The idea of having a scapegoat provides the village with a tradition that allows them an outlet for placing blame upon someone and for enacting violence without guilt.
The concept of the scapegoat is an ancient one. In the Old Testament of the Bible (Leviticus: 16), a scapegoat was an actual goat that was sent into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people symbolically laid upon it by the Jewish chief priest. Another goat was sacrificed as a sin offering. Similarly, in Jackson's "The Lottery," a scapegoat is found on which to blame the ills of the community—originally, it seems, so that crops would grow and be plentiful.
The setting is the beginning of the summer. The traditional saying is "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," a saying repeated with almost religious fervor by Old Man Warner
, who believes in its sanctity. He predicts the consequences of ending the lottery:
"First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns"—
In the performance of this fertility custom, the members of the community stone to death one person selected at random as both a sacrifice and as the scapegoat that carries upon it the bad luck that might come to destroy the crops.
While the story's scenario is extreme, the message of "The Lottery" is, indeed, pertinent to modern society, particularly concerning the human desire to blame someone for one's misfortunes or mistakes. Lenemaja Friedman writes in her book Shirley Jackson
that, in addition to the desire to blame others,
...the lottery may be symbolic of any of many social ills that humanity blindly perpetuates.