Leviticus. The summary of this book is this: if the One True Holy God is going to dwell among people, then those people must be holy, and holy is not something we get to make up as we go. Instead, there are guidelines to follow.
The secondary line of Leviticus is this reality: people never can live up to any form of rules or guidelines. This is the secondary theme of the whole of the Pentateuch, really: mankind cannot hold to one law and so ends up needing more and more. If the heart is not changed, then no increasing laws will fix the problem. Genesis starts with one law, then it expands. By the time you get through Deuteronomy, you have hundreds of laws for life.
Still, those laws are not well followed by anyone. There is sin. There are intentional sins and unintentional sins. There are times of spiritual nearness and spiritual weakness. It is good and bad out there, and more than that, it’s good and bad inside our hearts.
Leviticus 16 (link) provides an image of the solution to the problem. It is not actually the solution to the problem. Let’s take a look at this, shall we?
First, why do I call it an image? Because the solution is the work of God, and as a Christian, I see the ultimate solution in the finished work of Christ at Calvary. However, we see in the Law and the Prophets an image of what is to come.
Second, what is this image? It is a two-part image:
A. The image is first of the cost of sin. Everywhere in the Law and Prophets we see sin and death connected, and no more so than we do here: the death of the lamb for atonement. Death is the cost of sin. There is no other option.
B. The second image is of the scapegoat or of the “Goat for Azazel.” Now, there is a great deal of extended discussion about just what the words mean here. We’ll cover that in a few minutes. The basic idea is that death covers the prior sins, but the propensity to sin must be sent away.
Yes, this is also the origin of our term scapegoat. In this usage, the goat is sent out into the wilderness as a picture of sending sin out away from the people, while now our term means the one who is blamed, though without fault of their own.
The image? Sin is always among us, and we must actively try and chase it away. It matters not whether we imagine that sin being sent into the wilderness or being handed over to an evil demigod.
The point is downplayed if we focus on where the sin was going—the point is that sin has to be sent away. Our effort must go into getting it out.
Now, what do we do with these images? How do they impact us?
First, our understanding begins with seeing that Jesus made the perfect atonement for our sins. His death means no more sheep deaths. It also means no more do we have to bear the death penalty ourselves.
We should borrow the idea of sending sin away, though. Isolate ourselves from sinful habits, sinful behavior in ourselves, and sinful attitudes. We should cut them loose and never look back.
Now, on to the whole Scapegoat/Goat for Azazel discussion: this hinges around a word in Hebrew that exists in the Old Testament only in this chapter. That makes it somewhat difficult to translate, as there is no additional context for the word.
It is either a proper name or an abstract concept. Does it make a difference? Probably not. It is an issue for discussion and that strengthens our understanding, but not one that should impact our faith destructively.