The following is a long excursus from my previous post on the meaning of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. As it grew longer, I decided to remove it from that piece and post it separately. Joey Cochran suggested another connection within the Markan account to me: that this is an allusion to the scapegoat. I think that this is exactly correct and it is one that helps to align a broader constellation of allusions and echoes. As yet, I don’t know exactly how to fit all of the data together as the theme is one that undergoes unusual developments. In the remarks that follow, I will lay out some of the relevant biblical details and suggest some theories that account for certain dimensions. I will leave it to you to propose further ways of filling out the picture in the comments.
The Day of Atonement or Day of Coverings ritual (Leviticus 16) involved a goat being sacrificed as a sin offering for the congregation of Israel (v.15) and another goat being sent away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable person (vv.20-22). A lot is cast between the two of them to determine which will do which: one is for YHWH and the other is for Azazel. One of the goats—the goat for YHWH—is killed for the nation as a sin offering (along with a bull for the High Priest) and its blood is used to sprinkle on and before the mercy seat and the golden altar of incense, releasing them from their defilement and removing any judgment resting upon the world order that they symbolized. The High Priest confesses the iniquities of the nation over the other goat—the goat for Azazel—and sends it off into the wilderness by the hands of a suitable person. This goat, to prevent its return, would typically be thrown over a precipice. After this had been done, the fat of the goat and bull of the sin offering for the people and the High Priest would be burnt on the altar. Then the flesh of the sin offering, its skin, and offal would be burnt in a clean place outside of the camp and no one would eat any of it. Through the Day of Atonement, the world would be cleansed and the nation would be released from their sins as they were confessed over the scapegoat.
The scapegoat is literally described as being ‘for Azazel’, a word that only occurs four times in the whole Bible, all within Leviticus 16 (vv.8, 10, 26). Various suggestions have been given for the meaning of this. It is interesting that the name ‘Azazel’ appears as the name of a chief demon condemned to the wilderness in the book of Enoch (Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4-8; 13:1-2; 54:5; 55:4; 69:2). More generally, demons are associated with goats (Leviticus 17:7; Isaiah 13:21; 34:13-14; 2 Chronicles 11:15) and with the wilderness (Luke 11:24; Revelation 18:2).
As a symbolic and sacrificial animal, the goat is related to the ruler of the people (Leviticus 4:22-24) and presumably also to the congregation as a whole as a civil polity. The common symbolic root that accounts for this meaning and also for the demonic connotations of the goat is that of governmental authority and power. The word `attuwd, for instance, means both he-goat and leader (cf. Isaiah 14:9; Zechariah 10:3; Daniel 8:5, 8, 21). A word for ram, ‘ayil, has a similar double meaning.
There is a Day of Atonement pattern at work as Ishmael is sent by Abraham, playing the role of the High Priest, into the wilderness by the hand of Hagar (Genesis 21:8-21). In a passage that closely echoes the passage concerning Ishmael, Abraham them offers up Isaac (Genesis 22). I’ve discussed the connections between those two accounts and the Day of Atonement a little here. Ishmael is the goat sent into the wilderness; Isaac is like the goat of the sin offering.
A more complex pattern occurs in the story of Esau and Jacob, which I discussed in connection with the Day of Atonement here. There is a wordplay on the description of Esau as a ‘hairy’ (sa`iyr) man, hair that is connected with the goat skin that is used to ‘cover’ up Jacob so that he can receive the blessing (note the strong sacrificial themes that I discussed in my post). The word sa`iyr also means he-goat, both the goat used for sacrifice and the demonic ‘goats’. Esau’s land was Seir (Se`iyr—Genesis 32:3).
Rebekah instructs Jacob to get two kids of the goats for her (Genesis 27:9). She makes a meal from them and dresses Jacob in the goats’ skins, so that he can be like his hairy brother. On account of the failure of her husband to favour Jacob as he ought to have done, Rebekah plays the role of the priest here, the two kids being related to her two sons. Esau is already like a goat and Jacob is dressed up in the skin of one.
Esau represents a crisis for the covenant. He is unfaithful to the covenant, despising his covenant birthright (25:29-34) and compromising the holiness of the covenant people by marrying Hittite women (26:34-35). If this weren’t bad enough, Isaac is happy to give the covenant blessing to the wicked son. Through her shrewd trickery, Rebekah ensures that faithful Jacob is the one who gets the blessing, as Isaac smells the pleasing aroma of the food and his son. The offering of Jacob to his father leads to blessing upon the land as Isaac is pleased with the food representing the fat of Jacob (27:27-29). However, the other kid, Esau, is told that his dwelling place shall be ‘away from the fatness of the earth and away from the dew of heaven above’ (27:39-40). The covenant order is restored as Esau is expelled from the scope of the covenant blessing, going to Seir.
