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Azazel and the “Scapegoat” (Leviticus 16)

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsOften we encounter sections and practices in the Old Testament that seem very strange to us. It should not be surprising that some of these can be clarified with knowledge gleaned from the ancient Near East. In what is arguably the most important ritual for ancient Israelites, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the people are instructed to designate one goat as a "scapegoat"—a ancient attempt to render an obscure Hebrew word, Azazel. In his Leviticus contribution to ZIBBCOT, ritual specialist Roy Gane writes:

Rather than the traditional "scapegoat" translating la ‘aza,zel here, we should read instead "to Azazel" (NRSV; NJB).1 We know that aza,zel should be the proper name of a party capable of ownership because a lot ceremony designated one goat layhwh, "belonging to Yahweh," and the other goat as la ‘aza,zel , "belonging to Azazel" (16:8). However, we do not know what the name "Azazel" means.2

A number of scholars have attempted to answer the question by reconstructing etymologies based on ancient Near Eastern parallels. For example, in accord with the rabbinic tradition that during the Second Temple period Azazel’s goat was driven over a cliff to its death (m. Yoma 6:6), G. R. Driver took Azazel to mean "jagged rocks/precipice," derived from the Semitic root ‘zz, from which also comes the Arabic word ‘azâzu(n), "rough ground."3 O. Loretz suggests a linguistic relation between Azazel and the Ugaritic divine name ‘zb‘l.4 Based on their interpretation of the Hurrian term aza/ushri in light of Akkadian use of the root ‘zz, which refers to divine anger, B. Janowski, and G. Wilhelm interpret the "Azazel" ritual as expulsion of a goat in order to overcome divine anger.5

If Azazel is a proper name, la ‘aza,zel in 16:10 following the words "by sending it into the desert" most naturally indicates the one to whom the live goat is sent: "to Azazel" (cf. 16:26). This rules out the common interpretation of aza,zel as "(e)scapegoat," referring to the goat itself. Obviously the goat would not be sent "to the scapegoat."6

The fact that Yahweh, owner of the goat slain as a purification offering (16:9, 15), is supernatural suggests that Azazel, owner of the live goat, is also some kind of supernatural being. Because transporting a load of Israelite toxic waste, consisting of moral faults, to Azazel in the wilderness and abandoning it there by the command of Yahweh (16:10, 22; cf. Zech 5:5–11) is a singularly unfriendly gesture, it appears that Azazel is Yahweh’s enemy.7 Therefore, Azazel is most likely some kind of demon (so Jewish tradition recorded in 1 En. 10:4–5), who dwells in an uninhabited region (cf. Lev. 17:7; Isa. 13:21; 34:14; Luke 11:24; Rev. 18:2).8

The biblical ritual expels moral faults to Azazel, who is apparently the ultimate source of their sins (cf. Gen. 3; Rev. 12:9). By contrast, non-Israelite rituals involving demons were concerned with expelling the demons themselves.9 For example, a ritual for purifying the Ezida shrine of the god Nabû on the fifth day of the Babylonian New Year Festival of Spring began by covering the shrine with a golden canopy. Then the high priest and a group of artisans recited an incantation invoking the gods to exorcise demons who could be lurking there: "Marduk purifies the temple, Kusu designs the plan, and Ningirim casts the spell. Whatever evil resides in this temple, get out! Great demon, may Bel kill you! May you be cut down wherever you are!"10 The Israelites didn’t need to worry about such demons because the Lord’s Presence would keep them away. The people’s concern was to acknowledge and banish the sins they had committed.

Azazel’s nonsacrificial "tote" goat (NIV translates "scapegoat") served as a ritual "garbage truck" to purge the Israelite community of moral faults through a process of transfer and disposal.11 Other ancient Near Eastern rituals included transfer and disposal. For example, the Hittite Ambazzi and Huwarlu rituals closely parallel the Israelite ritual "in that they use live animals as bearers of the evil and lack the motif of substitution."12 The "Ritual of Ambazzi" to rid people of "evil sickness" and "evil tension" goes as follows:

She wraps a little tin on the bowstring. She puts it on the right hand (and) feet of the offerers. Then she takes it away and puts it on a mouse (saying): "I have taken away from you evil and I have put it on the mouse. Let this mouse take it to the high mountains, the deep valleys (and) the distant ways." She lets the mouse go (saying): "Alawaimi, drive this (mouse) forth, and I will give to you a goat to eat." [Offerings to Alawaimi and other gods follow.]13

