I recently offered a distilled response to the question of what’s going on in Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) chapter, which mentions (correctly) in some translations that one of the goats was “for Azazel.” Azazel, the comment noted, was a demonic figure. So what’s up with that? I have copied in two responses below. The first is a pre-edited version of an article published in Bible Study Magazine. The second is drawn from the draft of my eventually-to-be-published book on the divine council worldview of the Old Testament. Enjoy.
Short Version: A Goat for Azazel1
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16, is an important element of Judaism familiar to many Christians. Though not practiced today as it was in ancient times in 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 (Lev. 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, to be near God’s presence. Curiously, two goats taken “from the congregation” were needed for a single sin offering (v. 5) for the people. Elsewhere the sin offering involved only one animal (e.g., Lev 4:1-12). Why two goats?
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 and was not “for the Lord.” This goat, the one that symbolically carried the sins away from the camp of Israel into the wilderness, was “for Azazel” (ESV; vv. 8-10).
Who or what was Azazel?
The Hebrew term azazel occurs four times in Lev 16 but nowhere else in the Bible. Many translations prefer to translate the term as a phrase: “the goat that goes away” (the idea conveyed in the KJV’s “scapegoat”). 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 Yahweh” (“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. First, Jewish texts of the Intertestamental period show that Azazel was understood as a demonic figure.2 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 (Mat 4:1). Second, in Lev 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 as an act of sacrifice to a foreign god or demon. Rather, the act of sending the live goat out into the wilderness—unholy ground—was to send the sins of the people where they belonged—the demonic domain. By contrasting purified access to the true God of the first goat with the goat sent to the domain of demons, the identity of the true God and his mercy and holiness was visually reinforced.
Longer Version: Yahweh and Azazel3
The Day of Atonement ritual provides a fascinating convergence of all the ideas we’ve discussed to this point in the chapter: holiness, realm distinction, restoration, sacred and profane space, and Yahweh and his family versus the nations and their elohim.
If you’ve at least flipped through Leviticus on your way to another book of the Bible you may know that the Day of Atonement ritual is described in Leviticus 16. Part of that description goes like this:
7 Then [Aaron] shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Lev. 16:7-10; ESV)
Why is one of the goats “for Azazel”? Who or what is “Azazel”? Here’s where things get a little strange, unless you are acquainted with the cosmic geographical ideas we’ve been talking about.
The word “Azazel” in the Hebrew text can be translated “the goat that goes away.” This is the justification for the common “scapegoat” translation (NIV, NASB, KJV). The scapegoat, so the translator has it, symbolically carries the sins of the people away from the camp of Israel into the wilderness. Seems simple enough.
However, “Azazel” could also be a proper name. In Lev. 16:8 one goat is “for Yahweh” while the other goat is “for Azazel.” Since Yahweh is a proper name and the goats are described in the same way, Hebrew parallelism suggests Azazel is also a proper name, which is why more recent translations, sensitive to the literary character of the Hebrew text, read “Azazel” and not “scapegoat” (ESV, NRSV, NJPS). So what’s the big deal?
The point of importance is that Azazel is the name of a demon in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Jewish books. In fact, one scroll (4Q 180, 1:8) Azazel is the leader of the angels that sinned in Genesis 6:1-4. The same description appears in the book of 1 Enoch (8:1; 9:6; 10:4–8; 13:1; 54:5–6; 55:4; 69:2). Recall that in Intertestamental Judaism, the offending sons of God from Genesis 6 were believed to have been imprisoned in a Pit or Abyss in the Netherworld. As we saw in Chapter 6, he apostle Peter uses the Greek term Tartarus for this place (2 Peter 2:4). Tartarus is translated “Hell” in some English versions, but the term actually refers to the lowest place in the Netherworld, which was conceived as being under the earth humans walk upon. In Greek thought, Tartarus was the prison for the divine giant Titans defeated by the Olympian gods. In Jewish theology, Azazel’s realm was somewhere out in the desert, outside the confines of holy ground. It was a place associated with supernatural evil.
I believe Azazel is best taken as a proper name of a demonic entity. In the Day of Atonement ritual, the goat for Yahweh—the goat that was sacrificed—purifies the people of Israel and the Tabernacle/Temple. Sins were “atoned for” and what had been ritually unclean was sanctified and made holy. But purification only described part of what atonement meant. The point of the goat for Azazel was not that something was owed to the demonic realm, as though a ransom was being paid. The goat for Azazel banished the sins of the Israelites to the realm outside Israel. Why? Because the ground on which Yahweh had his dwelling was holy; the ground outside the parameters of the Israelite camp (or, nation, once the people were in the Land) had been consigned to fallen, demonic deities back at Babel. Sin could not be tolerated in the camp of Israel, for it was holy ground. Sins had to be “transported” to where evil belonged—the territory outside Israel under the control of gods set over the pagan nations. The high priest was not sacrificing to Azazel. Rather, Azazel was getting what belonged to him: the ugly sinfulness of the nation.
Taking Azazel as a proper name explains another weird statement in the very next chapter of Leviticus (17:7): “So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore” (ESV). The Day of Atonement ritual was part of the solution to the practice of some Israelites to sacrifice to “goat demons.” We are not told why they did this, but the period of bondage in Egypt may have introduced them to deities identified with goat sacrifices, or they conceptually thought the demons of the wilderness needed to be kept at bay while on the way to the Promised Land. The latter has an Egyptian flavor to it, since Egyptians considered territory outside Egypt to be full of perils and chaotic forces. For Israelites, such sacrifices were ineffective and could descend to idolatry. Restrictions and prohibitions had to be made with respect to sacrifice. All sacrifices needed to occur at the tent of meeting (Lev. 17:1-7), and the Day of Atonement ritual was the only sanctioned “expulsion of sins” ritual.
 Jewish 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 in texts like (1 Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4–8; 13:1; cf. 54:5–6; 55:4; 69:2; Apoc. Abr. 13:6–14; 14:4–6).
- A pre-edited version of the article, “There’s a Devil in the Details,” Bible Study Magazine 5:6 (Sept-Oct, 2013). ↩
- 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; Apoc. Abr. 13:6–14; 14:4–6. ↩
- Drawn from the first draft of my Myth That is True book. ↩