This was the first major painting Hunt made during his first stay in the Holy Land. He had the idea for the picture while studying the Talmud (the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings that forms the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism) for information on Jewish ritual for his painting 'The Finding of the Savior in the Temple' (now in Sudley House). Hunt's researches disclosed that on the Festival of the Day of Atonement, a goat was ejected from the temple with a scarlet piece of woolen cloth on its head. It was goaded and driven, either to death or into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the congregation. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the scarlet cloth would turn white. Hunt regarded the Old Testament scapegoat as an omen of the New Testament Christ whose suffering and death similarly expunged man's sins.
In the Book of Leviticus (which is quoted on the frame) the goat is said to bear the iniquities into a land that was not inhabited. Hunt chose to set his goat in a landscape of quite hideous desolation - it is the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance. In his diary Hunt described this setting as 'a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness' and he saw the Dead Sea as a 'horrible figure of sin', believing as did many at this time that it was the original site of the city of Sodom.
Initially, Hunt considered that the subject might be suitable for the animal painter Landseer, who, in the 1840's, had taken to producing threatening symbolic loch side scenes with deer. However, in March 1855, Hunt wrote to Rossetti saying that it was seeing for the first time the extraordinary sight of the Dead Sea that decided him to tackle the subject himself. Hunt returned to the edge of the sea with guides and spent about two weeks painting in the landscape and making sketches and notes. He took a white goat with him but he left blank that part of the picture that the animal occupies and did not paint the beast until he returned to his Jerusalem studio. While at Osdoom, Hunt's life was at risk from hostile tribesmen. The insistence of his guides that they get away from this dangerous spot led to his leaving earlier than he wished. He took back samples of mud and salt to help him finish the foreground. In Jerusalem Hunt also bought or borrowed sheep and goat skulls and a full camel skeleton.
...Hunt's work was remarkable for its minute precision, its accumulation of incident, and its didactic emphasis on moral or social symbolism, and he made three visits to the Middle East so he could paint biblical scenes with accurate local detail.
One of the most famous paintings that resulted from his fanatical devotion to authenticity is The Scapegoat, showing the outcast animal on the shore of the Dead Sea. His color tends to be painfully harsh and his sentiment mawkish, but he created some of the most enduring images of the Victorian age, among them The Hireling Shepherd (1851), The Awakening Conscience (1853), and The Light of the World (1851–3).... Like the other Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt suffered critical attacks early in his career, but the moral earnestness of his work later made it immensely popular with the Victorian public and he earned a fortune from the sale of engravings of his paintings. In old age he became a patriarchal figure in the art world and he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1905. In the same year he published his autobiographical Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which is a basic sourcebook on the subject, though somewhat biased.
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists