Two Goats Of Yom Kippur

A key part pf the Day of Atonement liturgy at the Tabernacle and Temple was a sin offering involving two goats: They were chosen to be as similar as possible to one another; then they were brought before the High Priest; and then 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.

The tradition tells us that during the Second Temple period these two goats had to be purchased at the same time and for the same price: they had to be almost identical in appearance and value. After the lots were cast to determine which goat would play which role, a crimson thread would be tied around a horn of the goat that was to be escorted to the wilderness.  Then, half of this thread was removed before the animal was sent away. Why?

The goat had to be led away by a designated man to the designated location called “wilderness” (there was a distance of five sabbath’s days’ journey to that place), Different precautions were taken to make sure that the goat was led there and would never return. At equal intervals along the road, from the Mount of Olives, to the designated location, ten stations were set up. After the man and the goat reached the tenth station, the man would push the goat over a cliff, so that it would fell to its death[1].

Meanwhile, the High Priest was waiting at the Temple for the sign that the sacrifice was completed. The Mishna tells us that once the goat was dead, the crimson thread tied to the door of the sanctuary would turn white, symbolizing the promise of Isaiah:

“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool[2].

Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this ceremony was absolutely unique. What is the meaning of that? 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.”[3] And so it happened that when I was writing my last book, in order to unlock the ancient mystery of Abraham and his two sons, God had led me to the scriptural key of this chapter, of Leviticus 16. In my last post, I shared with you my reflections on Rosh-Ha-Shanah Torah Reading. This week has been the week of Yom Kippur – and here are some thoughts on Yom Kippur Torah reading.

“As powerful as that Rosh Hashanah reading had become for me, I was absolutely stunned when Yom Kippur came, with its Leviticus 16 reading about two goats. Of course, this was not the first time I heard it; I had known this passage for many years. The Yom Kippur morning Torah reading (Leviticus 16:1-34) discusses the special Holy Temple service for this holiest day of the year and the highlights of this service: the sacrifice of a goat for a sin offering, the High Priest’s confession on behalf of Israel, his entry into the Holy of Holies, and the dispatching of the Azazel Goat.  For many years, I have known this to be the Yom Kippur reading, and yet how completely differently it sounded to me this year!

Let us read those verses together:

And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.

As always happens, once the Lord showed it to me, it became so obvious. Once it was done, it could not be undone. All of a sudden, the lonely Peak of Genesis 22 was not so lonely anymore. The Peak of Genesis 21 grew up alongside it, almost as high and scary as the Peak of Genesis 22. There are two sacrificial goats in Leviticus 16, not one. There are two stories of sacrifice in Abraham’s life, not one. There are two sacrifices in the book of Genesis, not one, and they reflect God’s plan.

It was long before Yom Kippur that the Lord first showed me this incredible resemblance between Leviticus 16 and Genesis 21 and 22. I was stunned when I saw how perfectly Abraham’s double sacrifice was reflected in the sacrifice of the two goats. And yet, it was completely mind-blowing to realize that this was precisely the portion of Scripture that is read on the most holy and sacred day of the Jewish year. These two goats, which had never touched my heart in any possible way before, suddenly became frighteningly alive: made of flesh and blood, warm and breathing, trembling with pain and fear. All of a sudden, I found myself unable to stay emotionally unattached and uninvolved in this process.

As I listened to this Scripture on Yom Kippur, I almost grew dizzy feeling as if these two goats were merging with the two human sacrifices–also frighteningly alive, also of flesh and blood, also trembling with pain and fear. I was shaking as they became almost indistinguishable and felt as if, along with the other people around me, I was holding my breath waiting for the High Priest to cast the lot. Waiting to know which would be sacrificed on the altar, and which would be sent into the wilderness, alive.

And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering.  But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.[4]

The word “scapegoat” was coined by William Tyndale from (e)scape +‎ goat, a literal rendering of the Hebrew word עזאזל –”Azazel”– in Leviticus 16:8, 10, 26. Azazel comes from עז (ez, “goat”) and אוזל (ozél, “escapes”). In modern English, the word scapegoat has evolved its own misleading definition, but we should read this word more properly as escapegoat: The scapegoat is the goat that escapes!

Leviticus 16 and Genesis 21-22 are interrelated. These Scriptures are interconnected, intertwined, and they reflect and repeat each other. A scapegoat was sent out alive into the wilderness while another was sacrificed- and in this sense, Ishmael should be happy that he is not the one chosen for death. If Genesis 22 had come before Genesis 21, the whole history of mankind might have been very different: Instead of envy and jealousy, Ishmael would have had compassion toward his brother and gratitude for his own destiny. The terrible hostility and tension that have marked a large part of the Isaac-Ishmael relationship might not have been there from the outset. However, this is not the case, and we might ask: Why? “[5]

[1] Yoma, 6:6

[2] Isa 1:18

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

[4] Leviticus 16:7-10

[5] If you want to know more about this mystery, you can download a free copy of my book “Abraham had two sons” by clicking on

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. Joe P

    Miss Julia, Miss Julia, Oh My Goodness! I’m so glad I decided to keep reading today. What inspiration! I believe I see the “Escape” goat now as you do… I will continue to read, if you continue to post… Thanks You

  2. Dorothy Healy

    Whilst there are many facets of truth to be discerned from Torah portions such as this, it seems to me that Messiah holds the key to the most vital truth. Indeed he fulfilled the role of both of these sacrificial goats.
    1. “ …through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained everlasting redemption.” (Heb. 9:11-12); and
    2. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21)

    Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Like Abraham, of course he loved His son, and did not want to see him suffer, but it had to be so.

