Life is a confusing landscape, both beautiful and ugly—like a weather-beaten canvas with surprising, colorful pockets of beautiful genuine pleasures yet grayed with ominous shadows of a bleak and uncertain horizon. Though God’s good world holds unspeakable beauty, it is also suffering, shot through with frustration, sin, and death. How can a loving God allow so much injustice and evil? Do such atrocities ultimately proceed from the hand of a sovereign God?
At a young age, I was fascinated with the theology shaped by the Exodus Sanctuary and its priestly mysteries found within the Book of Leviticus. Far from a cryptic and irrelevant message, not only does its rich imagery center around God’s passionate desire to dwell among us but its rituals respond to the sin and evil that stain God’s good world. The ancient story hints at the healing and redemption of the entire cosmos, and that intrigued me. I was enthralled, driven to penetrate the concealing veil to catch a glimpse of the brighter glories beneath. I then found this story unfolding throughout the rest of Scripture.
The story of the Temple (or Tabernacle) offers an ancient solution to the problem of evil. The Temple conveys the presence of God amidst a theme of apparent absence. It is there that I found the seemingly inconsistent intersection of God’s proximity and absence mysterious, sensing that God’s desires remained unfulfilled and that sin and death had stained God’s realm. While the Temple seems to convey only His partial presence, God places His name within to persist there. To me, this image of God’s vividly displayed name reflects the revealing and vindicating of His character as “merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6, NKJV). The Temple story showed me that God’s redemption work progresses in stages; the year-end Temple ritual it describes is the final part of the priestly answer to the question of theodicy.
This concluding ceremony centers on two goats: “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza’zel” (Leviticus 16:8, RSV). The first goat is sacrificed to the Lord and brought inside the Temple for purification. The second is ceremoniously burdened with discarded and cleansed sin and then driven into the barren wilderness. While the two goats fulfill different functions, the phrasing further suggests that they represent contrasting personifications. Though I was familiar with the Lord and His goat, I wondered who the other figure lurking mysteriously behind the scenes was.
Some years ago, a churchgoer told me that the second goat—the one representing and belonging to Azazel—is Jesus. Indeed, this is a common Christian understanding. However, another interpretation, with both ancient and modern support, is that Azazel represents a sinister figure of evil. Azazel is the name of an ancient demon, indicating a demonic personality that clearly becomes a predecessor of Satan. While everyone agrees that the Devil is menacing, not all readily acknowledge demonic evil or admit to being under its influence. Emphasizing God’s sovereignty and control over all things, however, obscures the mysterious figure lurking in the shadows, pushing the cosmic narrative of opposing wills almost out of sight. Indeed, if an all-powerful God is strictly controlling everything, He becomes too vindictive and cruel to be perfectly good and loving. The ancient Temple ritual was intended to reinforce God’s true character, but this hardly differentiates the Lord and the Devil in people’s minds. Thus, the demonic figure who undermines God’s power is resigned to the theological background, ceasing to be an important figure.
I can’t help but think, however, that by diminishing this demon’s role, we have become hopelessly confused about how God’s character manifests in the world. We end up blaming Him for gloomy outcomes that are really others’ responsibility. Today’s misery and suffering need other explanations; otherwise, we will inevitably fall prey to the Devil’s trap of attributing the work of evil to God’s character and domain. A nefarious figure is at work in this world, and it is he—not God—who is afflicting humanity and causing the tragedies of the world. Only the existence of a real adversary provides a satisfactory answer for human sin and suffering. The Devil is to blame for all the evil and suffering plaguing humanity.
I believe the mystery of the two goats is best understood within the context of a cosmic conflict between personified good and evil. The New Testament shows us the demonic face already loosely in place as the Devil confronts Jesus in the wilderness, seeking to hinder His work (Luke 4:1–11; 8:29; 11:24). It is there, outside the Temple in the Judean desert, that the Jewish tradition speaks of Azazel’s goat being thrown down rugged cliffs (The Mishnah Yoma 6:6). The two goats take opposite paths. The one for the Lord enters the holiest place, giving its life on our behalf, while the one for Azazel goes into the distant and barren wilderness, banished and eliminated. The first stands in total self-giving for life in the presence of God while the other stands for darkness, impurity, and death—everything that contradicts life and resists nearness to the luminous place of God’s presence.
The climax of the Temple story is the restoration of the cosmos, but this is accomplished through God’s good, self-giving love. The first goat dies for people’s sins, cleansing and resolving them, for God is gracious and compassionate. I am freed because He took my sin. While this first goat portrays God’s redemptive cleansing through sacrificial love, the second portrays His judgment, banishing all sin and evil from God’s presence. The imagery, however, does not suggest easy violence against the agency of evil. Self-sacrifice contrasts starkly with all that is dark and violent in our world, and God’s character does not resort to coercion. God is truly sovereign over all, but He wins and gets the love He wants through the lamb that suffers for the entire world. God does not choose to defeat evil through crude and drastic means but rather by exposing evil for what it is and thus removing all responsibility for it from Himself. God’s reputation matters; His character matters. God assumes responsibility for my sin, but He is not to blame for its commission. The Devil shares culpability for my sin and for all evils—for all sin he has influenced, incited, or participated in. However, the Devil will be eliminated when he is fully exposed, along with all the sinful and evil actions that belong to him—defeated by the very deeds he perpetuated.
On the day of final judgment, all love and saving work as well as all sin and chaos will be accounted for. God’s purifying work will then culminate in the elimination of evil and all else standing against His love, driving all sin from His good world for the well-being of the entire universe. God will redeem suffering and bring an end to death. Right now, we can only see God’s partial presence in this world. We do not yet see the perfection of all things, the final vindication of His unrestrained love. The last ritual is the judgment and its complete elimination of the menace of evil. This last stop is necessary to separate the Menacer from the universe (Revelation 20:10). Sin and evil do not belong in God’s good world. This world must be freed from all that hinders it from fully experiencing God’s presence.
The greatest Lover in the universe desires intimacy in ways that we can only imagine, in ways that only love can earn. God’s all-conquering love prevails over evil, driving it to alienation, self-destruction, and death. The Creation will then be reset, and full, flourishing life will have the final word; nothing will break it. The divine goal has always been unhindered nearness, presence, and intimacy, and the story of the Temple’s sacred portal bearing the name conveys God’s relationship with His people as the fullest expression of divine love (Revelation 22:4). The Temple imagery of human and divine life will collapse, becoming subsumed into God’s full presence among us. God’s goal is to dwell among His people in unfettered love.
I find myself presented with two distinct paths: one drawing me closer to God’s selfless life and the other driving me from His power and presence. Divine life is built on selfless love, which defeats evil and separates humans from their sin. I choose the path that leads to the unspoiled pleasure of God’s presence. Its cleansing wave urges me to repent and convert, so I can experience the exquisite beauty of the full and vibrant life that will someday pulsate throughout the vast, perfected universe.
Craig Ashton Jr.