It is no secret that I am a fanboy of René Girard and his work on memetic theory. His book, The Scapegoat, while difficult to read is well worth the effort. Also, a decent podcast interview that covers this topic well is an interview with Adam Ericksen on Theology.fm. With that said, this last Sunday I preached on Leviticus 16. I had to restrain my urge to “nerd out” on memetic theory (aka Scapegoat theory) as it relates to Leviticus 16 and how Leviticus 16 relates to the whole of the biblical narrative during my sermon. Therefore, in order to appease my inner nerd monster, I offer this as a propitiation.
In Leviticus 16, we find not only the chiastic center of Leviticus but also the center of the books of Moses. It is by no means a coincidence. This chapter is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when all of the sins of the nation would be atoned for. On a whole, this day functioned as a rebooting of the tabernacle system. We see the high priest “unpriesting” by removing his priestly garments and putting on linen garments. He offered a young bull as a sin offering for himself and his family. The blood of the bull was then sprinkled on the “atonement cover” (Leviticus 16:14), otherwise known as the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. Two goats are offered as sin offerings for the people. First, one goat was slaughtered. The blood from this goat was sprinkled on the atonement cover. It was then mixed with blood of the bull and then sprinkled on the horns of the altar. The second goat was Azazel, or the Scapegoat, and was driven away into the wilderness with the sins of the whole nation. Then two rams, one for the priest and one for the nation, were offered as a burnt offering.
What we witness happening was the reconsecration of the Tabernacle system and, as a result, the covenantal people. The high priest and priests acted as a sin-bearers as they intermediated on behalf of people. Throughout the year, as person after person came to the Tabernacle to make atonement, the weight on the priest increased. Similarly, you find a movement of blood flowing into the Tabernacle. Animals, acting as human surrogates, are brought into the tabernacle court as sin offerings. Then “the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the Lord that is in the tent of meeting, and all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Leviticus 4:5-7). So, day after day, person after person, sin after sin, blood flowed into the Tabernacle. What becomes obvious is that sin was being carried by the Tabernacle. Hence the reason the high priest had to make “atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar” (Leviticus 16:20).
The word for atonement (kaphar) literally means to cover. We use the same idea today when we buy someone’s lunch; “Got you covered.” The blood from the sacrifice acted as a “covering.” What is peculiar however is that the person was not “covered” with the blood but rather the Tabernacle. On the Day of Atonement, the Ark of the Covenant was covered with the blood of the animals. The progression went like this: sin was placed on the animal, the animal was killed, the blood then “covered” (or atones) the Tabernacle furnishings and, ultimately, the very throne of God (the ark was not simply a glorified storage unit but it represented the throne of God and thus the Tabernacle was the Lord’s mobile living quarters). The picture is that of God bearing His people’s sins during the year and then at Yom Kippur one final sacrifice carried the sum of all the people’s sins into God’s throne room and placed it on Him. God then put it all on the Scapegoat and sent it away.
There is more to Leviticus 16. The different offerings on Yom Kippur are meant to call our memory back to different elements of Israel’s history. The bull offering is meant to call us to the first consecration of the priests in Exodus 29 when they laid their hands on the head of a bull and offered it as a sin offering and earlier in Exodus 24 when Moses sprinkled young bulls’ blood on the people as a confirmation of the Sinai covenant. The ram of the burnt offering is meant to call us to the ram that acted as a replacement for Issac when God called Abraham to offer him as a burnt offering in Genesis 22. It also calls our memory to the first burnt offering offered by Noah at the end of the flood in Genesis 9. In fact, every personal offering from Leviticus chapter 1 through 7 was meant to be an act of solidarity with those who have gone before. Every burnt offering was Isaac. Every tribute offering was Abel’s. Every burnt offering was Noah’s offering. Every lamb was the passover lamb. Every ram was the son of Abraham, just as they are a son of Abraham. This wasn’t just an individual sacrifice but a part of a larger people’s story. The offering you brought was meant to remind you of the Lord’s people and His redemptive work.
However, this still does not explain the presence of the second living goat. We find a hint in one of the stories above, as well as the first story involving an offering. The story above that we find a hint in is that of Isaac and Abraham. In Genesis 22, Isaac is to be killed but just one chapter before Sarah forces her husband’s son and his mother into the wilderness (Genesis 21:10). In one chapter, Ishmael is sent into the wilderness. In the next chapter, his brother, Isaac, Abraham’s one and only son whom he loved (Genesis 22:2), is demanded by God as a burnt offering even though the story ends with his life being replaced by that of a ram.
The first story involving an offering is that of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, when Abel offers an animal to Lord and the Lord regards it. Yet, Cain’s offering was not regarded and Cain became envious. While Abel slaughtered an animal, Cain would slaughter his brother. As a result, he would be made to leave and wander the land. Two brothers, one killed, one sent away. It is in this story that we see the first death warned of in Genesis 2 and the first mention of sin. This story would be repeated in multiple different forms throughout the biblical narrative: Jacob and Esau, Issac and Ishmael, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David, David and Uriah, and on and on (Tale of Two Brothers: Cain, Abel and Yom Kippur). Sin, ultimately, is an attack on others, a way to scapegoat people we view as threats, who either have what we want, threaten what we have, or are the reason (at least according to ourselves) we don’t have what we should.
Every time an Israelite would bring their animal to the Tabernacle, they would not just see an animal. This animal, which was created on the same day as humanity in Genesis 1, was a human surrogate, not a “payment” but rather a human analogue. Every sacrifice symbolized the net effect of sin: death. Either this animal represented the person or it represented someone else. The blood of this animal would then be transferred to God, the same way Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to the Lord (Genesis 4:10). It would be God who would bear this sin and death and it would be God that would bring life. Then on the Day of Atonement, the whole nation would watch as a retelling of their story, of our story, was put on display.
The Levitical system offers us a clue on how to stop the cycle of scapegoating. True atonement begins when we stop sacrificing others. It is through this lens that Jesus would become both the last sacrifice and the last scapegoat (to be covered in a future post). This is not simply a literary device but rather Jesus suffering the fate of both brothers so that brothers can be reunited. Jesus becomes our analogue to finally put an end to the blame and retaliation, the passive-aggressive responses, the avoidance, the neglect, the divisions and the comparisons, the vain competitions, the keeping up with the Jones’, the entitlements, always having to be right, always having to be first, rivalries, and all forms of revenge. Jesus models for us how to forgive those who will torture and even kill us. God showed us we must stop slaughtering each other on the altars of our sin so that the world might be saved.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). And “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).