The consciences of the people were not yet free from a sense of personal guilt and sin until all their sins had been transferred to the scape-goat. All this is clearly implied in Leviticus 16:33. ‘And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation.’
Now all eyes would be on the high-priest as he went into the immediate presence of God in the Holy of Holies. They would probably have been very anxious until he came out alive. Then he would have secured for them another year of continuing the privilege of sacrifices, with it being understood that they would have access to God through them.
The people understood that when the scape-goat when into the wilderness, their own personal guilt and sins would now be removed from them.
Ever since the scape-goat had been picked, it had stood facing eastward, confronting the people, and waiting for the terrible load for which it was to carry into the wilderness.
The high-priest now laid both his hands on the head of the goat and made the following confession: ‘Ah, JEHOVAH! they have committed iniquity; they have transgressed; they have sinned – Thy people, the house of Israel. Oh, then JEHOVAH! cover over (atone for), I entreat Thee upon their iniquities, their transgressions, and their sins, which they have wickedly committed, transgressed, and sinned before Thee – Thy people, the house of Israel. As it is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant, saying: “For on that day shall it be covered over for you, to make you clean from all your sins before JEHOVAH ye shall be cleansed.”‘
Then the multitude lay prostrate and worshipped the name of Jehovah, and the high-priest turned his face towards them as he uttered the last words, ‘Ye shall be cleansed!’ to declare to them the absolution and remission of their sins.
The Goat Sent into the Wilderness
After everything was said, the priests led the sin-burdened goat out through Solomon’s Porch and through the eastern gate which opened upon the Mount of Olives. As they went out the gate, an arched bridge spanned over the deep valley below and they brought the goat to the Mount of Olives.
There was another person waiting for them who had been specially appointed for the job of leading the goat into the wilderness. Tradition has it that it was a non-Jew that actually took the goat into the wilderness from the Mount of Olives.
Scripture doesn’t tell much more except that the man should be fit that led him into the wilderness, and that he should leave the goat there. Tradition supplements the information from the Bible, though. The distance between Jerusalem and the beginning of the wilderness was 90 stadia, or approximately 11 English miles.
There were precisely 10 intervals that were each a half a Sabbath-day’s journey from the other. At the end of these intervals there was a station that was occupied by at least one person. They offered refreshments to the person leading the goat, and then accompanied him to the next station.
This accomplished two things: there was accountability all along the way because two or more persons were with the goat all the way to the wilderness, and no one person had to walk the long journey by themselves, and then walk all the way back by themselves.
As they reached the edge of the wilderness, one man led the goat forward. He tore off half of the ‘scarlet tongue,’ and stuck it on a projecting cliff. Then he led the animal backwards, and pushed it over the projecting ledge of rock.
The man who had done this was now defiled because he had made contact with the sin-bearer. He now retraced his steps to the last of the ten stations and there spent the rest of the day and night.
The arrival of the goat in the wilderness was immediately sent back to the people by the waving of flags from station to station. By doing things this way, it was known in the Temple just a few minutes after the event had happened, and then it was whispered from ear to ear that ‘the goat had borne upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited.’
The Meaning of the Rite
So what then was the meaning of a rite on which such momentous issues depended? Everything about it seems strange and mysterious:
the lot that designated it
that fact that though it was the highest of all sin-offerings, it was neither sacrificed nor its blood sprinkled in the Temple
the circumstance that it really was only part of a sacrifice, with the two goats together forming one sacrifice – one of them being killed and the other being let go into the wilderness.
Since man would never be perfect while he was on the earth, the only meaning of which this seems really capable, is that though confessed guilt was removed from the people to the head of the goat, he was the symbolical substitute. Then he was not killed in the camp, but only sent far away into ‘a land not inhabited.’ So it was that under the Old Covenant, sin was not really blotted out, but only put away from the people and put aside until Christ came. Then Christ took upon Himself the burden of transgression in order to blot it out and purge it away.