Scapegoats: Leviticus 16:1-28

Leviticus 16:1-28

The chapter opens with a reminder about the boys who died last Saturday in our reading – and then describes extensively how Aaron and the priests are to make sacrifices to make right the shrine, tent, temple, altar, priests and families. This elaboration is all about making the holy elite in the holy place ready for the big annual ritual of atonement, or ‘at-one-ment’, as we glib liberals say it, the key high holidays of Yom Kippur every fall season.

How important is it for church and clergy and elders, the space and the people, to be periodically brought to account, and made right again? As we give up and share the holy spaces of two congregations, and as we learn the human limits as well as the gifts of other lay and clergy leadership, what holiness or purity is required, and how do we regulate it? The United Church prefers committees….

The culmination of all this is sacrifice of a bull and a goat. The bull is all burnt up, with hide and dung scraps taken to the ash heap, by a guy who washes his clothes and bathes himself before he can re-enter the camp. Two goats are presented, and lots are cast to select one for sacrifice to God, and the other to be led out into the wilderness ‘for Azazel’. The community’s sins are recited over each of the goats and imputed to each in turn.

This is the origin of our term ‘scapegoat’ – though I read it this year as ‘hairy goat’, and emphasized that it is one of two goats presented. If the bull is a mark of the weight of the sin of priests (reminded of the first two convicted clergy), the goats signify the sin of the whole community. Some stuff can be ‘made right’ by sacrifice to Yahweh – but here, it is acknowledged that some stuff has to simply be exiled ‘into the wilderness’, ‘beyond the pale’ or fence of the camp. This is not universal rule, but one community trying to be faithful in the here and now, and acknowledging that some stuff has to be given to ‘Azazel’.

The scape-goat comes in the context of sacrifice, and purity, and holiness, of the priests and people and of rulers and individuals, in turn. We try to translate the concept and the term to our world of consumption and scientism and regulation, but it loses much of its meaning. Our emphasis on subjective conscious intentional fault with quantifiable consequences redressed, is ours, not theirs. As we find the limits to evil within and among us that cannot be eradicated, from priestly crimes to the collective evils of humanity, we might do well to reflect on this pair of ‘hairy goats’, sorted by lot, not reason.

Is there ever a place to re-present what is good and true and beautiful about people, God, places, and persons? Making or re-presenting what is not yet at one, or no longer at one, claiming some stuff, banishing other stuff, is the stuff of confession, but also of atonement, mercy, reconciliation, and shalom. Are we really any better at it?

Leviticus 16:1-28

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died.

2 The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy-seat that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy-seat.

3 Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bull for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering.

4 He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and shall have the linen undergarments next to his body, fasten the linen sash, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy vestments. He shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on.

5 He shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin-offering, and one ram for a burnt-offering.

6 Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin-offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.

7 He shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting;

8 and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel.

9 Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin-offering;

10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

11 Aaron shall present the bull as a sin-offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house; he shall slaughter the bull as a sin-offering for himself.

12 He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain
13 and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy-seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die.

14 He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy-seat, and before the mercy-seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.

15 He shall slaughter the goat of the sin-offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy-seat and before the mercy-seat.

16 Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.

17 No one shall be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the sanctuary until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.

18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement on its behalf, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on each of the horns of the altar.

19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

20 When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.

21 Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.

22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

23 Then Aaron shall enter the tent of meeting, and shall take off the linen vestments that he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there.

24 He shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people, making atonement for himself and for the people.

25 The fat of the sin-offering he shall turn into smoke on the altar.

26 The one who sets the goat free for Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterwards may come into the camp.

27 The bull of the sin-offering and the goat of the sin-offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp; their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be consumed in fire.

28 The one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterwards may come into the camp.

29 This shall be a statute to you for ever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.

30 For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD.

31 It is a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute for ever.

32 The priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the linen vestments, the holy vestments.

33 He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.

34 This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins. And Moses did as the LORD had commanded him.