Jacob, having symbolically offered his fat to his father, and being well received, then has to go ‘outside of the camp’. He comes to a place where he lays his head on a stone for the night. He has a dream of a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, and YHWH above it. Later he calls the place Bethel and pours oil on the stone. Thus Jacob is like the goat of the sin offering.
Themes of competing heirs and goat themes also occur with Joseph and Judah. Joseph and Judah are competing for the covenant birthright (cf. 1 Chronicles 5:1-2). Both sons are represented by a kid of the goats. The tunic of many colours covered with the blood of Joseph—which is really the blood of a kid that has been killed—is presented to Jacob as false evidence of his beloved son’s death (Genesis 37:31-33). In the following chapter, Judah sends a goat by his friend’s hand to the supposed prostitute he had slept with in exchange for his signet and cord, evidences of his identity (38:17-23). Judah’s sexual iniquity contrasts with Joseph’s faithfulness in resisting Potiphar’s wife’s advances in the following chapter. Joseph, taken outside of the camp, is raised up and blessed, while Judah loses the birthright and is symbolically sent into the wilderness. As all of the heirs of Judah are bastards (Genesis 38), they cannot enter into the ruling congregation for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:2; cf. Ruth 4:18-22).
David is the one who brings the tenth generation (according to Ruth’s genealogy). David is expelled from Saul’s court and spends time in the wilderness. My suggestion is that David is playing the part of the goat for Azazel, fulfilling the destiny of Judah. David is associated with goats at various points of the story. He is first found among the flocks (1 Samuel 16:11). He is described as ‘ruddy’, language that is only elsewhere used of Esau (1 Samuel 16:12; cf. Genesis 25:25). He is sent to Saul with a kid (1 Samuel 16:20). Michal, David’s wife, uses goats’ hair as a means to create an image of David to abet his escape (19:13). Saul later seeks for David in the Rocks of the Wild Goats (24:2).
The nation is under condemnation on account of the actions of Saul. David takes the identity of the nation upon himself as the anointed one and bears it into the wilderness. He faces off with the demonically-driven Saul and with the wild beasts of the Gentile rulers. He dwells in caves and wildernesses, places of death and demon possession. While doing this, he resists the various temptations he faces to grab the kingdom by force before it is given to him. By submitting himself to expulsion from the land, David bears its judgment, so that one day he can bring it blessing.
What might this mean for our reading of the baptism and testing of Jesus? We must recall that John was baptizing with a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Confession of sins was an essential part of John’s baptism (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5), as it was on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:21). John the Baptist—who, lest we forget, was from the priestly line—was playing a role analogous to that of the High Priest. Jesus here is the kid of the goats of Azazel who bears away the sin of the people (not quite the same ring as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, but there you go). In being baptized by the hands of the priest, Jesus takes upon himself the judgment lying over the confessing multitudes.
The blessing that Jesus receives at his baptism has Davidic resonances. God spoke of David’s line as his sons (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 89:26-29). David’s name likely means ‘beloved’. As the Father declares his Jesus to be his ‘beloved Son’, perhaps we can hear hints of David’s own identity. Jesus is the one who will inherit the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32). As with David, God drives his beloved Son into the wilderness.
Being ‘driven out’ into the wilderness by the Spirit, Jesus was being treated like a demon, being exorcised into their realm (cf. Luke 11:24), and sent to Azazel, the prince of the demons. He was receiving the condemnation of exile due to the sins that the multitudes were confessing. The encounter with the devil can be understood in light of this, as perhaps can the references to being cast down from high precipices. Jesus goes into the wilderness to the realm of Azazel, bearing the sins and judgment of exile due to the people. He passes through the period of trial and then returns victorious as the leader of a restored people. As he has borne the judgment due on the people, he can proclaim delivery to the captives.
Jesus later acts as the goat of the sin offering, his blood cleansing the world and the judgment it pronounces against humanity, and opening the way into communion with heaven. His body is offered outside of the camp (Hebrews 13:10-13). The flesh of the sin offerings contracted the defilement of the things that they cleansed. This defilement could only be removed by fire. The lesser sin offerings could be purged by cooking (cf. Leviticus 6:24-30), but could only be eaten by holy persons. However, the sin offerings for the Holy Place could never be eaten. Jesus bears the defilement of the Holy Place and exhausts it, bringing it to complete destruction, suffering outside of the city. As a result, as we feed on him, we enjoy an exalted priestly status. I suspect that there the notion of such a ‘two stage’ atonement might be worth exploring.