One aspect of the Day of Atonement ritual involves two goats, one of which will be killed and one of which will be released. The first mention of the two goats is Leviticus 16:5.

The King James Family and earlier translations such as Wycliffe identify the animals as kids:

And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (KJV)

Most other translations suggest the animals are adults. For example:

And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (ESV)

The actual text: שְׁנֵֽי־ שְׂעִירֵ֥י עִזִּ֖ים which literally reads “two hairy female goats.”

It seems as though all translations fail to convey the text. “Hairy” seems to suggest more of the type or breed and a female goat obviously isn't male.

Why aren't the animals female which is the meaning of עִזִּ֖ים?



The actual text: שְׁנֵֽי־ שְׂעִירֵ֥י עִזִּ֖ים which literally reads "two hairy female goats."

I disagree with this "literal" translation. The phrase of interest is "śĕʿı̂rê ʿizzı̂m". This consists of two plural nouns in a construct relationship, which can be further Anglicized: "two śāʿı̂r(s) of ʿēz(es)".

שָׂעִיר (śāʿı̂r)

The noun שָׂעִיר (śāʿı̂r), while it is related to the word for "hair", routinely means "he-goat" or "buck". (In this case the translation "hairy" as an attributive adjective is ruled out by the syntax.) This use is most common in the Pentateuch; it occurs ~45 times in the books of Numbers and Leviticus alone. While there is a feminine form (śĕʿı̂râ; see Lev 4:28, 5:6), the ending here denotes the masculine construct form: he-goats of...

עֵז (ʿēz)

As pointed out by Hans-Jürgen Zobel (TDOT 10:578):

ʿēz can refer without distinction to both male and female animals (cf. Gen. 31:38; Lev. 4:28; 5:6; Nu. 15:27; 18:17; Prov. 27:27)

Zobel further points out the many Semitic cognates which mean simply "goat."

The phrase šĕnê śĕʿı̂rê ʿizzı̂m, then, can be "literally" translated, two bucks of goats. Although this may not represent the pinnacle of economy in Hebrew phraseology, the word ʿēz is very often specified by a preceding, more specific noun. In addition to the very common use after śĕʿı̂r,1 we find also gĕdı̂ ʿizzı̂m ("kid-goat of goats")2, ṣĕpı̂r ʿizzı̂m ("he-goat of goats")3 and even śĕʿı̂rat ʿizzı̂m ("she-goat of goats").4 In the Pentateuch, śĕʿı̂r ʿizzı̂m is actually the normal way to refer to a male goat (~26x1 vs. 20x śāʿı̂r alone). The phrase is appropriately condensed in most modern translations: a male goat.


It seems as though all translations fail to convey the text. "Hairy" seems to suggest more of the type or breed and a female goat obviously isn't male.

For the reasons above, I don't think there is any failure to convey the text. Whatever "hairy" might seem to suggest, the construct relationship does not allow an attributive meaning here, and the substantive is universally accepted in the lexicons as denoting a male goat. The larger category of ʿizzı̂m indicates the group from among which the males are to be selected.

1. In addition to our verse, see Gen 37:31; Lev 4:23; 9:3; 23:19; Num 7:16 (etc. x13); 15:24; 28:15, 30; 29:5, 11, 16, 19, 25.

2. Gen. 27:9, 16; 38:17, 20; Jgs. 6:19; 13:15, 19; 15:1; 1 Sam 16:20

3. The Aramaic-sourced version of our phrase: 2 Ch. 29:21; Ezr. 6:17; Dnl. 8:5, 8)

4. Lev 4:28, 5:6

  • The etymology of שעיר (yearling) from שעיר (hairy) is probably folk etymology like שעורה (barley) from שעירה (hairy) and the Sifri's midrash of לא שערום אבתיכם (Deut 32:17) as "your fathers' hair did not stand on end for them", or Jaacob's characterization of Esov, the man from Seir as "איש שער" (Gen 27:11). Cute, but likely not correct. I would look for a cognate like צעיר (with a צ/ש switch) that conveys the technical meaning of "yearling". If the meaning were really "hairy" then I would expect to find some echo of this in early rabbinic tradition such as a test for hariyness. There is none. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Oct 15 '16 at 22:29
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim That's interesting. I don't pretend to be able to navigate the world of etymology, but all of the major lexicons (BDB, HALOT, DCH, as well as TDOT [11:452]) make this connection. As far as I have found, none even mentions that it may be contested. – Susan Oct 17 '16 at 5:37
  • BDB notes that שעיר with a yod meaning hairy, שער without a yod, is a later Hebrew form but does not connect it with "he-goat" as etymology. BDB gives no citation given for the hairy meaning of שעיר but Jastrow gives it as Gen.Raba c65 p15, i.e Gen 27:11 . I don't have access to the others. Do they bring cognates or claim etymology (I doubt) or just give "hairy" as a later alternate for שער? Jastrow clearly separates the two meanings. Gesenius writes "hairy, rough" citing Gen 27:11, and then gives "he-goat", creating a confusion between the midrash shem (gen 27:11) and the meaning of the word. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Oct 17 '16 at 21:48

In addition to Susan's answer, I suggest "two hairy males from among the female goats" is an alternate meaning.

First, the Day of Atonement instructions in Leviticus 16 have the unusual aspect that none of the prescribed animals are required to be without blemish or of a certain age. While the sin and burnt offerings may logically be governed by the instructions elsewhere, the two atonement goats are unique to this ritual and Leviticus 16:5 is the selection criteria.

