Azazel (Heb. עֲזָאזֵל) is the name of the place or the “power” (see below) to which one of the goats in the Temple service of the Day of Atonement was sent. There is a great deal of confusion regarding the exact meaning of the word. The name appears in Leviticus (16:8–10): “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the Lord, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.”
The goat which was dispatched to Azazel was not a sacrifice since it was not slaughtered. From the actual verses themselves it is not even certain whether the goat was killed; thus, it seems that the two goats can be compared to the two birds used in the purification ritual of the leper. Just as there one of the birds is set free to fly over the field (Lev. 14:4–7), so here too the goat of Azazel was sent into the wilderness. The goat was dispatched to carry the sins of Israel into the wilderness, i.e., to cleanse the people of their sins. This is also the reason why the ritual took place on the Day of Atonement.
The idea that the goat was loaded with the sins of Israel is expressed in the Mishnah (Yoma 6:4) which relates that the Babylonians (or the Alexandrians) used to pluck the hair of the goat and proclaim “Take and go” which is explained as meaning “why is this goat waiting here when the sins of the generation are many and are upon them” (Yoma 66b., cf. the text cited by R. Hananel ad loc.).
A detailed description of the ritual in the Second Temple is found in the Mishnah in the general description of the avodah of the Day of Atonement: the high priest cast lots – upon one the word L-YHWH (“For the Lord”) was written and upon the other La-ʿAzazel (“For Azazel”). Afterward he drew lots and on the head of the goat chosen for Azazel he bound a thread of crimson wool and stood the animal opposite the gate through which it would ultimately be taken (Yoma 4:1–2). After the high priest had performed several other rituals he returned to the goat, placed his hands on it and confessed: “O God, Thy people, the house of Israel, has sinned and transgressed before Thee….” He then handed the goat over to the person who was going to take it, called Iʾsh ʿItti (Lev. 16:21), i.e., the man who had been prepared for that time (et). Although any Jew was qualified to fulfill this function, the high priests did not allow non-priests to do it (Yoma 6:3). When the Iʾsh ʿItti reached the cliff, he pushed the goat over it backward and it hardly reached the halfway mark in its descent before it was completely dismembered (Yoma 6:2–6).
It seems that even in the time of the Second Temple when they used to kill the goat, its actual death was not considered indispensable since, as soon as the goat reached the desert, the high priest was permitted to continue with the divine service and was not required to wait until the goat was killed. It is possible that the goat was killed to ensure that it would not return – laden with the sins – to inhabited places.
There have been efforts to compare the ritual of the goat to several customs of the ancient world. In Babylonia, for instance, it was customary on the festival of Akītu (the New Year) to give a goat as a substitute for a human being (pūḫ) to Ereshkigal (the goddess of the abyss). In an Akkadian magical inscription from the city of Assur which deals with the cure for a man who is unable to eat and drink, it is prescribed that a goat should be tied to his bed and that thus the sickness will pass to the goat. On the following morning, the goat is to be taken to the desert and decapitated. Its flesh is then cooked and put in a pit together with honey and oil, perhaps as an offering to the demons.
During plagues, the Hittites used to send a goat into enemy territory in order that it should carry the plague there. On the head of the goat, they would bind a crown made of colored wool, comparable perhaps to the thread of crimson wool which was tied to the head of the goat in the Second Temple period (Yoma 4:2). In the Hellenistic world there were also “scapegoat” rituals, but they had the custom to take a man as “scapegoat” and not an animal. In some places these rituals were performed in times of trouble, in others at fixed appointed times of the year. However, in the Hellenistic world the important part of the ceremony was not the killing of the “scapegoat,” but it’s being sent out of the city and indeed, in some places, it was not even killed.
The exact meaning of Azazel was a point of dispute already in the times of the Talmudic sages: some held that it is the name of the place to which the goat was sent, while others believed that it was the name of some “power.” According to the first opinion, 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.
The second opinion, which sees Azazel as a supernatural power, also treats the word as though it were written עַזָזֵאל. This opinion is based on Leviticus (16:8): “One lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel,” i.e., just as the first goat is set aside for the Lord so the second is set aside for Azazel, Azazel being a parallel to the Lord (cf. PdRE ch. 46, p. 111a). God gets a burnt offering while Azazel gets a sin offering. This view is reinforced by the widespread belief that the wilderness was the habitat of demons (see Lev. 13:21; 34:14; esp. Lev. 17:7). The demonic identification would indicate that the original purpose of the ritual was to get rid of the evil by banishing it to its original source.
Ibn Ezra and Naḥmanides both interpret Azazel as the name of the goat and this view is also found in the Talmud: “The school of Rabbi Ishmael explained it is called Azazel because it atones for the acts of the fallen angels Uzza and Azael” (Yoma 67b, cf. Targ. Jon., Gen. 6:1; Deut. R. 11:10).
In the various Greek translations of the Bible and the Vulgate the word Azazel is interpreted in a different form – as being made up of the word עֵז (“goat”) and the Aramaic root אזל (“to go”) thus making “the goat which goes.” The Septuagint has χίμαρον… ὲπ᾽ αὑτὸν ὸ κλῆρος τοῦ άποπομπαίου (Lev. 16:10, cf. 8, i.e., the goat on which went the lot of dismissal); also, verse 26, i.e., the goat which goes free. Symmachus has τράγως ἁπερχόμενος and the Vulgate caper emissarius.
David Kimḥi in his Book of Roots explains the word as being the name of the mountain to which the goat was taken, and the mount was so called because the goat was taken there. Latterly N.H. Tur Sinai has explained the word as meaning a wild goat.
In the retelling of the story of the sons of God and daughters of men (Gen. 6:1–4) in the First Book of Enoch, Azazel (or Azael) is one of the leaders of the angels who desired the daughters of men (6:4), and it was he who taught human beings how to manufacture weapons and ornaments (8:1–2). The identification of this Azazel with the biblical Azazel is clear from the continuation of the story, as the angel Raphael is commanded to “bind the hands and feet of Azazel and cast him into the darkness. Make an opening to the wilderness which is in Dudael and cast him there. Put upon him hard sharp rocks” (10:4–5). Dudael is the Bet Hadudo (or Bet Harudo) which is mentioned in the Mishnah (Yoma 6:8) and the association is certainly with the cliff from which the goat was cast.
The remnant of a pesher (commentary) on Azazel and the angels found in Cave 4 at Qumran resembles the account in the Book of Enoch. Although the remnant is deficient, it is possible to learn from it that the pesher is dealing with Azazel and the angels who lusted after the daughters of men so that they might bear them strong men, and that Azazel taught human beings how to deal wickedly. Azael is also identified with Azazel in several late Midrashim (cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 44; Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, vol. 4, p. 127). Azazel also appears in the Apocalypse of Abraham where he takes the form of a fallen angel.
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