Sheep and Goats – 1


Alpha and Omega

Since the sacred architecture of the Jew-Gentile social structure set up in Daniel was a spiritual expansion of the previous physical sanctuaries, we should not be surprised to find its shape serving as the foundation for the New Testament. Since the Holy Place symbolised the court of the King of Heaven, the Tabernacle sheds some helpful light on Jesus’ cryptic description of judgment from His throne in Matthew 25. It not only becomes clear why the Lord uses sheep and goats as symbols for Gentile nations, but their locations and destinies bring to an end a narrative thread which can be traced back to Genesis 4.

Matthew 25:31-46 is the “Judges” step of the Covenant Ethics component of Matthew’s five-fold Covenant progression. You can see where this passage fits in the overall structure here.

Following on from Matthew 24, its fulfilment is clearly first century, describing a judgment which would take place within a generation. Concerning the context and purpose of the passage, Chris Wooldridge wrote in a guest post:

In his covenant with Abraham, God had promised that nations would be blessed and cursed through him. In 70 AD, the Abrahamic covenant came to an end and the blessings and curses were distributed. Nations were resurrected, stood before Christ in heaven and were judged in accordance with their treatment of the people of Abraham. Israel herself would be judged in accordance with her treatment of the apostolic church. The blessing would take the form of reigning with Christ in heaven for the remainder of the new covenant era (Revelation 20:4-6). The cursing would take the form of returning to the grave in “shame and contempt” (Daniel 12:2) to await the end of the new covenant and eternal destruction in the lake of fire.

In context, this speech is a prediction of the judgment of the oikoumene [1], the final stage in what we refer to as the “Old Covenant.” All nations would be judged, yet, as we shall see, both the symbols Jesus uses and the pattern of Jesus’ words are very obviously Jewish.

A Ram and a Goat

The events leading up to AD70 avenged the blood of all the prophets beginning with Abel. In the primeval world, and in Temple architecture, this blood is tied to the demarcations of “Land” (both the Land outside Eden, and later the Land promised to Abraham), not the Garden or the World. Since the entire empire was considered part of the household of God during this era, instead of using the “World” beasts of Daniel 7 in Matthew 25 to describe the nations of the oikoumene, Jesus uses the sacrificial “Land” animals of Daniel 8. Concerning these symbols in Daniel, James Jordan writes:

Daniel sees two animals. They are not beasts this time, but sacrificial animals: a ram and a goat. They represent Persia and Greece. Each morning and each evening Israel would offer a lamb (Exodus 29:38-42). This fact is central to the present vision, and will explain why Persia and Greece are pictured as flockmembers. The flock of God is no longer only Israel, but also the nations of the God-established Oikumene, though not yet the whole world.

The ram of Persia has two horns, one behind the other. The one in back is later, but is also longer. The first horn is Media, the second Persia, but it is one ram. The ram conquers to the west, north, and south; since it comes from the east it does not need to conquer to the east. God gives everything to the ram, and lets it rule the world (vv. 3-4, 20).

Then a male goat comes from the west, as the ram came from the east. They collide, and the goat is utterly victorious. The goat’s swift advance represents the amazing progress of the conquests of Alexander the Great. The great horn between the goat’s eyes is Alexander himself, but the horn is broken very quickly, because Alexander died at the age of 30. Then four new horns arose and took over Alexander’s empire.

Then a little horn grew up out of their midst. This is usually considered to represent Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Northern part of Alexander’s broken empire. I shall argue below that it is actually a symbol of the Herodian line. The little horn’s oppression of the saints is then described (vv. 9-14, 23-26).

The Lord tells Gabriel to explain the vision to Daniel. Gabriel explains that this vision pertains to the time of the end. The end of what? The end of the first creation, which came to a full close in AD70. Gabriel identifies the ram and the goat, and gives more information about the Herods (vv. 15-26)…

…we need to note that the ram and goat, or he-goat, are not “beasts” or wild animals, but “cattle” or domestic animals, and in particular they are animals used in the Levitical worship system. The ram, or male sheep, is required for the Trespass or Desanctifying offering, which is performed to cover high-handed sins, sins that in some sense put blood on the hands that needs to be washed off. The he-goat is required from a civil officer (hence, from a king) for a Sin or Purification offering, which is performed to cover sins of wandering (“inadvertency”), sins that in some sense put dirt on the feet that needs to be washed off. (Leviticus 4-5.)

