The scapegoat

A careful look at the Adventist position on Azazel

Thomas A. Davis is a former editor of the Adventist Review. He writes from Armstrong, British Columbia, Canada.

Some time ago, in a telephone conversation with another minister, I was challenged regarding the usual Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Azazel, the scapegoat of Leviticus 16.

My minister friend suggested one can not support from the Bible account the notion that the scapegoat represents Satan. He held that the ritual service involving the goat more nearly suggests Christ as the scapegoat, that it more fitly symbolized Him who bore "the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:4). In agreement with this, one Bible commentary states that in the scapegoat "there seems to be a typical view of Christ who bore away our sins."1

There are always aspects of our belief structure that we take for granted, and so they lie largely unexamined, especially if they are seen to be less important. This questioning of a part of my accepted theological edifice prompted me to investigate this particular subject.

Practically from the beginning of our denomination, Adventist scholars, in company with others, have agreed that the scapegoat typified Satan.2 However, among other Christian scholars there are wide variations of opinion as to its significance.3

The most serious of the objections raised regarding the scapegoat as representing Satan would seem to be that, because the goat bears the sins of the people, Satan would therefore be, in a sense, our Savior.

In examining the issue, I came to the conclusion that the solution to our problem whether Christ or Satan is represented by the scapegoat, is found in the ritual of laying on of hands in the sanctuary services. In those rituals there were only a few situations in which laying on of hands was required.

1. Laying on of hands during the inauguration of the priestly line (Exod. 29:10; Lev. 8:14f; Lev. 9:7,8). The first two passages are parallel descriptions of the one-time consecration service for Aaron and his sons for the priesthood, which probably was to be performed at the consecrating of every priest. In connection with that ceremony, a bull and two rams were provided. The priests-to-be were to place their hands4 upon the head of the bull for a sin offering and on the head of the ram for a consecration offering (Exod.29:10,19; Lev. 8:14,22). The laying on of hands in connection with the rite was not a "priestly" act, for they were not as yet priests. It was simply involved in their priestly inaugural ceremony.

Leviticus 9:7, 8 makes no mention of the laying of hands on the sacrificial animals. But it is likely that the regular procedure was followed, in which case Aaron would have laid his hand upon the head of the animal specified as a sin offering for himself and his sons. The intent of this was that, even though they had just become priests, they were still subject to sinning (Heb. 7:27; 10:1) and needed to make sacrifices as any sinful individual needed to. In this respect the sacrifice had the same purpose as a sacrifice offered for sin by a private individual. It seems this service was for the priests as private individuals and not strictly a part of their official duties.

2. Laying of hands upon the heads of sacrificial animals. As noted above, if a priest sinned personally, he was required to bring a sacrificial animal and lay his hand in confession on its head. In this case he was acting for himself only. We recognize this as a personal matter, different from his official duties.

Also, if the whole nation sinned, "the elders of the congregation," not the priest, were to lay their hands on the sacrificial animal, thus representing the nation (Lev. 4:13-15).

If a ruler, or "anyone of the common people," sinned, they were to bring prescribed animals, themselves lay hands upon the animal's head in confession, and personally slay it. The priest then manipulated the blood, as in other cases (Lev. 4:22-30, etc.).

We see, then, that in every case of an animal sacrifice for sins, the animal received the confessed sin from the sinner by the laying on of a hand personally, both of priest and people, and, in the case of the nation, by non-priestly representatives. It was always, in effect, a personal matter. The sinner, not the priest, laid the sins on the sacrifice. When a priest laid hands on the sacrifice, it was as a sinner, not in his capacity as a priest. The deviation from this is highly meaningful when we come to the scapegoat.

3. The laying on of hands on the Day of Atonement. The rituals of the day were to begin with the high priest bringing "a young bull as a sin offering, and ... a ram as a burnt offering" (Lev. 16:3). The bull was to be "a sin offering... for himself... and for his house," which would include the other priests (verses 6, 11). Gerhard Hasel5 observes that the language is "identical with the private 'sin offering' mentioned in Leviticus 4. This supports our belief that, although the priest laid his hands (hand) upon the head of the bull, he was, in essence, confessing private sins as an individual, not, at the moment, in his capacity as a priest. The act would therefore not apply in an "official" and corporate sense. The sacrifice was "for himself and his house."

