Goat-demons and desert satyrs (Leviticus 17)

Illustration: Ying goat head demon

God commanded that no Israelite was to sacrifice an ox, lamb or goat either within the confines of the camp or outside in the open country (Leviticus 17:1-9). Instead, the animals were to be brought to the door of the Tent of Meeting. This practice effectively eliminated ambiguity as to the nature of any sacrifice. As a case in point, no Israelite was to offer an illicit sacrifice to a pagan deity outside the view of the Lord’s priests and, when discovered, claim to be offering it to the God of Israel. This law was important because Israelites had previously offered sacrifices to goats as object of worship.

Whether the reference in verse 7 is to live goats worshiped as manifestations of “goat-spirits” or to man-made idols in the form of goats, we have no way of knowing for certain (the NIV translators chose to render the Hebrew term here as “goat-idols”). It is also possible that the goats in question were thought to have been some kind of “demons” or “satyrs” (i.e. creatures that were part goat, part man). We have no certain grounds for suggesting that this is what the Bible writer had in mind, but in light of analogies from ancient pagan religions the association is not impossible. It s true that the Hebrew word sometimes translates “goat idols” or “goat demons” more frequently refers to goats (e.g. Isaiah 34:14).

We are aware that goat images were worshiped many years later, during the reign of Jeroboam I (2 Chronicles 11:15), who introduced a rival religious system into the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:28-31), complete with priests, high places and images of calves and goats. Although the Israelites sometimes sacrificed goats (Leviticus 16), they were never to sacrifice to goats.

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