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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
The name of a supernatural being mentioned in connection with the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). After Satan, for whom he was in some degree a preparation, Azazel enjoys the distinction of being the most mysterious extrahuman character in sacred literature. Unlike other Hebrew proper names, the name itself is obscure.
In Leviticus 16 the single allusion to Azazel is as follows: On the tenth day of Tishri (see see Atonement Day) the high priest, after first performing the prescribed sacrifices for himself and his family, presented the victims for the sins of the people. These were a ram for a burnt offering, and two young goats for a sin-offering. Having brought the goats before Yhwh at the door of the tabernacle, he cast lots for them, the one lot "for Yhwh" and the other "for Azazel." The goat that fell to Yhwh was slain as a sin-offering for the people. But the goat of Azazel (now usually known as the "scapegoat") was made the subject of a more striking ceremony. The high priest laid his hands upon its head and confessed over it the sins of the people. Then the victim was handed over to a man standing ready for the purpose, and, laden as it was with these imputed sins, it was "led forth to an isolated region," and then let go in the wilderness.
—In Biblical, Apocryphal, and Rabbinical Literature:
The Rabbis, interpreting "Azazel" as "Azaz" (rugged), and "el" (strong), refer it to the rugged and rough mountain cliff from which the goat was cast down (Yoma 67b; Sifra, Aḥare, 2:2; Targ. Yer. Leviticus 14:10, and most medieval commentators).Most modern scholars, after having for some time indorsed the old view, have accepted the opinion mysteriously hinted at by Ibn Ezra and expressly stated by Naḥmanides to Leviticus 16:8, that Azazel belongs to the class of "se'irim," goat-like demons, jinn haunting the desert, to which the Israelites were wont to offer sacrifice (Leviticus 17:7 [A. V. "devils"]; compare "the roes and the hinds," Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, by which Sulamith administers an oath to the daughters of Jerusalem. The critics were probably thinking of a Roman faun).
Azazel Personification of Impurity.
Far from involving the recognition of Azazel as a deity, the sending of the goat was, as stated by Naḥmanides, a symbolic expression of the idea that the people's sins and their evil consequences were to be sent back to the spirit of desolation and ruin, the source of all impurity. The very fact that the two goats were presented before Yhwh before the one was sacrificed and the other sent into the wilderness, was proof that Azazel was not ranked with Yhwh, but regarded simply as the personification of wickedness in contrast with the righteous government of Yhwh. The rite, resembling, on the one hand, the sending off of the epha with the woman embodying wickedness in its midst to the land of Shinar in the vision of Zachariah (5:6-11), and, on the other, the letting loose of the living bird into the open field in the case of the leper healed from the plague (Leviticus 14:7), was, indeed, viewed by the people of Jerusalem as a means of ridding themselves of the sins of the year. So would the crowd, called Babylonians or Alexandrians, pull the goat's hair to make it hasten forth, carrying the burden of sins away with it (Yoma 6:4,66b; "Epistle of Barnabas," ), and the arrival of the shattered animal at the bottom of the valley of the rock of Bet Ḥadudo, twelve miles away from the city, was signalized by the waving of shawls to the people of Jerusalem, who celebrated the event with boisterous hilarity and amid dancing on the hills (Yoma 6:6,8; Ta'an. 4:8). Evidently the figure of Azazel was an object of general fear and awe rather than, as has been conjectured, a foreign product or the invention of a late lawgiver. Nay, more; as a demon of the desert, it seems to have been closely interwoven with the mountainous region of Jerusalem and of ancient pre-Israelitish origin.
Leader of the Rebellious Angels.
