Goats to the Slaughter (The Forward)
'And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat.... And the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him and to let him go for a scapegoat unto the wilderness."
This passage from Leviticus 16 stands at the heart of the Yom Kippur service � both of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple in Jerusalem, at whose climax the high priest slaughtered one goat while releasing a second to the desert, and of the Yom Kippur service in the synagogue, in which Leviticus 16 is read from the Torah and retold in the Musaf prayer in a poetic description of the Temple ceremony.
And yet when you think of it, something isn't logical. Why is the goat that was not slaughtered � "the goote on which the lotte fell to [e]scape," in William Tindale's 1530 English Bible translation, from which the 1611 King James Version coined the new word "scapegoat" � the one that has come to signify an unfairly chosen victim who is made to take the blame for others? Shouldn't it be the other way around?
The answer, it would appear, lies in the continuation of Leviticus 16, in which we read: "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited." Even though, in other words, the scapegoat was allowed to live, it was banished to the desert because of the sins of others.
It is likely, indeed, that by the 19th century, when our contemporary meaning of "scapegoat" first entered English, readers of the Bible no longer recognized the archaic verb "scape" to be a form of "escape," or else took it to refer not to the goat but to the children of Israel, who "escaped" punishment by means of the goat.
There's more, including how the term is used in other European languages and what Azazel really meant.