In a recent post where I discussed the Mercy Seat as it relates to Romans 3:25, a Calvinist named Michael objected by saying that I had neglected to address the Scapegoat of Leviticus 16. Because this is an important enough issue, I decided to make a post addressing the Scapegoat, especially because it's one of the (few) Biblical examples that comes anywhere close to teaching the erroneous Protestant doctrine of Penal Substitution.
Thought the Bible gives only a few details about the Scapegoat, I will take a look at them and examine whether they give evidence of Penal Substitution or not.
The Hebrew term for what we call the "scapegoat" is Azazel. What does Azazel mean? The ESV says in the footnote for Leviticus 16:8, "The meaning of Azazel is uncertain; possibly the name of a place or a demon, traditionally a scapegoat." The hardest part about discerning the true meaning is that this term only appears 3 times in the Bible, and only in Leviticus 16, so there isn't much to go on. I'll look now at the three possible options.
Apparently two Church Fathers and the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch identified Azazel as either a demon or Satan. The fact the Bible nowhere makes this identification with a demon or Satan makes this the least likely meaning, in my opinion. The closest proof I've see is that in Leviticus 16:8, it says: "Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel." The claim is that one goat is "for the Lord" and the other goat is for something else, which is not the Lord. This can come off as saying something along the lines of "one for Yahweh, the other for Satan." Another possible supporting text is Leviticus 17:7, in which God forbids the Israelites from going back to their idolatrous sacrifices "to goat demons, after whom they [used to] whore." This isn't to suggest the Azazel was a sacrifice to Satan, but rather the goat was to carry the sin back where it belongs.
The Talmudic/Rabbinical Jewish view is that Azazel means "rugged mountain cliff," from which the goat was pushed off of as part of the ceremony. They say this ties into the "remote area" mentioned in Leviticus 16:22, which I'll get to later.
The traditional term of "scapegoat" is said to derive directly from the term Azazel, being a compound term meaning "goat" and "sending away". Many assume "scapegoat" refers to "something innocent that takes the blame," but the term itself doesn't imply that, only a "goat of sending away."
Of these three options, I'd say "scapegoat" is the most plausible, for reasons I'll get into next. I think the Rabbinical understanding has some merit, but as I'll show later I don't think the text supports the view the goat is pushed off a cliff. As for the Azazel as a demon view, I consider it the weakest, especially since it isn't derived from the term itself nor does it find support in the ritual's description.
What kind of sacrifice was this? Leviticus 16:5 says that the High Priest shall "take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering." This would imply either that each of them is a sin offering, or that the sin offering consists in both aspects of the two goats. And the only other detail given doesn't seem to help much: "Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness" (Lev 16:9-10). This text seems to limit the "sin offering" only to the first goat, but it does ascribe "making atonement" to the role of the scapegoat. Either way, I'm convinced that both the sin offering and the notion of atonement didn't involve Penal Substitution, so assigning "sin offering" or "atonement" to the scapegoat suggests it wasn't modeling this either (see below for more on this).
What happened to the scapegoat? The only details given are as follows:
And 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. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Lev 16:21-22)
This is the only time in the Bible that I know of where sins are said to be placed upon another. Though there is talk of placing hands on the head of sacrifices, there is no mention of this involving the (symbolic) transfer of guilt, nor does this even make sense in regards to sacrifices not involving sin (Lev 3:1-2). The main question here though is whether the scapegoat is taking the punishment for this 'transferred sin' or if something else is happening. Obviously this is very pertinent to the Penal Substitution question.
I have always pointed out that the scapegoat is described as being kept alive, not killed. If Penal Substitution were the lesson here, then we'd expect to see the scapegoat having the guilt transferred and then immediately receive the 'death penalty' in place of the people. So keeping the goat alive is obviously a serious blow against the Penal Substitution thesis.
