Jesus is our scapegoat. Of course, we don’t blame him for things the way we might assign guilt to a little brother: “I didn’t break the lamp. Jesus did it.” Good luck trying that the next time you’re in a tight spot. We don’t blame Jesus. But we do lay our guilt upon him. That is the true meaning of a scapegoat.
In the book of Leviticus, Aaron, the high priest, is commanded to bring forth a live goat and “laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the sinful faults and transgressions of the Israelites, and so put them on the goat’s head” (Lev 16:21). This ritual transfers the guilt of the people to this animal, which is then “led into the desert by an attendant” (Lev 16:21). The moral burden of the Israelites is thereby carried off into “an isolated region.” They are rescued by their scapegoat. Something similar happens at the baptism of Jesus.
Water is a mixed symbol in the scriptures. It contains opposites. Water is revered for its power both to give and take life. Water purifies and renews, but it also destroys. It is a symbol of holiness, even of the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:38-39). But, on the other hand, the untamed fervor of seawater, its restlessness and bitterness, are akin to the demonic. Water in the biblical imagination embraces these poles of human experience: life and death, purity and sin, holiness and evil. Strikingly, they all come together at Jesus’ baptism.
Baptism is for sinners. Then why was Jesus in the Jordan? The Baptist himself objected: “I need to be baptized by you.” But unlike everyone else on those banks, Jesus wasn’t there to be cleansed of sin. He was there to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15). While everyone else had stepped into purifying, life-giving, waters; Jesus stepped into bitter and threatening waters. In the Jordan, submitting to baptism, Jesus stepped into our place as sinners. John, pouring the waters upon the head of the Christ, is like Aaron, pouring the destructive guilt upon the scapegoat. Here all the biblical images converge. The demonic and bitter waters wash over the Christ, in essence burying him. But as he emerges, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, the Father speaks (Mt 3:16-17). Jesus takes our guilt upon himself and purifies the waters. Now they open heaven for us.
But what happens to Jesus? Like “the goat determined by lot for Azazel” (Lev 16:10), Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1). Our scapegoat carries our debt to an isolated region. Eventually he will carry it to the most remote territory: death itself.