"Then 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, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task." (Leviticus 16:21)
Do you know why we call it a "scapegoat?" Because it is the goat that escapes.
The ritual called for two goats. The first is sacrificed. The second takes on all of the iniquities, transgressions and sins of the people from the past year and is sent out into the wilderness as an offering to Azazel, which means "fierce god," who inhabits the wilderness (according to the New Interpreter's Bible). So the goat with the sins of the people who gets sent out into the wilderness where it will most surely die is the goat that escapes.
I should note here that all of this is the result of a very old misreading of the Hebrew text. They never thought of this goat as the one who escapes, but the misreading has endured. Today, the scapegoat is the one who gets blamed for our problems. They would probably like to escape.
We like blaming others for our problems. Surely it's someone else's fault I don't have a job, or my health is suffering, or my kid isn't the star of the team. Like the goat itself, our scapegoats are often less powerful so that we can heap our scorn and anger upon them without fear.
However, in the case of that original, misread scapegoat, you will notice that nothing was the goat's fault. The process began with confession; with the people acknowledging and owning up to their own iniquities, transgressions and sins. The whole event took place on the Hebrew Day of Atonement, ten days after the start of the new year each fall. Those ten days are spent reflecting on the last year and seeking forgiveness from anyone you have wronged. The scapegoat is a symbol of a new, fresh beginning.
Perhaps that should inform our scapegoating today. Instead of blaming others for all our troubles, we should look inward at our own iniquities, transgressions and sins and seek forgiveness. This gives us the opportunity for a new, fresh start. Perhaps it will even help us overcome some of our troubles. The best thing is that we can do all that, and no goat is required.
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