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You Don’t Kill the Scapegoat

Réne Girard versus Leviticus

I haven’t read any Réne Girard since college, but I remember the experience, and so I was interested to hear that my colleague Rod Dreher has been reading him lately. Among other things, it provides me an opportunity to trot out an old hobby horse of mine: our common misunderstanding of the scapegoat ritual.

In common parlance, a “scapegoat” is an entity that takes the blame for problems that are not truly of their making. By giving the community a target on which to vent its rage and violence, the scapegoat unites the remainder of the community and makes it possible to endure through whatever problems the scapegoat was blamed for.

But as the name clearly implies, the scapegoat isn’t destroyed — it escapes. And, indeed, in the original Israelite ritual from which we get the concept, there are two goats chosen: one for the Lord and one for Azazel. But it’s the Lord’s goat that is killed. The scapegoat is sent off into the wilderness.


Leviticus 16:7.         Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the LORD at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting;

16:8.         and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel.

16:9.         Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the LORD, which he is to offer as a sin offering;

16:10.     while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the LORD, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.

16:11.     Aaron shall then offer his bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and his household. He shall slaughter his bull of sin offering,

16:12.     and he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain.

16:13.     He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.

16:14.     He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the cover on the east side; and in front of the cover he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

16:15.     He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover.

16:16.     Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.

16:17.     When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out.

When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel,

16:18.     he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and purge it: he shall take some of

the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar;

16:19.     and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall cleanse it of the uncleanness of the Israelites and consecrate it.

16:20.     When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward.

16:21.     Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.

16:22.     Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

The scapegoat is not the object of communal violence, so that violence cannot be providing a kind of redemptive communal release of tension.

Moreover, if sacrifice is about the release of these communal tensions, then how does one explain thanksgiving sacrifices, which are also blood offerings? The most extensive sacrifices outlined in the biblical text are those for Pentecost, a harvest festival of thanksgiving.

My read on the meaning of biblical blood sacrifice is different from Girard’s. Blood, as the carrier of life, is a powerful substance. That power can be harnessed — to transfer the residue of transgression from one entity to another, for example — but it needs to be treated with the proper respect, particularly respect for its origins: with God. This is explicitly laid out in Genesis 9:4-5.

In the earlier stages of Israelite religion, all killing of animals took the form of a sacrifice — without performing a sacrifice, you couldn’t eat meat. (This is the subtext of Saul’s transgression in 1 Samuel 13.) Sacrifice was a way of making the killing ok — because it meant returning the life to God. In other words, sacrifice wasn’t something you resorted to when the prohibitions failed — it was part of the system of prohibitions: a way of saying, you can only kill if you follow the prescribed rituals.

This is why, once ritual sacrifice was centralized, such that it was no longer practical to say that you can only eat meat after performing a sacrifice, the law had to change. In Deuteronomy, it says that if you slaughter an animal, you have to pour the blood on the ground and declare its return to God. Because you could no longer perform the sacrifice at home anymore, you couldn’t use the power of the blood. But you still needed to remove the blood in a ritualistic manner that made it clear that you respected the life that was being taken, and returned that life to its source.

Moreover, this prohibition was sufficiently strong that it even lasted into the early years of Christianity, vis Acts 15:20. The gentiles didn’t need to take on the bulk of the food-related prohibitions of Judaism when they converted — but they did need to abstain from blood.

So what’s the scapegoat about?

The scapegoat ritual is about cleaning the filter. The scapegoat is indeed removed from the community, but it doesn’t take the blame for transgressions — it takes the toxicity that  transgressions leave behind. This is not a ritual act of violence, any more than trash pickup is a ritual act of theft. It’s more comparable to cleansing the house of chametz during Passover than it is to “The Wicker Man.”

Next week maybe I’ll explain how everybody misunderstands Genesis 22:13.



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