This is confirmed by the Book of Enoch, which brings Azazel into connection with the Biblical story of the fall of the angels, located, obviously in accordance with ancient folk-lore, on Mount Hermon as a sort of an old Semitic Blocksberg, a gathering-place of demons from of old (Enoch; compare Brandt, "Mandäische Theologie," 1889, p. 38). Azazel is represented in the Book of Enoch as the leader of the rebellious giants in the time preceding the flood; he taught men the art of warfare, of making swords, knives, shields, and coats of mail, and women the art of deception by ornamenting the body, dyeing the hair, and painting the face and the eyebrows, and also revealed to the people the secrets of witchcraft and corrupted their manners, leading them into wickedness and impurity; until at last he was, at the Lord's command, bound hand and foot by the archangel Raphael and chained to the rough and jagged rocks of [Ha] Duduael (= Beth Ḥadudo), where he is to abide in utter darkness until the great Day of Judgment, when he will be cast into the fire to be consumed forever (Enoch 8:1, 9:6, 10:4-6, 54:5, 88:1; see Geiger, "Jüd. Zeit." 1864, pp. 196-204). The story of Azazel as the seducer of men and women was familiar also to the rabbis, as may be learned from Tanna d. b. R. Yishma'el: "The Azazel goat was to atone for the wicked deeds of 'Uzza and 'Azzael, the leaders of the rebellious hosts in the time of Enoch" (Yoma 67b); and still better from Midrash Abkir, end, Yalḳ., Gen. 44, where Azazel is represented as the seducer of women, teaching them the art of beautifying the body by dye and paint (compare "Chronicles of Jerahmeel," trans. by Gaster, 25:13). According to Pirḳe R. El. (comp. Tos. Meg. 31a), the goat is offered to Azazel as a bribe that he who is identical with Samael or Satan should not by his accusations prevent the atonement of the sins on that day.
The fact that Azazel occupied a place in Mandæan, Sabean, and Arabian mythology (see Brandt, "Mandäische Theologie," pp. 197, 198; Norberg's "Onomasticon," p. 31; Reland's "De Religione Mohammedanarum," p. 89; Kamus, s. "Azazel" [demon identical with Satan]; Delitzsch, "Zeitsch. f. Kirchl. Wissensch. u. Leben," 1880, p. 182), renders it probable that Azazel was a degraded Babylonian deity. Origen ("Contra Celsum," 6:43) identifies Azazel with Satan; Pirḳe R. El. (c.) with Samael; and the Zohar Aḥare Mot, following Naḥmanides, with the spirit of Esau or heathenism; still, while one of the chief demons in the Cabala, he never attained in the doctrinal system of Judaism a position similar to that of Satan. See articles ATONEMENT and ATONEMENT, DAY OF.
- Kahisch, Comm. on Leviticus, 2:293 et seq., 326 et seq.;
- Cheyne, Dictionary of the Bible;
- Hastings, Dict. Bibl., Riehm, H. W. B.;
- Hauck, R. E.;
- Winer, B. R.;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. s.
—According to Talmudical interpretation, the term "Azazel" designated a rugged mountain or precipice in the wilderness from which the goat was thrown down, using for it as an alternative the word "Ẓoḳ" () (Yoma 6:4). An etymology is found to suit this interpretation. "Azazel"() is regarded as a compound of "az" (), strong or rough, and "el" (), mighty, therefore a strong mountain. This derivation is presented by a Baraita, cited Yoma 67b, that Azazel was the strongest of mountains.
Another etymology (ib.) connects the word with the mythological "Uza" and "Azael," the fallen angels, to whom a reference is believed to be found in Genesis 6:2,4. In accordance with this etymology, the sacrifice of the goat atones for the sin of fornication of which those angels were guilty (Gen. c.).
