There is much debate over what exactly the word “Azazel” refers to in chapter 16 of Leviticus. In order to understand the various interpretations we must first understand the context in which the word is used.
The subject of Leviticus 16 is the Day of Atonement which was one of the most (if not THE most) important days of the year for the Israelites. It took place on the 10th day of the 7th month (Jews today observe it as Yom Kippur) and was the day when the sins of the Israelite community as a whole were atoned for. Only the high priest (Aaron) could officiate because only he could represent all of the Israelites, including the other priests. First, Aaron had to present a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household to make atonement for himself. Then, Aaron was to take 2 male goats as a sin offering and one ram as a burnt offering in order to make atonement for the Israelite community as a whole. Dr. Charles Feinberg, writing for Dallas Theological Seminary, notes that Delitzsch (of Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament) aptly refers to the Day of Atonement as “the Good Friday of the Old Testament.”
The verses describing the two goats for the sin offering are the source of the debate. Leviticus 16:7-10:
7 Then he 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.
After casting lots, Aaron slaughtered the goat which had been designated “for the Lord,” and followed the same purification ritual that he had just performed with the bull (for himself) using the goat (this time for all of the Israelites). (verses 15-19) Next, Aaron lay his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed all of Israel’s sins. These sins were, in effect, transferred to the goat. At this point, a man who had been chosen for the task, led this goat outside of the Israelite camp, then into the wilderness, and released it (verses 20-22). Aaron then burned the fat of the sin offering on the altar (verses 23-25).
One’s interpretation of these events depends on two things: 1) the meaning of the word “Azazel”; and 2) the purpose of the two goats in the ceremony. While the first is up for debate (as we will see), the second can be clearly ascertained from Scripture.
THE MEANING OF THE WORD “AZAZEL”
Scholars readily admit that the meaning of this word is highly debatable due to the fact that it is so obscure. In fact, Feinburg notes, “the name occurs nowhere else in Hebrew.” The only three verses in the Bible in which the word is found are here in chapter 16 of Leviticus (verses 8, 10, and 26). Feinburg quotes the Numerical Bible, “Azazel is a mere adoption of the Hebrew word, as to the meaning and application of which there have been so many different thoughts, that some are content to leave it as an insoluble enigma.”
This is why it is translated differently in our various Bible versions. For example, here’s a sampling of the renderings for verse 8:
KJV: And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat.
NKJV: Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat.
RSV: and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one for the Lord and the other lot for Aza’zel.
NIV: He is to cast lots for the two goats- one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.
ESV: And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.
Young’s Literal Translation: ‘And Aaron hath given lots over the two goats, one lot for Jehovah, and one lot for a goat of departure
Why is Azazel translated as scapegoat? Strong’s Concordance 5799 defines “azazel” as “scapegoat.” The NAS Exhaustive Concordance lists the following information: word origin- from an unused word; definition- entire removal.
Feinberg notes, “The word ‘Azazel’ has been variously interpreted. […] It has been explained, as a place, a thing, a person, and an abstraction.” We’ll look at each.
