Judah, Goats And The Day Of Atonement


In Leviticus 16, we find a detailed description of the Day of Atonement liturgy at the Tabernacle and Temple:  a sin offering involving two goats.  They were chosen to be as similar as possible to one another; they were then brought before the High Priest and lots were drawn, one bearing the words “To the Lord,” the other, “To Azazel.” The one on which the lot “To the Lord” fell was offered as a sacrifice. Over the other, the High Priest confessed all of Israel’s sins and it was then taken away into the desert hills outside Jerusalem where it plunged to its death.

It is customary to write about this “two goats sacrifice” while writing about Yom Kippur – and I did that a year ago on these pages. Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this ceremony was absolutely unique. As Charles Feinberg wrote, “no more significant truths could possibly engage the mind of the believer than those set forth in this chapter of Leviticus.”[1].   If you are interested to read more about this mysterious sacrifice and its prophetic meaning, you can read my post from the last year, “Two Goats of Yom Kippur”.




Today however, I would like to speak about something different. Before Yom Kippur, we recite special prayers called Selichot. The word Selichot means “confessions”. One of the most beautiful and profound prayers of this season says: How can we complain? What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselvesWe will examine our ways and scrutinize them and we will return to You for Your hand is outstretched to accept returnees not with abundance, not with deeds do we come before you, like paupers and mendicants we knock on your door. [2]  

What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? Surprisingly, we find exactly the same words in Genesis 44, when Judah speaks to Joseph after Benjamin’s alleged “crime” with stolen cup. Let us recall the story.

In Genesis 43, together with Benjamin, the brothers come to Egypt for the second time. At first they are filled with gloomy expectations. However, contrary to these expectations, everything seemed to turn out remarkably well: they were not accused of stealing the silver they had found in their sack previously; they found Simeon safe and sound and he was promptly returned to them; as for the Egyptian Viceroy, not only did he speak with them in a rather softer and friendlier tone than before, but he also invited them to a joint meal! (You might remember that during this meal the brothers were seated in order – the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth – and once again, like several times before in this story, they got the impression that somebody present knew them and was aware of their dark secret—and the men looked in astonishment at one another.[3])

We know that at dawn they were sent away and started back on the road, but we also know that not long before they left, Joseph had commanded his steward (to his great puzzlement I imagine, as well as to the puzzlement of those reading these chapters for the first time) to put his – Joseph’s – silver cup into Benjamin’s sack. Next we read: When they had gone out of the city, and were not yet far off, Joseph said to his steward, “Get up, follow the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, Why have you repaid evil for good? Is not this the one from which my lord drinks, and with which he indeed practices divination? You have done evil in so doing.” So he overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words.[4]

Have you ever realized that Benjamin could be seen as guilty only in the eyes of his brothers? The steward knew as well as you and I who had put the cup in his sack. Benjamin, for his part, could not fathom what sort of mean trick someone had decided to play on him—who it was and why he had put the cup there— nonetheless, he knew full well that he himself had not done it. It was only the ten brothers who did not know anything for sure. In their eyes the brother, whose innocence all these years had been a continual torment and reproach, had now emerged as the only guilty one among them. This is why, no matter how difficult and painful it might be for Benjamin, this story is not about him. This story is about the brothers and God’s conversation with them.

By now each one of them had reached the understanding that what was happening was between them and God. The Spirit of God, who is in truth the author of this whole scene, touched their hearts and Himself led the dialogue with them—and their hearts are now being wrenched inside out under His touch. They had no reason and no way to justify themselves and that is why, when they finally stand before Joseph, Judah begins his speech with these words: “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants!” As if truly, all their lives, they had hidden their crime from God and finally, after all these games of hot-and-cold, God had found out [their] iniquity; He had uncovered their sin and pinned it on them. They accepted the unjustified accusation, the harshness of the penalty, and even the capriciousness and flippancy of the Egyptian lord, with humility as conviction and chastisement from the One before whom they had long ago so terribly sinned. Even though at first they tried to defense their innocence, now, at the conclusion of God’s conversation that had been churning in their hearts all this time, they were able to open their darkened souls to the rays of God’s light. Only then did their full repentance and thorough cleansing become possible. As they stand before Joseph – as they stand before God – their current innocence, which until recently they were ready to defend with such fury, falls away before a wave of repentance sweeps over their souls[5].

The words of Judah open one of the most beautiful stories of confession in the Torah. The prayer I quoted in the beginning, reflects the same attitude – and this should be our attitude when we come to the Lord with our Selichot prayers:  Even if at first we see ourselves innocent regarding certain sins, as we stand before God and open our hearts to the rays of His light, He brings things to the surface and, as in the story of the brothers, our “innocence” falls away before a wave of repentance.  Only then, does our confession become profound and real.




[1] Charles L. Feinberg, The Scapegoat of Leviticus Sixteen, p.320

[2] “How can we speak and how can we justify ourselves?” by Harav Yehuda Amital

[3] Gen. 43:33

[4] Gen. 44:4-6

[5] My book, “If you be the Son of God”, will give you a deeper perspective of the prophetic significance of the story of Joseph and his brothers . Click here to get the book: Books by Julia Blum

[6] A customary greeting among Jews on Yom Kippur. Literally: “a good final signature”, “a good end of the sealing”.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Jeanette.

    Thank you so much , we learn more about the scripture.

  2. Martie Erasmus

    MARTIE ERASMUS Thank you for a very interesting article

  3. Suliaman l.Smith

    Thank you for your deep explanation of the word of G-d.

  4. Dorothy Mohanta

    Dear Julia. Thank you for your insight into the Lord’s teaching. I have read this passage many times but never connected with Judah’s plea and our confession. I feel more humbled before the Lord our God and love the prayer and God’s ray of light cleansing our sins.

  5. Beth Fraser

    Hi Julia, Miss our Wednesday meetings. Enjoy What I can find of what you write for IIBS. Hope you are doing great. Beth Fraser, Texas

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Beth, I miss you also , you were one of my most inspiring students! So glad you are still following the blog. By the way, eTeacher launches a new course, a very unique one: Weekly Torah Portion and it’s connection with the New Testament. A team of writers writes the course, I am writing the New Testament part. I think, you might be interested in that one. What do you think?