It was an odd coincidence, one that suddenly struck me while I was lecturing Tuesday night.

I was introducing students to family systems theory, a way of thinking that reinterprets many personal difficulties as inter-personal ones.  It may seem that only one person in a family really needs help: the person with the most obvious symptom is the one that should be “fixed.”  But family systems therapists don’t think of individuals as “problems” in themselves; rather, they’re stuck in problematic patterns of relationship.  What may need to change is not the person, but the way family members interact with each other.

Early on, family therapists used terms that would help remember this more relational way of thinking.  One of these was the idea of a family “scapegoat.”  People commonly use the word to refer to those who get unfairly blamed, who are earmarked by others to take the fall for something they didn’t do.  Similarly, therapists thought of the individual with the symptom as being sacrificed by the family to avoid facing its own dysfunction.

The metaphor is a deep and fascinating one.  I reminded students that the idea of the scapegoat came from the Old Testament, in God’s instructions to Moses about the yearly rituals to be celebrated on Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.”

And when I said that, it hit me: it was Yom Kippur.  Just a few hours earlier, at sunset, the Day of Atonement had officially begun for the year 2012.

It was a little bit of a Twilight Zone moment.

Later, I went back to reread the relevant passage from Leviticus:

Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat.  Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering.  But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat. … He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task.  The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness. (Lev 16:7-10, 21-22, NIV)

There’s some disagreement over how to interpret the Hebrew word azazel: the NIV and other translations read it as meaning “a goat (that is) sent away,” hence, “scapegoat.”  But rabbinic tradition takes the word as meaning “rugged and strong,” referring to mountains of Judea.  Thus, the Common English Bible leaves the word intact:

He will take the two male goats and place them before the Lord at the meeting tent’s entrance.  Aaron will cast lots over the two goats: one lot labeled “the Lord’s” and the other lot labeled “Azazel’s.”  Aaron will present the goat selected by the Lord’s lot and perform a purification offering with it.  But the goat selected by Azazel’s lot will be left standing alive before the Lord in order to make reconciliation upon it by sending it away into the wilderness to Azazel.  (Lev 16:7-10, CEB)

The upshot is this: whatever we might call the goat, it isn’t simply set free to roam the countryside and munch grass.  The intention is for the goat to die in the wilderness.  At least one tradition has it that the goat was forcibly led out to mountains and thrown down one of those jagged, rocky cliffs.

That’s probably a bit more gruesome than what family therapists had in mind.  It may be extreme, for example, to imagine families throwing one of their members off a cliff!  Therapists have tended to move away from that kind of harsh and one-sided metaphor; people aren’t always just victims of systems, but participate in them in ways they may not even recognize.

In order to help families, therapists need to step back and analyze how the system works, and do so with a certain amount of clinical detachment.  But preserving a bit of the Old Testament imagery, we might also keep in mind that the scapegoat ritual dealt with corporate sin through a form of blaming, exclusion, and violence.

Here’s the question: are we aware of the violence we do to one another in our relationships, in our families?  Sometimes, it’s obvious, as in the case of chronic physical or verbal abuse.  But relational sin can be more subtle than that, and it should be named as such: sin.

We know it when it’s happened to us.  We may not use the word “scapegoat” much; instead, we say that someone has just “thrown us under the bus.”

But do we know when we’re doing it to someone else?

As the culmination of the Jewish high holy days, Yom Kippur is meant to be a period of atonement for sin and deep repentance before God.  As Christians, we rejoice that the atoning sacrifice has already been made.

But every day is a good day for repenting of relational sin.

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