Two goats were procured, similar in respect of appearance, height, cost, and time of selection. Haying one of these on his right and the other on his left (Rashi on Yoma 39a), the high priest, who was assisted in this rite by two subordinates, put both his hands into a wooden case, and took out two labels, oneinscribed "for the Lord" and the other "for Azazel." The high priest then laid his hands with the labels upon the two goats and said, "A sin-offering to the Lord"—using the Tetragrammaton; and the two men accompanying him replied, "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever." He then fastened a scarlet woolen thread to the head of the goat "for Azazel"; and laying his hands upon it again, recited the following confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness: "O Lord, I have acted iniquitously, trespassed, sinned before Thee: I, my household, and the sons of Aaron—Thy holy ones. O Lord, forgive the iniquities, transgressions, and sins that I, my household, and Aaron's children—Thy holy people—committed before Thee, as is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant, 'for on this day He will forgive you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord; ye shall be clean.'" This prayer was responded to by the congregation present (ATONEMENT, DAY OF). A man was selected, preferably a priest, to take the goat to the precipice in the wilderness; and he was accompanied part of the way by the most eminent men of Jerusalem. Ten booths had been constructed at intervals along the road leading from Jerusalem to the steep mountain. At each one of these the man leading the goat was formally offered food and drink, which he, however, refused. When he reached the tenth booth those who accompanied him proceeded no further, but watched the ceremony from a distance. When he came to the precipice he divided the scarlet thread into two parts, one of which he tied to the rock and the other to the goat's horns, and then pushed the goat down (Yoma 6:1-8). The cliff was so high and rugged that before the goat had traversed half the distance to the plain below, its limbs were utterly shattered. Men were stationed at intervals along the way, and as soon as the goat was thrown down the precipice, they signaled to one another by means of kerchiefs or flags, until the information reached the high priest, whereat he proceeded with the other parts of the ritual.
The scarlet thread was a symbolical reference to Isaiah 1:18; and the Talmud tells us (ib. 39a) that during the forty years that Simon the Just was high priest, the thread actually turned white as soon as the goat was thrown over the precipice: a sign that the sins of the people were forgiven. In later times the change to white was not invariable: a proof of the people's moral and spiritual deterioration, that was gradually on the increase, until forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, when the change of color was no longer observed (c. 39b).
There has been much controversy over the function of Azazel as well as over his essential character. Inasmuch as according to the narrative the sacrifice of Azazel, while symbolical, was yet held to be a genuine vicarious atonement, it is maintained by critics that Azazel was originally no mere abstraction, but a real being to the authors of the ritual—as real as Yhwh himself.
This relation to the purpose of the ceremony may throw light upon the character of Azazel. Three points seem reasonably clear. (1) Azazel is not a mere jinnee or demon of uncertain ways and temper, anonymous and elusive (see ANIMAL WORSHIP), but a deity standing in a fixed relation to his clients. Hence the notion, which has become prevalent, that Azazel was a "personal angel," here introduced for the purpose of "doing away with the crowd of impersonal and dangerous se'irim" (as Cheyne puts it), scarcely meets the requirements of the ritual. Moreover, there is no evidence that this section of Leviticus is so late as the hagiological period of Jewish literature.
(2) The realm of Azazel is indicated clearly. It was the lonely wilderness; and Israel is represented as a nomadic people in the wilderness, though preparing to leave it. Necessarily their environment subjected them in a measure to superstitions associated with the local deities, and of these latter Azazel was the chief. The point of the whole ceremony seems to have been that as the scapegoat was set free in the desert, so Israel was to be set free from the offenses contracted in its desert life within the domain of the god of the desert.
(3) Azazel would therefore appear to be the head of the supernatural beings of the desert. He was thus an instance of the elevation of a demon into a deity. Such a development is indeed rare in Hebrew religious history of the Biblical age, but Azazel was really never a national Hebrew god, and his share in the ritual seems to be only the recognition of a local deity. The fact that such a ceremony as that in which he figured was instituted, is not a contravention of Leviticus 17:7, by which demon-worship was suppressed. For Azazel, in this instance, played a merely passive part. Moreover, as shown, the symbolical act was really a renunciation of his authority. Such is the signification of the utter separation of the scapegoat from the people of Israel. This interpretation is borne out by the fact that the complete ceremony could not be literally fulfilled in the settled life of Canaan, but only in the wilderness. Hence it was the practise in Jerusalem, according to Yoma 7:4, to take the scapegoat to a cliff and push him over it out of sight. In this way the complete separation was effected.
- Diestel, Set-Typhon, Asasel und Satan, in Zeitschrift für Historische Theologie, 1860, pp. 159 et seq.;
- Cheyne, in Stade's Zeitschrift, 15:153 et seq.;
- Baudissin, Studien zur Semit. Religionsgesch. 1:180 et seq.;
- Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebr. Arch. 2:186 et seq.; and various commentators on Leviticus 16
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Azazel'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/a/azazel.html. 1901.