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Goats in Matthew 25 and Leviticus 16

Many English expressions are based on biblical passages. For example, we speak of "separating the sheep from the goats" when we want to distinguish between superior and inferior members of a group. This expression comes from Mt 25:31-46, where Jesus describes the final judgment as one of separating sheep and goats. Those that help the needy are the sheep who will receive an eternal reward, while those that do not are the goats who will receive eternal punishment.


The negative portrayal of goats in Mt 25 has puzzled scholars. Generally, goats are associated with sheep, not contrasted with them in the Bible. And both are viewed positively (e.g., Dt 32:14; Isa 11:6). Both were sacrificial animals (Ex 12:5), and their flocks were a sign of wealth (Ge 32:14; 1 Sa 25:2). The hair and skins of goats were valued materials used in the Israelite tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex 25:4-5). One might serve an honored guest featuring a young goat (Jdg 13:15).


There is one notable exception to the otherwise positive depiction of goats in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Israelite high priest conducted a ritual in the days of the tabernacle and temple each year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). First, he laid his hands on the head of a goat selected by lot from two candidates and confessed over it the sin of the people. Next, the goat was led away into a remote area, symbolizing the removal of those sins from Israel (Lev 16:21-22).


The goat, of course, was not to blame for the people's sins. Bible translator William Tyndale (1494-1536) coined the English word "scapegoat" (meaning "goat that escapes") for this goat. Since then, the term has come to be used for someone who is blamed for the wrongdoings of another.


Over time, even though this goat was innocent, it became identified with the sins that it carried. During the Second Temple period in Jerusalem, people would spit on the goat or pull on its hair as it was led out of the city. Some would shout, "Bear our sins and be gone!" Indeed, the Temple authorities took specific measures to ensure the goat did not come back and, with it, their sins. They took the goat to "the wilderness," a location five Sabbath days' journey from the city. There it was pushed backward over a cliff and fell to its death in a ravine below. (1)


There are intriguing parallels between Leviticus 16 and Matthew 25. In both the ancient ritual and the future judgment scene, goats associated with sin are cursed and sent away from the presence of God. Moreover, both involve two lots or options. In Mt 25, the Son of Man places sheep on his right hand and goats on his left (v. 33). In Lev 16, there are two goats, one sacrificed for the sins of the people and the other carrying those sins away. Jewish traditions associate the sacrificed goat with the high priest's right hand and the scapegoat with his left. (2)


In Matthew 25, one of the options is positive, the other one negative. The sheep inherit the kingdom of God (v. 34), while the goats go "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (v. 41). On the Day of Atonement, one lot for the sacrificed goat was designated "for the Lord," and the other "for Azazel" (Lev 16:8).


The only time the Bible uses the Hebrew word Azazel is in Lev 16. The word was often used as a proper name denoting an entity contrasted with God in the ancient world. In this reading, Azazel is a name of the devil or a demon. By having the scapegoat "sent away into the wilderness to Azazel" (v. 10), the ritual assigned Azazel with ultimate responsibility for the sin that he brought into the world.


A prominent fallen angel named Azazel appears in the apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period. 1 Enoch 55:4 has God announcing to the kings of the earth, "Ye shall have to behold Mine Elect One, how he sits on the throne of glory and judges Azazel, and all his associates [...]." This passage parallels Mt 25, where the Son of Man "will sit on his glorious throne" (v. 31) and judge the goats.


The people in Mt 25 are separated into two groups, sheep and goats. Similarly, ancient interpreters associated the two lots of Lev 16 with two groups of people. For example, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, related people who seek heavenly wisdom with the lot of the sacrificed goat and people who seek carnal things with the lot of the scapegoat. (3)


The parallels between Leviticus and Matthew suggest that the goats of Lev 16 lie behind the goat imagery in Mt 25. The ritual of Lev 16 accomplished the cleansing of the tabernacle or temple. Thus the connection with Mt 25 implies that the judgment portrayed in Mt 25:31-46 describes a kind of cleansing of the cosmos.


The festivals of Israel foreshadow key milestones in salvation history. Passover is a prophecy of "Christ our Passover" (1 Co 5:7), while Pentecost points to the first fruits in a harvest of salvation (1 Th 2:13; Jas 1:18; Rev 14:4). The Feast of Trumpets looks forward to the return of Jesus, announced by the sound of a trumpet (Mt 24:30-31; 1 Th 4:16-17). Based on the goat imagery of Mt 25, one event predicted by the Day of Atonement is the judgment that will follow Jesus' return.


(1) These traditions are described in the Mishnah in tractate Yoma, chapter 6.

(2) See Hans M. Moscicke, "The Final Judgement as Ritual Purgation of the Cosmos: The Influence of Scapegoat Traditions on Matt 25:31-46," New Testament Studies 67 (2021), pp. 241-259.

(3) Moscicke, p. 253.

 

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