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The Two Goats on Yom Kippur     

The Two Goats         

The Biblical description of every festival includes instructions for sacrificial offerings in the temple. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is no different. However, there is one temple ritual that is unique to Yom Kippur and highly unusual. Leviticus 16 describes the Yom Kippur temple rituals performed by Aaron, the high priest, and all subsequent high priests after him.

To sum up, the high priest must take two goats and place them at the entrance of the temple. He then casts lots to decide which one will be offered for the Lord on the altar in the Temple and which one will be the scapegoat. After offering the first goat to the Lord on the altar, the high priest would place his hands on the second goat, confess all the sins of Israel over the goat, and send it into the wilderness – literally in Hebrew, the desert – with someone appointed for the task.

Ancient Jewish tradition adds a number of important details of this procedure. The two goats chosen for this ritual were to be as identical as possible. They were the same age and size and needed to be as close to each other in appearance as could be found. When the second goat was let out into the wilderness, it was brought to a cliff, where it was thrown to its death. As for the choosing of the person who was appointed for the task of leading the scapegoat out into the desert, there is a fascinating tradition based on puzzling words in the original Hebrew here in Leviticus. 

Verse 21 quoted above, states that the High Priest would send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task – ish iti in Hebrew. Ish is Hebrew for “man.” Iti is difficult to translate, but it certainly does not mean “appointed for the task.” In fact, in no place in the Bible does this word root mean “appointed” or anything similar. The literal translation of iti is “timely” or “momentary.” In other words, the literal translation of the end of verse 21 is, “Send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of a timely man.” Translators solve this strange word choice by interpreting it to mean a man who was chosen or appointed for this specific moment. Still, the choice of words in the Bible is unusual and worthy of our attention.

Based on this word, Jewish tradition teaches that the person chosen for this task was selected based on the knowledge that he would not live out the year. Whether this was known prophetically or medically is not mentioned in the tradition. 

Let us now put all the details together. Two identical goats stand at the entrance to the temple. One will enter the Temple as an offering to the Lord. The other goat will carry the burden of all Israel’s sins into the desert, where nothing grows, by a man who has no future. There, it will die a pointless death and be wasted.

The ritual of the two goats of Yom Kippur is a metaphor for the life of every one of us, every single day. Think of the two goats as two options for the same life. This is the reason why they were identical in every way. Like those goats, every day, we stand at the entrance to the temple – the place of service to God. The choice is before us. We can enter the temple and dedicate our lives to the Lord, or we can choose the path of sin, leading to barrenness, destruction, and waste. And like the momentary man, sin has no plan for the future. Every person witnessing this event each year in the temple was reminded of the choices that lie before us every day. Are we for the Lord, or are we headed to the wilderness?

There is another Biblical symbol that is alluded to by these two goats. Consider the story of Isaac and Ishmael. Both were sons of Abraham. Both began their lives in the same home. In Abraham’s well-known story of the binding of Isaac, Isaac was offered as a sacrifice to God. Ishmael, on the other hand, was banished to the desert because of his sinful behavior. (Genesis 21:9)

While the Bible describes what Ishmael did vaguely as “mocking”, the Hebrew word in this verse for mocking is the same word used to describe the immoral and idolatrous behavior of the children of Israel at the sin of the Golden Calf.

The banishing of Ishmael


In other words, despite the ambiguous English translation, the Bible describes Ishmael as involved in overtly sinful behavior. Ishmael, who was circumcised and was brought into the covenant of Abraham, chose a life of sin rather than a life of dedicated service to God. On the other hand, Isaac willingly offered his life to God.

This is the message the Day of Atonement.

God has put us in this world for a purpose. We can choose to embrace that purpose and live a life of dedication to Him and His kingdom, or we can choose the path that leads to the wilderness; a place of destruction where nothing grows, and nothing lives. 


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