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Yeshua and the Goats of Yom Kippur

Early Christians in Jerusalem often gathered at Solomon’s Colonnade at the Jerusalem Temple (Ac 3:11; 5:12). This was a place where the apostles had walked with Jesus (Jn 10:23), and they taught and healed there as their Master had done.

There were additional reasons for their attachment to the Temple in its final years. Temple rituals had taken on enhanced significance for them in light of the Messiah. They recognized in these rituals a commemoration of the death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly priesthood of their Savior.

An example was the ceremony on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where two goats were employed in an annual cleansing of sacred space. According to Jewish tradition, the goats were selected to be as close to identical as possible (m. Yoma 6:1). One of the goats was chosen by lot as a sin offering for the people, and its blood was sprinkled in the Temple’s Most Holy Place (Lev 16:8-9, 15).

A strip of scarlet wool was tied on the head of the second goat (Yoma 4:2). The high priest laid his hands on this goat, confessing over it the sins of Israel (Lev 16:21). Then a man (often a Gentile) led the goat away, while onlookers plucked at the goat’s hair and taunted, “Take our sins and go” (Yoma 6:2-3). The man led the goat out of Jerusalem to a specified location, then removed the strip of wool and tied half of it between the goat’s horns and the other half to a nearby rock. Finally, he pushed the goat backward over a cliff so that it died in a ravine below (Yoma 6:6).

In the roles of the two goats, we can see two parts of the Messiah’s atoning work on the cross.

Through Jesus’ death our sins are both forgiven and completely removed. (On the complete removal of forgiven sins, see Ps 103:12; Mic 7:19.) Jesus is the Suffering Servant upon whom our iniquity is laid (Isa 53:6) and who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29).

There are several New Testament allusions to one or both of the Yom Kippur goats. For example, both goats are in view in the Gospel passion narratives when Jesus is brought by Jewish leaders before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate is not convinced that Jesus is worthy of death, and he proposes that Jesus be pardoned according to a custom that one prisoner be released each year during the Passover season (Mt 27:15-18).

Pilate offers two options to the crowd assembled before him in Jerusalem. He will release either Jesus or Barabbas, another well-known prisoner (v 16). Some manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel identify Barabbas (a name meaning “son of the father”) as Jesus Barabbas, so apparently, both prisoners share the name Jesus. As with the goats in the Yom Kippur ritual, there are similarities between them.

The crowd favors releasing Barabbas, and Jesus is taken away to be crucified. Like the goat chosen for a sin offering, he will die for the people.

In the Yom Kippur ritual the high priest laid hands on the second goat and confessed Israel’s sins, symbolically transferring those sins to the goat, which took them to the wilderness (Lev 16:21).

In Matthew 27, Pilate washes his hands and releases Barabbas. These actions symbolically transfer responsibility for shedding Jesus’ blood to the crowd, which affirms, His blood be on us and on our children! (vv 24-26).

Jesus had earlier stated that his generation would be held accountable for the deaths of prophets sent to Israel (Mt 23:34-36). Indeed, that generation and its children would suffer the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as Jesus predicted (Mt 24:1-2). Like the second goat, many were driven away from Jerusalem to a “wilderness.”

It should be emphasized, however, that Matthew does not imply this divine punishment would continue beyond 70 AD. Sadly, Matthew 27:25 often has been misunderstood as a kind of perpetual curse and used as a rationale for the Christian persecution of Jews. Christian exegetes beginning with Origen (c. 200 AD), have often associated Jesus and Barabbas in Matthew 27:15-26 with the two goats. There are additional connections in verses 27-31 between Jesus and the second goat.(1)

When Pilate delivers Jesus to his soldiers, the soldiers proceed to mock him. They dress him in a scarlet robe, reminding us of the scarlet wool that adorned the second goat. Later they strip off the robe, much as the scarlet wool was subsequently removed from the goat.

The soldiers put a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head (v 29). Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel thorns are associated with moral evil, including the work of false prophets (7:16) and the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches (13:22) that block spiritual growth. The crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head can be compared to the sins placed on the head of the second goat.

The Roman soldiers jeer at Jesus, spit on him, and strike him. They then lead him away to be crucified (vv 28-31). This is reminiscent of the verbal and physical abuse that was heaped on the second goat as a Gentile led it away from the Temple and out of Jerusalem.

For Matthew, Jesus played the role of both the goat for the sin offering and the goat led away from the Temple, dying for and removing the sins of mankind. For two thousand years Christian interpreters have concurred, recognizing types of the Messiah in the Yom Kippur goats. These Testament connections proclaim the Good News in ways that are striking and unexpected. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!


(1) See Hans Moscicke, The New Day of Atonement: A Matthean Typology, Dissertation, Marquette University, 2019.


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