Who or What Is Azazel?

In my post on the biblical origin of Yom Kippur, I stumbled on something I had never heard of: the sacrifice (of sorts) of a goat containing Israel’s sins “for Azazel” in the Day of Atonement temple service. Half of my bibles omitted or worded around this mention in Leviticus 16, usually with a tiny footnote reading “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”.

The difficulties of translation is one of my interests and when you have such variation, I just had to dig further. What I found took me through the Oxford English Dictionary, the Talmud, and finally into the Dead Sea Scrolls to answer this question “who or what is Azazel?” This isn’t a new puzzle. It might even have been an ancient typo. Whatever the answer, it has puzzled scholars for years.

One answer? Azazel was the Jewish Prometheus who came down from heaven to mate with our women, providing the tools of fire and war in return. Maybe not. Read on!

Azazel from Colin de Plancy's ''Dictionnaire Infernal'' (Paris,1825)
Azazel from Colin de Plancy's ''Dictionnaire Infernal'' (Paris,1825)

As I mentioned, the first thing that grabbed my attention was that my bibles were inconsistent. Even different editions of the same bible were sometimes different, such as the modern JPS versus the 1917 edition I use online for cutting and pasting. I could have searched through all of them, but thankfully there are some better tools.

Bible.cc offers sixteen different readings for Leviticus 16:8, the passage that includes the reference to Azazel. This is only searching popular English bibles, and some of them may be alternate forms of the same translations, but it’s a good enough start. Of those, seven of their readings reference Azazel and nine do not. Of the ones that don’t, most appear to translate it roughly as “scapegoat”.

Scapegoat is a curious word and so I dug further into that. The online OED (Third Edition) includes the following in its definition of “scapegoat”:

1530 Bible (Tyndale) Lev. xvi. 8  And Aaron cast lottes ouer the .ii. gootes: one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scape~goote. [So 1537, 1539, 1560 (Geneva), 1568, 1611.]

OED Third Edition, “scapegoat n.”

Take a look at that! The earliest written record we have to the word “scapegoat” happens to be the Tyndale Bible (an influential early English bible around a hundred years before the King James Version) in the specific passage we are looking at. In other words, the word “scapegoat” appears to have been coined entirely  to translate this very difficult biblical passage. When faced with the choice between implying an animal sacrifice to someone other than God or coining a new word, he chose a new word. I may be over-simplifying as I do not know what resources Tyndale had at his disposal, nor do I know how the Latin Vulgate or the Greek Septuagint dealt with this passage, both of which he would have been reasonably expected to consult with.

Obviously translators struggled with this passage, but how did the rabbis that study it in original Hebrew fare? Not much better, actually.

Rashi, my scholar of first resort (mainly because I have such a nice five volume set of his…) manages to avoid the topic completely. His commentary on Leviticus assumes it is the “wilderness” translation. If he was aware of a controversy, he didn’t want to bring it up.

The Babylonian Talmud, assembled in the sixth century, discusses this confusion in Tractate Yoma, in the section discussing Yom Kippur:

Raba said: The view of him who says they are permitted is more reasonable, for the Torah did not say ‘Send away’! to create [possibility of] offence. Our Rabbis taught: Azazel — it should be hard and rough. One might have assumed that it is to be in inhabited land, therefore the text reads: ‘In the wilderness’. But whence do we know that it [is to be in] a Zok? — Therefore the text reads: ‘Cut off’. Another [Baraitha] taught: Azazel, i.e., the hardest of mountains, thus also does it say: And the mighty [ele] of the land he took away. The School of R. Ishmael taught: Azazel — [it was so called] because it obtains atonement for the affair of Uza and Aza’el.

Tractate Yoma, 67b

Here we have three separate alternatives for what “Azazel” means, from three different schools of thought. It may have been a hard and rough place outside the city, it may refer to a specific mountain, or it could refer to the affair of “Uza and Aza’el”.

Wait, what? Who were they?

With that, we have to jump down a new rabbit hole, into old Jewish legends and mythology. The stuff that isn’t in the bible, but everyone knows anyway. Like the Easter Bunny is to Christians. (And, like the Easter Bunny, the origin of the legend may be a different set of beliefs which have been grafted onto the the local religion, such as a local Canaanite deity or demon.) Fortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls may have one answer to this puzzle.

The First Book of Enoch, abbreviated 1 Enoch, is an extra-biblical book that is not considered “true” by the majority of Christian and Jews in the world. Like the Book of Jubilees, it is considered canonical only by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Still, the book’s presence in the cache found at Qumran attests that at least some early Jews found it to be important and possibly even sacred. Since the legends in the book were still known more than five hundred years later, it must have had some importance to Jews at large in the late temple period. (The early Christians considered making it canonical, and some of its ideas have leaked into wider Christianity. The Epistle of Jude quotes a portion of 1 Enoch.)

