Scapegoating is singling out someone for unmerited negative treatment or blame. A whipping boy or ‘fall guy’ is a form of scapegoat. The word is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word ‘Azazel.’ The Biblical scapegoat was a goat cast out into the desert as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement. 

Since this goat, carrying the sins of the people placed on it, is sent away to perish, the word ‘scapegoat’ has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes. In Christian theology, the story of the scapegoat in Leviticus is interpreted as a symbolic prefiguration of the self-sacrifice of Jesus, who takes the sins of humanity on his own head, having been crucified on a cross outside the city by order of the high priests.

The first record of a scapegoat was found in ritual texts from the 24th century BCE from the archives at Ebla (in present day Syria). They were connected with ritual purifications on the occasion of the king’s wedding. In them, a she-goat with a silver bracelet hung from her neck was driven forth into the wasteland of ‘Alini’ by the whole community. Such ‘elimination rites,’ in which an animal is the vehicle of evils that are chased from the community are widely attested in the Ancient Near East. In an Ancient Greeks rite, a cripple or beggar or criminal (the pharmakos) was cast out of the community, either in response to a natural disaster (such as a plague, famine or an invasion) or in response to a calendrical crisis (such as the end of the year).

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