Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Leviticus 16:22 says that the goat for Azazel “shall bear all their iniquities upon him” (RSV); and Isaiah 53:12 describes the promised Saviour with the words “He bore the sin of many.” Does that not make the goat for Azazel a symbol of Christ?
It’s sometimes useful to examine the historical origin of theological ideas. This is one of those cases.
An ancient Christian tradition interprets the goat for Azazel as representing Christ or an aspect of His work. For instance, Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) interpreted it as a symbol of the second coming of Christ; Tertullian (c. 160-220) saw in it a reference to the human nature of Christ and His humiliation; and for Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) the scapegoat was Christ ascending to heaven, loaded with our sins. Interestingly, Origen (c. 185-254) equated the scapegoat with Azazel, whom he took to be a fallen angel. Obviously, there was no harmony in the early Christian interpretation of the scapegoat, and views presented were mostly of a speculative nature, lacking exegetical analysis.
During the Reformation the ritual of the scapegoat was used in the formulation of the doctrine of the atonement, and that continues to be the case among some Protestants. However, today scholars tend to believe that Azazel was a demonic figure in the Old Testament, making it more difficult to interpret the ritual under discussion as a type of Christ’s atoning work.
The application of the symbol of the scapegoat to Christ is commonly based on two arguments. The first is the use of the phrase “to bear sin,” which also applied to Jesus. The second is taken from Hebrews 13:12, where it is indicated that Jesus “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (RSV). It is then pointed out that the scapegoat was taken outside the Israelite camp. This last argument is not persuasive in that there is no symbolic correspondence between Christ offering His blood outside the city as a sacrifice and the scapegoat that was sent alive to the wilderness. Besides, contextually Hebrews is dealing with the regular sin offering and not with the goat for Azazel.
In the study of the Scriptures we should not only take into consideration the use of specific words but also the combination of a few words to communicate an idea that one of those words by itself could not express. The phrase “to bear sin/iniquity” appears to be a legal expression used to indicate that the person bearing sin is legally guilty, responsible for the sin committed, and liable to punishment (see Ex. 28:43; Lev. 19:8; 20:17). Sometimes God is the subject of the phrase (God bears the sin of His people), meaning that He assumes responsibility for it and forgives the repentant sinner (Num. 14:18; Ps. 25:18).
In the context of the sanctuary, sinners are described as bearing sin (Lev. 5:1, 2, 5, 6), and it was in that state that they brought their sacrifices to the Lord. They were responsible for their own sins and liable to divine punishment. They could be delivered from that condition through a sacrifice. The priest used the sacrifice to make atonement, and the individual was forgiven (verses 6, 10). Sin was transferred to the sacrificial victim, and it died in his or her place. This is exactly what Christ did for us (Isa. 53:4, 12).
There is a peculiarity of this phrase that we must notice. It is practically never used to express the idea of carrying sin from one place to another. “To bear sin” means to be or become responsible for sin and liable to punishment. This is what we call the absolute use of the phrase. The only exception to this usage is found in Leviticus 16:22, where it is followed by a clause of destination. In that case it means “to carry sin,” not “to bear sin” (NIV: “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place”). The goat is not bearing the sin of the people vicariously, but simply carrying it to the wilderness; returning it to Azazel, the originator of sin and uncleanness. This use of the phrase is not the same as we found in the daily services of the sanctuary, and it does not point to Christ as the one who bore our sin as our substitute.