A look into text and translations of the Hebrew word Azazel sheds light on how tradition and scripture often mix creating lore and stories akin to the show Supernatural.
Kathy and I are fans of the television series Supernatural. We’re even planning to attend the show’s “convention” in Plano Texas this summer (2019) for some fun. We enjoy this series, a horror-drama with plenty of comic relief, because the writers to mung up ancient lore, the Bible, and a bit of fun into stories of encounters with the all sorts of supernatural beings including God Almighty (who prefers the name Chuck), Metatron (the transformed Enoch), demons, angels, vampires, werewolves, monsters of all ilks, and rotten old Lucifer himself. And even a king of Hell, Crowley, who reigned while Lucifer was bound. I miss his likable all too human character to be frank.
What has always fascinated me is how all of these things come to be – how the inexplicable are explained by fantastic tales, and the TV series is filled with the results of such “lore” explanations, lots of pure fiction that is loosely connected thereto, gore and magic, some great music, and a lot of situation comedy. That – the lore that springs from ancient texts – is, in some measure, why I study so much, and is, in some measure, what this post is about. Lots of people think that this sort of thing is the product of the dark ages but this is not so, legends of blood sucking beings and other such entities are found well before the common era, even before the rise of Rome.
Besides all of that, the lyrics to the unofficial theme of the show, Carry on my wayward son by Kerry Livgren of Kansas are the lyrics of my life.
A word that can only be defined through context is called a hapax legomenon from Greek meaning “Said once”. The Hebrew word “azazel” occurs only four times in the Bible, all within Leviticus regarding Yom Kippur and the goat that carries away the sins of Israel, commonly called the “scape goat”. Technically, azazel is a tetrakis legomenon because it is found in the text four times, all in the same context.
That explains the post title, seemingly as obscure as Azazel!
Azazel in the Masoretic Hebrew Text
Azazel is one of those wonderful terms we find in the Bible that has lost its meaning over time. Only found four times in the Hebrew text, and once thought to mean “entire removal”, this word is now thought to be a name, Azazel. A proper name belonging to whom? Supernatural fans will be interested to know that Jack, the child of an Archangel and a human, is a Nephilim or, more properly, a Nephil because the “im” makes it plural. This word only occurs in two verses of scripture (three times total), but that’s a post for another day.
Speaking of suffixes and back to our topic, text, things ending with “el” in Hebrew names are potential friends, given the El means a god or the God. When used in its plural form, Elohim, this term is used in the Bible for the one true God.
Names paired with “El” include, for example and inter alia, Bethel (really Bet-el) means “House of God” where Bet means house and El means god. Isra-el “struggles with God” or “God Prevails”, Micha-el “who is like God”, Raphael “God heals”, Dani-el “God is my judge”, Ishma-El “God Hears”, Samu-el (Shemu-El) “Name of God” or “His name is El”, and so forth. You get the picture, albeit not everything that ends with the sound “el” is related to a god or the God.
So we start our research knowing that, very likely, this name Azaz-el has something to do with a god or God.
Let’s take a peek at the New Revised Standard Version (NRS or NRSV) translation of the Masoretic text:
He shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel.
Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Leviticus 16:7-10 NRS)
For completeness, the fourth instance of Azazel in the text is found at verse 26 “The one who sets the goat free for Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward may come into the camp.” (Leviticus 16:26 NRS)
Note that the NRS, like most translations, uses “the LORD” where the Hebrew is YHWH – the divine name, Yahweh.
Note also that the NRS accords well with the Jewish Publication Society 1917 translation “JPS” of the same text; this is not a Christian gloss or polemic in using Azazel as a proper name, see below.
And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel.
And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:7-10 JPS)
Now that’s a fine kettle of fish, isn’t it? I mean, really, if there is but one God why is He having Israel dispatch its sins through a goat sent to some other being whose name has something to do with a god?
Translations that Interpret
Any translation requires interpretation because literal word translation does not make sense from one language to another. A simple example is “Frere Jaques dormez vous?” A literal rendering would be “brother Jaques sleep you?” but of course we know it means “brother Jaques are you sleeping?” because reversing the syntax in French is how a question is posed.
This is quite the quandary in Biblical Hebrew translations because most names have other meanings and there are no capital letters in Hebrew to separate proper nouns (or punctuation marks or vowels for that matter). So should the translator render Jacob as Jacob or “Heel Grabber” or “Supplanter”? I mean, he was born grabbing Esau’s heel (Genesis 25:26)- that explains the name to a reader of Hebrew (I do not read Hebrew). Should she render Bethlehem as Bethlehem or “The House of Bread”? Sometimes those names add to the story quite a bit, or the story explains the name choice such as Esau coming out hairy and his name meaning rough or hairy (Genesis 25:25), or Jacob being renamed Isra-el after he’s just wrestled with God (Genesis 32:28), or the place Beth-el being so named because of Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:19*) and belief that this place was indeed the house of God. You see, when the translator works, she must interpret the text to determine, inter alia, when it is appropriate to translate something and when the context demands for the use of a proper name.
* The renaming of Luz to Bethel in Genesis 28:19 may be anachronistic inasmuch as Bethel is first mentioned in connection with Abraham in Genesis 12:8, or it may be two different places named the House of God. Scholars believe that it is the same place and are divided on its location.
The other things that translations do is record current thinking about the topic at hand. In ancient times, it was quite common for an interpretation to be a rewritten work, for instance a rewritten Torah or single book of the Torah as we find in Jospephus and Philo (see my bibliography post). We also see this in some of the scrolls found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) – interpretation and harmonization of books to fit better in the community using them.
