The Scapegoat – An Atonement Day Bible Study
This Bible study draws parallels between the Atonement Day ceremony involving a scapegoat and Jesus Christ. We also take a dive into pointing out the significance of the Old Testament and how God does not change
We are essentially a month away from Easter (Resurrection Day). With that in mind, it just so happens that our bible study comes out of the book of Leviticus. With this bible study, I want to show the significance of the Old Testament. Many of us believers decide to overlook the Old Testament because “it does not apply to Christians” – that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Though we live under grace, there is a great deal that we can learn from the Old Testament. I also want to talk about the thought that “the God of the Old Testament” is different than “the God of the New Testament”.
In the book of Leviticus, we find several of laws and traditions set for the nation of Israel. Everybody knows of the Ten Commandments and we begin to believe that the Ten Commandments was the only Law that God gave to children of Israel but that is actually not true. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make up the Law and many of the Hebrew ways we find were established in the book of Leviticus.
For example, in Leviticus we find scripture that says:
33 ‘And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. 34 The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34 NKJV
That is a scripture I love because it already establishes how the Lord wanted man to treat another man that he did not know – with love. God is love (1 John 4:8). God has always wanted us to treat each other out of kindness and love.
We find in the book of Leviticus God’s intentions towards man becoming holy; the Lord wanted for man to consecrate himself and become holy (Leviticus 11:44). I want to point out that “becoming holy” or “being sanctified” is not a New Testament thing, but something the Lord has wanted man to become since ancient days.
In Leviticus, we find laws on how the Israelites were to make offerings (sacrifice) before the Lord to become sanctified and holy. There were all kinds of offerings (sacrifices) to be made to God; from burnt offerings to peace offerings; from the offering of calves to turtledoves – there was a sacrifice for practically anything. We do not perform sacrifices because our faith in the Lord tells us that those sacrifices are now no longer necessary since Christ was the last sacrifice for the world.
In those days, Christ had not been physically manifested in the world so the Israelites had to offer up a sacrifice to cover their sins – to reconcile themselves with the Lord. The Lord established one specific day in which the nation of Israel was not to do anything but focus on atonement and repentance – Atonement Day or as we know it, Yom Kippur.
Atonement Day procedure and meaning
The Day of Atonement was of great significance and importance to ancient Israel; it still is a day that is celebrated by Jews. In ancient days, scripture shows us that the high priest would gather two goats and cast lots over the two goats – one would be killed and the other left alive. The lots casts were one for the Lord and one for the people; you can think of a ‘lot’ like you would think of a dice. For example, if we cast lots on who got a piece of cake, we would typically say that the winner is who rolls a higher number. I am not saying that they were rolling dice back then, but the idea is very similar when it comes to casting lots.
We are told (Leviticus 16:9) that the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell on would be killed an offered up as the sin offering. I want you to know that this sin offering, that one goat, would be offered up as a sin offering for the whole nation of Israel on that day. The other goat, while it would remain alive, we find that it would become the scapegoat.
We often use that word but have no idea that the term is actually biblical. I chuckle at this because I think of just how many athletes we have made out to be scapegoats with Atlanta sports! That said, the scapegoat is very interesting to me and here is why: Scripture (Leviticus 16:21) explains that the high priest would lay both his hands on the live goat, and confess all of the iniquities and transgressions of the nation against God onto the goat. In other words, the high priest was transferring (copy and paste) the sins of a nation onto the goat! The goat would then be put out into the wilderness bearing (carrying) the sins of an entire nation away to wherever it would go – it would be despised in God’s eyes.
This animal knew nothing of the people’s sin but it would have to become despised in the eyes of the Lord because we know that God despises all sin. What fascinates me about this scapegoat is the similarities we can draw between it and Jesus. In fact, we can draw a conclusion between the other goat and even the bull that was used during this ceremony. Note: a bull was sacrificed and offered up on behalf of the high priest and his house (Leviticus 16:6) while the goats were offered up for the people’s atonement. The blood of the bull and the goat that was killed was used to sanctify the holy place, the tabernacle, and the altar – even those places needed to be washed of the sin and transgressions of the people.
Parallels with Christ
Three animals were used to atone for a whole nation’s sins and transgressions against God. My dad would enjoy the significance of the number 3 being represented here; he would say, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit was being represented. I don’t believe in coincidences when it comes to God – everything has a purpose and a reason with Him. Some like to point and say that the God of the New Testament was different from the God of the Old Testament, but we’re about to destroy that thought.
