Flocks of goats were part of everyday life throughout Bible times. Hardier than sheep, goats provided milk, cheese, water skins, meat, and hair from which rough fabric was made for tents and other durable items. When God gave Moses the detailed instructions for creating the tabernacle that would be God’s tent in the wilderness, he specified an outer layer of goat hair that protected the fine linen covering the inner space called the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence would be evident (Exod 2:6). The goat was

considered a clean animal for the Israelites to consume. Goat meat is an acquired taste, since the animals diet makes the favor similar to wild game. Families often had a young goat on hand for special occasions or to extend hospitality. This is why, for instance, when Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, conspired to trick old, blind Isaac by having Jacob act as Esau and bring a special meal of wild game, they substituted a goat kid as the counterfeit main course (Gen 27). Pretending to be Esau, Jacob claimed he was serving his father the wild game he had requested. Rebekah also used the goat’s skin to cover Jacob’s arms so he could pass for a hairy man like his brother.

Sacrificial Goat 

All these practical uses for goats made them ideal symbols in the sacrificial system God instituted while the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness. The central act on the Day of Atonement involved the use of two goats. One goat was sacrificed and the other was exiled as the scapegoat. The live goat was led out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people,  representing those sins being taken away, even as the sacrificial death of the other goat was said to atone (make right, make amends, settle an offense) for the sins of the people. The instruction for this special day are found in Leviticus 16:7-22 and are later a central theme of the New Testament book of Hebrews, where the dual roles of the goats in the Day of Atonement are shown to be fulfilled by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (see Heb 10:1-18). Jesus not only atoned for our sins on the cross, he permanently carried their weight away from us. What the ancient Israelites had to do every year, Jesus accomplished in his single trip to the cross.

On the Day of Atonement, one goat was sacrificed and a second goat was sent into the wilderness as a scapegoat, symbolically carrying the sins of the people 

Visionary Goat 

Throughout the Old Testament, leaders were often symbolized by goats (Jer 50:8; 51:40; Ezek 34:17, 23; Zech 10:3). Among Daniel’s visions, a goat is prominent in chapter 8. The vision features a powerful ram and an even more powerful goat. At first the ram seems invincible no matter what direction it moves, but a goat comes from the west and defeats the ram. At the height of its power, the goat’s single massive horn breaks off and is replaced by four horns. One of these develops an added small horn. The angel Gabriel explains to Daniel, “The hairy male goat is the kingdom of Greece, and the large horn between its eyes is its first king. The horn broke off, and four horns replaced it. Four kingdoms will come out of that nation, but they won’t be as strong as the first kings was” (Dan 8:21-22). From the backward look of history, Daniel’s visions were correct to an uncanny degree. Greece did replace the Medo-Persian juggernaut under Alexander and then split into four smaller kingdoms. Those determined to find naturalistic explanations for every event simply suggest that Daniel’s book was written much later, after these events occurred, and is more record than vision. But if God who has perfect foreknowledge of all things chose to reveal in this way what would unfold in history, why would we not use it as a reason to remain in awe of him?

Jesus’ description of the final judgment of humankind (Matt 25:31-46) features goats used to represent those who are destined for eternal judgment. Although sheep and goats often grazed over the same territory, when evening came and the shepherds gathered their flocks, the sheep and goats were kept in different folds. Jesus used this simile to explain that the final separation between the saved and the lost doesn’t rest on sheep being of greater value than goats; rather, like a shepherd’s knowledge of his flock, God will not hesitate to determine those who are part of his eternal flock and those who will spend eternity apart from him.


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