I believe the instructions would be considered in the practical terms of raising goats. Also, the most relevant Biblical context should be how the LORD God made and fulfilled His promises to Abram. That is, the people are going to understand שְׁנֵֽי־ שְׂעִירֵ֥י עִזִּ֖ים in everyday terms consistent with the historical context of the LORD God's work to make a nation of the children of Israel.

The first use of וְעֵ֥ז occurs when the LORD affirms His covenant with Abram:

And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat [וְעֵ֥ז] of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. (Genesis 15:9 KJV)

It is next used in Rebekah's plot for Jacob to deceive Isaac into believing he is Esau:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from thence two good kids of the goats [עִזִּ֖ים]; and I will make them savoury meat for thy father, such as he loveth: (Genesis 27:9 KJV)

And she put the skins of the kids of the goats [הָֽעִזִּ֔ים] upon his hands, and upon the smooth of his neck: (Genesis 27:16 KJV)

It then figures prominently in how Jacob cares for Laban's flocks:

I will pass through all thy flock to day, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats [בָּעִזִּ֑ים]: and of such shall be my hire. (Genesis 30:32 KJV)

Also in Genesis 30:33, 35, and 31:38 where it is used in the context of breeding as Jacob builds his flocks from the newborns.

It is also used in describing the events of Jacob returning to meet Esau:

Two hundred she goats [עִזִּ֣ים], and twenty he goats [וּתְיָשִׁ֖ים], two hundred ewes, and twenty rams, (Genesis 32:14 KJV)

The first use of שָׂעִיר occurs when Jacob describes Esau to Rebekah's in response to her plan for him to take Esau's place:

And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy [שָׂעִ֔ר] man, and I am a smooth man: (Genesis 27:11 KJV)

The language in Leviticus 16:5 to describe the two goats chosen for the day of Atonement rite have connections both to the covenant with Abram and how Jacob and his descendants became set apart from Esau and his descendants.

The ending of שָׂעִיר (śāʿı̂r) denotes the masculine. So one possible literal meaning is: "two male goats from among the female goats." This might seem odd and may invoke objections on textual grounds; yet raising goats involves breeding which is done by keeping separate male and female flocks. Modern translations tend to obscure the practical reality that choosing a male goat normally means first choosing the herd. Should the goats come from exclusively male (תָּ֫יִשׁ) herds or from the males selectively placed in female (עֵז) herds? In other words, from the perspective of raising goats, Aaron is directed to choose from specific flocks. So while עֵז (ʿēz) can mean flocks in general, practically speaking Aaron is going to go to the עֵז not תָּ֫יִשׁ to get the his goats.

I believe the phrase "take two males from among the female flocks" is the correct selection criteria. Just as Jacob choose specific males to place in the female flocks to breed and kept separate male and female flocks when returning to Canaan, Aaron is to choose two males from among those that have been used for breeding.

Seeing the allusions of the Day of Atonement goats to the events of Jacob and Esau brings another reference to light. The instructions for handling the scapegoat follow Rebekah's and Isaac's instructions sending Jacob away:

And Isaac sent away (וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח) Jacob... (Genesis 28:5 KJV)

But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go (לְשַׁלַּ֥ח) for a scapegoat into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:10 KJV)

Finally, the instructions include the "sent one" returning back to the people from he was sent:

And he that let go (וְהַֽמְשַׁלֵּ֤חַ) the goat for the scapegoat shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward come into the camp. (Leviticus 16:26 KJV)

Given these connections to Jacob and Esau, adding "hairy" to the meaning is in keeping with the intent of the ritual which seems to be built upon the real events in the life of Jacob and so forming the nation promised to Abram.

I believe the better understanding is two hairy males from among the female goats.

  • Just to be clear, I did not say that the text literally says two male goats from among the female goats. I'm not even sure there is such an ablative genitive in Hebrew. It's literallytwo he-goats of goats. (My "from among which" in the final paragraph is not a translation and was intended to have a logical rather than a physical referent. Sorry if that was unclear.) – Susan Oct 14 '16 at 18:38
  • @Susan Your answer was very clear. Mine was not. I have edited it to clarify. – Revelation Lad Oct 14 '16 at 19:10
  • Thanks, I edited a bit to respond to your comment about "redundant and superfluous". The more I think about it, though, the less certain I am about exactly what the relationship between those two nouns is. On the one hand, it's true that ʿizzı̂m is always plural, even when the preceding noun is singular, so there's something to your "from among" (which I have also adopted, but conceptually). On the other hand, one expects a preposition מן to express the ablative, and I think the text and its syntax constrain the interpretation, regardless of what we may know about ancient breeding practices. – Susan Oct 14 '16 at 19:57
  • @Susan Sometimes I think our scholarship gets too intellectual overlooking the practical. I am sure Zobel is correct that flocks can mean flocks in general. But I am convinced that if he was instructed to get 2 male goats from the עִזִּ֖ים (not the תָּ֫יִשׁ), he would have a better and different appreciation for the meaning in this context. :) I am persuaded that the entire 2 goat ritual is taken from the Jacob-Esau saga and should be studied with that in mind. – Revelation Lad Oct 14 '16 at 20:12
  • But Hebrew can say "from" quite adeptly; this simply doesn't say it (nor "the", as it happens). – Susan Oct 14 '16 at 20:19

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