The book itself claims to be the writings of Enoch, Noah’s great grandfather. Enoch is a very minor biblical figure from Genesis, but one with more than his share of mystery. Here is the passage mentioning him in Genesis:

And Jared lived after he begot Enoch eight hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years; and he died. And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begot Methuselah. And Enoch walked with God after he begot Methuselah three hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.

Genesis 6:19-24

God Taking Enoch
God Taking Enoch

Enoch’s end was not a normal death, but rather a special relationship where he walked with God. This little mystery certainly warrants some mythologizing. The First Book of Enoch purports to describe what Enoch saw when he was with God and the angels, including prophecies for well after his passing. Discussing that book would be worth a full post in itself, but the important thing is that Azazel plays a key role in his visions.

In Enoch chapter 6, the angels of heaven see how beautiful the daughters of men had become and decide to come down and take some brides for themselves. This expands a story also in Genesis 6 which you might remember, though it’s not a story discussed much in Sunday school:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose. And the LORD said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.

Genesis 6:1-4

While the angels were visiting and having fun with our women, they also taught men new and interesting skills.

And Azazel taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all coloring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways.

1 Enoch 8:1-2

In short, Azazel taught men how to make pointy sticks and women how to make men want to throw pointy sticks at each other: a great combination. The story sounds vaguely like a more sexual Prometheus and I wonder what role Hellenistic influences played on this story.

Before long, the other angels started noticing what was going on and wanted to put a stop to it:

And then Michael, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel looked down from heaven and saw much blood being shed upon the earth, and all lawlessness being wrought upon the earth. And they said one to another: ‘The earth made without inhabitant cries the voice of their crying up to the gates of heaven. And now to you, the holy ones of heaven, the souls of men make their suit, saying, “Bring our cause before the Most High.”.’ And they said to the Lord of the ages: ‘Lord of lords, God of gods, King of kings, and God of the ages, the throne of Thy glory standeth unto all the generations of the ages, and Thy name holy and glorious and blessed unto all the ages! Thou hast made all things, and power over all things hast Thou: and all things are naked and open in Thy sight, and Thou seest all things, and nothing can hide itself from Thee. Thou seest what Azazel hath done, who hath taught all unrighteousness on earth and revealed the eternal secrets which were (preserved) in heaven, which men were striving to learn.

1 Enoch 9:1-6

God agrees with his archangels and makes ready for the flood. Noah is informed. God entrusts the archangels to deal with this Azazel problem:

And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgement he shall be cast into the fire. And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons. And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.’

1 Enoch 10:4-8

(I’m cutting and pasting this from a source online. The full Book of Enoch has not been recovered in Qumran, only fragments. I have verified that the fragments do contain the references to Azazel, but the text here is from a translation from the full Ethiopic book found online.)

This ascribing of man’s sins to Azazel sounds a bit like an alternative origin for Satan, or at least a Satan-esque adversary. Either way, the imagery of jagged rocks in the desert paints a picture that could follow from the other readings of Leviticus 6 and the Yom Kippur ceremony. The author of such a key book could not possibly have been ignorant of that connection. It may also (retroactively) explain why the Israelites may have paid a special attention to this particular spirit while they were marching through the desert on their exodus from Egypt.

There are other legends of Azazel in post-Biblical times, probably stemming from this or other related traditions. The reference in the Talmud to “Uza and Aza’el” may have been from a version of this Enoch story that came later, possibly the one we now call Third Enoch. That work features a first or second century Rabbi Ishmael who is taken into heaven for a discussion with Enoch. That version of the discussion does feature Uza as a second angel that came down to mate with human women. Unlike First Enoch, that book post-dates the Dead Sea Scrolls and is not considered canonical by any current religious group.

What started for me as a bit of confusion, ended with a trip through a half-dozen bibles, the Talmud, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I call that a pretty good day.

So, was Azazel an actual spirit or just a mistranslation? I have no idea. But clearly I’m in good company.

Up next: Sukkot, if my wife doesn’t inspire me to learn more about something else here…


3 thoughts on “Who or What Is Azazel?”

  1. Vaguely off-topic: an episode of Jeopardy! from last week or earlier (I DVR them so I don’t know exactly when) touched upon the origin of the word scapegoat and its relationship with sacrificing a goat for forgiveness of sins.

  2. Dude…This was an interesting read considering I was reading about myself. If you ever feel like it, I would love to meet, and talk about this stuff, cuz I’m livin it 🙂 so… All I wanted to say , that those sources, some of them are good, some are kinda of good.. I guess u know what Split Personality is… Mine is Azazel cuz im 3rd born child of God 😉 mother is so called ” Satan ” We are all split and a funny family haha its so fuckin funny man I loved this reading, You are fuckin good at it. Thats why I would love to talk, cuz I’ma start makin music soon, we might make some good partnership if you interested just email me 😉 . Thanks
    Sincerely,The One you don’t speak about

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