Two days after the Tuesday, September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell discussed the attacks with fellow evangelical Pat Robertson, host of The 700 Club television program. Falwell said:
‘The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’’
Pat Robertson replied:
‘I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.’
Al Mohler Jr., then President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, a leading spokesman of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a friend of Jerry Falwell, cautioned against making such a cause-effect identification. But significantly, he also affirmed the Puritan mythological notion that God judges nation-states like the U.S. in ways like the September 11th attacks:
‘There is no doubt that America has accommodated itself to so many sins that we should always fear God’s judgment and expect that in due time that judgment will come. But we ought to be very careful about pointing to any circumstance or any specific tragedy and say that this thing has happened because this is God’s direct punishment.’
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina left a devastated New Orleans behind, a pastor named John Hagee from San Antonio, Texas, who figured somewhat prominently in the circles of the evangelical right, said:
‘I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe…that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.’
Hagee affirmed this statement several times, to Terry Gross on National Public Radio, and to Dennis Hastert, a right-wing radio host. Hagee did not explain why, if God wanted to judge homosexuality and the sexual decadence of New Orleans, the flood waters did not actually reach the French Quarter, the heart of the annual debauchery. Instead, the flood waters wiped out poor sections of New Orleans, such as the black communities of the Lower 9th Ward, and parts of the Upper 9th Ward. If God was supposedly signaling to gays, why did He do it by terrorizing blacks?
In 2012, then Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum blamed the 2008 financial meltdown not on the deregulation movement that Reagan championed and Clinton continued, or on John Calvin’s De Usuris, but on gay marriage and secularization in schools:
‘Letting the family break down and in fact encouraging it and inciting more breakdown through this whole redefinition of marriage debate, and not supporting strong nuclear families and not supporting and standing up for the dignity of human life. Those lead to a society that’s broken. If you look at the root cause of the economic problems that we’re dealing with on Wall Street and Main Street I might add, from 2008, they were huge moral failings. And you can’t say that we’re gonna take morality out of the public square, morality out of our schools, God out of our schools, and then expect people to behave decently in a country that requires, capitalism requires some strong modicum of moral consciousness if it’s gonna be successful.’
In 2014, when Susanne Atanus ran for U.S. Congress from the 9th Congressional District of Illinois, she blamed autism and tornadoes on gays:
‘Everybody knows that God controls weather. God is super angry. Gay marriage is not appropriate, and it doesn’t look right, and it breeds AIDS.’
She won the Republican primary, and became the GOP nominee for the seat. She was defeated by her Democratic opponent. She campaigned again in 2015 for the 2016 election but removed her name from the ballot.
I bring these examples up because I believe, along with journalist Evan Osnos, that we are in for a thirty year resurgence of the far right, which is fueled by a certain kind of evangelicalism. So it behooves us to understand this scapegoating, and this evangelicalism.
Scapegoating in Pagan Ritual
The ancient Greeks regularly sacrificed the ugliest person in town. They did this in a humiliating, public scapegoating ritual to ‘appease the gods’:
‘In early Greek history, during times of plague or famine, when the precarious agrarian societies started to fear for their survival, each Greek town would elect its ugliest inhabitant, known as the pharmakos. (‘Ugly’ in this case probably meant deformed in some way, and certainly from the fringes of society. An aristocrat with a big nose would not qualify.) […] He or she (or they – some places, like Athens, would choose two lucky uggos, a man and a woman) would be driven through the town while being violently smote with leeks and wild plants by a wrathful mob. This ugly unfortunate’s fate largely depended on the town’s own tradition. In some places he or she was merely cast out of the city, while in others the pharmakos would be stoned to death, burned, or thrown off a cliff.
‘How popular was this ritual? In some places, so popular that it became annual. In Athens, for instance, it was celebrated during the yearly Thargelia festival.’
Why did they do this? To make a scapegoat of the pharmakos and give legitimacy to the community for collectively surviving a threat from the gods.
‘The physical elimination of the pharmakos did not actually make all the town’s afflictions disappear. But it relieved the social tensions that had accumulated during those precarious times, and avoided the possibility of a chaotic and uncontrolled bloodshed among the members of the society, while reinforcing the reassuring status of belonging to a group.’
These examples and more caught French anthropologist Rene Girard’s attention in his extensive reflections on scapegoating. Sounds like the scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 16, doesn’t it? Or does it? Which raises the questions: Is this more or less what was going on in Israel? Was God symbolically satisfying His own bloodthirsty anger against Israel? And building group cohesion in the process? Do the roots of American evangelical scapegoating go back to the Old Testament?