The Passover ritual could use either a male sheep or a he-goat that was one year old (Exodus 12:5).

Perhaps more importantly, however, is what we find in Numbers 28-29, which is that on every important festival occasion, both a ram and a he-goat were brought to the altar.

As has been pointed out by Rodriguez, this is all related to the Continual of verses 11-12. The Continual, or tamid, is sometimes taken only for the evening and morning daily offerings, and this is indeed implied in verse 14 (“2300 evenings morning”). But the word is also used for all the continual daily activities in the Holy Place: the continual facebread, the continual incense, the lamp, and the fire in the altar.

What is the theology behind this imagery? It is this: The calling of Israel was to pray for and bring offerings near to God on behalf of the nations of the world. The ox was particularly for the High Priest and for Israel as a whole (Leviticus 4). But the daily offerings and the continual annual cycle involved the nations of the world, especially after the establishment of the Oikumene. The meaning is this: As long as the Jews are faithful and pray for the nations, offering rams and he-goats for the imperial leaders, then they will have good rams and he-goats as emperors. First the ram of Persia would come and deliver them from Babylon. Then, when the ram had ceased to do God’s bidding, a buck from Greece would arise and deliver them from Persian oppression (see Zechariah 9:1–8). But after the Greek deliverance, there would come a time when some evil Horn would wreck the Continual offerings. Such an evil Horn can only be a Jewish, and indeed priestly person, because no one else could wreck the system. Some pagan king putting a temporary halt to the offerings would count for nothing in God’s eyes. It was only His anointed priests who could defile the worship. In other words, the fact that the Horn is able to wreck the sanctuary and pervert the Continual makes clear that he symbolises, at least in part, a Jewish priestly power. [2]

Although Jesus uses similar sacrificial animals, His words concerning the judgment of the nations have a different purpose from Daniel 8. He is not speaking of separating Persians from Greeks. Greece conquered Persia, but those empires are not mentioned. Both animals were acceptable sacrifices, but Jesus accepts one and not the other.

As Jordan notes, the sheep concerned high-handed or deliberate sin (bloodied hands) and the goat concerned wandering astray (dirty feet).

Sheep: High-handed Sin
Goat: Wandering Astray

In Jesus’ day, the Jewish leaders were guilty of deliberate sin, since they possessed the words of God but instead taught their own distorted laws, misleading the people. It was the Jewish people who were guilty of “inadvertent sin,” since they were kept in ignorance, under the heavy burdens of the Oral Law, by their leaders. [3] Yet the leaders of Israel were to consider their people as brothers.

The Least Of My Brothers

An Israelite could take Gentile slaves, but not Hebrew ones. This was because Israelites were freedmen, and they would remain free as long as they faithfully served God, their heavenly master.

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

“If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly. (Leviticus 25:35-46)

Taking a Hebrew brother as a slave began with Jacob’s debt slavery to Laban and continued with the sale of Joseph by his brothers. This was an issue close to the Lord’s heart. Under King Zedekiah, the Jewish aristocracy reneged on the oath they had taken to release their Hebrew slaves. At heart, Israel had become another Egypt. This was the last straw before the destruction of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them, that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother.

And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that everyone would set free his slave, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again. They obeyed and set them free. But afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.’ But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.

“Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Jeremiah 34:8-17)

Sheep and goats are “brother” animals, different yet closely related, hence the need for a discerning shepherd to separate them. The Passover lamb could be either a sheep or a goat (Exodus 12:5), but the Firstfruits sacrifice could only be a sheep, and after the bull sacrificed for the priesthood, the Atonement offerings could only be goats. This seems to indicate that the spiritual character (or office) of a man is indiscernible at birth and only becomes apparent as he matures. Before God, is he a sheep or a goat, a priest or a king?

It seems that sheep picture the priestly head, which is why Jesus has hair as white as wool (Firstfruits). Goats picture the Covenant body (Atonement), which is why Jacob wore goatskin on his arms. Government is a robe which sits upon one’s shoulders. So the sheep pictures the Church and the goat pictures the State. The sheep dies in the stead of a blameless priest for the high-handed sin of Adam in the Sanctuary, a sin committed in full knowledge of the truth. The goat dies in the stead of a faithful king who serves his people rather than lording over them like Pharaoh.

