be a smoking, uninhabited desolation during the Millennium—a poignant (and pointed) reminder of God’s judgment within a three hour bus ride from Jerusalem. But just because Yahweh will have depopulated the place, it doesn’t mean that it will be uninhabitable: as in Babylon, the wild animals—including feral goats—will thrive there under God’s provision.
Whatever word you use to describe them, goats are a recurrent fixture in the Levitical sacrifices, popping up time and again in a variety of contexts. They are allowed for burnt offerings—the olah, a voluntary act of homage to Yahweh, for atonement, or in celebration: “If his gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish, and he shall kill it on the north side of the altar before Yahweh.” (Leviticus 1:10-11) Peace offerings too were an authorized venue for goat sacrifices: “If his offering is a goat [’ez], then he shall offer it before Yahweh and lay his hand on its head and kill it in front of the tent of meeting, and the sons of Aaron shall throw its blood against the sides of the altar.” (Leviticus 3:12-13) The trespass offering, or asham, also allowed for goats.
But by far the most prevalent use of goats in Torah sacrificial law is seen in the chata’t, or sin offering—covering our lapses in behavior, our errors in performance (the word literally means “missing the mark”), as the asham covers our failures in holiness. So we read in reference to the new-moon offerings: “Also one male goat for a sin offering to Yahweh; it shall be offered besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.” (Numbers 28:15) Later in the same chapter, they’re included in the rites of the Feast of Unleavened Bread: “You shall present an offering made by fire as a burnt offering to Yahweh… also one goat as a sin offering, to make atonement for you.” (Numbers 28:19, 22) Both of these instances (plucked from a plethora of possible examples) are specifically said to be sin offerings (chata’t), underscoring the symbolic association of goats with sin.
Moses explains: “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before Yahweh for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.”(Numbers 15:27-28) Earlier in the same passage, the sin offering to atone for the unintentional sin of the entire congregation was also a “kid of the goats,” but this time (because human error on a grand scale is implied) a young bull is to be offered first, as a burnt offering. The unintentional sin of a leader of Israel is also to be atoned for with the sacrifice of a goat, but this time, a male is specified. The reason is apparent: the male is symbolic of authority—a leader is supposed to know better. (By the way, I’m not saying men are better than women, nor did God. These are symbolic roles Yahweh has assigned to teach spiritual truths. Anyone who finds himself in a position of authority (whether a man or woman) is held to a higher standard. Be careful about coveting power.) “When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of Yahweh his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish, and shall lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before Yahweh; it is a sin offering.” (Leviticus 4:22-24)
These sin offerings were all designed to atone for “unintentional sins.” But what about the intentional sins? Who among us has not, on occasion, done something we knew (or at least suspected) was contrary to God’s will? The converse of the situation with which the sin offering was designed to deal is described in these terms: “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles Yahweh, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of Yahweh and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” (Numbers 15:30-31) No goat or bull sin offering would suffice for such a person; he was to be “cut off.” Does this mean that any wrong thing we ever do—knowing it’s wrong but being too weak or uncommitted to resist (the kind of thing to which Paul confessed in Romans 7:19)—condemns us irretrievably? Is grace efficacious only for those who are too dumb to know what they’re doing is wrong or so strong-willed they can withstand every temptation? Did David’s sin with Bathsheba put him beyond reconciliation with God, just because he knew it was wrong and did it anyway? All of scripture weighs in against this notion. So what’s going on here?
Note that the text doesn’t read “intentionally” or “on purpose,” but rather “with a high hand.” It’s translated “presumptuously” in the New King James, “defiantly” in the NIV and NASB, and “brazenly” in the NLT, all of which get close to the heart of the matter. The Hebrew is two words: ruwm, a verb meaning “to rise up, exalt, be lofty, or lift up,” and yad, meaning “hand”, thus figuratively, “strength or power.” A direct translation (as here in the ESV) would therefore be “high-handedly.” But the connotation is even stronger. The phrase speaks of arrogance, pride, a lifting up of one’s own position of strength in the face of (and in defiance of) Yahweh’s Law. It’s like saying, “I don’t care what God says; I recognize no authority but my own. I will do as I please, without regard to the Word of Yahweh. I alone am the captain of my fate, and I refuse to show remorse or entertain a sense of guilt for my actions.” Ruwm yad reeks of insolence and rebellion, not mere weakness. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this ruwm yad attitude is prophesied to become prevalent in the Last Days of our age. Worse, a blind man could see how rampant it has become in our world.
The sin offering, then, is designed strictly for people who acknowledge that they have indeed sinned before God—that His opinion and authority trumps ours, and that we have, for whatever reason, violated His perfect standard of behavior. But the chata’t is of no use if we deny our guilt or reject Yahweh’s authority. Basically, it’s the same thing John told us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9) The sin offering, then, is symbolic of Yahshua’s sacrifice on our behalf. This should come as no surprise, of course: every Levitical blood sacrifice is fulfilled in Yahshua, all for different reasons, all teaching different principles.