The Scapegoat in Scripture: The De-Paganization of Israel’s Humanity
Let’s set the record straight. God is not set against the ugly (the human), calling for blood. God is not bloodthirsty. God is a blood-donor.
I’ve covered this ground before in earlier posts. To summarize it quickly:
- Leviticus 1 – 10: God acts like a dialysis machine, receiving impurity and giving back purity. Every Israelite symbolically ‘sends’ her/his impurity (not for all sinful actions, but unintentional sin and the general human condition of impurity) into God and/or the priests via sacrifices
- Leviticus 12: Everyone shares in impurity. All people have an impurity because of the fall, from birth.
- Leviticus 16: God takes the pollution from everyone. The high priest, representing all the priests and all the people, sends the impurity built-up in the priests into God on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The first goat carried the sin into God. Unlike other sin offerings, it was not eaten by the priests, but rather utterly burned up, so as to prevent any symbolism of the sin cycling back into the priests. The second goat, the scapegoat, carried the sin away from the people. The two goats were two sides of the same coin; the imagery of the two goats need to be interpreted together. To help Israel live on the land with Him, God acted like a dialysis machine: He took their sin and impurity into Himself through the vehicle of the sacrificial animals. Then He provided Israel with the uncorrupted blood of animals, which symbolized His uncorrupted life given for them. This way, God was able to bless Israel by making the land flourish (Dt.11; Mal.3:8 – 12).
- Leviticus 25: God returns Israel to an Eden-like state. God restored the Israelite families back to their ancestral land on the Day of Atonement. Because of the explicit connection of the Day of Atonement to Israel’s jubilee and restoration, atonement and creation are tightly linked (see previous post about why this is vitally important).
One final detail is worth mentioning. When God dwelled in Israel’s tabernacle, He ‘dressed’ in the same material as the high priest, who represented all Israel. God inhabited materials of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet, and fine linen (Ex.26:1 – 14, 31 – 36) and so did the high priest (28:5 – 8, 31 – 34). The lesson is fairly straightforward: God is like a human priest. That is, He bears the burden of sin, but in a deeper and fuller way than the human priests. We are probably on stable footing to interpret the priestly wardrobe as anticipating God taking on our humanity in Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus became the true high priest, true tabernacle, and even the true two goats – all together. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is a high priest in the sense that he carried our sinfulness. He battled the weakness and corruption of his human nature. But, unlike us, he overcame every temptation (Hebrews 4:14 – 5:10). So Jesus purified his humanity. Jesus was also like the tabernacle in the sense that he ‘dressed like us’ in our humanity. But he became the true ‘holy place’ of God that we may enter (Hebrews 10:19 – 20), becoming the true meeting place between God and humanity. Finally, Jesus is like the first goat which was sacrificed (Hebrews 8 – 9 and 13:11 – 12), carrying his sin to God for God to destroy, and the scapegoat (Hebrews 13:13), taking the sin of humanity far away from us. The extrabiblical Epistle of Barnabas, chapters 5 and 7, also compares Jesus to both the slain goat and the scapegoat as well. Dating between 70 – 130 AD, it attests along with Hebrews to an early Christian tradition of identifying Jesus with the two goats.
Taken all together, Leviticus and Hebrews affirm with the rest of Scripture that:
(1) Everyone, not just some people, is corrupted by the ugliness of evil. While personal responsibility is still important, no one can be scapegoated for ‘being evil.’
William Golding’s 1954 book The Lord of the Flies demonstrates this deeply Jewish outlook. When a group of British schoolboys are shipwrecked on an island, they eventually descend into conflict and warfare. The faction that becomes more warlike does so by stirring up fears of a Beast on the island, from which they need protection. The Beast is a shadowy scapegoat of sorts, a projection of the boys’ fears; the boys are uncertain whether it truly exists. One of the boys, while staring at a pig’s head mounted on a stick, has a vision:
‘‘There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast…Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!’ said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. ‘You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go. Why things are what they are?’’
The story ends when the boys are rescued by British sailors on a warship, during wartime. The boys are saved from one war and delivered into another. And who will save the adults? More poignantly, if the Beast is not something external, but internal to all human beings, who can save humanity from itself? The novel raises questions the whole world over was asking after the atrocities of World War II. How can we explain why human beings everywhere were capable of doing so much evil?