Meanwhile, two goats had been chosen, one for "the Lord," the other "for the scapegoat" (verse 8). At that point the Lord's goat was sacrificed. And here we observe that Hasel notes the "curious" fact that "there is no mention either of laying on of hands or confession of sin over the goat for the sin offering."6

We suspect it is not mentioned because it was probably not done. If it was not, the omission was consonant with the suggestion that, except in the case of the scapegoat, the high priest, in his official capacity, never laid a hand on a blood sacrifice in the confession of sin.

If our premise is correct, the question arises, Why would the officiating high priest never lay hands in confession on a sin sacrifice? One answer is obvious. The high priest (as with all priests) represented the Great High Priest, Christ. But Christ was not only the High Priest, He was also the Sacrifice.

"Himself the priest, Himself the victim."7 It would, then, be incongruous for the priest, representing Christ, to confess sins upon the sacrifice, if it also represented Christ. It made perfect sense for the sinner to make that confession, laying his sins on his Substitute.

4. The laying of hands upon the scapegoat. We come now to the scapegoat. By the time this final part of the Day of Atonement ritual had arrived, all blood sacrifices had been made. The "Lord's goat" had been slain and its blood sprinkled before the mercy seat. This sacrifice atoned for all the sins of the people. This expiation was not inadequate, partial, incomplete, needing any augmentation. It was complete, finished. No supplement, no other sacrifice, could be required. "When he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting [where the sins of the people were recorded], and the altar, he shall bring the live goat" (Lev. 16:20).

If a scapegoat represented Christ bearing away, finally and for all, the sins of His people, we have the incongruous situation referred to above. The high priest was to lay his hands (in this case, and this case only, both hands) upon the scapegoat, thus ritually transferring confessed sins to that animal. To make this application to the great antitypical service unfolded in the book of Hebrews, we would have Christ (the High Priest) placing believers' sins upon Himself (the scapegoat).

Not only is this incongruous; we have the further problem of it thus appearing as though the Calvary sacrifice was deficient, that Christ did not there complete His work of expiation, or that some other figure was necessary to illustrate its sufficiency.

Hasel states unequivocally that, except for the scapegoat, the high priest did not lay hands on an animal used in this or any other ritual during the three days of the atonement. "This is the only time in the three days of atonement rites that the hands are laid upon the animal."8

While it is inappropriate to think of Christ placing the believers' sins upon Him self ("The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," Isa. 53:6), it is perfectly accept able, in the light of the symbolism of Leviticus 16, to understand Him doing so upon another ultimately responsible being, Satan. All things considered, it is definitely preferable to see the symbolic thrust of Leviticus leading to this conclusion rather than the other.

In examining the transferal of sin to the scapegoat, it is significant to note that the goat was not treated as all other animal sacrifices were — slain as atonement for sin. A sacrifice was valid as an atonement for transgressions only as it died, as there was spilled blood. Thus, Jesus was "set forth to be a propitiation [for us] by his blood" (Rom. 3:25, NKJV). It is "through his blood" that we have redemption (Eph. 1:7). Preserving the goat alive tells that Azazel had another significance.

Because shed blood was necessary for a sin offering, in what way could an animal kept alive be considered such an offering? In what respect would it represent Christ?

To say that the scapegoat, which played a part only after the atonement was complete, represented Christ is to blur the atonement, to suggest it is not sufficient, that something else was needed to complete it and make it effective. Such an idea is not biblical.

As noted above, other cases of confessed sins placed on the animal sacrifice were placed by the sinner himself to free him from his guilt. In the case of the scapegoat, it was the high priest, not the sinner, who placed the sins on the goat. A reason for this is that the peoples' sins had already been cared for by the sacrifice of the Lord's goat. Now the goat "for Azazel" had its part to play, one quite different from the Lord's goat.

