‘And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat…. And the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him and to let him go for a scapegoat unto the wilderness.”
This passage from Leviticus 16 stands at the heart of the Yom Kippur service — both of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple in Jerusalem, at whose climax the high priest slaughtered one goat while releasing a second to the desert, and of the Yom Kippur service in the synagogue, in which Leviticus 16 is read from the Torah and retold in the Musaf prayer in a poetic description of the Temple ceremony.
And yet when you think of it, something isn’t logical. Why is the goat that was not slaughtered — “the goote on which the lotte fell to [e]scape,” in William Tindale’s 1530 English Bible translation, from which the 1611 King James Version coined the new word “scapegoat” — the one that has come to signify an unfairly chosen victim who is made to take the blame for others? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
And in fact, in some languages it is. Take German, for example, in which a “scapegoat” in our modern sense of the word is a Sündenbock or “sin goat,” a term taken from the same chapter of Leviticus, where we read, “And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell and offer him for a sin-offering” — a Sündöpfer in Martin Luther’s accurate translation of the Hebrew word h.ataat. In German, the “scapegoat” is the goat that was slaughtered.
The goat freed to the desert, on the other hand, was called by Luther “der Bock für Asasel,” “the goat for Azazel,” a literal translation of the mysterious biblical term se’ir [a goat] la’azazel. rendered by Tindale as “the goote…. to [e]scape.” In doing this Luther refused to go along with the traditional Christian interpretation of la’azazel as “let loose” or “set free,” which derives from Jerome’s fourth-century C.E. Latin Bible in which se’ir la’azazel is translated as “caper emissarius.” Jerome, in turn, was basing himself, as he often did, on the ancient rabbis — who, breaking the word azazel down into the Hebrew ez, “goat,” and the Aramaic azal, “went” or “gone,” translated se’ir la’azazel as “ha’ez ha’mishtale’ah.,” “the goat that is sent away.”
Luther, who did not know what azazel meant but felt sure it didn’t mean that, was right to reject this interpretation, whose mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic makes no linguistic sense. Today, most Bible scholars agree that Azazel was the name of a demon associated with the desert, perhaps a kind of satyr or goat-devil, and that the animal “sent away” to him was originally meant to be a propitiation. Yet this significance was probably lost well before the era of the Second Temple, in which the scapegoat was no longer freed but pushed off a cliff, nor would the early rabbis have looked kindly on such an explanation, with its implications of idolatry. Even in medieval times, when prominent Jewish commentators like Nahmanides and Abraham Ibn Ezra were daring enough to suggest it, the latter was so troubled by the possibility that he wrote to the young student for whom his commentary was composed that he would reveal the full secret of “Azazel” to him only when he was fully mature.
To return to English, however: Why, if the biblical scapegoat was the goat set free by the high priest, did “scapegoat” come to mean an unjustly chosen victim?
The answer, it would appear, lies in the continuation of Leviticus 16, in which we read: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited.” Even though, in other words, the scapegoat was allowed to live, it was banished to the desert because of the sins of others.
It is likely, indeed, that by the 19th century, when our contemporary meaning of “scapegoat” first entered English, readers of the Bible no longer recognized the archaic verb “scape” to be a form of “escape,” or else took it to refer not to the goat but to the children of Israel, who “escaped” punishment by means of the goat. In other European languages, too, the goat that was sent away — bouc emissaire in French, kozel otpushchenya in Russian — is the goat that has come to be the modern “scapegoat.” Still other languages, however, have, like German, made their “scapegoat” the goat that was slaughtered as a sin-offering; Dutch zondebok is an example. Ultimately, I suppose, if you were a goat, you wouldn’t have wanted to be either of them.