The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16: A Goat for Azazel

Posted By on November 7, 2013

I recently offered a distilled response to the question of what’s going on in Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) chapter, which mentions (correctly) in some translations that one of the goats was “for Azazel.” Azazel, the comment noted, was a demonic figure. So what’s up with that? I have copied in two responses below. The first is a pre-edited version of an article published in Bible Study Magazine. The second is drawn from the draft of my eventually-to-be-published book on the divine council worldview of the Old Testament. Enjoy.

Short Version: A Goat for Azazel1

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16, is an important element of Judaism familiar to many Christians. Though not practiced today as it was in ancient times in the absence of the temple and Levitical priesthood, this holy day is still central to the Jewish faith. But while numerous Christians have heard of the day, most would be startled to learn that a sinister figure lurks in the shadows of Leviticus 16. There’s a devil in the details.

The Day of Atonement ritual required a ram, a bull and two goats (vv. 3-5). The ram was for a burnt offering, a general offering aimed at pleasing God (Lev. 1:3-4). The bull, taken from “the herd” served as a sin offering for Aaron, the high priest, and his family. The purpose of the sin offering was purification—restoring an individual to ritual purity to allow that person to occupy sacred space, to be near God’s presence. Curiously, two goats taken “from the congregation” were needed for a single sin offering (v. 5) for the people. Elsewhere the sin offering involved only one animal (e.g., Lev 4:1-12). Why two goats?

The high priest would cast lots over the two goats, resulting in one being chosen for sacrifice “for the Lord.” The blood of that goat would purify the people. The second goat was not sacrificed and was not “for the Lord.” This goat, the one that symbolically carried the sins away from the camp of Israel into the wilderness, was “for Azazel” (ESV; vv. 8-10).

Who or what was Azazel?

The Hebrew term azazel occurs four times in Lev 16 but nowhere else in the Bible. Many translations prefer to translate the term as a phrase: “the goat that goes away” (the idea conveyed in the KJV’s “scapegoat”). Other translations treat the word as a name: Azazel. The former option is possible, but since the phrase “for Azazel” occurs in parallel to “for Yahweh” (“for the Lord”), the wording suggests that two divine figures are being contrasted by the two goats.

Two other considerations argue in favor of Azazel being a divine being—in fact, a demonic figure associated with the wilderness. First, Jewish texts of the Intertestamental period show that Azazel was understood as a demonic figure.2 The Mishnah (ca. 200 AD; Yoma 6:6) records that the goat for Azazel was led to a cliff and pushed over to kill it, ensuring it would not return. This association of the wilderness with evil is evident in the NT, as this was where Jesus met the devil (Mat 4:1). Second, in Lev 17:17 we learn that some Israelites had been accustomed to sacrificing offerings to “goat demons.” The Day of Atonement replaced this illegitimate practice.

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.

Longer Version: Yahweh and Azazel3

The Day of Atonement ritual provides a fascinating convergence of all the ideas we’ve discussed to this point in the chapter: holiness, realm distinction, restoration, sacred and profane space, and Yahweh and his family versus the nations and their elohim.

If you’ve at least flipped through Leviticus on your way to another book of the Bible you may know that the Day of Atonement ritual is described in Leviticus 16. Part of that description goes like this:

7 Then [Aaron] shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 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. (Lev. 16:7-10; ESV)

Why is one of the goats “for Azazel”? Who or what is “Azazel”? Here’s where things get a little strange, unless you are acquainted with the cosmic geographical ideas we’ve been talking about.

The word “Azazel” in the Hebrew text can be translated “the goat that goes away.” This is the justification for the common “scapegoat” translation (NIV, NASB, KJV). The scapegoat, so the translator has it, symbolically carries the sins of the people away from the camp of Israel into the wilderness. Seems simple enough.

However, “Azazel” could also be a proper name. In Lev. 16:8 one goat is “for Yahweh” while the other goat is “for Azazel.” Since Yahweh is a proper name and the goats are described in the same way, Hebrew parallelism suggests Azazel is also a proper name, which is why more recent translations, sensitive to the literary character of the Hebrew text, read “Azazel” and not “scapegoat” (ESV, NRSV, NJPS). So what’s the big deal?

