I love goats. I think they are the greatest of all times. And I’m so happy we no longer push them down cliffs, as we used to do back when the crimson thread turned white.
Oh, you have no idea what I’m talking about? Well, buckle up, because Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is upon us again. On this day we are fasting for 24 hours, remembering our sins and asking God and people for forgiveness. It is commanded in Leviticus 23:26-32. This is the one day a year when God atones for everyone’s sins.
Or is it?
You may say that Yeshua did this once and for all on the cross, and you’d be right. You may say that this holiday is irrelevant in the era of the New Covenant, and you’d have a point. My counter-point would be Paul the Apostle’s words. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” 2 Corinthians 13:5. Why not have a time once a year to fast and do only that? And why not use the specific time God already appointed for it?
The specific instructions about this day are in Leviticus 16. It’s the one time a year when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holiest. There was an elaborate system of sacrifices and rituals to do in the correct manner, and one of those rituals described in the Torah included bringing two goats and cast a lot between them. One was “for the Lord” and the other was “for Azazel.” In English known as the scapegoat.
(Nerdy sidetrack footnote for people who want to fall down this Azazel rabbit hole with me – There are various ideas about what Azazel means, whether an evil desert spirit, a fallen angel mentioned in the book of Enoch, a nickname for Satan, or maybe it comes from “ez-azal,” “goat of the rule” in Aramaic. Or maybe just “ez-El” – goat of God. Some say that it was named after two Nephilim named Uza and Azal, from the time of the flood. In the old Greek translation, the Septuagint, it says “the goat of departure,” and in the English translations, this goat was called “the scapegoat,” based on the Greek interpretation and an old English word for escape or departure. End of nerdy footnote).
They sacrificed the goat that got the lot “for God,” while the sins of the people were symbolically put on the scapegoat, and then they sent it out into the wilderness (verse 10).
What the Bible doesn’t tell you, is that there was a crimson-red thread they used to tie around the horn of the scapegoat. And if God forgave the sins of the people, it turned white through a miracle, based on Isaiah 1:18, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” This crimson thread was called “Leshon haZehorit.”
If it’s not in the Bible, how do we know about it? Because we can read about it in the Mishna, which is the earliest part of the Talmud. It was written down in the 200s AD, but is based on oral traditions and knowledge from before the time of Yeshua, so this miracle most probably did occur during the time of Yeshua and earlier.
Now, they didn’t actually send out the scapegoat to wander around and starve in the wilderness, because then it would walk into inhabited areas and bring the sin back in. No, they had a system where someone would accompany the goat into the desert east of Jerusalem, passing stations of food and sleep along the way, until they reached Mount Montar, about 9 miles away, where the man accompanying the goat pushed it off the cliff. One source says they tied the crimson thread around its horn in the temple, and before the goat was pushed down the cliff, the person who brought it cut off half of the thread and tied it to the rock. Then, after it was pushed down, the thread became white. Another source says they let the thread hang in the temple, and there they would see if it became white.
If the thread stayed red, it was a bad omen. It meant that God didn’t forgive the people’s sins for whatever reason.
Now get this – one source in the Talmud says that “for forty years before the destruction of the temple the thread didn’t become white.”
Did you catch that? Again, the Talmud explicitly says that “for forty years before the destruction of the temple the thread didn’t become white.” Not even once! What happened exactly forty years before 70 AD? You see where I am getting with this?
Yes, it actually says that, and yes, you can still look it up in Jewish sources. It’s in a Baraita (ancient legend which has survived because it is quoted in a later part of the Talmud) that is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, chapter 4, daf 39 part B. Know what? Just for the sake of believability, here is the exact wording and links to the sources:
ארבעים שנה קודם חורבן הבית לא היה גורל עולה בימין ולא היה לשון של זהורית מלבין ולא היה נר מערבי דולק והיו דלתות ההיכל נפתחות מאליהן
“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves.”
The Wikisource link of that specific chapter in the Talmud in Hebrew: https://he.wikisource.org/wiki/%D7%99%D7%95%D7%9E%D7%90_%D7%9C%D7%98_%D7%91
For English, the best we can do is a pdf for the entire Yoma tractate of over 400 pages. The relevant part is daf 39b which is at the bottom of page 115. https://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Yoma.pdf
What do the Rabbis answer when asked about this? Well, they say that we are being selective in choosing which parts of the Talmud we believe in, and that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Fair points, but I still think this is a really strong case. IF Yeshua indeed was the ultimate sacrifice, it makes perfect sense that God would stop accepting the Yom Kippur sacrifices after that. It also makes no sense that the Rabbis would make up a story like that, strengthening our position, unless it was true.
For us, therefore, Yom Kippur is no longer a time to push goats down a cliff, no matter how fun it sounds. Instead, we can hug our goats, as I always want to do. For us, it is the time to remember that Yeshua is our scapegoat. He took our sins upon himself and went willingly to the cliff (or the cross) to eradicate our sins once and for all. Our thread remains white for all eternity and never becomes red again.
So what do I do on Yom Kippur besides hugging goats? I disconnect from the world and turn off all my electronics and the internet. I examine myself to see whether I am in the faith. I take the time once a year to fast and do only that, using the specific time God already appointed for it. We believers already have the justification, but we can still work on our sanctification. Am I where I want to be in my spiritual life? Am I closer to God than I was a year ago? Should I pray more often? Read the Bible more? How are my relations with the people around me? How is my marriage doing? How is my relation to my kids? What can I improve? How can I seek the Lord to help me become a better me and do more for him? Am I following his plan for my life? Do I have open and unresolved sin in my life that I haven’t dealt with? The answers to these questions are supposed to improve year by year. Are they?
I pray that your personal sanctification thread becomes more and more white for every year. Don’t do like the temple priests and don’t let forty years go by with a crimson thread that never changes. Your sins were all put on the one and only ultimate scapegoat and pushed down the cliff. Act like it.
This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, September 29, 2022, and is reposted with permission.