In a dusty, desert wasteland, a man slowly unties a rope from the goat’s neck. His fingers trace the dried blood on the goat’s forehead, where a few hours before the priest had laid his hands. The transfer of sin is complete. All that remains is for it to be far removed from sight.
The man slaps the animal’s rump and it jumps. It runs a few paces, then stops and looks back. “Go on,” the man yells. “Run. Run away!” He claps his hands. He chases the goat. And it runs. But it keeps looking back, hesitating, waiting and wondering if the man will change his mind.
But the man doesn’t change his mind—he can’t. When he is sure the goat has gone far enough, he turns to leave. He makes the dusty journey back alone, without the sound of trotting hooves or bleating to keep him company. The sin of the Israelites has been temporarily atoned for, sent away on the head of the goat that was left in the desert.
The Day of Atonement was Israel’s most solemn holy day. On that day, God made a way for his sinful people to set things right with him, the Holy One of Israel. But like the scapegoat that kept looking back, sin and guilt always returned. Year after year, goat after goat, the ritual was repeated: One goat slaughtered to atone for sin, the other sent far into the wilderness to remove the presence of guilt. But it wasn’t enough. It merely symbolized what was to come.
When Jesus died on the cross and was banished to the tomb, he fulfilled the requirement for the two goats on the Day of Atonement. His sacrificial death on the cross atoned for our sin, finally making us one with God for all time. His journey to death removed our guilt for all time. He took our sins with him to the pit of hell, just as the scapegoat was banished into the solitary wasteland.
It was a high price to pay. The scapegoat didn’t have a choice, but Jesus did. He chose to die because of his unfathomable love for us. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
“The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.”