Today is Yom Kippur, the day (beginning last night at sun down) observant Jews fast and pray, in remembrance and recollection of Israel’s history.* Though the calendar is littered with opportunities to seek pardon of sin and offence, the Jews, including their places of religious rituals and their priesthood, set aside one day to cover all manner of sins (see Lev. 1.4; 4.1-5.13; 7.7; 16; 23.26-32; Ex. 30.10; Num. 29.7-11). goat
Scapegoat theology finds its history in this religious day, and the events in the biblical text movingly depict the ritual and the sacrifice to cleanse the people. The scapegoat carries the sins of all of the people, restoring shalom to God’s people.
Of course, Christians don’t observe Yom Kippur, knowing that such a day is now unnecessary, in light of Christ’s sacrifice (see Hebrews 6-9), but I wonder if we shouldn’t reconsider the widespread ignorance of its meaning and function in the life of Israel. I think churches should do more to highlight Jewish holy days, especially ones that so clearly point to Christ’s death, in relation to his Messianic role. For Israel’s history in the Hebrew scriptures is the historical and theological context of Christianity, and ignorance of their history can only be regarded as ignorance of Christianity’s past.
The Messiah of Israel, Jesus Christ, was no scapegoat who ran off into the wilderness carrying away our sins; Jesus is God with us, the Word who became flesh, to offer himself for the sins of the people.
A temptation might be to simply feel sorry for those who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah and stop there; instead I think we should pray for their salvation, following Paul’s admonition:
“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Rom 9.1-5).
A mere goat cannot cleanse the people. Only Christ, our “high priest forever” can mediate between God and man (Heb 6.20).
*For further reading beyond the biblical text, see my sources for today’s piece: The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000), pp.128-129; The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2001), pp. 113-119.
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.