Azazel is a Jewish demon or evil spirit, who, according to Jewish legends was sent as a scapegoat bearing the sins of the Jewish people in the ancient Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) ritual. The ritual involved two male goats, one for Azazel and one for the Lord. The Mishna describes the ritual as being performed by the Second Temple’s high priest. The high priest had symbolically given all the sins of the Jewish people over to the scapegoat. After that, Azazel drove the goat into the wilderness and threw it over the edge to its final fate. Azazel, who was often described in later rabbinic writings as an angel of death, was the personification for uncleanness.
Azazel In Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible mentions Azazel three times in Leviticus 16. Two male goats were to have their sacrifices to Yahweh. One of them was chosen by lot. Yahweh is viewed as speaking through the lotteries. Azazel receives one goat by lot and sends it into the wilderness. The Yom Kippur ritual saw this goat being cast out into the desert. It can be traced back to the 24th Century BC Ebla, where it spread across the ancient Near East.
Azazel In Judaism
The Mishnah is based on the Hebrew Bible text. Two goats were purchased, identical in appearance, height, cost, time of selection, and time of purchase. The high priest had one on his right and one on his left. Two subordinates assisted him in this ritual. He then put his hands in a wooden box and pulled out two labels. One was inscribed “for Yahweh” while the other was “for Azazel”. The high priest placed the labels on the goats and spoke the Tetragrammaton. His two companions then replied, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” He then attached a scarlet woolen string to the goat’s head “for Azazel”, and, after reciting the confession and praying for forgiveness, the two men accompanying him said, “O Lord, My household and the sons and daughters of Aaron Thy holy ones have sinned before thee.” O Lord, forgive my sins and transgressions.
The congregation responded to this prayer. One man, usually a priest, was chosen to carry the goat to the wilderness precipice. He was also accompanied by some of the most prominent men from Jerusalem. Ten booths were constructed along the road from Jerusalem to the top of the mountain. Each one offered food and drinks to the goat-leading man. He refused. The tenth booth was reached and the companions stopped following him, instead of watching the ceremony from afar. He reached the precipice and divided the scarlet thread in two, one of which was tied to the rock, the other to his goat’s ears, before pushing the goat down. Before the goat reached half of the distance to the plain below it was utterly broken. The men were placed at various points along the route and signaled to each other with flags or kerchiefs as soon as the goat was dropped down the precipice. Once that information reached the high priest, he then proceeded with the rest of the ritual.
The symbolism of the scarlet thread can be found in Isaiah 1.18. According to the Talmud, during the forty-year period that Simeon was High Priest of Israel, it actually became white when the goat was thrown over a precipice. This was a sign that the people’s sins were forgiven. Later, the color change was not constant. This was a sign of people’s spiritual and moral decline, which was gradual until the destruction of the Second Temple forty years later.
Azazel In Christianity
The Vulgate does not mention “Azazel”, but only caper emissarius or “emissary cow” in its text.
English versions such as the King James Version followed the Septuagint or Vulgate when understanding the term in relation to a goat. The footnote in the English Standard Version is “16:8” The meaning of Azazel remains ambiguous. It could be the name of a person or demon. Also verses 10, 26, and 10. Judit M.Blair notes that while most scholars accept the suggestion of some demon or deity, this argument is not supported by contemporary text evidence.
Ida Zatelli (1998) suggested that the Hebrew ritual is similar to the pagan practice, which involves sending a scapegoat in the desert at the occasion of a royal marriage. These texts are found in Ebla’s ritual texts (24th C. BC) The community drove a she-goat wearing a silver bracelet around her neck into the desert of “Alini” by their community. An “Azazel” is not mentioned.
According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Azazel is Hebrew for “scapegoat”. This is the only Hebrew word found in the entire Hebrew Old Testament. The Book of Enoch (extrabiblical Jewish theological literature) is said to be dated at 200 B.C. It is filled with demonology and references to fallen angels. The EBC (Vol 2) states that this text uses late Aramaic forms of these names. This indicates that The Book of Enoch is more dependent upon the Hebrew Leviticus than on the Leviticus text.
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