The point of importance is that Azazel is the name of a demon in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Jewish books. In fact, one scroll (4Q 180, 1:8) Azazel is the leader of the angels that sinned in Genesis 6:1-4. The same description appears in the book of 1 Enoch (8:1; 9:6; 10:4–8; 13:1; 54:5–6; 55:4; 69:2). Recall that in Intertestamental Judaism, the offending sons of God from Genesis 6 were believed to have been imprisoned in a Pit or Abyss in the Netherworld. As we saw in Chapter 6, he apostle Peter uses the Greek term Tartarus for this place (2 Peter 2:4). Tartarus is translated “Hell” in some English versions, but the term actually refers to the lowest place in the Netherworld, which was conceived as being under the earth humans walk upon. In Greek thought, Tartarus was the prison for the divine giant Titans defeated by the Olympian gods. In Jewish theology, Azazel’s realm was somewhere out in the desert, outside the confines of holy ground. It was a place associated with supernatural evil.

I believe Azazel is best taken as a proper name of a demonic entity. In the Day of Atonement ritual, the goat for Yahweh—the goat that was sacrificed—purifies the people of Israel and the Tabernacle/Temple. Sins were “atoned for” and what had been ritually unclean was sanctified and made holy. But purification only described part of what atonement meant. The point of the goat for Azazel was not that something was owed to the demonic realm, as though a ransom was being paid. The goat for Azazel banished the sins of the Israelites to the realm outside Israel. Why? Because the ground on which Yahweh had his dwelling was holy; the ground outside the parameters of the Israelite camp (or, nation, once the people were in the Land) had been consigned to fallen, demonic deities back at Babel. Sin could not be tolerated in the camp of Israel, for it was holy ground. Sins had to be “transported” to where evil belonged—the territory outside Israel under the control of gods set over the pagan nations. The high priest was not sacrificing to Azazel. Rather, Azazel was getting what belonged to him: the ugly sinfulness of the nation.

Taking Azazel as a proper name explains another weird statement in the very next chapter of Leviticus (17:7): “So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore” (ESV). The Day of Atonement ritual was part of the solution to the practice of some Israelites to sacrifice to “goat demons.” We are not told why they did this, but the period of bondage in Egypt may have introduced them to deities identified with goat sacrifices, or they conceptually thought the demons of the wilderness needed to be kept at bay while on the way to the Promised Land. The latter has an Egyptian flavor to it, since Egyptians considered territory outside Egypt to be full of perils and chaotic forces. For Israelites, such sacrifices were ineffective and could descend to idolatry. Restrictions and prohibitions had to be made with respect to sacrifice. All sacrifices needed to occur at the tent of meeting (Lev. 17:1-7), and the Day of Atonement ritual was the only sanctioned “expulsion of sins” ritual.



[1] Jewish texts of this era spell the name “Azazel”, “Azael”, and “Asael”. The figure is cast as either a fallen angel or the serpent of Eden in texts like (1 Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4–8; 13:1; cf. 54:5–6; 55:4; 69:2; Apoc. Abr. 13:6–14; 14:4–6).

  1. A pre-edited version of the article, “There’s a Devil in the Details,” Bible Study Magazine 5:6 (Sept-Oct, 2013).
  2. Texts of this era spell the name “Azazel”, “Azael”, and “Asael”.  The figure is cast as either a fallen angel or the serpent of Eden. See 1 Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4–8; 13:1; cf. 54:5–6; 55:4; 69:2; Apoc. Abr. 13:6–14; 14:4–6.
  3. Drawn from the first draft of my Myth That is True book.

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28 Responses to “The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16: A Goat for Azazel”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Hi, Dr. Heiser. Cool topic. My question is: if the fallen sons of God (which I assume includes Azazel as the ringleader) were believed to have been imprisoned in a pit or abyss why is it that he is now free to roam in the wilderness and deserts outside Yahweh’s camp or nation? I just think it seems like a discrepancy for the head honcho to be locked up beneath the earth in the netherworld (tartarus) yet somehow have domain above (where the goat is sent). Have you come across an explanation for this? Thanks.

    • MSH says:

      There is no wandering of Azazel going on in Lev 16. The goat is wandering into the region associated with him/them, and so is unholy ground. The goat isn’t a sacrifice; sins are carried to unholy ground. The gods of the nations (Deut 32:8-9) are not the same characters as in Gen 6, so their “freedom” is assumed. Jewish tradition was divided no doubt for some of the reasons you note. Satan, for example, is thought of in terms of the Gen 3 nachash in second temple / NT lit., and he wasn’t in the Gen 6 picture, so he is “free to roam.” Some Jews linked the Gen 6 leader to him, others didn’t because of the inconsistencies you note. It’s interesting that eschatological speculation may be behind some of that. The wording for the imprisonment is often associated with “the time of the end.” Some Jewish sects thought their own time (second temple, first century) was in view, and so they may have reasoned that Azazel had been released. When it comes to the NT, I think Rev 9 points to the release idea.

      • Jonnathan Molina says:

        I see, so do you believe Azazel best fits one of the gods of the nations or one of the original sons who fell in Genesis 6? I ask because concerning where the goat is sent you stated “the territory outside Israel (is) under the control of gods set over the pagan nations” and that “Azazel’s realm was somewhere out in the desert, outside the confines of holy ground. It was a place associated with supernatural evil.” I don’t see how being punished and imprisoned (if one of the Gen 6 sons) can equate to the entity getting their own real or domain to rule over. How do you rule if you’re imprisoned?

        I agree Lev 16 doesn’t state Azazel is free to roam the desert, but the idea that he rules *does* imply this (as you mentioned Satan ‘roams’ and Jesus stated he is ‘the ruler of this world’ John 12:31) The sins the goat carries (symbolically? literally through some sort of spiritual transference?) must go to where evil belongs, in the realm (or domain?) of Azazel. Agreed, it’s not some sort of sacrifice owed to the deity, but it does imply that it is a place where that deity reigns (thus my confusion as to him being locked up in abyssmal darkness; especially as Enoch lumps him together with the Gen 6 gang). Thanks again!

        • MSH says:

          Anywhere other than Israel is under the domain of a lesser elohim, so in that sense, the wilderness is under dominion. That doesn’t mean Azazel is to be identified with Deut 32:8-9. It’s just that the place where the offenders were imprisoned isn’t in Israel.

          Since Azazel was (in one tradition) the leader of the Gen 6 offenders, it’s easy to see how this leader, when sent to the abyss, could be conflated with the nachash and/or satan figure (again, depending on the texts) who was cast down to erets (“earth” or Sheol – the latter being more unusual, but present in the Hebrew Bible; cp. Jonah 2:6 this “land” is under the sea and has bars.

  2. haibane13 says:

    Just to clarify is the idea of scapegoat found in these verses?

    • MSH says:

      “scapegoat” is a term based on a different understanding of the Hebrew term azazel (which ignores the parallel phrasing of “for Yahweh” and “for azazel” – preposition + proper noun).

  3. deuteroKJ says:

    Thanks for the concise summary. As a college OT professor, I’ve been teaching this same view for years. Now I can point to this post and show them I’m not crazy (or at least not the only one!). As an aside: having a goat demon in Leviticus sure makes it easier to teach; the students love it!

  4. haibane13 says:

    I’ve read that the wilderness was a domain for evil spirts since it was chaotic and without order. Is this correct?

    • MSH says:

      The wilderness was “that domain that isn’t occupied by Yahweh and his people”. This is one reason Yahweh traveled with them – and the camp was arranged around the tabernacle. The whole arrangement was “portable sacred space” in the midst of unholy ground – on the way to occupying the land, in which Yahweh would dwell in a temple. There are chaotic elements in other passages (i.e., comparing the wilderness to the sea, that sort of thing).

  5. I recently wrote a brief article at another website coming to the same conclusion. Good to see we’re on the same page.

  6. Dante Aligheri says:

    In the New Testament, therefore, is there any attempt to equate Jesus’ Crucifixion and taking on of sins and the affliction of death with the Scapegoat? And, if the Scapegoat was associated with Azazel, doesn’t that seem like a rather perverse metaphor?

    Unless, of course, the ironic twist is that the divine Scapegoat goes out into the netherworld only to be a Conqueror and rescue from its terrors – which isn’t exactly made clear in the text? Otherwise, we end up with the Old Testament version of the atonement debates of the first centuries about debt being paid either to God or as ransom.

    • MSH says:

      Sin is simply being sent where it belongs – out of the sacred space reserved for Yahweh. Azazel isn’t being “pacified.”

  7. C.M. Amos says:

    Dr Heiser,

    Looking forward to your book – for some time now, actually.

    Thanks for the article. I am teaching on Joshua 7:10-12 on Sunday. Your article provides a number of insights to help understand why all of Israel was guilty for Achan’s sin as long as he was in the camp.

    Perfect timing!