In the scripture quotation above, I’ve left out an important part: Confession. Aaron confesses all of the sins of Israel over the goat before it is sent to Azazel:
Then 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, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.
The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22 NRS)
In practice, according to various extrabiblical accounts, the goat was hurled off of a cliff, not set free in the wilderness for Azazel or to potentially wander back. And right here we have one source of the notion that goats are associated with Evil and Satan. We also have a hook for the use of confession in the Christian faith – admitting fault is key to being able to turn from it, but we need a confessor who’s lips are sealed. It’s good for the soul, that much I guarantee.
By the way, if you’ve not been around goats, they are in many ways like humans. They go where they please, they play all of the time, they get into everything having a great deal of curiosity (and hunger because they eat or at lest chew on about everything), and their cry is almost identical to, albeit much much louder than, that of an infant human. Sheep, on the other hand, and excepting Rams, are quite docile. Not so for goats which are really quite likable, so long as someone else is responsible for them, not unlike certain children.
What do we know so far?
- Two goats are used in the expiation of Sin.
- One is a standard temple sacrifice for sin to God
- One bears all of the sins of Israel out of the camp into the wilderness to Azazel (or azazel)
- Our mysterious word may have reference to God or a god
What about cultural elements?
- Ancient interpreters viewed the Bible as a puzzle – perfect but filled with apparently contrarian juxtapositions and mysterious terms.
- Second Temple Period (and modern) Samaritan traditions rely heavily on Angelology to explain things. See my bibliography post for the a translation of the Samaritan Torah with notes regarding angelology written by a modern Samaritan.
- Second Temple period artifacts from Judea attest to a wide variety of incantations used by the common man, not the elite, to ward off evil as well as a very strong reliance on Angelology. See The Samaritan Torah and the Greek Magical Papyri in my bibliography post on this.
- We know that an alternate reading of the Hebrew Leviticus is “ez ozel” meaning goat that departs, ‘ez having been used elsewhere in the text for she-goat, he-goat, and kid, and that the Talmud contains many explanations based on such alternate readings of the same Hebrew characters with different vowels.
- The term Scapegoat was coined by William Tyndale ca 1525. It is a translation of the Vulgate Latin Text that we’ll discuss below.
- The Vulgate translates this as “capro emissario” – emissary goat
- The older Greek Septuagint text renders it apopompaos, likely from apopémpô perhaps meaning that which carries. Interestingly, I find no English work on the meaning of these Greek terms, only French, a la, apopompaos is translated as ce qui emporte.
- Wikipedia tells us that Azazel is a fallen angel who corrupted humanity (Genesis 6:1-4; Nephilim). This is based on the book of Enoch.
- 4Q180 (Dead Sea Scroll Fragment) clearly describes Azazel as a fallen angel in fragment 1 to wit “The prophetic interpretation concerning Azazel and the angels wh[o went in to the daughters of man,] [so that] they bore mighty men to them. And concerning Azazel [who taught them] [to love] iniquity and caused them to inherit wickedness all [ . . . ] [ . . . ] judgments, and the judgment of the council of [ . . . ]”).
- The meaning of or entity represented by the term Azazel is lost to us.
- An innocent is burdened with sin and set alone in the wilderness to permanently resolve those sins.
- Ancient interpreters saw this as a carrying away in the role of bringing the sins to somewhere to be forever dispatched. This ultimately included killing the goat outside of the city by throwing it off of a cliff.
- Second Temple interpreters saw this as the delivery of the sins to a fallen angel who was responsible for the temptation of the people. This could be interpreted as oblation or appeasement.
- The Christian metaphor should not be lost here. The goat carries away the sins of Israel and this is typical Christian verbiage regarding Jesus. For instance, in a requiem mass one hears “Pie Jesu qui tollis pecatta mundi…” Sweet Jesus who takes away the sins of the world …
Is Azazel Satan?
The role of the demonic and an entity named variously Satan, Belial, Mastima, and indeed Azazel (and many other names) in second temple Judaism and early Christianity varies by tradition (by the way, the Wikipedia article linked above is superb) and was still developing after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE. It is not reasonable, therefore, to project these views on the text which, at the latest, is early post-exilic meaning about 500 BCE.
Jewish theology includes the concept of yetser ha-ra (“inclination the evil” literally, the evil inclination in English, taken from Genesis 6:5). This is shared with Christian theology: the notion that, like goats, humans get up to no good and often have an inclination to do evil things without the prompting of tempting deities or their agents. Islam shares this notion, with Iblis (Satan in Islam) being sent to “fill hell” by tempting humans – the evil inclination is what allows temptation to result in sin.
The question is therefore somewhat different. Was the goat meant to propitiate an evil being and ward it off for another year, or was it meant to atone to the one true God through His agents and provide manifest evidence of the rejection of the yetser ha-ra, of evidence that the repentance – that the changing of ways was in earnest?
These questions have no answer. It is up to each one to study and understand these things as they will and as is helpful to their journey. For me, I don’t know why the demonic exists but I an certain that it does. And I’d never advocate propitiation of manifest evil nor do I believe that our Jewish or Islamic brothers and sisters in Abraham would either. No, Azazel for me is an agent of the mercy of God almighty to receive our sins and forgive us for them.
That’s my take, and I’m sorry for the poor goats who suffer for our yetser ha-ra – then and now.