Originally, the sacrificial system, culminating in the scapegoat rite on the annual Day of Atonement, helped Israel as a whole reflect on its ‘impurity’ and God’s intent to heal. Israel handled intentional sins with stoning, excommunication, or requiring reparations. But the sacrificial system was for unintentional sins and for just being a fallen human being (e.g. Lev.12). It was not about legal guilt-transference or blame-shifting. Rather, it helped Israel perceive that God took a strong medical and purifying relation with all of them. The sacrificial system, which culminated in the scapegoat and the slain goat, imaged a medical substitution, not a penal substitution. And the sacrifices and the scapegoat served to raise the consciousness of people towards the principle of God’s restorative justice, not retributive justice.
The use of the one word ‘scapegoat’ as both a noun (the goat) and a verb (to blame), might get confusing, so let me say this as clearly as I can: The scapegoat (noun) in Scripture is meant to produce the exact opposite effect in human relations as ‘scapegoating’ (verb) in the sense of the human act of unjustly blaming others. How did this word ‘scapegoat’ rooted in Jewish and Christian thought come to mean the very thing it was trying to undo? However that happened, I think it’s fair to say: God used the scapegoat to stop scapegoating.
(2) God alone consumes the sin of humanity. In Christ, God shared in our diseased humanity so we could share in His healed humanity. Now, God calls everyone to surrender their corrupted human nature to Jesus for him to cleanse.
As Augustine of Hippo said:
‘Christ’s deformity is what gives form to you. If he had been unwilling to be deformed, you would never have got back the form you lost. So he hung on the cross, deformed; but his deformity was our beauty.’
(3) There is no more nation or nation-state which enjoys God’s special blessing. Israel was a very special case among all the nations of the world, and Israel’s vocation was fulfilled by Jesus, the true Israel. The nations around Israel – like Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and so on – were drawn into geo-political relations with Old Testament Israel in such a way that God used them as part of His own relations with Israel, but Jesus also ended that dynamic. The United States is not a ‘new chosen people.’
In 1963, Peter Paul Waldenstrom, one of the founders of the Evangelical Covenant denomination, rejected the idea that ‘God must be appeased’ as pagan:
‘Contrary to all such perverse imaginations, the Scriptures teach that no change took place in God’s disposition towards man in consequence of his sin. That, therefore, it was not God who needed to be reconciled to man, but that it was man who needed to be reconciled to God. And that, consequently, reconciliation is a work which proceeds from God and is directed towards man, and aims not to appease God, but to cleanse man from sin, and to restore him to a right relation with God.’
Waldenstrom’s observations, and especially his treatment of the sacrificial system, are quite apt, and still timely. He was echoing the early Christians. John Chrysostom (c.349 – 407 AD), archbishop of Constantinople, known as one of the four ‘doctors of the church’ of the Greek East, said:
‘And [the apostle Paul] said not, ‘Reconcile God to yourselves;’ for it is not He that bears enmity, but you; for God never bears enmity.’
If that makes God sound different than the understanding of God promoted by advocates of penal substitutionary atonement, it is. To PSA advocates, God most emphatically does bear enmity against people, against our very personhood! This view of the divine is at the heart of pagan mythology. It influences a great deal of American evangelical mythology, which has been re-paganized.
To penal substitution supporters like the stalwarts of white American evangelicalism at Princeton Seminary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield,  and J. Gresham Machen – the sacrifices and the scapegoat serve to raise the consciousness of people towards the principle of retributive justice. Says Machen:
‘God has been offended because of the sins of the people or of individuals among His people. The priest kills the animal which is brought as a sacrifice. God is thereby propitiated, and those who have offended God are forgiven.’
In Machen’s view, maintaining the divine presence and the divine blessing required assigning guilt to a scapegoat, on which blame must be passed, the final step in a long chain of sacrifice. The scapegoat must be driven away or otherwise punished. God’s relations with Israel are therefore cast as completely legal and penal. The preoccupation is with law, sin, guilt, blame, penalty, separation, distancing, ‘othering,’ and death.
More recently, in 1991, Calvinist theologian and biblical scholar Vern Poythress, in his work The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, said:
‘The sin offering and guilt offering [which culminate in the scapegoat and its companion goat] emphasize punishment or retribution for sin.’
In Poythress’ view, the Israelites wanted to approach God, but God would have struck them dead. In order to not be struck dead, the Israelites brought sacrificial animals. God killed those animals instead. He accepted the sacrifice because His holiness and wrath demanded that life be shed for the guilt of others. Ultimately, all the animal sacrifices anticipated and typified Christ, whose life was shed for the guilt of others.
Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach are three advocates of penal substitution who co-wrote Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution in 2007. They say of the Levitical sacrifices:
‘The book of Leviticus teaches that the relationship between a holy God and a sinful people (or in terminology more characteristic of Leviticus, an unclean people) can be maintained by sacrifice.’
In the view of Poythress in 1991, and also Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach in 2007, the scapegoat represented the final necessary link in God’s thin toleration of Israel’s ugliness.
Ironically, the relational tension portrayed in Scripture is not the way they interpret it. It is the exact opposite. These scholars imply that Israel was eager to meet God, but God was wrathful by the idea of such a meeting. On the contrary, God always seems more willing than his human partners to meet. God wanted to meet with people just after they sinned:
- Adam and Eve, after they fell (Gen.3:8 – 13);
- Cain, after he murdered Abel (Gen.4:9 – 12);
- Abram, after he lied about Sarai (Gen.13:1 – 4);
- Lot, after he moved his family into Sodom in a clear act of compromise (Gen.19);
- Jacob, after he deceived his father and his brother (Gen.28:10 – 22)
- Jacob again, after he succumbed to his carnal, sexual appetite for Rachel and then grossly favored her over her unloved sister Leah (Gen.31:11 – 13);
- Moses, after he committed murder (Ex.3:1ff.);
- Israel, after the people complained in the wilderness, which as we learn later, was in the midst of their habitual idol-worship (Ex.16 – 19).
The question of who wants to meet and when is quite important to our understanding of the biblical story. What justifies the claim of these theologians and scholars that God is the one who is ever provoked to wrath, and humans are the ones who ever want to meet with God and gain His acceptance? The books of Genesis and Exodus contain more narrative material to show the very opposite. Consistently, God wants to meet, because meeting with us enables Him to heal us. We are the ones who do not want to meet, like Israel refusing to go up the mountain to meet with God and hear His voice (Ex.19:13; Dt.5:5) because we are afraid of truly being healed.
Setting the Stage for Today
Now imagine penal substitution being taught in 1865, after the American Civil War. Had Northern evangelicals understood that God is a blood-donor and not bloodthirsty, that God’s justice is restorative and not retributive, and that scapegoating was ended by God’s own scapegoat, they might have called for restorative justice after the Civil War, something more like the Marshall Plan for Germany after World War II. And had that happened, the plight of the South – both black and white – might have been very different. But penal substitution had already set the categories for retribution and scapegoating on the one hand, and unconditional forgiveness on the other. By 1865, it was too hard for evangelicals to imagine other options.
At first, Northern evangelicals called for bloody retribution. Within a decade, exhausted by the cost of Reconstruction, they accepted the flip side of the penal substitution paradigm: unconditional forgiveness, including giving up on ensuring blacks civil rights. Southern evangelicals, however, nursed an affection for a retribution which would one day come.
 Laurie Goodstein, ‘Falwell: Blame Abortionists, Feminists, and Gays,’ The Guardian, September 19, 2001; reprinted from the New York Times, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/19/september11.usa9; see also Michael Welch, Scapegoats of September 11th: Hate Crimes & State Crimes in the War on Terror (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006)
 Evan McMurry, ‘6 Most Absurd Things the Christian Right Has Blamed on Gays,’ Salon, April 11, 2014; http://www.salon.com/2014/04/11/6_most_absurd_things_the_christian_right_has_blamed_on_gays_partner/
 Evan Osnos, ‘The Far-Right Revival: A Thirty-Year War?,’ The New Yorker, January 12, 2016; http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-far-right-revival-a-thirty-year-war
 Dania Rodrigues, ‘The Ancient Greeks Sacrificed Ugly People,’ Atlas Obscura, October 30, 2015, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-ancient-greeks-sacrificed-ugly-people
 Very unlike sin offerings on every other occasion, which were eaten by the priests (Lev.6:24 – 30; 10:24 – 26), on the Day of Atonement, the remains of the bull and the first goat were not to be eaten. Any valid treatment of the Day of Atonement rite needs to account for this very important irregularity. Eating the remains of a sin offering would have normally fallen upon the priest. It was a picture of the priest internalizing Israel’s sin, storing it up within himself. Those remains were considered to be so holy that, unlike every other occasion when human contact with a dead animal was a bit circumspect, touching the flesh of the sin offering made the person ‘consecrated’ (Lev.6:27), which means, I presume, committed to the eating of the remains. This was a serious matter. Recall also that Moses was angry with Aaron’s sons on an occasion when they did not eat the remains of the sin offerings (Lev.10:24 – 26), an episode which underscores the utter seriousness of the priests’ responsibility