Exodus 12:5, “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats…”
Sheep or goats? I can’t recall Messiah ever referred to as the Goat of God, nor do any of His parables about Israel or Himself ever refer to a Goatherd or goats. Most of the goat references apply negative traits to goats–and if you’ve ever owned goats (as cute as they can be) you also know they kind of deserve some of their negative reputation. Most of the time when an sacrificial offering is required the Levitical language will say “from the herd”, or “from the flock”, and not mention sheep or goats specifically. The major exceptions that specify a goat are a “sin offering” and the twin goats offered on the Day of Atonement.
Lets compare the Atonement offering and the Pesach offering. First, both offerings are related to the tenth day of the month. (If you haven’t read the article about the nature of the number ten in Scripture, it relates to this conversation–stop for a minute and read that first.) The Pesach is chosen on the tenth of month one and the Atonement ritual is actually done on the tenth day of month seven. These events occur precisely six months apart–exactly on opposite sides of the annual Feast cycle. During Pesach, an animal is chosen per household, but for Atonement two goats are chosen to represent all of Israel as a whole. The Pesach is to be killed and eaten, none of it is to remain. During Atonement, one goat is sacrificed to YHWH, while the other is released alive into the wilderness. In fact the specific wording in Leviticus 16:8 is that the released goat goes “to Azazel” What does all of this mean?
Here’s my theory. Sheep represent we as independent yet obedient Israelites. When we hear our master’s voice and go where he leads, we are sheep. Sheep are happy to have his rod and staff comfort them, and to be led beside still waters and into green pastures. It’s not typical for a sheep to go it alone, or wander off, but if we do the Good Shepard will leave the safe flock to go find the lost sheep. A lost sheep is lost due to ignorance and short-attention span–not out of rebellion. Goats, however, represent our less-than-obedient selves. He wants our whole lives, we give Him part. He says go, we’d rather stay. He says rest, we say work. He says Pesach, we say Good Friday. He says Shabbat, we prefer Sunday. It’s a long, long, list. Here’s the important take-away: Goats are still eligible for redemption, even while we are stiff-necked. Romans 5:8 tells the truth, “While we were still sinners, Messiah died for us.”
The option of sheep or goat in Exodus 12:5 is our chance to check our own individual hearts during the process of our own redemption. Its a chance to be thankful that it’s not our individual perfection that is the mechanism of our adoption into Israel. Redemption occurs as a combination of our faithful allegiance combined with innocent shed blood. The goal is the transformation of our hearts from goat attitudes to sheep attitudes, but that is the goal–not the starting line. Pesach is the starting line, Atonement is the ultimate goal. We ourselves have to wrestle with our true nature on Pesach. We ourselves have to take responsibility for identifying with our beast and put that beast to death.
He does meet us where we are, but YHWH’s goal is to lead us from there to the Promised Land.
We do play a major role in our own redemption–not a role of perfection but a role of submission. We don’t, however, play a large role in the ritual of atonement. It’s the High Priest that handles every aspect of that ritual. Israel as a united people, collectively fasts and repents, while the High Priest puts the sin of all of Israel on one goat and sends it outside to camp to wander off and die. The other goat, metaphorically it’s twin, is then killed upon the altar. At the end of this ritual, there is no sin within the camp, and through the efforts of the High Priest alone, Israel is fully united and fully acceptable to YHWH. The feast that follows is Sukkot, the celebration of the true goal-line, our eternal oneness with YHWH, Messiah, and one another.
Not-so-fun-fact: “Azazel” is the name of an ancient goat demon–the one that even our modern culture thinks of when we think of Satan worship and heavy metal albums. The goat that is sent wandering “to Azazel” is NOT a satanic sacrifice! YHWH simply puts the sin where sin belongs, outside the door, outside camp–the same place where sin crouches according to Genesis 4:7. We see this metaphor continued at the very end of our story, as Messiah goes through the FINAL Day of Atonement after the 1,000 year reign has ended:
Matthew 25:31-46, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
So, if you’re feeling a little goaty on Pesach that is OK with the Father. The fact that you even recognize your imperfections yet still desire to eat the Pesach is proof enough that you are worthy of redemption. That willingness to see yourself truthfully as imperfect is the “circumcision of the heart” that is required to come to the table. However, the Atonement ritual, six months later, warns us that a transformation of our hearts from goats to sheep is the goal, and it will come to pass. Messiah’s own words show us that it’s our behavior toward one-another that demonstrates proof of those internal seismic shifts. We each initially enter Israel independently as we are, stiff-necked or not. However, we eventually enter the Promised Land perfected and without a goat in sight.