  3. Elizabeth (Lisa) Seibel-Ross

    I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to read more in your book Julia as (again) the comparison that you’ve presented to us here between the Genesis chapters and Leviticus 16 is one that is new to me, but (also again) at the same time seems like one of those – of course moments. I’m thinking that a portion of the red thread tied on the escapegoat was kept and tied on the Temple door to reveal to Israel that it’s sins had been forgiven (as it turned white) upon its death. If so, this was the role ultimately fulfilled by Messiah. The other goats life was given directly to the Lord. Are then the two sons of Abraham both serving as co-examples of what the Lord is doing in His forgiveness of sin? I’m also wondering about the second question you posed: why the hostility on the part of the goat/son that escapes into the wilderness – does it derive from the reality of being separated from family, cast off ‘outside the camp?’ Thank you, as always for your teaching.

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Lisa, I believe your questions will be answered if you read the book. Just a few days ago, somebody wrote to me re this book : “It was a most pleasant and divine surprise. Any questions regrading the subject matter–that I just assumed would remain such–have been answered. I am blessed!” So i really hope it will be a blessing to you as well! And thank you, as always, for your comment – and for your kind words!

  4. Frank L. Mc Pherson

    A study of the preposition lamed “L” before Azazel indicates that the scapegoat is not the desert demon Azazel but the vehicle that bears sins away from the Sanctuary and takes them to Azazel in the wilderness. Therefore, that goat cannot represent Satan as some may speculate but more likely the Messiahs who at the close of human probation bears sin away from the heavenly Sanctuary and deposits them on the evil one who would be bound chained in the bottomless pit.

    1. Julia Blum

      I completely agree , Frank: the goat doesn’t represent Satan. Yet, we do have a mystery of two sacrifices:What does they reflect? Leviticus 16 speaks unequivocally about the dual nature of the sacrifice. It speaks of two goats sacrificed as a sin offering, so obviously, those two goats must reflect two parts of the Final Sacrifice. If we see two parts in the reflection, doesn’t that mean that should be two parts to the original? If so, we need to look for the scapegoat. What do you think?

  5. Geneva M. Neale

    Traditions differ with similar significance. Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed. During the preparation the goat appeared. The goat replaced the original intention that as was his father’s dream. I always wondered what happened to Ishmael? Now I understand the symbolic meaning of the ritual of the two goats.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Geneva! I am so glad you find these articles helpful, and I am grateful for your comments and contribution.

    2. Julia Blum

      I like so much your first sentence, Geneva! In my book “Abraham had two sons” – the one that this piece is taken from – there is a chapter called “A Similarity of Differences!” Like you, I believe that these stories “differ with similar significance” – and these differences are of great importance to us!

  6. Walter Angelika

    Thank you, Julia, for taking us with you into the mystery of the two sacrificial goats at Jom Kippur. I eagerly await to hear more of your explanations of this astonishing ritual and the connection with Gen.21 and 22.
    Do the 10 stations have something to do with the 10 commandments or 10 temptations and failures of the Israelites in the wilderness? Why do you call the scapegoat the goat that escapes when it is thrown down a cliff, do not both die? You ask “If Genesis 22 had come before Genesis 21, the whole history of mankind might have been very different – why?” God´s ways are often so different from our ways, thank you for helping us understand the heart of God behind all this.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Angelika, thank you for writing – and thank you for the wonderful questions. First of all, both goats die only according to the tradition (Mishna), in Lev.16 Aaron “shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness” – so he does escape, after all. In my post, I shared what the Jewish tradition said; but I personally believe that “to send him away into the wilderness” is more precise reflection of God’s plan (you might remember it from my book).
      Re 10 stations: once again, we find them only in the Jewish tradition, not in the Scripture. Let us keep thinking about it together.

    2. Don

      It is not written in the Bible that the goat is thrown off a cliff. It is written it is sent out alive. Tradition says it was thrown off a cliff. Was Barabbas thrown off a cliff when he was set free?

  7. Beverly Richards

    Very similar to many principles we see in nature, always displayed for us…life and death…a life is given while another life is taken…a seed is planted to die, while a new plant emerges to live…words cause blessing or cursing in the life of hearers…a note is dissonate or harmonious when two notes are played or sung together….one physical sacrifice in Jesus…new resurrection life in His Bride, the forgiven believers (united in His Holy Spirit)…in Procreation the male sperm is given to mostly die, so that one new life ovum may be fertilized and live…we see the redemption and sacrifice process wherever we go…I have even noticed that very little on earth is accomplished for good, without a giving up or sacrificing of something enjoyed or treasured to achieve it…through Christ, in prayer, the heavy yoke, or sacrifice in life can usually be avoided, on our part, because He carries the weight and load on His shoulders…

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Beverly, for your profound comment! Yes, I agree: very little can be accomplished without a giving up or sacrificing. Genesis 21-22, as well as Leviticus 16, is a prophetic picture foreshadowing future Sacrifice.

  8. Nancy Angus

    I wish my phone would stop correcting me!!!

    1. Julia Blum

      🙂 I can so relate to that! I also wish my phone would stop correcting me!

  9. Nancy Angus

    Thank you so much for sharing what the Holy Spirit was mparts to you. I’ve learned so much from your blogs. Stay blessed.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Nancy! I hope you’ll keep finding the articles on this blog interesting and helpful! Shanah Tovah!

  10. Henrietta Wisbey

    This truly takes me in to the Holy of Holies.
    I too am in trembling and awe as I read.
    Meditation too deep for words.