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. […] During this holiday, two goats would be used (Leviticus 16). One, the azazel goat, would have all the sins symbolically placed on it when the high priest laid hands on it. Once the sins “were placed” they would drive the goat out into the desert, thus driving out Israel’s sins into the desert. For more information on the two goats used during Yom Kippur, check out this article here. […]

  2. Bonita Rankey

    Cant say I understand. The azazel goat doesnt escape to the wilderness to LIVE, it’s pushed off a cliff to its death. How else does the scarlet thread at the temple turn white indicating the deed has been completed ??

  3. Guardian

    Well done, the two goats where Jesus and Barabbas, the Chief priests in and with the crowd of Israel cast lot to chose Christ as the sin sacrifice while letting Barabbas “escape”.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Guardian, thank you for your kind words. It’s not how I see and read these verses, but I believe in “the 70 faces of Torah ” concept, I do believe that this Word speaks differently to each one of us!