For those of you who read Leviticus closely, you may have wondered about the passage we’ll discuss today. Leviticus 16:8 (ESV) reports the Lord commanding Moses:
And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.
“But wait,” you say, “my Bible (i.e. NIV, KJV, etc.) says the other lot is for the scapegoat. What’s this Azazel?” This is exactly the problem. As I’ve indicated in the past, some Bible translations unfortunately obscure a deeper meaning in the original Hebrew text.
When we look at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, these two definitions are given for scapegoat:
- a male goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur
- one that bears the blame for others
This provides some reasoning behind the ceremony, but not enough. This goat is sent to the desert bearing the sins of Israel. The Strong’s Concordance for scapegoat (#5799) leads us to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (a.k.a. BDB, which is a standard reference for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic). Looking deeply into the word scapegoat in this manner, we see that BDB gives us these interesting tidbits:
- “proper name of spirit haunting desert”
- “a fallen angel”
Here’s where it gets quite interesting. Leviticus 16:20-22 and Leviticus 16:26 give us this description:
“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness… And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.”
Again, we see, this animal is for a scapegoat, i.e. for Azazel, in order to remove the sins of the people.
The ancient Jewish understanding brings this into focus. The goat is given over to Azazel; it is banished to the realm outside of Israel. Azazel is actually a proper name. He is a demonic entity who inhabits the wilderness to which the goat is sent. The context for this is one of realm distinction, i.e. cosmic geography. The wilderness is a place of chaos; it is an anti-God realm outside of where Yahweh dwells. It is the territory of demons; more specifically, it’s where Azazel lives. He controls that which occurs there.
What is the nature of the wilderness and this place that Azazel inhabits? Sin. Anyone or anything that opposes God has a sin nature. Where does sin belong? Away from those who believe in and trust the God of the Bible. Thus sin belongs outside the camp. As such, sin must be relegated to the territory of the demonic realm. It must be sent to where it belongs. Sin’s owner is Azazel. He is the scapegoat; it is to him that the sins of the people – that have been placed on the head of the goat by the priest – are given.
It’s important to note that these sins and this goat are not given to Azazel as an offering of worship. They are banished away from God’s people. One of the great misunderstandings of the Israelites in exiting Egypt was of the gods of that land versus the One true God. The Israelites had spent 400 years steeped in a pagan multi-god culture. They had participated in various rites of sacrifice to these gods that Yahweh had to correct (see Leviticus 17:5). Thus God told them definitively in Leviticus 17:7:
“So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.”
So it is with us today. We may not necessarily pursue goat demons, but any god that isn’t God Most High, Jesus Christ, is on a par with them. The gods of money, sex, power, or any other are simply today’s manifestations of goat demons and thousands of other creation gods. We are to worship and bring our sacrifices to the Creator of all, not to anything that He has made. What are these sacrifices? Paul in Romans 12:1 lays it out:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
We are the sacrifices. It was for us that Jesus became the scapegoat. Our sins no longer must be sent outside the camp in a yearly ritual. Jesus took all our sins upon Himself once for all. We are to honor and revere Him in our bodies and through everything we do.
He is worth it.