Undoubtedly the clearest scriptural presentation of the sin offering and how it relates to goat symbology is to be found in the instructions concerning the Day of Atonement, the sixth of seven “holy convocations” ordained by Yahweh to inform us of the broad sweep of His plan for our redemption. Coming as it does between the Feast of Trumpets (signaling the translation of the saints from mortal into immortal) and the Feast of Tabernacles (the commencement of Yahshua’s Millennial kingdom) the Day of Atonement must of necessity predict the national repentance of Israel, and their acceptance of Yahshua as their Messiah. The basic spiritual requirement of the miqra is delineated thus: “On the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present an offering by fire to Yahweh. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before Yahweh your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people.” (Leviticus 23:27-29)
And the day’s prophetic fulfillment was described by Zechariah: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on Me [this whole passage is in Yahweh’s voice], on Him whom they have pierced, [in case you missed it, that’s Yahshua—Yahweh’s human manifestation], they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”(Zechariah 12:10) The prophesied “spirit of grace” fulfills the Torah’s requirement to “not work” on that day. In other words, the Jews (just like all the rest of us) must rest in Yahweh and rely upon the sacrifice of their Messiah instead of on their own works. And the “pleas for mercy” of which Zechariah speaks are the fulfillment of Yom Kippurim’s requirement for “affliction.” Israel will at last recognize their horrendous error, and they’ll repent from their stubborn two-thousand-year rejection of their own Messiah. What could precipitate such a sudden and complete change of heart? They’ll see Him—they’ll “look on the One whom they pierced” in the act of crucifixion—when He stands again on the Mount of Olives, as large as life, as promised (compare Zechariah 14:4 to Acts 1:9-11).
So what does all this have to do with goats? The central drama of the rites of the Day of Atonement revolves around two goats. This is an elaborate and highly symbolic dress rehearsal revealing the means by which our sins are to be atoned. As usual, the symbols point us directly and unequivocally toward Christ—to the exclusion of any possible alternative explanation. So we read, “And he [Aaron, the High Priest] shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats [’ez] for a sin offering….” As we shall see, both goats represent Christ, though they will have radically different ends: one will die, and the other will live. And note something else: both of them—together—are said to be a “sin offering.” Like Isaac on Moriah, one needn’t be dead to be accepted as an offering by Yahweh. That’s why Paul (in Romans 12:1) admonished us to present our bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God.”
Moses continues: “Then he shall take the two goats and set them before Yahweh at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for Yahweh and the other lot for Azazel….” Most translations render this word “scapegoat.” This, of course, is the source of the English word that has come to denote someone who is forced to take the blame for somebody else’s sin. It’s based on two Hebrew words: ’ez, as we have seen, is the generic word for goat; and ’azal is a verb meaning to go away or be used up. So a literal translation might be “the goat that goes away.” The whole “scapegoat” concept is a bit off kilter, because scripturally, both goats, the one that dies as well as the one that lives, bear the sin of the guilty people upon their heads.
“And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for Yahweh and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel….” Yes, there is a penalty to be paid, blood to be shed, the innocent for the guilty. That’s the concept of grace that became so clear to us in the shadow of Calvary. But the story isn’t complete at this point. We must not only die to sin, we must also be alive to God—the whole point of the exercise is reconciliation, and you can’t reunite a dead human (even one who has been exonerated) with a living God.
“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. 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….” It makes sense that this atonement was made “for the people.” What’s not quite so intuitive is that it was also said to atone for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting, and later, the altar. These things obviously didn’t sin, rebel, or become impure by their own behavior, They were, however, designed as symbols: they were supposed to be used by Israel to communicate Yahweh’s story of salvation to the rest of the world. So if Israel rebelled, if they became impure or missed the mark, the message of the Tabernacle would become obscure to the rest of us. Unfortunately, that very thing has become historical fact: Israel’s national sin has made the lessons of the Sanctuary opaque to the world (not to mention themselves), and Yahweh has found it necessary to remove the sanctuary and priesthood from their midst—again. Yom Kippurim—the day of Yahshua’s return in glory and Israel’s subsequent national epiphany—will correct that situation.
Only then does the live goat come into play: “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. 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.” The act of placing the High Priest’s hands on the head of the goat signified a transference of guilt, from us to him. “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. 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 16:5-22) The Day of Atonement not only covers our sins; it also removes them. Both goats are a picture of what Christ accomplished for us—first by dying, and then by rising from the dead. The sins of the people were to be symbolically laid upon his head, and he was to bear them to a place where they could no longer trouble God’s people in any way: to the wilderness, an “uninhabited land.” The lesson: when we cling to our guilt, insisting on performing penance in an attempt to atone for it ourselves, we are preventing the “go-away goat” from doing his job, and we are standing in the way of our own redemption. Guilt is like a tar baby: it’s best to leave it alone.
