This was the first major painting Hunt made during his first stay in the Holy Land. He had the idea for it while researching Jewish rituals for another painting, 'The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple' (now in Sudley House).
During his research, Hunt learnt that on the Festival of the Day of Atonement, a goat was sent out from the temple with a piece of scarlet cloth on its head, symbolising the sins of the congregation. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the cloth would turn white. The concept of the ‘scapegoat’ as a person, or animal, who takes on the sins of others, or is unfairly blamed for problems, stems from this ritual.
Hunt chose to set his goat on the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance. The site had been identified by Louis de Saulcy as the original site of the city of Sodom. In his diary Hunt described this setting as a 'horrible figure of sin’ that no one could say ‘is not accursed by God’.
It has been speculated by historian Dominic Janes that Sodom was chosen as the location for the image because Hunt wanted to make a connection between the ‘Day of Atonement’ and homosexuality.* In the Bible, Sodom is a city described as having been destroyed by God in a rain of brimstone and fire for the "sin" of its inhabitants. This ‘sin’ has traditionally thought to have been male homosexual intercourse, hence the rise of the word sodomy. Hunt regarded the Old Testament scapegoat as an equivalent to the New Testament Christ whose suffering and death similarly expunged man's sins. Hunt, an Anglican, may have wanted to suggest with his goat, that homosexuals could be redeemed by ‘atoning for their sins’. Hunt spent long periods of time living and working in Egypt and Palestine, was apparently unusually frightened of attracting the attention of gay men. He even advised fellow artist, John Everett Millais, who was travelling to the region to grow a beard to make himself less desirable to local men.
Lever bought the picture in 1923 for £4950 from the 1923 Autumn Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery.
* Janes, Dominic, ‘Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain’, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 87-94.