Azazel and Yom Kippur: Understanding the Scapegoat of Leviticus 16

By Billy Doolittle


Leviticus 16 most notably gives the origin of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day in which Israel atones for their sin. Two sacrifices occur within Leviticus 16. Aaron is commanded by the Lord to sacrifice a bull and sprinkle its blood on the mercy seat. The blood of that bull atones for Aaron’s sin (Lev 16:11). Then, he sacrifices a goat for the people’s transgression and to atone for the “Holy Place” (Lev 16:16-17) because Israel’s sin infected the Tent of Meeting. Aaron then is commanded to take a second goat, lay both his hands on the goat, and confess all of the sins of Israel on the goat and send it into the wilderness to “לַעֲזָאזֵֽל” (Azazel; Lev 16:8,10,21). “Israel’s sins were thus carried away” out of the camp and into the wilderness. Being that “Azazel” only occurs in scripture within this chapter, great mystery surrounds the goat that was sent into the wilderness.

“Azazel” can not truly be considered a hapax legomena due to its existence within the Apocalypse of Abraham, 1 Enoch, and several locations within the Mishnah and Targums.[1]  However frequent this word’s usage, no true meaning of the term has been defined. This current work will argue that “Azazel” is a descriptive compound, describing the function of the goat in its present context yet in the form of a proper name.

Ancient Jewish literature points toward the understanding that Azazel was a demonic warlord threatening civilization by leading them into unrighteousness.[2] Chapters 8-10 of 1 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal book written around 300-1 BC, describe Azazel as the main character. Azazel in chapter 8 is presented as an evil leader who taught people to make weapons and armor, as well as a teacher of appealing looks like “beautifying the eyelids.” Due to Azazel’s teachings, much fornication and evil entered the land, which caused all the evil in the world to be attributed to Azazel (1 Enoch 9:6). Azazel becomes condemned and later prophesied as thrown into the darkness with his feet and hands bound (10:4). Like the goat in Lev 16, the sins of man are ascribed to Azazel and he is cast into darkness. This apocalyptic picture pronounces future judgment of evil using “Azazel” presented as a sort of fan-fiction on the goat cast into the wilderness. The Apocalypse of Abraham also sees Azazel as a demon which tempts the righteous and caused unrighteousness.  The three places this word occurs in the Mishnah offers no definitive meaning of the word.[3]

1 Enoch 10:8-9 is an echo of Aaron confessing the sins of Israel to the demonic teacher, saying “And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin” (emphasis added) just as Aaron had ascribed all the sin of Israel to the goat sent to Azazel (Lev 16:21). 1 Enoch interprets the words of Lev 16. However, 1 Enoch indicates Azazel as the father of evil. This draws a parallel with 1 Enoch 9:6 and the times before Noah. Enoch existed on Earth in the time before Noah (Gen 4:17, 18). There are no indications that the book was written by the actual Enoch of the Gen 4 lineage; however, the authors intended the book to be read in that manner.

Within modern translations of the  Bible, Azazel is referring to “goat-demons” in Lev 17:7. Several English versions translate this to mean both goat and demon (see figure 1 below) so the possibility for “שֵׂעִיר” to mean “demon” does exist. However, this term is used in the plural in the context of idolatry (Lev 17:7). Lev 17:7 isn’t referring to goat-demons at all.  The word is simply “goat” used in the plural. The word “שֵׂעִ֖יר”  is common for the word goat and its used for goat in chapter 16 and the rest of the Bible. Goat-demons is an interpretive translation of the plural “goat” giving no indication for “goat-demons.” “לַשְּׂעִירִ֕ם” reads simply “goats.” The problem with Azazel being a demon is that demons do not atone for Israel’s sin, Israel’s sin is atoned towards God, not Azazel (Lev 16:10).[4]

Figure 1:


ESV, NASB, HCSB goat-demons
NIV goat idols

Azazel, in the immediate context, communicates the action of the passage. The people’s sins are atoned by the “goat going off” into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. Azazel being a place or person within the text is still possible being the Bible has a history of names being given according to the action which takes place, whether person or place. Azazel is a compound of the word עֵ֖ז meaning “goat” and  אֵזֶל meaning “to go off” (peal). The etymology of a word does not necessarily define the word.[5] Instead, the usage of the word reveals a proper noun as a person or a place. The etymology of these two words reveal a common structure used in names to denote the action of the passage.[6] However, the LXX translates Azazel as  “ἀποπομπαίῳ” which means “carrying away evil.” This is similar to BDB’s definition “entire removal.” This definition then comes from the function which the goat served within the passage. The LXX’s offers a more definitive definition by which the word is used for, although the term “scapegoat” which “Azazel” is often translated to carry the same definition. The scapegoat functions as an atonement for Israel’s sin. “Scapegoat” is used to translate “לַעֲזָאזֵֽל” due to the goat being sent from the camp bearing the sins of the people. This does not however necessitate “לַעֲזָאזֵֽל” to be translated as scapegoat.

The direction which the goat is sent off to is of importance. The same “אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ” which the goat is sent to in Lev 16:22[7] bears similarities with the land which Abraham sent his sons he had made with his concubines  “אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ” with his gifts (Gen 25:6) and the “broad land” ( אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ) which God promised to Moses at the burning bush (Exo 3:8).  This is the land which the Lord had promised to Abraham (Gen 12:7;15:18) and the land which bore the Garden in Eden (Gen 2:10-14).[8] This is the land guarded by the angel and the sword which Joshua encountered after Jericho (Jos 6:13-15). The land is the salvation of Israel and the hope of the coming kingdom to live in rest with God. The gloom of Israel’s fallenness often leaves a drought in mind of the reader but the atonement instruction given to them offers hope of a future in the good land. The reader is left with a sense that the goat wanders off into the desert which the Israelites had wandered awaiting the coming the land.  The goat travels this “land” which is “cut off.” The passage can give the impression that the “land” was an area which was surrounded by cliffs. Yoma 6:6 interprets this as the goat being pushed off the side of one of these cliffs, however the evidence of this within the text itself is weak.[9] No information is given about what happens to the goat after it is led into the wilderness, only that the man who let the goat go to Azazel is to cleanse himself (Lev 16:26).

Although Azazel remains to be a mysterious term, it sheds light on the atonement of sin that await Israel in the coming land. Azazel is a term created by the author to describe the action which the goat served. By it being a proper noun, many have come to think of it as being a demon, as early Jewish writing have shown. If Azazel can not be a demon given the impression of the goat being offered as penance to a being other than the Lord, as if the Lord had his hands tied to offer an atonement to Satan. This simply is not the case. Instead, the name shows what the action of the goat served. Finally, Israel is cleansed by the sacrifice and the “scapegoat” that is offered to the Lord is not a sacrifice to “goats” (Lev 17:7).

[1] For a detailed history of Azazel in early Jewish writings please see Helm, Robert. “Azazel in Early Jewish Tradition.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 32.3 (1994).

[2] Helm, Robert. “Azazel in Early Jewish Tradition.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 32.3 (1994).

[3] Ibid. The meaning of Azazel as given in BDB “entire removal” is based on the result of the goat leaving with the sin of Israel into the wilderness. See BDB 5799.

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, The New International Commentary On the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979), 234.

[5] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 87-89.

[6] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 87-89.

[7] “Remote area” in the ESV

[8] Please see John H. Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah Books, 1996).

[9] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, The New International Commentary On the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979), 234.

Billy Doolittle is a graduate and former Garrett Fellow at Boyce College. He is married to Brittany Doolittle and is a member of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.  You can follow Billy Doolittle on twitter @BillyDoolittle



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