Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
It was a gorgeous summer evening last night. Wendy and I headed to Des Moines as the guest of some fellow Cubs fans for a game between the Iowa Cubs and the Oklahoma City Dodgers. It was one of those nights for our boys of summer. They gave up five runs in the first and then couldn’t manage to get more than a couple of hits the rest of the evening.
As the evening wore on and our defeat became more certain, our section began to find raucous reasons to celebrate little victories. Our friends and ball park neighbors began swapping Cub stories. At some point the conversation turned to the tragic event for all Cubs fans in this generation: the Bartman ball. It was the National League Championship Series and our Cubs were just a few innings away from their first World Series since 1945. A fly ball to left might have been caught by the left fielder but a Cubs fan reached out to catch the ball and the fielder’s attempt at the put out was thwarted. The left fielder went ballistic and cussed out the fan. The crowd turned on the fan as the Florida Marlins scored several runs which turned into a run of victories and the Cubs hopes for a World Series were, once again, tragically thwarted.
The fan in question became the center of ridicule for a nation of Cubs fans. A life-long Cubs fan himself, he was blamed for the team’s tragic end. He had to be escorted from the game and eventually moved away from the region.
In 2011, an ESPN documentary entitle Catching Hell took a long hard look at the incident as a classic example of “scapegoating” in the world of sports. The word “scapegoating” and its legacy come from today’s chapter in Leviticus 16. In the ancient Hebrew sacrificial system, once a year the High Priest would metaphorically place all of the sins of the nation on one goat. That goat was then taken to a barren place in the wilderness and released. The word picture was that the sins, guilt and blame of many was placed on one to be carried away in banishment.
Scapegoating happens in every level of societal systems. There are plenty of examples in the world of sports, and it isn’t just about sports. Children become the scapegoats in families, ceaselessly blamed for everything bad that happens within the system A spouse can be scapegoated within marriage. An employer or employee can become a scapegoat for business woes. A political figure can be scapegoated for the woes of a city, a state, or the nation. It is at the core of fallen humanity. We seek to blame someone else for the ills we experience.
Over a decade later, our discussion of the Bartman ball took on a more civilized and objective tone last night. It wasn’t right. If the left fielder had been strong enough to shrug off the interference and casually return to his position, the game and the season may have ended differently. The discussion turned inward. One of our party admitted that, had they been present, they would very likely have been swept into the sentiment of the crowd. Truth is, we all would.
This morning I’m thinking about my own penchant for scapegoating. I’m pondering ways in which I focus blame on others for painful circumstances in my own life. It’s not fun to admit, but it is, universally, a very human thing to do. Perhaps that’s why God sought to make it part of the Hebrew sacrificial system. We need to be reminded regularly. We need more than a scapegoat. We need a savior. God would address that too…
The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
featured image from Hartwig HKD via Flickr
And Achan answered Joshua, “It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. They now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
Joshua 7:20-21 (NRSV)
The story of Achan is fascinating. God miraculously delivers the city of Jericho to Joshua and his big band of trumpet players. The walls of the city come tumbling down and the nation of Israel plunders the city with one simple rule: don’t take any of the pagan idols or things used in the worship of the idols and false gods of the people of Jericho. Does this remind you of anything? (Hint: “You can eat of any tree of the garden except for that one in the middle.”)
Sure enough, a man name Achan takes some forbidden spoil for himself in direct disobedience to the order (that would be calls sin) and then hides it by burying it in his tent (that would be called shame). God clues Joshua in that someone has disobeyed and, eventually, Achan is confronted and confesses his sin. Achan and his entire family are stoned to death to rid the nation of sin (that would be called a “scapegoat”).
When I was younger, I always saw the story of Achan from the idealistic view of the majority. “Achan, how could you ruin it for the whole nation? Dude, you knew the rules! How simple was it just to do the right thing? What an idiot!”
As I have progressed in my life journey I have increasingly come to terms with a simple fact: I am Achan. I am the child who, at the age of five, stole all the envelopes with money in them off my grandparent’s Christmas tree and buried them in my suitcase. I am the one who is guilty of lying, and cheating, and stealing, and breaking my word, and being disobedient to God and my loved ones. Not just once, mind you, but over and over and over again. If I point the finger at Achan, there are three pointing back at me.
In the context of the Great Story, Achan serves as a thematic waypoint. Achan hearkens us back to Eden and reminds us that the problem of sin has not been dealt with. Achan reminds us, in the moment, of one of the meta-themes of God’s great story: one little sin taints the whole. As Jesus put it, one smidgen of yeast affects the whole loaf. Achan reflects our fallen human nature’s penchant to blame one for the failure of the whole, and a Cubs fan need only to hear the name Bartman to realize that human nature has not changed across time. Finally, the story of Achan is a foreshadow of the solution God will provide when He will send His one and only Son to be the One who will die the death that idol stealing and Christmas money stealing criminals deserve. Jesus will be the sacrificial lamb and make atonement for the whole.
This morning I am once again humbled by an honest reflection of my own shortcomings. I am thinking about Achan and accepting that I am him. Throw the rocks, man. I deserve it. I am once again grateful for that which we have just celebrated: God becoming man to die for my sin, to take my shame on His shoulders, and then to rise from the grave to give grace, hope, forgiveness, and redemption to one such as me.
In the course of time, the king of the Ammonites died, and his son Hanun succeeded him as king. David thought, “I will show kindness to Hanun son of Nahash, just as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent a delegation to express his sympathy to Hanun concerning his father.
When David’s men came to the land of the Ammonites, the Ammonite commanders said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think David is honoring your father by sending envoys to you to express sympathy? Hasn’t David sent them to you only to explore the city and spy it out and overthrow it?” So Hanun seized David’s envoys, shaved off half of each man’s beard, cut off their garments at the buttocks, and sent them away.
2 Samuel 10:1-4 (NIV)
This past week I was witness to an unexpected public confrontation. An intoxicated friend publicly confronted another friend regarding a particular past incident. The former blind-sided and blamed the latter for something after it had been poorly communicated via a third party and created projected misunderstanding of intent and consequence. It was messy and awkward and completely unnecessary.
Almost every conflict I’ve ever encountered can be traced back to miscommunication and/or misunderstanding of intentions. So it was for the Ammonites in today’s chapter. David sent his envoys with the purest of intentions, but his intentions were misunderstood and the resulting escalation and conflict claimed the lives of over 40,000 soldiers.
Today I’m mindful of communication and the importance of both speaking and hearing with clarity and discernment. Miscommunication of both words and intent can carry a high price in collateral damage relationally, spiritually, and sometimes even physically. When it comes to those types of price tags, I prefer to be a cheapskate.