After our rather lengthy digression into the unclean, we are now ready to pick up the narrative where we left off in Leviticus 10. After Aaron’s two sons died, Aaron is next bidden to return to the tabernacle with incense, which as Skeptic’s Journey points out, must have been rather difficult for the poor guy:

Doing that process must have reminded him so tragically of the death of his sons who burned the wrong incense. Can you imagine the fear and anxiety you would have trying to make sure the incense was made perfectly after witnessing your sons die because of it?

There are two traditions of the Day of Atonement woven together, and this is one instance where the difference in writing style shines through even in English. One is the same, boring, instruction manual that we’ve been seeing, but the other is actually quite poetic. And, as usual when multiple traditions are woven together, we get a lot of repetition.

The Ritual

Because this section is made up of at least two different traditions jumbled together, it can be a little tricky to figure out the exact order of things. But, in essence, the ritual is conducted as follows:

  1. The high priest (still personified as Aaron) must prepare himself by washing and putting on his special goat-killing suit.
  2. Aaron must make a sin offering of a bull to atone for “himself and for his house” (Lev. 16:6). I assume that “his house” here refers broadly to the entire Levite priesthood, rather than to the priest’s family specifically or his literal house.
  3. The high priest must then take two goats and sing ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ over them to determine which gets to be given to God and which goes to Azazel.
  4. The blood from the bull and the Lord’s goat are splashed about, as priests are wont to do.
  5. Aaron must lay his hands on Azazel’s goat and “confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Lev. 16:21).
  6. The goat is then sent into the wilderness.
  7. Aaron must remove his special goat-abandonment clothes and wash himself again. The person who did the actual abandoning of the goat must also wash himself.
  8. It looks like the carcasses of the bull and Lord’s goat are taken up again, their fat burned and their blood splashed around for a second time; though it’s possible that all the blood-splashing is supposed to take place at once.

According to Victor Matthews (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p. 158), the Day of Atonement is not unique:

There are Near Eastern parallels to the events prescribed for the Day of Atonement. For instance, purification rituals during the Babylonian New Year’s festival include the decapitation of a ram, and the wiping of the carcass on the temple precincts. Whatever the origins, the Day of Atonement eventually became one of the most solemn rituals in the Jewish calendar.

Azazel and the Scapegoat

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854

I first encountered Azazel while reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In the book, Satan comes to Moscow and wreaks a little havoc while a novelist – known only as The Master – is persecuted by the Soviet government after a false report by a neighbour. In the novel, one of Satan’s associates is Azazello, a fanged assassin.

Azazel is also mentioned in Enoch 8, where he is a “Watcher” (thought to be a term referring to angels) who comes to earth and teaches humans to make weapons, armour, mirrors, jewellery, and makeup. Because of this: “Impiety increased; fornication multiplied; and they transgressed and corrupted all their ways.” (Enoch 8:2).

One thing that interested me in comparing Enoch to Leviticus is that the Leviticus version of Azazel seems to be a demon, while the Enoch version seems to be an angel. Of course, the words “angel” and “demon” are not used in either text, and the distinction between the two is a tangled theological mess. I think that later tradition trying to harmonize the two traditions would simply say that Azazel was one of Satan’s rebel angels who, after he became a demon, got a job eating goats in a fine sin sauce.

You may be interested to know that Leviticus 16 is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Or, more specifically, it comes from a mistranslation in Tyndale’s 16th century English Bible. According to Word Origins, he took “azazel” not as a personal name, but as the words “ez ozel,” literally “the goat that departs/escapes.” The term “scapegoat” itself was coined by Tyndale, but seems not to have been used in its current, broader sense until the 19th century.

The King James Bible still uses the term “scapegoat,” while most recent translations have switched to using “Azazel” as a proper name.

According to Mike Heiser, the interpretation that takes Azazel as a personal name is the correct one, given the juxtaposition with the other animal being “for God.”

As for the question of whether this constitutes a sacrifice to a second god or demonic force, Heiser responds:

It is important to note that this goat was not a sacrifice—it was not sent into the wilderness as an act of sacrifice to a foreign god or demon. Rather, the act of sending the live goat out into the wilderness—unholy ground—was to send the sins of the people where they belonged—the demonic domain. By contrasting purified access to the true God of the first goat with the goat sent to the domain of demons, the identity of the true God and his mercy and holiness was visually reinforced.