to take into themselves the sinfulness of the community, symbolically. However, in the case of the Day of Atonement, the ritual law is very clear that absolutely no one is to eat the hides, flesh, or refuse of the bull or goat (Leviticus 16:27 – 28). That is, the sin is not to symbolically cycle back into the priests. Poythress and others do not discuss this. These omissions are typical and are shared by John Stott in his 1986 book The Cross of Christ; Brevard S. Childs in his 1992 work Biblical Theology of Old and New Testaments, which was rightly critiqued by Margaret Barker for devoting only four pages out of five hundred to the subject of atonement in the Old Testament (Margaret Barker, ‘Atonement: The Rite of Healing’, Scottish Journal of Theology 49.1.1994, p.2); Emile Nicole in his 2004 essay ‘Atonement in the Pentateuch’ in The Glory of the Atonement; Thomas Schreiner in his contribution, ‘Penal Substitution View,’ in the 2006 book The Nature of the Atonement comparing four views on the subject; Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach in 2007 in Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution; and William Barrick in his 2009 article ‘Penal Substitution in the Old Testament’ in The Master’s Seminary Journal. This is a telling omission on their part, an omission that tends to be reproduced by defenders of penal substitution. A rare exception is Gordon Hugenberger, who maintained in his class on the theology of the Pentateuch that who eats which sacrifice is significant to the overall message of the text.
 Interestingly, the English use of the word ‘scapegoat’ has become the reversal of what the biblical scapegoat was. The second goat represents the sending of Israel’s sinful contamination far away (Leviticus 16:10, 21). It represented, and was for, the whole community, not just a minority of Israel, or a singular person like the high priest. The second goat complements the first because the first goat represents the sending of all Israel’s sinful contamination into God Himself. Sending all our sin into God is the same thing as sending it far away from us. The scapegoat probably served as the poetic inspiration for saying: ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us’ (Ps.103:12). ‘You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea’ (Mic.7:19). Just to be clear: What purpose did the sacrifice of these two goats serve? They were the culmination of the entire sacrificial system. If the sanctuary continued in operation by the priests, Israel could continue living in a state of God’s special blessing in the garden land (Dt.11 – 12). So the declaration of the ‘jubilee’ on the Day of Atonement (Lev.25:9) now makes perfect sense. The land reverted to its original family boundaries and indentured people displaced from their land inheritance were freed to return to their ancestral portion on this very day. Debts must be cancelled. Or rather, people were cleansed of their debts to return to their land. If possible, a blood relative provided this cancellation and cleansing of debt, but if that was not possible, the person was cleansed of debt anyway (Lev.25:25 – 28). Close blood relationship served as the basis for an obligation to restore a relative to God’s blessed land. This is the far-reaching significance of the Day of Atonement in the life of Israel. It drew Israel’s attention back to the original creation, when Adam and Eve dwelt with God in the original garden land. Atonement and creation were inseparably linked.
 Fallen humanity’s relation to the land posed its own theological problem. And Israel was caught between two post-fall realities. On the one hand, they were like Adam and Eve, who faced thorns and thistles living on the land because they corrupted their own human nature (Gen.3:17 – 19; cf. Mt.6:34). On the other hand, they were like Cain, who further alienated himself from the land because he corrupted himself further by murdering Abel by violent bloodshed (Gen.4:1 – 12; cf. Isa.1:11, 15 – 16).
 William Golding, The Lord of the Flies (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1954), p.130 – 131
 Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 27.6, commenting on Isaiah 53
 Peter Paul Waldenstrom, Be Ye Reconciled to God (Men for Missions, January 1963); http://nagasawafamily.org/article-ppwaldenstrom-Be-Reconciled-to-God.pdf
 A.A. Hodge, The Atonement (1868)
 B.B. Warfield, ‘Atonement,’ Reformed Literature, http://www.reformedliterature.com/warfield-atonement.php, says, ‘The replacement of the term “satisfaction” (q.v.), to designate, according to its nature, the work of Christ in saving sinners, by “atonement,” the term more usual at present, is somewhat unfortunate.’
 J. Gresham Machen, The Doctrine of the Atonement (1937), http://www.the-highway.com/atone1_Machen.html, give the full quote: ‘And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness (Lev. 16:15f.). In these passages the meaning of the word is clear. God has been offended because of the sins of the people or of individuals among His people. The priest kills the animal which is brought as a sacrifice. God is thereby propitiated, and those who have offended God are forgiven.’
 Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (P&R Publishing, 1991), ch.3.
 Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.43