The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt, 1854

In the Bible, a scapegoat is one of two kid goats. As a pair, one goat was sacrificed (not a scapegoat) and the living “scapegoat” was released into the wilderness, taking with it all sins and impurities. The concept first appears in Leviticus, in which a goat is designated to be cast into the desert to carry away the sins of the community.

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

Practices with some similarities to the scapegoat ritual also appear in Ancient Greece and Ebla.


Some scholars have argued that the scapegoat ritual can be traced back to 24th century BC Ebla, from where it spread throughout the ancient Near East.[1][2]


Main article: Azazel

The word "scapegoat" is an English translation of the Hebrew ‘ăzāzêl (Hebrew: עזאזל‎), which occurs in Leviticus 16:8:

ונתן אהרן על שני השעירם גרלות גורל אחד ליהוה וגורל אחד לעזאזל
And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. (JPS)

The Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew Lexicon[3] gives la-azazel (Hebrew: לעזאזל‎) as a reduplicative intensive of the stem ‘-Z-L "remove", hence la-‘ăzāzêl, "for entire removal". This reading is supported by the Greek Old Testament translation as "the sender away (of sins)". The lexicographer Gesenius takes azazel to mean "averter", which he theorized was the name of a deity, to be appeased with the sacrifice of the goat.[4]

Alternatively, broadly contemporary with the Septuagint, the pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch may preserve Azazel as the name of a fallen angel.[5][6][7]

And Azazel taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures.

— Enoch 8:1[8]

Early English Christian Bible versions follow the translation of the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, which interpret azazel as "the goat that departs" (Greek tragos apopompaios, "goat sent out", Latin caper emissarius, "emissary goat"). William Tyndale rendered the Latin as "(e)scape goat" in his 1530 Bible. This translation was followed by subsequent versions up through the King James Version of the Bible in 1611: "And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat."[9] Several modern versions however either leave it as the proper noun Azazel, or footnote "for Azazel" as an alternative reading.

Jewish sources in the Talmud (Yoma 6:4,67b) give the etymology of azazel as a compound of az, strong or rough, and el, mighty, that the goat was sent from the most rugged or strongest of mountains.[10] From the Targums onwards the term azazel was also seen by some rabbinical commentators as the name of a Hebrew demon, angelic force, or pagan deity.[11] The two readings are still disputed today.[12]

Ancient Judaism

Main article: Azazel

The scapegoat was a goat that was designated (Hebrew: לַעֲזָאזֵֽל‎) la-'aza'zeyl; "for absolute removal" (for symbolic removal of the people's sins with the literal removal of the goat), and outcast in the desert as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, that began during the Exodus with the original Tabernacle and continued through the times of the temples in Jerusalem.

Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol sacrificed a bull as a sin offering to atone for sins he may have committed unintentionally throughout the year. Subsequently he took two goats and presented them at the door of the tabernacle. Two goats were chosen by lot: one to be "for YHWH", which was offered as a blood sacrifice, and the other to be the scapegoat to be sent away into the wilderness and pushed down a steep ravine where it died.[13] The blood of the slain goat was taken into the Holy of Holies behind the sacred veil and sprinkled on the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant. Later in the ceremonies of the day, the High Priest confessed the intentional sins of the Israelites to God placing them figuratively on the head of the other goat, the Azazel scapegoat, who would symbolically "take them away".

Christian perspectives

See also: Victim soul and Lamb of God

Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Agnus-Dei. Le bouc émissaire), by James Tissot
Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Agnus-Dei. Le bouc émissaire), by James Tissot

In Christianity, this process prefigures the sacrifice of Christ on the cross through which God has been propitiated and sins can be expiated. Jesus Christ is seen to have fulfilled all of the biblical "types"—the High Priest who officiates at the ceremony, the Lord's goat that deals with the pollution of sin and the scapegoat that removes the "burden of sin". Christians believe that sinners who admit their guilt and confess their sins, exercising faith and trust in the person and sacrifice of Jesus, are forgiven of their sins.

Since the second goat was sent away to perish,[14] the word "scapegoat" has developed to indicate a person who is blamed and punished for the actions of others.

Similar practices

Ancient Syria

A concept superficially similar to the biblical scapegoat is attested in two ritual texts of the 24th century BC archived at Ebla.[15] They were connected with ritual purification on the occasion of the king's wedding. In them, a she-goat with a silver bracelet hung from her neck was driven forth into the wasteland of "Alini"; "we" in the report of the ritual involves the whole community. Such "elimination rites", in which an animal, without confession of sins, is the vehicle of evils (not sins) that are chased from the community are widely attested in the Ancient Near East.[16]

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greeks practiced scapegoating rituals in exceptional times based on the belief that the repudiation of one or two individuals would save the whole community.[17][18] Scapegoating was practiced with different rituals across ancient Greece for different reasons but was mainly used during extraordinary circumstances such as famine, drought, or plague.[17][18] The scapegoat would usually be an individual of lower society such as a criminal, slave, or poor person and was referred to as the pharmakos, katharma or peripsima.[17][18]

