“…the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it to send it to the wilderness as the scapegoat.” (Lev.16:10)
The word scapegoat is, in the Hebrew, for the Azazel. In the English, we read right through this passage without incident. The English translators had great difficulty with this verse though, primarily because the assumed significance of the ritual within traditional Christian interpretation is that it is a picture of the Christ and his passion. The idea presented is that Christ, who “takes away the sins of the world” (Jn.1:29), represents the “scapegoat”, who performs a similar duty for Israel before being “sent into the wilderness” (Lev.16:10,21,22). The term “scapegoat” first appeared in Tyndale’s 1530 translation, based upon the combination of the components of the word, which suggested “the goat that departs”. However, what if there is something important that is being ignored with that simple and convenient interpretation?
The translators render in the English (NASB) “send it to the wilderness” what in the Hebrew is לשלח אתו לעזאזל (to send it to Azazel). How could the translation be so different?
It could very well be because Azazel is a name for something or someone or a place, which does not have an equivalent in the English language.
There are three principle interpretations in traditional Jewish thought regarding this. The first suggests that azazel is a place, representing a “steep, rocky or hard place”. This is based on the rabbinic accounts of what happened to the goat when it was “sent away”. It was pushed, backwards, off a steep cliff that was home to jagged rocks and unforgiving terrain, and would tumble to it’s bloody and gruesome death along the way.
The second interpretation is more subtle. It is suggested explicitly by Nahmanides (The Ramban) who wrote during the 13th Century, and who claimed that:
“Azazel was the name of a spirit or demon, one of the fallen angels referred to in Gen.6:2, similar to the goat-spirit called Pan in Greek mythology…(citing as his proof) “They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols after whom they go astray” (Lev.17:7). Azazel…is the name of a demon…sometimes called Satan…This way of understanding the rite is similar to the saying on the part of the sages that we blow shofar in a double cycle on Rosh Hashanah “to confuse Satan.” (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b) – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Leviticus: The Book of Holiness”, Maggid books, pg.248)
The third interpretation, which has already been alluded to, was what Tyndale exploited in his then-illegal translation of the Hebrew Bible, which is that it meant “goat which was sent away”.
True to form, one popular Christian commentary has this to say about these theories:
“There is nothing in scripture…to indicate that Satan or his demons carried out an atoning function.” (New American Commentary, Leviticus (Rooker), pg.216)
Of course not. That would be just plain confusing, now wouldn’t it?
In fact, there actually is scriptural evidence for a form of atonement in the Bible involving demons, such as we see in the ritual of Yom Kippur.
As Rabbi Sacks explains, in his essay “The Scapegoat: Shame and Guilt” (referenced above), there is an aspect of Satan as the accuser which demands that we deal with him, or the concept of what the Satan represents, if we are to be free from the specter of the sins which dog our conscience:
“Expiation demands a ritual, some dramatic representation of the removal of sin and the wiping clean of the past…Shame is a social phenomenon…(it is) the feeling of being found out, and our first instinct is to hide….Guilt is (personal). (It is) the voice of conscience…guilt is self-knowledge. Shame attaches to the person, while guilt attaches to the act…On Yom Kippur (which is both an individual as well as a communal event, the ordinance) deals not only with our sins as individuals. It also confronts our sins as a community…It deals, in other words, with the social as well as the personal dimension…” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Leviticus: The Book of Holiness”, pg.250-251
So, Yom Kippur deals with both personal guilt and public, communal shame. It is important to note, that just like most Levitical sacrifices, the actual offering cleanses the sanctified space of the Temple, but in the case of Yom Kippur, the Azazel atones for the sins of the people, even though the “scapegoat” is not a sacrifice at all, but is “sent away into the wilderness”, outside the camp.
In like manner, Yeshua was not a sacrifice either. This is one reason among many why his death and resurrection doesn’t annul the Aaronic Priesthood or the Temple service. Rather, he is brought outside the camp.
“…who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb.12:2)
But the Azazel must be dealt with. We cannot make the ages-long interpretive mistake of simply conflating the atonement of the Messiah with the Azazel goat of Yom Kippur. While there are certainly interesting overlapping elements, there is something here for us to see.
“The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught that the sacrifice of Azazel is meant to atone for the sins of עריות, sexual debauchery (Yoma 67b). These were said to be מעשה עוזה ועזאל, the work of fallen angels, from whom the name Azazel is taken. However, the halachah concludes that the scapegoat absolves all sins, great and small, except for טומאת מקדש וקדשיו, contamination of the Sanctuary and its holies (sacrifices), which were atoned for by the other he-goat (Shavuot 2b). – Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah: Vayikra”, pg.176
This is referencing the enigmatic passage in Genesis 6:2, which tells us that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves.”