The Jewish Virtual Library notes that there has been debate over the meaning of the word “Azazel” since Talmudic times. Bible Study Tools defines the Talmud as, “a large collection of writings, containing a full account of the civil and religious laws of the Jews.” The oral traditions recorded in the Talmud predate Jesus’ incarnation. Some held that “Azazel” referred to a place. JVL explains, “the word Azazel is a parallel to “a land which is cut off” (Lev. 16:22), meaning (according to the rabbinic interpretation) an area of rocks and cliffs, i.e., inaccessible. The word Azazel is also interpreted as meaning strong and hard as though it were written עזז אל, namely, hardest of the mountains (Yoma 63b; cf. Sifra Aḥarei Mot 2:8; Targum Jonathan to Lev. 16:10). It does appear, however, that this is an attempt to reconcile the meaning of the word Azazel with the actual usage in the time of the Second Temple, namely to bring the goat to a cliff and to push it over. The interpretation does not quite fit the written form of the word עזאזל.” (emphasis mine)
Notice this article from JVL alludes that rabbinic tradition had “added to” the original Leviticus 16 instructions for the ceremony. Specifically, instead of releasing the live goat in the wilderness, the Jews had added the tradition that the man leading the goat into the wilderness would bring the live goat to a rocky cliff and (leading it backwards) push it off the cliff to its certain death. (This tradition is described in the Mishnah.Yoma) Sir Walter Besant explains the introduction of this custom in his Twenty- One Years’ Work in the Holy Land, “The reason of this barbarous custom was that on one occasion the scapegoat returned to Jerusalem after being set free, which was considered such an evil omen that its recurrence was prevented for the future by the death of the goat, as is described in the tract of Yoma of the Mishna.” Remember, the live goat represented the removal of all of Israel’s sins- an integral part of the atonement ceremony. It’s easy to see how the Israelites could construe the return of the goat bearing all of their sins as a “bad omen.”
On the “place” interpretation Feinberg writes, “A solitary place in the desert or a distinct locality in the wilderness has been suggested, but this interpretation is not tenable, because constant change in campings was surely taken into considerations when the regulations of Leviticus 16 were given.” While a specific cliff is named for the 2nd temple period, Feinburg’s comment notes that such a designated place wouldn’t have been feasible for the Israelites when the ritual was first commanded due to their nomadic lifestyle. This fact is certainly damaging for the interpretation that “Azazel” was the proper name of a place.
Some argue that Azazel refers to the live goat. The logic behind this interpretation is that the phrasing “one lot for the Lord” and “the other for Azazel” does not refer to who the goat is for, but what the goat is to be used for. Feinberg quotes Bonar (a proponent of this view) in his explanation, “The proper sense is designation for use, viz., the one for the purpose of being killed at the Lord’s altar; the other the purpose of being sent away into the wilderness.” However, Ginsburg illustrates the impossibility of this identity based on the fact that it would render the mention of “Azazel” in the subsequent verses nonsensical. If “Azazel” refers to the live goat, verse 10 would read: “but the goat chosen by lot for the scapegoat”; and verse 26: “the man who released the goat for the scapegoat”.
While this interpretation is popular, it has (in my opinion) the most serious problems. The following are some common “people” to whom the identity of “Azazel” is ascribed: Satan, a desert demon, the leader of the fallen angels who desired the daughters of men in Genesis 6:1-5, or simply the personification of wickedness. Bonar explains the underlying logic for this identification, “If the clause ‘the one lot for the Lord,’ intimate that the goat is appropriated to a person, so should the next clause, ‘the other lot for…Azazel,’ also signify appropriation to a person.” While based on a very logical assumption, this view lacks Scriptural support. Advocates must rely on sources outside the Bible as corroboration. Feinberg notes that several lexicons define “Azazel” as the name of an evil spirit, as do some Apocryphal and Pseudographical works (namely the Book of Enoch I and Apocalypse of Abraham), as well as Arabian mythology.
While there is no Scriptural basis for this identity, proponents of this view see parallel symbolism in the goat for “Azazel” and the fate of the demons in Revelation. For example, literature from one sect espousing this view cites Revelation 20:1-3 in which an angel seals Satan into the bottomless pit for a period of a thousand years and compares this isolation from mankind to the fate of the live goat in verse 21 of Leviticus, which after having all of Israel’s sins transferred to it, is led away into the wilderness and thus isolated from them. The same sect cites Psalm 7:11 in corroboration for this view, “Psalm 7:11 states: ‘God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.’ Doesn’t it make sense that a just and fair God would ultimately put the sins of the world on the one who introduced sin into the present world in the Garden of Eden?” This particular view is theologically problematic in ways that we’ll discuss below.