We have an example of such a transfer in Leviticus (24:13,14). A young man blasphemed God and so was sentenced to be taken outside the camp and stoned to death. Before the stoning, witnesses to his words laid their hands on his head.

Two suggestions have been made as to the significance of this act. One, they were making solemn testimony that they had indeed heard his blasphemies and that he therefore merited his fate.9 Second, they were transferring back to him any guilt that had "rubbed off" on them by hearing him.

Both of these suggestions have merit. Christ, as no other, has been witness to the rebellion of Satan and can attest that he richly deserves his fate. And the sins Satan caused others to commit will be laid back upon him so that he will be required to bear the penalty for those sins. This is not to make him a propitiation for the sins.

A third suggestion, made by Dr. Roy Gane, based on Deut. 19:16-21, is that when one maliciously and falsely accuses another for some crime, he himself is to receive "the punishment intended for the one falsely accused."10 Thus, Satan, "the accuser of the brethren" (Zech.3; Rev. 12:10) receives punishment as a malicious witness.

That the scapegoat symbolized Satan is recognized by The Biblical Expositor.11 "In its substitutionary punishment it [the scapegoat] symbolized the sending back of sin to its demoniac author and thus the breaking of his claims over God's people (cf. Heb. 2:14,15;! John 3:8)."

Summary and conclusions. In the day by day laying on of hands for the transferal of sin to the animal sin offerings in the sanctuary service, the priest in his official capacity had no part. Such transfers were always done by the guilty party, which, of course, sometimes included the priest as a "private" individual. Subsequent to the transfer, the offerer killed the animal. The priest then manipulated the blood.

In one case only, the transfer of sin to the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, did the high priest, in his priestly capacity, lay hands upon the animal. This was done after the atonement for sin had been completed. Unlike all other cases following such transfer, the goat was not slain. Rather, it was to be sent away "into the wilderness by the hands of a suitable man" who was to "release the goat in the wilderness" (Lev. 16:21, 22, NKJV).

Seventh-day Adventists find an under standing of this in their view of the "investigative judgment" and the millennium, which dovetails neatly with the Bible teaching of the typical Day of Atonement.

After the high priest finished his work of reconciliation and emerged from the sanctuary, the rituals involving the scapegoat were performed. When Christ, the Great High Priest, ends His work in the heavenly sanctuary (Dan. 12:1; Heb. 8-10), at the end of the antitypical Day of Atonement, He places upon Satan responsibility for the sins he has caused God's people to perform. Then, antitypical of the scapegoat being taken into the wilderness, "the Devil and Satan ... is bound for a thousand years; and cast... into the bottomless pit" (Rev. 20:2,3).

The biblical evidence precludes the scapegoat as representing Christ.

1. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), on Leviticus 16:20-22.

2. Don F. Neufeld, editor, Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, ev.ed. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 1291.

3. Ibid.

4. C. F. Keil, F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989), The Third Book of the Bible, footnote, 404.

5. Gerhard F. Hasel, "The Day of Atonement," in The Sanctuary and the Atonement (Biblical Research Committee of the General Conference, 1981), 116.

6. Ibid., 117.

7. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1940), 25.

8. 8. Hasel, 121.

9. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn, 1958), 408.

10. Dr. Roy Gane, Theological Seminary, Andrews University. Shared with the author from his syllabus.

11. Carl F. H. Henry, consulting editor, The Biblical Expositor (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), 1:137.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Thomas A. Davis is a former editor of the Adventist Review. He writes from Armstrong, British Columbia, Canada.

October 1998

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Born again: A Jewish concept

Sharing the gospel with Jewish people


The need to forgive and be forgiven

Global Seminar 2000 in Peru

Wholistic television evangelism involving local church members

Motivational leadership

Motivation in local church leadership

Thirty-five ways pastors can support their school

Suggestions for enhancing the ministry of the pastor in Christian education

A strategy for pastoral renewal

Importance of continuing education: skills for survival

A diversified church comes of age

A church, purposely made of all kinds of people, learns and grows into maturity

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)