This passage is problematic in the extreme in traditional Christian interpretation, since it does not fit into the sterilized, simple worldview of Christian thinking. Generally, the immediate implications of higher-level beings is dismissed in favor of some other, more reasonable view, such as the idea of esteemed men, or chieftains. However, the Jewish interpretation does not shirk the plain meaning of the text in this instance, putting it’s collective finger on the story.
The midrash claims that Azazel still causes the world to sin with regard to prohibited sexual relations (see Rashi). Some commentaries point out that the connection between prohibited sexual relations and the scapegoat which is sent to Azazel is that through prohibited sexual relations a man’s seed is deposited in a place where it does not belong, and so too, the goat that is sent to Azazel is sacrificed in the desert instead of in a sacred place (Iyyun Ya’akov) – from the notes section of the Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, Yoma 67b
So the idea is that Yom Kippur is not only dealing with personal guilt from sin, but also community shame; the type of shame created by exposure of illicit sexual deviancy.
This sexual deviancy, as we see from the Jewish tradition, is initiated by fallen angels.
This concept is elaborated upon in the book of Enoch:
“And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’…” (Enoch 6:1-3)
The ultimate judgment upon these fallen angels is detailed later in the book:
“…The LORD said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there forever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.” (Enoch 10:4-7)
So it appears, in the scapegoat ceremony of Yom Kippur, that there is an allusion to this incident in Gen.6:2, and that there is a judgment, and a casting away outside the camp, of the presence of fallen angels that lead the people into sin and defilement, causing shame. And in the Christian testimony, this equates Yeshua with the fallen angel Azazel:
While there is no record in the gospel accounts of the details of how they crucified Yeshua, we know from historical record that they pierced his hands and feet and nailed him to the cross (a Roman execution ritual, not Jewish, which is important to mention).
“For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet.” (Ps.22:16)
Similarly, we have the legend of Isaac, the Akidah, which depicts this same pictoral scene:
“According to (the Midrash Tanchuma), Isaac asked Abraham to bind him lest he involuntarily flinch, causing the knife to stray and thereby invalidating the sacrifice…In the midrash, Isaac says, “Father, bind me hand and foot because the will to live is strong. When I see the knife approaching, I might involuntarily withdraw…Akedah means “binding”.” – D.Thomas Lancaster, “Shadows of the Messiah”, First Fruits of Zion, pg.85)
Lancaster goes on to point out that, in the Zohar, Azazel is used as a euphemism for Satan.
The important thing to recognize here is that, contrary to the common Christian interpretation, Yeshua does not “manifest” as the scapegoat. Rather, there is a removal of the accuser, so that God’s people may approach God without the distraction and shame of their iniquities being brought forth publicly. They are “removed as the east is from the west”.
“As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps.103:12)
Let’s bring the distinction home, for those who are weary of the discussion:
“Rabbi Eliezar sees the he-goat sent to Azazel not as a sacrifice but as a gift directed by HaShem, which will have the effect of causing the demon to revert from its normal role as an accuser of the Jewish people and instead to testify in their favor…This symbolism is meant to teach us that on the day on which our destiny is being decided, it is not enough that we have forgiveness and love from HaShem – we must also repel the threats from hostile and demonic forces that rise up against us in society or lie in wait for us in nature…Does not the example of Job show us that every man, even the most illustrious, remains at the mercy of Satan’s cunning attack – even though Satan himself is only one of the servants of God?” – Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah: Vayikra“, Artscroll, pg.177)
It is, after all, symbolic, ceremonial. It is not as though the demon offers atonement, but in the sense that the demon is scapegoated by the ritual, the shame of the people is removed.
It is interesting to note that similar imagery exists very plainly in the gospel account.
“The demons began to entreat him, saying, ‘If you are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ And they came out and went into the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the waters.” (Matt.8:31-32)
In the days of the Roman occupation, there was a daily sacrifice on behalf of the Ceasar. This was a placation, more than an atonement, and it served to distract the triumphant victor from the persecution of his subject nation. It procured good will and mercy.
This reminds us of another, very difficult passage:
“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’…” (Matt.12:43-44)
The ritual of the scapegoat was not considered complete until it was verified that the goat had died. Or, at the least, that it had disappeared beyond the horizon.
The important thing is perseverence. Not “backsliding” into apostasy.
The fallen angel, Azazel, is out there, in the wilderness. Waiting for us to turn our attention away from our God and onto him. But he has been cast away, shunned, sent outside the camp, made to be shame for us, that we may be at peace.
But the price is everything, before the cloth turns white.