Besides being wholly rooted in extra-biblical works that are not considered Divinely inspired, the “person” interpretation has some serious theological issues. First, it overlooks a very important fact from verse 5: “He is to take from the Israelite community two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.” (emphasis mine) As Feinberg states, “the two goats together constituted one sin offering. […] the goat can have nothing whatever to do with Satan, for the Scriptures state clearly that the live goat, equally with the sacrificial goat, was a sin offering to the Lord. The first goat set forth the means of reconciliation with God, whereas the second goat represented the effect of the sacrifice in removing the sin from the presence of the holy God, thus illustrating Psalm 103:12 and Micah 7:19 in a striking manner.”
Feinberg further cites Meyrick in his list of objections to the view that “Azazel” is an evil spirit: “1) The name azazel is nowhere else mentioned. This could not be, if he were so important a being as to divide with Jehovah the sin offering of the congregation of Israel on the great Day of Atonment. 2) No suitable etymology can be discerned. The nearest approach to it is very forced- ‘the separated one.’ 3) The notion of appeasing, or bribing, or mocking the evil spirit by presenting him a goat, is altogether alien from the spirit of the rest of the Mosaic institutions. Where else is there anything like it? 4) The goat is presented and offered to Jehovah equally with the goat which is slain. To take that which has been offered (and therefore half sacrificed) to God and give it to Satan, would be a daring impiety, which is inconceivable.”
Robert Sanders notes the following extremely troubling issues with this interpretation, “If…the scapegoat is a figure of Satan then we are faced with a lot of problems.”:
- “How can the high priest confess his sins and the sins of Israel over Satan?” (verse 21)
- “Remember the scapegoat is for atonement for Israel to God. (verse 34) Can God’s people make atonement with Satan?
- “By placing the sins of Israel on the scapegoat does this mean that Satan is now carrying their confessed sins and will be punished for them?”
- Nowhere in the Bible does it state that Satan carries our sin or is punished for our sin. Satan is our accuser (Revelation 12:10) not our sin bearer. Jesus is repeatedly referred to as He who bore and removed our sins (Psalm 103:12; 1 Peter 2:24; Isaiah 53:6; Isaiah 53:11).
- On Satan being punished for our sin Sanders writes, “The Devil will be destroyed because he deceived the world. Satan will be judged on the sins he committed and not for the sins the people committed whom he deceived. If somehow I convinced you to sin or deceived you into committing a sin, I would be held accountable for deceiving you. But you would be accountable for committing the sin. It is the same for Satan, when he deceived our first parents to sin in Eden. Adam and Eve were responsible for their own sin of not believing God which was a lack of faith. Not for Satan for deceiving them. Every sin a person commits they will have to give an account. The confessed sins of the repentant sinners are removed by faith in our Savior.”
The last interpretation is that “Azazel” refers to an abstract idea. The Brown-Driver-Briggs English and Hebrew Lexicon defines it as, “noun [masculine] entire removal (reduplicated intenstive); Leviticus 16:8, 10 (twice in verse), Leviticus 16:26 in ritual of Day of Atonement, = entire removal of sin and guilt from sacred places into desert on back of goat, symbol of entire forgiveness.” Feinberg notes, “To regard this word as signifying dismissal or removal (as in the ASV and ERV margins) would preserve the concept of the escape goat, although it would avoid the pitfall of equating Azazel with the live goat which is not possible, as we have already seen above.”