Some respond to this claim by arguing that the "sending off into the wilderness" is in itself the punishment, the very punishment of being "cut off" (Hebrew: karath) from community which the Torah warns can happen to people for certain serious sins (Ex 12:19; 30:31-33; Lev 7:20-21, 25-27; 17:8-10; 18:29-30; Num 15:29-31). But the truth is, the Hebrew term here for "wilderness" refers to wilderness in a generic sense, implying neither anything good nor bad. And while the phrase "to a remote area" (Hebrew: gezerah, a "separate place") carries a connotation of being a barren area, this term is not etymologically related to the "cut off" (karath) term mentioned above, so there really isn't a direct connection between a sinner being "cut off" from the tribe and the goat being "sent to a barren wilderness."
As somewhat of a side-note, I don't think the notion of being "cut off" necessarily carries with it the notion of death sentence, because the Torah distinguishes those sins which "cut off" versus those sins by which a sinner "must be put to death" (Ex 21:15-17; 21:17; 21:29; 22:19; 31:14; Lev 20:2; 20:9-16). Thus, even if one argued that the scapegoat was "cut off" in the sense of karath, that doesn't necessarily entail the death penalty but only exclusion from the Old Covenant.
So in conclusion to that, I interpret the function of the goat to simply 'take away' the filthy sin to a remote area, similar to how a garbage truck carries away the trash to a remote area. There is no implication the goat was somehow receiving the punishment of being sent out to starve to death or being shoved off a cliff. The fate of the goat is outside the scope of the sending-off event.
I think my conclusion is confirmed by two other details in the chapter. First, the instructions given state that after the High Priest has put his hands on the scapegoat, he shall go bathe, and the text continues with the same instructions for the servant: "he who lets the goat go shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp" (Lev 16:26). This suggests the "filth" associated with the scapegoat required ritual purification, and thus sending out the goat was like taking out the trash. Second, as I noted in my prior post, the purpose of the Day of Atonement is given at the end of the chapter: "On this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins."
Does the scapegoat prefigure Jesus? To my knowledge, Jesus is never clearly linked to the scapegoat in the New Testament. He's associated with the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7), the sin offering goat of the Day of Atonement (Heb 13:11-12), as well as to some references to sacrificial bulls and such, but (to my knowledge) never is He associated with the scapegoat.
If Azazel refers to demon or Satan, then obviously Jesus wouldn't be prefigured in it. But since I don't think that's the best understanding of Azazel, I would have to conclude Jesus is prefigured by the scapegoat. Given what I've said above, this is simply to be understood as Jesus 'carrying away' our sins, similar to how Matthew 8:16-17 quotes Isaiah 53:4 and interprets Jesus' 'bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows' simply as Jesus healing them. There's no need to read this as our guilt being imputed to Jesus and He taking the punishment.
And while the scapegoat is said to be "bearing sin," this doesn't suggest "bearing guilt," as I've shown elsewhere that this phrase refers to being put in charge of making atonement for sin, particularly when the High Priest is said to "bear the sins of the people, to make atonement for them." In fact, as Michael rightly noted, the phrase "bear sin" in Hebrew (nasa avon) can often refer to taking away sin in the sense of forgiving it, as texts like the following prove: Ex 34:7; Num 14:18; Ps 32:5; 85:2; Is 33:24; Hos 14:2; Mic 7:18. So the "bearing sin" of the scapegoat can simply refer to the taking away in the sense of forgiving the sin.
Finally, I came across a very cool apparent parallel text that I believe vindicates this interpretation of the scapegoat. Leviticus 14 addresses how to cleans and make atonement for people and houses with leprosy, and uses many of the same terms as Leviticus 16, including some terms that only appear in these two chapters. Consider the following parallels from Leviticus 14:1-8 and Leviticus 14:49-53 when compared to Leviticus 16: speaks of "two birds," only one of which is killed and the blood sprinkled seven times to result in cleansing and atonement. The bird that was kept alive is set free, completing the whole process: "So he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean" (Lev 14:53). This corresponds to the two goats of Leviticus 16, one which is killed and has it's blood sprinkled seven times, the other goat which is set free, with the result being a cleansing and atonement: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you" (Lev 16:30). On top of that, the leper who is cleansed must take a bath to be readmitted back into the camp, and this corresponds to the servant who must bathe after handling the scapegoat so as to be readmitted back into the camp. The parallels are too unique to be coincidence. As it is clear that releasing the living bird to wild is not concerned about sending it to its death, the same conclusion should hold true for the scapegoat.