  8. aeneas says:

    So why did they not call the goat Helel ben-Shachar since he originally drove humans into the wilderness of chaos, so to speak? Is it because they were associating Azazel with Helel or is because the name Azazel has goats associated with it already? Why choose the one elohim over the other for this ceremony?

  9. Chris Delany says:

    Hi Michael.
    Could you let me know what you think the word nazareth means? I have tried to find out ,
    the aramaic translation for the greek version of nazareth, yet to no avail. also what do you think about how the word developed ? there are some convincing towns from O/T time maps ,I wonder if the word nazareth ( only being in the N/T ) had something to do with a new name for an old town because of the messiah being born there?

    a reply would be greatly appreciated as i am highly interested in this topic considering the recent archaeological finds around the area.


    chris dealany

  10. Nobunaga says:

    Since the the sacrifice of the Lamb of God is what all were looking to through the symbology sacrificial system, can you tell us your thoughts on how this Goat for azazel fits in with the cross.

    Jesus descended to the lowest depths to the spirits in prison ? it seems he was there to proclaim something, proclaim seems be the key word in 1 Peter 3.19 but could this be an additional reason for the descension ? Could He be proclaiming all this sin has been dealt with now, i atonned for it, now here have it back ! type thing.

    • MSH says:

      The two goats are two aspects of what Yom Kippur means. One removes the sin of the nation; the other allows the high priest to enter God’s immediate presence. Jesus’ death accomplishes both for the “people of God” (believers) in that their sins are borne by another and God grants access. (In this case, the [great] high priest and the goat that carries sin away from the holy presence are the same. It’s a vicarious act, not a geographical one in a spatial sense).

  11. Nobunaga says:

    Further to the previous comment, i was thinking that the goat for azazel was sent outside Israel carrying the sins of Gods people, so it seems the major theme is the geographical element to this symbology. Hell/Tartarus is the place where the sins of the world belong ?

    in the eschaton there will be a new heaven and new earth with no sin but there will be a hell with sin and never the twain shall meet. Thats only geographical (if i can use that word) parallel i can think of that possibly relates to the cross, Without the cross sin would be permeating the holy land which encompasses the whole earth now. So the cross of Christ has eliminated sin and death and He has singlehandedly put them in their rightful place which is hell/Tartarus. Perhaps this is the corporate clean up side of the cross that nobody hears much about ? or maybe i have lost the plot completely … appreciate your thoughts.

  12. aeneas says:


    You may have run out of time with regards to answering my question (I know you’re busy!), or maybe you’ve already answered in the original post or in another response, and I just missed it. But I’ll paste it in down below. I’m really curious about why they focused on Azazel for this ritual–if there is even a clear reason to be given. Here’s my original post:

    So why did they not call the goat Helel ben-Shachar since he originally drove humans into the wilderness of chaos, so to speak? Is it because they were associating Azazel with Helel or is because the name Azazel has goats associated with it already? Why choose the one elohim over the other for this ceremony?

    • MSH says:

      email this to me so I don’t lose it. Just can’t get to it now. It’s that time of year (mid Nov – conferences looming for us).

  13. Steve says:

    Please Notify me of follow-up comments by email.
    Notify me of new posts by email.

    • MSH says:

      You’ll have to subscribe to a feed for updates (I think you’ll get an option for email). Let me know if that isn’t an option.

  14. ray says:

    Would the blood of the goat for Yahweh have been on the hands of the high priest when he put them on the goat for Azazel?

  15. ray says:

    The HP does not wash until after performing the ceremony. That being the case I would say that yes, the blood of the goat for Yahweh would have been on the HP’s hands when he laid them on the other goat.

    • MSH says:

      The text does not actually say he washes his hands until after. It doesn’t say anything about washing the hands. It refers to washing his body and clothes, so unless we’re going to imagine the HP hugging or wrestling with the goat, I don’t see a clear connection. The blood in the ritual in fact was not to cleanse people. The text is clear that the blood was for sanctifying the Holy Place (to make sure it is unpolluted and undefiled from people) and the altar. In other words, the atonement “for the people” (if you read the text carefully) is to atone for their defilement *of sacred space*, not to wipe away their sins. The point is not moral forgiveness, but the purification of the Holy Place and removal of any defilement caused by the people. … so I’m not sure what point you’d be arguing for.

      I’ve copied (it’s lengthy) some of the discussion from Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus that pertains to this passage and the larger issue. He’s an expert on Leviticus and sacrifice (he’s also Jewish).

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