A short discussion of the etymology (study of the origin of words and how their meanings have changed throughout history) of the word reveals that this interpretation flows beautifully with the role of the live goat in the Atonement ritual. Feinberg explains, “Azazel is a word softened (according to a not unusual custom) from azalzel, just as kokav is a softened form of kav-kav, and as Babel is derived from Balbel (Gen. xi. 9). Azalzel is an active participle or participial noun, derived ultimately from azal (connected with the Arabic word azala, and meaning removed), but immediately from the reduplicate form of that verb, azazal. The reduplication of the consonants of the root in Hebrew and Arabic gives the force of repetition, so that while azal means removed, azalzal means removed by a repetition of acts. Azalzel, or azazel, therefore, means one who removes by a series of acts…”
While the etymology discussion is a bit technical, Feinberg cites a quote from Sir W. Martin in his Semitic Languages that clears all confusion, “It properly denotes one that removes or separates; yet a remover in such a sort that the removal is not effected by a single act or at one moment, but by a series of minor acts tending to and issuing in a complete removal. No word could better express the movement of the goat before the eyes of the people, as it passed on, removing at each step, in a visible symbol, their sins further and further from them, until, by continued repetition of the movement, they were carried far away and removed utterly.”
Feinberg concludes by illustrating the New Testament reality which the Atonement ritual was a shadow of, “Both goats were a sin offering to the Lord; one was sacrificed, whereas the other was sent off into the wilderness to convey visibly and strikingly the truth of complete removal and dismissal. […] That which was symbolized by both goats pointed to the finished work of Christ on Calvary.”
THE PURPOSE OF THE TWO GOATS
As we have noted in our discussion above, verse 5 makes abundantly clear (with no room for argument) that both of the male goats were to serve as a single sin offering. Is there another “two for one” example in the sacrificial system? Yes, there is. Leviticus 14 details the cleansing ritual for an individual with leprosy and for cleansing mildew (or leprosy) contaminated houses. In this ritual, the priest takes two birds along with some other items, slaughters one bird, dips the live bird and the additional items into the blood of the slaughtered bird, sprinkles blood on the person to be cleansed, then pronounces the person clean and releases the live bird in the countryside. The exact same ritual applies to a contaminated house. David Grabbe notes, “In considering the lesser ritual, nothing suggests that the two birds are somehow opposites or represent opposing personalities. Instead, the birds are two essentially equal elements, each chosen to serve a different role to accomplish a single purpose.
Hebrews 10:1-18 makes clear the symbolism of the Day of Atonement ritual- it was a shadow pointing to the work of Jesus on the cross. S.H. Kellogg brings the ritual full circle, “If every sacrifice pointed to Christ, this most luminously of all. What the fifty-third of Isaiah is to his Messianic prophecies, that, we may truly say, is the sixteenth of Leviticus to the whole system of Mosaic types,– the most consummate flower of the Messianic symbolism. All the sin-offerings pointed to Christ, the great High Priest and Victim of the future; but this…with a distinctness found in no other.”
Christ embodies each aspect of the Day of Atonement:
He is our High Priest who has been tested in every way that we are, yet is without sin (Hebrews 4:15) This is in direct comparison to Aaron, who had to make a sin offering for himself (the bull of Leviticus 16) before making one for the Israelites (Hebrews 5:1-10). He is “the lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) as a sacrifice for our sins and He is our scapegoat. (Isaiah 38:17, 43:25; Micah 7:19; Psalm 103:12) The single sin offering of two goats had two aspects: 1) the sacrifice for the payment of sin (propitiation); and 2) the complete removal of sin (expiation). Jesus Christ is both- John 1:29: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
While there are multiple speculations on the specific meaning of the obscure word “Azazel,” Scripture makes clear that BOTH goats were “a sin-offering.” Feinberg writes, “…the live goat was as much dedicated or set apart to the Lord as the sacrificial goat. No interpretation of the facts relative to the second goat dares to overlook that it is meant for the use of the Lord.” The two goats perfectly foreshadow the two aspects of Christ’s atoning work on the cross: 1) the payment for sin (this lot fell to the goat for sacrifice); and 2) the entire removal of sin (this lot fell to the goat to be removed). While extra-biblical sources can be good for historical understanding (and have indeed historically been utilized for that purpose), they should never be relied upon as the sole basis for interpretation of Scripture. Particularly when the interpretation derived (as in the case of Azazel identified in Leviticus 16 as Satan or a demon) does theological violence to the context of the Scripture in question.