Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Sheep, Goats

Vill Ex (1)

At the beginning of this year there were six million sheep in America. The decline has been almost steady since the peak year, which was 1942, when there were fifty-six million. (Almost steady; there was an odd upward glitch at the end of the fifties.) There are a few more than a million goats.

"Sheep" and "goats" usually occur together in Judaeo-Christian scripture as an equal, uninvidious choice of victims: "if his offering be of the flocks, namely, of the sheep, or of the goats, for a burnt sacrifice; he shall bring it a male without blemish" (Leviticus 1:10), etc. Our common phrase is an innovation introduced in Matthew 25:31-32. It doesn't come up in Revelation, but sure prefigures it: the Son of Man, enthroned at last, with the nations gathered before him, "shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left."

Christianity, though, probably didn't infuse judgment into the distinction out of thin air; there's that matter of the scapegoat, which comes from fully as early as the take-your-sheep-or-goat-to-the-altar passage in Leviticus. Just two verses earlier, Aaron is told to "cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat." From the goat's point of view, this counts as a Trick Question. The Lord's goat gets offered "as a sin offering," which presumably entails some throat-slitting and selective incineration. The other "shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness." Ah rapture!

As a practical matter, "when you can't tell the sheep from the goats by their coat," a helpful website advises*, since Angora Goats are pretty woolly, "you can look at their tails. Sheep generally carry their tails hanging down, and don't tend to wriggle them very often while goats have ver[y] mobile tails which they often hold erect." Just so.

* http://www.fortunecity.com/marina/bounty/170/goats.html


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