Goats as symbols also show up in a prophetic context. The prophet Daniel was shown the course of future gentile history (as it applies to Yahweh’s overall plan) in several different, though parallel, ways—a big statue made of four different metals (Daniel 2), a series of four mythical beasts (chapter 7), and then, two animals of the flock that would profoundly affect the course of Israel’s history—with ramifications extending all the way into these Last Days. The first was a ram, whose identity was revealed as Medo-Persia, the nation that would shortly conquer Babylon (under whose rule Daniel labored at the time of the prophecy): “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia.” (Daniel 8:20) Babylon would fall to this coalition in 539 BC.
Daniel also saw what (or who) would eventually take down the Persians—a little over two centuries later. “As I was considering, behold, a male goat [tsaphiyr] came from the west across the face of the whole earth, without touching the ground. And the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes.” (Daniel 8:5) Here we’re introduced to another rarely used designation for “goat,” this time a fierce, self-assertive male, a he-goat—the tsaphiyr. The underlying connotation here is that of extreme aggressiveness, for the “goat” in question turned out to be none other than Alexander the Great, as Daniel reports: “And the goat [’ez] is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king." (Daniel 8:21) Horns represent authority or personal power.
Persia had been no mean kingdom. And it had ruled (at least as far as exiled Israel was concerned) with benevolence and tolerance, allowing the Jews to return to the Land and rebuild their city and temple. But many had stayed; thus we read of the marriage of Esther to king Ahasuerus of Persia (a.k.a. Xerxes) in 479 BC—not long after his armies had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Greeks (the campaign in which the infamous Battle of Thermopylae was fought). A century and a half later, Alexander took the war back to Persia (and ’most everybody else). “He [Alexander] came to the ram with the two horns [Medo-Persia], which I had seen standing on the bank of the canal, and he ran at him in his powerful wrath. I saw him come close to the ram, and he was enraged against him and struck the ram and broke his two horns.” The fury of the Greeks was a natural human response to the previous Persian treachery, the attempted invasion of their homeland. A parallel situation: considering what happened during World War II, one can only imagine the fury the Chinese will exact upon Japan when they invade it (along with the rest of the Far East) during the Great Tribulation (the sixth trumpet: see Revelation 9:13-21). Goats are sin bearers: they hold grudges, it would seem.
“And the ram had no power to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground and trampled on him. And there was no one who could rescue the ram from his power. Then the goat [tsaphiyr ’ez] became exceedingly great, but when he was strong, the great horn was broken, and instead of it there came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.” (Daniel 8:6-8) "As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power." (Daniel 8:22) Just as the prophecy predicts, when Alexander (having conquered every land he’d ever heard of) died at the tender age of 32, his kingdom was divided up between his four generals, Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus , and Ptolemy—none of whom wielded anything approaching the power Alexander had.
My purpose is not to teach a history lesson, but to explore what it means to be a goat—a tsaphiyr ’ez—in the context of Biblical prophecy. The characterization of “sin bearer” still holds: in the case of the tsaphiyr, the “sin” is the single-minded pursuit of one’s own agenda (or worse, Satan’s), with no regard for God or man. The truth that seems to be emerging is that it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, how aggressive, audacious, charismatic, or successful you seem to be. The “goats” will be broken, cut off before their time. If they refuse to unburden themselves of their sin—if they insist on bearing it themselves—then the damage they inflict upon others will turn about upon their own heads.
This will become terrifyingly clear as the Tribulation draws to a close. We’ve already reviewed this Olivet Discourse passage, from the point of view of the sheep. But because the warning is so dire, let us again address what awaits the “goats.” “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:31-33) “All the nations” is everyone left alive on earth after the “battle” of Armageddon. By this time, everyone will have been compelled to make a decision as to whom to side with. The “mark of the beast”—the system implemented by the new world dictator to impose order and enable commerce (under his watchful eye) will have been universal law for three and a half years at this point, and the penalty for non-compliance is death. So most of the goats will be easy to spot. And their fate has already been pronounced by an angel of warning, who announces, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11) So it’s the devil’s own choice: refuse the mark and Satan will try to kill you, but receive it, and you’ll experience the wrath of Almighty God. This, if nothing else, is the “hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10) out of which the saints of the Church of Philadelphia will be kept.
But it’s conceivable—even inevitable—that some who have not opened the door to Yahshua and heeded his counsel (see Revelation 3:18-20) will have, whether out of well-founded paranoia or geographical serendipity, not taken the Antichrist’s mark and oath of loyalty by the end of the Tribulation. These are those whose status must yet be determined. “Then He will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46) As always, it is what we believe and in whom we trust that determines our status before God. But in the end, that belief is revealed by what we do.
And lest it should not be obvious, I should point out that this is not some new paradigm that will suddenly spring into being at the end of the age: it is true now. It has always been true. As John put it, “By this we know that we have come to know Him [defined in context as our “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”], if we keep His commandments.” Boiled down to one word, Yahweh’s “commandment” is to love. “Whoever says ‘I know Him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked. Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning.” (I John 2:3-7) The sheep know this. The goats do not.