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The scapegoat was an animal that ritually removed the contamination caused by the sins of the Israelites by physically carrying the contamination into the wilderness.

The idea of a scapegoat as someone who takes the blame or the punishment for someone else is familiar to many people today. This term has its origins in a complex purification ritual in the Hebrew Bible, in which one goat is tasked with carrying the most severe sins of the people out of the community.

Where does the idea of a scapegoat come from?
The word scapegoat itself is a modern interpretation of the perplexing phrase “a goat for Azazel” found in a description of the Day of Atonement ritual in Lev 16. Early Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible rendered it as “the one sent off,” and the Latin Vulgate translation called it the “emissary goat.” It was not until the Tyndale English Bible was published in 1530 that the translation “escape-goat,” later shortened to the familiar “scapegoat” in the seventeenth century King James Version, was introduced. The figure of Azazel remains somewhat enigmatic and suggestions for its identification have included an uninhabitable physical location, a foreign deity, or a wilderness-dwelling demon. The interpretation of Azazel as a foreign deity or a demon is typically based on the fact that Azazel is parallel to Yahweh in Lev 16:8 when the goats are described as “one marked for the LORD [that is, Yahweh] and one marked for Azazel.”

What is the relationship between a scapegoat and sins?
The Day of Atonement ritual as a whole is designed to remove the accumulated contamination, caused by the impurities and sins of the Israelites, from the tabernacle. This contamination was understood to physically accumulate in the tabernacle, and different types of contamination required different procedures for removal. The scapegoat is part of one such procedure and has a specific function: to remove the contamination caused by the intentional sins of the Israelites from the tabernacle complex by physically carrying the contamination into the wilderness. The scapegoat is laden with the Israelites’ iniquities and sent to Azazel after the priests complete the two other purification offerings in this ritual. As the scholar Jacob Milgrom has argued, the first two purification offerings serve to clean up and remove contamination caused by the impurities and unintentional sins of the Israelites; however, their intentional sins cannot be removed in the same way. In fact, the contamination caused by intentional sins is so severe that it cannot be neutralized at all. Instead, it must be physically relocated to a place far away from Yahweh and his tabernacle. This is why the scapegoat exists. The high priest confesses the people’s sins while laying two hands on the head of the goat, ritually transferring those sins from the tabernacle to the goat, and then sends that goat out into the wilderness, to an area beyond the bounds of human habitation. In the mishnaic tractate about Yom Kippur in rabbinic literature, the ritual described in Lev 16 is supplemented with a directive to drive the goat off of a cliff so that it dies, perhaps reflecting a concern that the sin-laden animal would find its way back into the community if it was allowed to live.

Despite the fact that it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, the idea of a scapegoat existed throughout the ancient world. Scapegoat-like figures are present in several Mesopotamian and Hittite texts that predate the Hebrew Bible. This concept also appears in the New Testament and is used in at least two places to describe Jesus, the Gospel of John (John 18:14) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb 9:11-10:18).

  • Feldman-Liane

    Liane Feldman is an Assistant Professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on the literary interpretation of ritual in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish literature. Her first book, The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source, is forthcoming with Mohr Siebeck.