The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Scapegoat’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

The term ‘scapegoat’ is well-known: it refers to an innocent person who has to carry the blame for something on behalf of other people. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word: the ‘scapegoat’ is ‘one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.’

But where does the term ‘scapegoat’ originate? And what is its precise meaning?

It’s well-known that ‘scapegoat’ is a Biblical term. And the practice of what we now call ‘scapegoating’ originates in the Bible, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. There, we read that two goats would be ritually chosen. One would be killed as a sacrifice to God and the other would be released into the wilderness. This second goat would be allowed to ‘escape’, in the hope that any punishment would befall the escaped goat rather than the people of Israel themselves. ‘Escaped goat’ is rendered in English translations of Leviticus as ‘scapegoat’.

We find the scapegoat in the Old Testament, in the Book of Leviticus. The King James Version has the following verses:

16:6 And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house.

16:7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

16:8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.

Here we have the first mention of the ‘scapegoat’. The first goat would be killed for God (‘the LORD’, or Yahweh), while the second would be let loose into the wilderness:

16:9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.

16:10 But 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 into the wilderness.

There is a strong ritualistic element to the scapegoating: Aaron will confess all of the sins of the Israelites while placing his hands on the animal’s head, as if imparting the sins into the goat’s body:

16:20 And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: 16:21 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: 16:22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

The confession of the sins of the ‘children of Israel’ is obviously a key part of the ritual, and the way that these sins are transferred to the animal before both are expelled from the community or tribe. It’s worth bearing in mind that the scapegoat ritual is a part of the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur: one of the holiest festivals in Judaism.

‘Scapegoating’, then, is a kind of purging: an offloading of a community’s sins onto someone (or, here, something) else, which is then expelled or cast out of the community in the hope that all the sins that it had been symbolically laden with would also be cast out with it.

According to the OED, the first use of ‘scapegoat’ in English appears in 1530, in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible (a translation would see him strangled and burned at the stake just a few years later; translating Bibles into the vernacular was a dangerous and brave endeavour in the early sixteenth century). Tyndale has, for Leviticus 16:8: ‘And Aaron cast lottes ouer the .ij. gootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scapegoote.’

But oddly enough, the whole idea of the ‘scapegoat’ appears to be founded on an error. More specifically, it’s a translation error. The original Hebrew text of Leviticus should more properly be translated into English as follows: ‘And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel’. ‘For Azazel’: not ‘for the scapegoat’. But who, then, was Azazel?

Azazel is thought to have been a desert spirit the Israelites believed in. Thus Azazel is the proper name for this spirit: it would be like saying ‘for Satan’ or ‘for Beelzebub’. Nobody is quite sure where the name Azazel comes from or what it means. It’s been speculated that Azazel was linked to field-spirits and satyrs, but whoever he was, it’s clear that he stands in corresponding position to ‘the LORD’ and that one goat is meant for God and the other for Azazel. What happened, then?

It appears to have been Tyndale’s doing, as that first citation in the OED would suggest. Tyndale appears to have believed that the Hebrew ʿăzāzel, which occurs only in Leviticus and nowhere else in the Bible, should be rendered into English as ‘the goote on which the lotte fell to scape’.

However, the whole thing wasn’t Tyndale’s fault, and he was merely following the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, which interpret azazel as ‘the goat that departs’. The Greek has tragos apopompaios, meaning ‘the goat sent out’, while the Vulgate has the Latin caper emissarius or ‘emissary goat’. By the time the Revised Version appeared in 1884, ‘Azazel’ (as a proper name) had been restored, having been acknowledged as untranslatable.

Nevertheless, we still talk of ‘making a scapegoat of’ someone (who is blameless but still expected to bear the burden of the blame on behalf of others) or of ‘scapegoating’ them. Curiously, the OED’s first citation for the word as a verb is from 1943: over four hundred years after Tyndale first introduced the error into the English language.