03 April 2015

The Goat

Basilissa of the Tsavelas herd, Karitena, 1987.

We tend to think of “the” scapegoat, but in the original Leviticus text, there are two goats involved in the purification ritual for the Day of Atonement:

He must cast lots over the two goats, one to be for the Lord and the other for Azazel. He must present the goat on which the lot for the Lord has fallen and deal with it as a purification-offering; but the goat on which the lot for Azazel has fallen is to be made to stand alive before the Lord for expiation to be made over it, before it is driven away into the wilderness to Azazel. Lev. 16: 8-10. 

Azazel” is variously translated as “precipice” or “scapegoat”. The LXX translates it as tragos apopomaion or “goat sent out.” Some Jewish teachings regard Azazel as a demon of the wilderness. I am not going to get into Jewish or Christian theology here, or the scapegoat in various cultures. I have no religious point to make. I want to look at the Biblical pattern that presents variations on the theme of the pairing of sacrifice/altar and wilderness.  

Genesis 4 gives the story of Cain and Abel, brothers, a story in which the original killer – Abel who sacrifices on an altar -- is slain, and Cain is to wander. But Cain is to be protected. Seven-fold vengeance will be exacted from anyone harming Cain.

Genesis 21 gives another story of brothers, Ishmael and Isaac. This story has more characters, is more complex, as you would expect from a story with women. Ishmael is sent out with his mother to wander in the wilderness. Isaac is to be sacrificed. Both are saved by angels.

Then there is Jesus who is killed – the Gospels vary in their interpretation of sacrifice, and Judas who goes out to die. Matthew 27 and Acts 1 give slightly different accounts of the death of Judas, but they both involve a field, and hanging. In all four Gospels and Acts, the Day of Atonement is involved in the narratives, which brings us back to Leviticus where both goats presumably die. All the narratives bring Jesus back to life, but the original ending of the oldest, Mark, ends in fear.

What does this pairing of altar/sacrifice and wilderness mean?

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