Jacob the shepherd was the priestly brother. Sheep’s wool is soft and was used for clothing. Esau the hunter was the kingly brother. Goat hair is course and was used for tents. Goats are “hairy ones” like Esau. Peter Leithart writes:

Esau is a “hairy man” (sa’iyr), something we learn only when Jacob dresses himself in goat hair to approach his father (Genesis 27:11, 23). Jacob becomes a hairy one, subbing in for his brother. The only other use of the word in Genesis is in 37:31, where it describes the “kid” killed to fool Jacob into thinking that Joseph has died. Both passages involve substitution, and both involve deception of a father.

Leviticus 16 is the great chapter about hairy goats. The word is used 14x in the chapter to describe the two goats used in the day of atonement rite. On the day of “coverings,” Israel is covered with goat skin to receive the blessing of the firstborn; on the day of coverings, a hairy kid is killed in place of the beloved son. [4]

I believe this is the background for the distinction between sheep and goats in Matthew 25. It is a division between the nations within God’s extended household (the oikoumene), those with a priestly character towards the “least” of Jesus’ brothers, and those who were tyrants and abused them as slaves.

By the time of this judgment, heredity had become meaningless. It did not matter whether a nation was Jewish or Greek. Descended from Esau, the Edomite Herods and all those who served them had aligned themselves with Rome. This judgment concerned not the circumcision of the flesh, but the circumcision of the heart. The nations (including Israel) who abused the true Jews were repeating the sins of Edom, the false brothers who not only refused to feed Israel in the wilderness, but also looted Jerusalem after its sacking and enslavement by Babylon.

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him. (Numbers 20:14-21)

Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob,
shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.

On the day that you stood aloof,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you were like one of them.

But do not gloat over the day of your brother
in the day of his misfortune;
do not rejoice over the people of Judah
in the day of their ruin;
do not boast
in the day of distress.

Do not enter the gate of my people
in the day of their calamity;
do not gloat over his disaster
in the day of his calamity;
do not loot his wealth
in the day of his calamity.

Do not stand at the crossroads
to cut off his fugitives;
do not hand over his survivors
in the day of distress.

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.

(Obadiah 10-15)

The First Shall Be Last

All this background sits behind Matthew 25, which is not only near the end of the Bible, it speaks of the end of the Abrahamic Covenant, with its blessings and curses upon surrounding nations depending on their treatment of his children.

However, to make sense of where Jesus positions the separated oikoumene ”livestock” — the goats on His left and the sheep on His right — we must briefly trace it back even further, to the first brothers, Cain and Abel.

Due to Adam’s failure to submit to God as a priest, true kingdom was denied him. Blood was required to enjoy continued fellowship with God. Likewise, Cain usurped the ministry of his priestly brother. Cain, the firstborn, was disinherited by God. It is Christ who reveals to us that Abel, and all those like Him, would inherit the kingdom.

The Tabernacle is cruciform, and therefore humaniform. In this Man’s left hand is priesthood, the Table of bread and wine. In his right hand is kingdom, the Lampstand. Yet in Matthew 25, the priestly sheep are on the right, and the kingly goats are on the left. The first is last, and the last is first, an ironic take on the usurping of priesthood committed by Cain, who was supposed to make his offering after Abel. The “earth” is taken from the kings and given to the priestly, the meek. The inheritance is taken from the Esaus and given to the Jacobs. The “hairy ones” who refused to aid their suffering brothers are exiled forever.

There is a “chiastic” form to this brother-swap, which Jesus employs in the shape of Matthew 23:12:


This is precisely what we see in Genesis 48, when Jacob, whose eyes are failing, blesses Joseph’s sons:

And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance… And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn)… And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” (Genesis 48:5-6; 13-14; 18)

Matthew 25 is about tyrannical “kings” being butchered and given to sacrificial flames, and faithful servant-kings inheriting their houses and vineyards. As it was concerning the rich man and Lazarus within Israel, so would it be with the “ecumenical” nations over whom Christ, the First and the Last, was now enthroned.

In part 2, we will look at the Covenant structure of the passage and its allusions to the Ten Commandments.

[1] Oikoumene means “inhabited world,” related to the extent of the realm or domain of a single code of law.
[2] James B. Jordan, The Handwriting On The Wall: A Commentary On The Book Of Daniel, 416-421.
[3] See When Judaism Jumped The Shark.
[4] Peter Leithart, Scapegoat.

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