There is a dichotomy, however, in the individuals used as scapegoats in mythical tales and the ones used in the actual rituals. In mythical tales, it was stressed that someone of high importance had to be sacrificed if the whole society were to benefit from the aversion of catastrophe (usually a king or the king's children).[17][18] However, since no king or person of importance would be willing to sacrifice himself or his children, the scapegoat in actual rituals would be someone of lower society who would be given value through special treatment such as fine clothes and dining before the sacrificial ceremony.[17]

Sacrificial ceremonies varied across Greece depending on the festival and type of catastrophe. In Abdera, for example, a poor man was feasted and led around the walls of the city once before being chased out with stones.[17] In Massilia, a poor man was feasted for a year and then cast out of the city in order to stop a plague.[17] The scholia refer to the pharmakos being killed, but many scholars reject this and argue that the earliest evidence (the fragments of the iambic satirist Hipponax) show the pharmakos being only stoned, beaten, and driven from the community.

In Literature

The scapegoat, as a religious and ritualistic practice and a metaphor for social exclusion, is one of the major preoccupations in Dimitris Lyacos's Poena Damni trilogy.[19][20] In the first book, Z213: Exit, the narrator sets out on a voyage in the midst of a dystopian landscape that is reminiscent of the desert mentioned in Leviticus (16, 22). The text also contains references to the ancient Greek pharmakos.[21][22] In the second book, With the People from the Bridge, the male and female characters are treated apotropaically as vampires and are cast out from both the world of the living and that of the dead.[23] In the third book, The First Death, the main character appears irrevocably marooned on a desert island as a personification of miasma expelled to a geographical point of no return.[24][25]

See also


  1. ^
    • Rutherford, Ian (2020). Hittite Texts and Greek Religion: Contact, Interaction, and Comparison. Oxford University Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-19-259995-7.
    • Ayali-Darshan, Noga (2020). "The Scapegoat Ritual and Its Ancient Near Eastern Parallels".
    • Bremmer, Jan N. (2015). Eidinow, Esther; Kindt, Julia (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion. Oxford University Press. p. 610. ISBN 978-0-19-105807-3.
  2. ^
  3. ^ p. 736.
  4. ^ Gesenius. "I have no doubt that it should be rendered 'averter'".
  5. ^ Archie T. Wright The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6.1–4 Page 111. 2005. "However, the corresponding Aramaic fragment of / Enoch 10.4 does not use the name Azazel; instead, the name has been reconstructed by Milik to read Asa'el. Stuckenbruck suggests the presence of the biblical form Azazel in the Ethiopic.
  6. ^ Wright, David P. "Azazel". Pages 1:536–537 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman et al. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  7. ^ The Symbolism of the Azazel Goat. Ralph D. Levy. 1998. "This is still fairly straightforward, and is translated by the majority of the versions as "for Azazel" (Targums Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan follow this understanding, as do the RSV, NRSV, REB, and Tanakh). KJV and NKJV have "to be the scapegoat".
  8. ^ Enoch 8:1, translation by R. H. Charles. Online.
  9. ^ The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. Merriam-Webster. 1991. pp. 411–412. ISBN 978-0-87779-603-9.
  10. ^ "AZAZEL". Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  11. ^ The JPS guide to Jewish traditions. Page 224. Ronald L. Eisenberg, Jewish Publication Society – 2004. "(Leviticus 16:8–10). In talmudic times, a popular rabbinic interpretation was that Azazel referred to the place to which the goat was sent, the eretz g'zera (inaccessible region) of Leviticus (16:22). Later, Azazel became associated with another..."
  12. ^ The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus Nahum M. Sarna, Chaim Potok, Jewish Publication Society – 1989. "According to the first, Azazel is the name of the place in the wilderness to which the scapegoat was dispatched; ... According to the second line of interpretation, Azazel describes the goat. The word 'aza'zel is a contraction.
  13. ^ Danby, H., ed. (1933), The Mishnah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-815402-X, s.v. Yoma 6:6
  14. ^ The Golden Bough, p. 569. Sir James Frazer, Worsworth Reference. ISBN 1-85326-310-9.
  15. ^ Zatelli, Ida (April 1998). "The Origin of the Biblical Scapegoat Ritual: The Evidence of Two Eblaite Text". Vetus Testamentum. 48 (2): 254–263. doi:10.1163/1568533982721604.
  16. ^ David P. Wright, The Disposal of the Impurity: Elimination Rites in the Bible and in Hittite and Mesopotamian Literature (Atlanta: Scholars Press) 1987:15-74.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Bremmer, Jan (1983). "Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece" (PDF). Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 87: 299–320. doi:10.2307/311262. JSTOR 311262.
  18. ^ a b c d Westbrook, Raymond. "Who Led the Scapegoat in Leviticus 16:21?". Journal of Biblical Literature.
  19. ^ The Precarious Destitute: A Possible Commentary on the Lives of Unwanted Immigrants by Michael O'Sullivan. Cha Magazine, Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28).
  20. ^
  21. ^ Dimitris Lyacos, Z213: Exit, Shoestring Press 2016
  22. ^
  23. ^ Dimitris Lyacos, With the People from the Bridge, Shoestring Press 2018
  24. ^ Dimitris Lyacos, The First Death, Shoestring Press 2017
  25. ^

The dictionary definition of scapegoat at Wiktionary