Unlike the biblical ritual, a deity is entreated (by words and sacrifice) for help in getting rid of the animal bearing the evil.14

The "Ritual of Huwarlu" had the purpose of removing an evil "magical word" from the king and queen and from their palace. A small live dog was waved over the couple and inside the palace in order to transfer the evil to the animal. Then an old woman uttered an incantation expressing the dog’s ability to bear the evil, and the animal was taken away to a location regarded as designated by the gods. By contrast, the oral component of the Israelite ritual was confession (by the high priest; Lev. 16:21) rather than an incantation, and the power of the biblical procedure was from the Lord rather than magical in nature.15 Nevertheless, acting out transfer and disposal provided powerful assurance to the Israelites that their community was freed from the sins they had committed during the past year. (Excerpt from Roy Gane, Leviticus in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, forthcoming)

In this case, information from the ancient Near East helps us to see that rituals of elimination (which is what Yom Kippur is) were common enough in the ancient world. Furthermore, that the offenses would be sent out to a wilderness chaos entity resonates well with ancient Near Eastern conceptions. These similarities show that these rituals share a broad familiarity in the ancient world. At the same time, the Israelite rituals focused on cleansing sacred space from the offenses of the people rather than from demonic powers.

0310255724 Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 See also Milgrom, Leviticus 23–27, 1921; cf. NJPS: "for Azazel."

2 For surveys of suggested explanations, see B. Levine, Leviticus (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 250–53; Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 21–22; Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1020–21; A. Treiyer, The Day of Atonement and the Heavenly Judgment from the Pentateuch to Revelation (Siloam Springs, AR: Creation Enterprises International, 1992), 231–58.

3 G. R. Driver, "Three Technical Terms in the Pentateuch," JSS 1 (1956): 98.

4 Loretz, Leberschau, 56–57.

5 B. Janowski, and G. Wilhelm, "Der Bock, der die Sünden hinausträgt: Zur Religionsgeschichte des Azazel–Ritus Lev 16,10.21f," in Religionsgechichtliche Beziehungen zwischen Kleinasien, Nordsyrien und dem Alten Testament, ed. B. Janowski, K. Koch, and G. Wilhelm (OBO 129; Freiburg/Göttingen: Universitätsverlag/Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993), 134–62.

6 C. D. Ginsburg, Leviticus (The Handy Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 151; cf. S. R. Driver and H. A. White, The Book of Leviticus (SBONT; New York: Dodd, Mead, 1898), 81.

7 R. Gane, Altar Call (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Diadem, 1999), 248–50; Gane, Cult and Character, ch. 11.

8 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. R. Togtman (BSC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 162–63; B. Levine, "Leviticus, Book of," ABD, 4:315. For Babylonian belief in alu-demons who lived in deserted wastelands, see CAD, 1:376. On the Azazel episode in 1 Enoch, see P. D. Hanson, "Rebellion in Heaven, Azazel, and Euhemeristic Heroes in 1 Enoch 6–11," JBL 96 (1977): 220–27.

9 Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, trans. and abridged M. Greenberg (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), 114.

10 Cohen, Cultic Calendars, 446; see also ANET, 334.

11 See further in Gane, Cult and Character, ch. 11; Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 273–74, 288–91.

12 David P. Wright, "Day of Atonement," ABD, 2:74.

13 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 57. For analysis of the Israelite "scapegoat" ritual in relation to a number of Hittite and Mesopotamian parallels, see 15–74. For an apparent Ugaritic parallel, in which an elimination ritual involves driving a goat away to a far place, see K. Aartun, "Eine weitere Parallele aus Ugarit zur kultischen Praxis in Israels Religion," BO 33 (1976): 288; O. Loretz, Leberschau, Sündenbock, Asasel in Ugarit und Israel (UBL; Altenberge: CIS–Verlag, 1985), 35–49.

14 Wright, Disposal of Impurity, 58.

15 Ibid., 58–60; cf. H. Hoffner, "Hittite-Israelite Cultural Parallels," in COS, 3:xxxii; see also Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas on the "scapegoat" concept in the ancient Near East, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 131.

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