Jesus, while He was not physically manifested in the Old Testament, is certainly represented in Old Testament scripture. We can find Jesus being represented in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was about to offer up his son to the Lord, but God, because of Abraham’s faith, provided him a ram caught up in the thicket (Genesis 22:13). We then see Jesus being represented again in the story of the Passover (I will touch on that in a little bit). I want to tell you that Jesus is seen here again in the Day of Atonement. These animals aren’t necessarily representative of Christ, but the acts that they perform are definitely representative of Him.
Before I take a dive into our study of Christ, I do want to mention something quickly about these animals. Goats were used during Atonement Day because they are often viewed not as an innocent creature like sheep. Goats, you know, they have those horns and are very stubborn and messy looking whereas sheep are considered to be innocent creatures. Both of the animals are animals that like to graze, but the sheep have no real defense for protecting itself – that is why they need a shepherd. The difference in the sheep: the ram is a male sheep that has not been castrated and the lamb is a young sheep.
I wanted to draw the distinction between the different animals because John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29). Look at what John says here:
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’
John 1:29 NKJV
Notice the way that John describes the purpose and role of the only begotten Son of God. John states that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the one who takes away the sin of the world. What John describes sounds very similar to the animals used on Atonement Day; remember, the goats became a sin offering and took away the sins of the nation of Israel. Jesus, on the other hand, is called the Lamb of God because He is innocent (pure). He is the Lamb of God because He is the Son of God. The pure and innocent Jesus would bear the iniquities and transgressions of the whole world, not just a nation, placed on Him to bear.
I want you to picture this: the whole world laying their hands on Jesus and transferring all of their sins on to Him. Remember what I said about the scapegoat and how it would go on to be despised by God. When Jesus was on the cross, He was despised by God (Matthew 27:46). This was done to Christ so that all of mankind, the whole world, could be atoned for their sins. We are forgiving of our sins through the atonement of Christ! We are sanctified and made holy through the shed blood of Jesus! Jesus is all of those animals of the Day of Atonement and even more because only He was required for our atonement, not anything extra.
I mentioned the Passover earlier and I do want to touch on the lamb of the Passover. Again, remember that the lamb (sheep) is viewed as an innocent (pure) animal. God commanded the Israelites to kill a lamb (Passover) in its first year, and put its blood over their doorposts (Exodus 12:5-7). The covering of the doorposts was a sign to the Lord not to take the life of the firstborn of the house because they were one of His children. The Passover is very similar to what Jesus represents for Christians.
I preached about this in a sermon last year where I drew the parallel between the Passover in Egypt and Christ; you may want to read or listen to it when you get the chance. The blood of Jesus covers the doorposts of our soul and it is the blood of Christ that will shield us from God’s wrath. We will not suffer the Lord’s wrath because we are covered in the blood of Christ and because Christ suffered for us already. The writer of Hebrews put it this way:
9 then He [Jesus] said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.”He takes away the first that He may establish the second. 10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:8-10 NKJV
God is the same God today
We get this notion in our head that somehow God changed His character through the Testaments – not true. We read scripture like Leviticus 24:20 that states “eye for eye”, and then we read scripture like Luke 6:27 which states to “love your enemies”, and we think that God “changed His mind” or is contradicting Himself. Yet, we overlook scripture like I mentioned at the start of this bible study (Leviticus 19:33-34) or scripture that tells us to love our neighbors.
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 19:18 NKJV
God’s character never changes throughout scripture or over time – He has always wanted man to live peaceably and holy. Sin, however, corrupts us and causes some of us to refuse to see or accept this truth, even at this very moment. I describe the Lord as a circle because God never changes nor does He end – He is constant. God planted seeds of what Christ would do back in the Old Testament and thankfully we can go back and see and read about those seeds.
I have been asked about traditions like Lent and holidays like Yom Kippur before and whether or not it is something I celebrate – I do not participate in Lent or Yom Kippur. I understand the practice of both of the days and encourage those that do practice Lent and the Day of Atonement to do it out of the most serious faith. Lent is not for proving you can live without something. Yom Kippur is still celebrated by Jews who fast, pray, and focus on repentance and atonement.
As Christians, we do not typically observe those days because Jesus has already atoned us of our sins – we participate in prayer and forgiveness every day (or at least we should). This is not a study to bash Yom Kippur (Atonement Day). I wanted to point out the significance of the Old Testament and also show that the God of the Old Testament and the God the New Testament is the same. I hope you enjoyed this study and will come back for more studies. If you have a question about anything or would even like to add something, feel free to start a discussion below.