Azazel is the enigmatic name of a character in Hebrew mythology
found in the Hebrew
scriptures and Apocrypha. The
word's first appearance is in Leviticus 16, where a goat is designated "for Azazel"
and outcast in the desert as part of Yom Kippur. He is considered by many to be a supernatural being mentioned in connection with
the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi.).
Azazel is a theophoric name, combined of the words "Azaz"
(rugged) and "El"
(power/strong/of God) in reference to the rugged and strong rocks of the deserts
in Judea. According to Talmudic
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 vi. 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 Gen.
vi. 2, 4. In accordance with this etymology, the sacrifice of the goat atones
for the sin of fornication of which those angels were guilty.
Leviticus 16:8-10: "8and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats,
one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9And Aaron shall
present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin
offering; 10but 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."
Two goats were procured, similar in respect of appearance, height, cost, and
time of selection. Having 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, one inscribed "for Yahweh" 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
Yahweh" (thus speaking 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. 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 vi. 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 is symbolically referenced in Isa. i. 18; and the Talmud
states (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 (l.c. 39b).
Far from involving the recognition of Azazel as a deity, the sending of the
goat was, as stated by Nachmanides, 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 God before the one was sacrificed and
the other sent into the wilderness, was proof that Azazel was not ranked with
God, but regarded simply as the personification of wickedness in contrast with
the righteous government of God. 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 (v. 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 (Lev. xiv. 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 vi. 4, 66b;
"Epistle of Barnabas," vii.), 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 vi. 6, 8; Ta'an. iv. 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. More as a demon of the desert, it seems to
have been closely interwoven with the mountainous region of Jerusalem.
According to the Book of
Enoch, which brings Azazel into connection with the Biblical story of the
fall of the angels, located on Mount Hermon, a gathering-place of demons from of old (Enoch xiii.; compare Brandt,
"Mandäische Theologie," 1889, p. 38). Azazel is represented in the Book of Enoch
as one of the leaders of the rebellious Watchers 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 viii. 1, ix. 6, x. 4-6, liv. 5, lxxxviii. 1; see
Geiger, "Jüd. Zeit." 1864, pp. 196–204).
The story of Azazel as the seducer of men and women was also familiar 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 Moses Gaster, xxv. 13). According to Pirḳe R. El.
xlvi. (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; Adriaan Reland's "De Religione Mohammedanarum,"
p. 89; Kamus, s.v. "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," vi. 43) identifies Azazel with Satan; Pirḳe R. El.
(l.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
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