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Azazel

The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16

I often get a question asking what Leviticus 16:8 means when it says, “And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.” Who (or what) is Azazel? Why do some translations says “for a scapegoat” (NASB, NIV, NKJV, KJV) and others “for Azazel” (ESV, NET)?

A Goat for Azazel on the Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement” described in Leviticus 16, is an important element of Judaism. Though not practiced today as it was in ancient times due to the absence of the temple and Levitical priesthood, this holy day is still central to the Jewish faith. But while numerous Christians have heard of the day, most would be startled to learn that a sinister figure lurks in the shadows of Leviticus 16. There’s a devil in the details.

The Day of Atonement ritual required a ram, a bull, and two goats (vv. 3–5). The ram was for a burnt offering, a general offering aimed at pleasing God (1:3–4). The bull, taken from “the herd,” served as a sin offering for Aaron, the high priest, and his family. The purpose of the sin offering was purification—restoring an individual to ritual purity to allow that person to occupy sacred space and be near God’s presence. Curiously, two goats taken “from the congregation” were needed for a single sin offering (16:5) for the people. If the sin offering (4:1–12) involved only one animal, why are two goats needed?

The high priest would cast lots over the two goats, resulting in one being chosen for sacrifice “for the Lord.” The blood of that goat would purify the people. The second goat was not sacrificed. This goat symbolically carried the sins away from the camp of Israel into the wilderness, and it was “for Azazel” (16:8–10).

Who or What is It?

The Hebrew term ʿazʾazel occurs four times only in Leviticus 16 and nowhere else in the Bible. Many translations prefer to translate the term as a phrase: “the goat that goes away” (“scapegoat” in the KJV). Other translations treat the word as a name: Azazel. The former option is possible, but since the phrase “for Azazel” occurs in parallel to “for the Lord,” the wording suggests that two divine figures are being contrasted by the two goats.

Two other considerations argue in favor of Azazel being a divine being—in fact, a demonic figure associated with the wilderness.

  • Jewish texts from the Intertestamental period show that Azazel was understood as a demonic figure. Texts of this era spell the name “Azazel,” “Azael,” and “Asael.” The figure is cast as either a fallen angel or the serpent of Eden (see 1 Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4–8; 13:1; cf. 54:5–6; 55:4; 69:2; Abr.13:6–14; 14:4–6). The Mishnah (ca. 200 AD; Yoma 6:6) records that the goat for Azazel was led to a cliff and pushed over to kill it, ensuring it would not return. This association of the wilderness with evil is evident in the NT, as this was where Jesus met the devil (Matt 4:1).
  • In Leviticus 17:17 we learn that some Israelites had been accustomed to sacrificing offerings to “goat demons.” The Day of Atonement replaced this illegitimate practice.
It is important to note that this goat was not a sacrifice—it was not sent into the wilderness (viewed as unholy ground) as an act of sacrifice to a foreign god or demon. The act of sending the live goat into the wilderness was viewed as sending the sins of the people where they belonged—to the demonic domain.

There is a contrast here. One goat is sacrificed and allows purified access to the true God. The other goat is sent away to the domain of demons. In this way, the identity of the true God and his mercy and holiness was visually reinforced.

 

Resources:

  • Janowski, “Azazel,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst; Leiden; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999).
  • L. Grabbe, “The Scapegoat: A Study in Early Jewish Interpretation,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 18 (1987) 152–167
  • Tawil, “Azazel. The Prince of the Steppe: A Comparative Study,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980) 43–59.



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