In the Bible, Azazel is mentioned in connection with the Day of Atonement ceremony described in Leviticus 16. On this important day of purification and repentance, two goats were chosen – one for the Lord, which was sacrificed, and one for Azazel, which was released into the wilderness.
The word “Azazel” has provoked much debate over its meaning. Some possible interpretations include:
- A proper name referring to an evil spirit or demon of the wilderness
- A reference to the rugged terrain where the scapegoat was sent
- A combination of the Hebrew words “ez” (goat) and “azal” (go away), pointing to the goat “going away”
In the ceremony on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would lay his hands on the goat for Azazel and confess over it the sins of the people. This goat, then, symbolically carried their sins away into the wilderness. This ritual provided atonement and cleansing for the people of Israel.
The scapegoat offers a vivid illustration of the removal of sin and guilt. Through his sacrificial death, Jesus serves as the perfect fulfillment of the first goat which was killed. And his resurrection signifies the complete removal of our sin, just as the scapegoat in ancient times symbolized the carrying away of sin into the wilderness.
The meaning of Azazel as presented in the Bible continues to be discussed. But its connection to the scapegoat ritual provides rich symbolism of atonement and forgiveness through Christ. As Hebrews 9:28 declares, “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
The Importance of Atonement
In order to understand the significance of Azazel and the scapegoat, it’s important to understand the larger context of atonement in the Bible. The Day of Atonement was the most sacred day of the year for God’s people.
Leviticus 16 provides instructions for Aaron, the high priest at the time, to make atonement for the sins of the people. Sacrificing animals as substitutes was a vivid symbol of the costliness of sin and the need for blood to be shed for the forgiveness of sins (Leviticus 17:11).
The animal sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement were not the ultimate solution for dealing with sin. As Hebrews 10:4 explains, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” But they pointed ahead to the perfect and complete sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
So this sacred annual ritual instilled in the Israelites an understanding of the seriousness of sin, the need for atonement and repentance, and anticipation of the Redeemer who would definitively deal with sin.
The Role of Azazel’s Goat
On the Day of Atonement, lots were cast over two goats – one for the Lord and one for Azazel (Leviticus 16:8). The goat for the Lord was sacrificed as a sin offering for atonement.
But what happened to the goat for Azazel is more intriguing. After the high priest laid hands on this goat and confessed over it the sins of the people, it was released into the wilderness for Azazel (Leviticus 16:20-22).
This goat served as a vivid symbol of the removal of sin from the people. In a ceremonial sense, their sin, guilt, and impurity was placed on the animal which then carried it far away.
The fact that the goat was sent to Azazel likely indicates that sin was being returned to its source. Azazel seems to refer to an evil wilderness demon in some way associated with sin and impurity.
So while one goat shed its blood to pay the price for sin, the other goat visually illustrated the complete removal of impurity and transgressions. Together, these two goats provided a powerful object lesson for God’s people.
The Identity of Azazel
The precise meaning of “Azazel” has been debated by scholars. The term only appears in Scripture in connection with the scapegoat ritual. Here are some of the main theories about its identity:
- A specific demonic being – Some propose Azazel refers to a wilderness demon. The apocryphal Book of Enoch associates Azazel with the fall of the evil angels called Watchers.
- A desert location – Others think Azazel refers to the remote place where the goat was released, related to the Hebrew word aza meaning “rough ground.”
- An abstract term – Another view is that Azazel derives from the combination “ez” (goat) and “azal” (go away), simply referring to the goat “going away.”
The meaning of Azazel is obscure. But the ritual indicates some association with impurity and removal of sin. Sending the goat to Azazel symbolized the purification of God’s people.
Parallels to Christ’s Sacrifice
The two goats offered on the Day of Atonement have similarities and contrasts with the saving work of Christ. Examining these parallels gives insight into the meaning of his sacrificial death on our behalf.
Sacrifice for sin – Just as the goat for the Lord shed its blood as a sacrifice, Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins (Romans 6:23). His blameless life and sacrificial death satisfies God’s justice and holiness.
Removing sin – The scapegoat provides a picture of sin being carried away and separated from the people, just as Jesus takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Believers receive complete forgiveness and cleansing through Christ’s atoning work.
High priest imagery – Jesus serves as the ultimate high priest who offers the perfect sacrifice to make intercession for the people before God (Hebrews 3:1).
Restoring purity – The sin offering and scapegoat ritual purified God’s people; those who trust in Christ’s work on the cross are cleansed from sin and counted righteous before God.
So while Jesus fulfills the meaning behind both goats, he does not literally become “sin personified.” Rather, he voluntarily pays sin’s penalty for those who place their faith in him.
The Scapegoat as a Type of Christ
While the scapegoat is not a perfect parallel to Christ, it does serve as a meaningful foreshadowing and picture of what he accomplishes for believers. Here are some specific ways the scapegoat ritual points ahead:
- Vicarious sacrifice – The goat bore the sins of the people, just as Christ bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24).
- Imputation of sin – The high priest symbolically transferred sins to the scapegoat, just as our sin is imputed to Christ.
- Removal of impurity – The goat carried this impurity away, as Jesus takes away our sin and makes us clean.
- Forgiveness achieved – This foreshadows the complete forgiveness we have through faith in Christ’s finished work.
So the scapegoat ritually accomplished what Jesus fully achieved – atonement, cleansing, forgiveness, and removal of sins. It gives us a powerful metaphor for what Christ’s atoning work means for us.
Additional Old Testament References
The term Azazel appears exclusively in Leviticus 16. But the Old Testament contains other references that shed light on the meaning of the scapegoat ritual.
Isaiah 53:6 – “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This verse is a clear prophetic reference to Christ bearing our sin.
Psalm 103:12 – “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” The scapegoat symbolized the distance our sins are removed by God’s grace.
Micah 7:18-19 – “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” This passage points to God’s forgiveness through clearly alluding to the scapegoat’s release.
These and other passages illustrate the biblical theme of atonement for sins accomplished through a substitutionary sacrifice and complete removal of sin and guilt.
New Testament Interpretation
The New Testament contains multiple references connecting Christ’s sacrificial death to the atonement ritual in Leviticus 16:
- Hebrews 9-10 – This extended passage argues that Christ’s sacrifice is the perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system, including the Day of Atonement. “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26).
- Romans 8:3 – “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” This echoes the scapegoat imagery of Christ bearing our sin.
- 1 John 2:2 – “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Propitiation refers to the removal of God’s wrath through an atoning sacrifice.
These and other New Testament references make it clear that Christ’s death served as the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system and the Day of Atonement rituals.
Implications for Today
There are several important implications from the scapegoat ritual and imagery that are relevant for believers today:
- Appreciation of Christ’s work – Understanding the biblical imagery of substitutionary sacrifice and removal of sins helps us better appreciate the beauty of the gospel.
- Assurance of forgiveness – We can have confidence that all our sins have been fully paid for and taken away through faith in Christ’s completed work.
- Motivation for holiness – Gratitude for God’s mercy should compel us to repentance and living in righteousness (Hebrews 10:19-25).
- Hope in Christ’s return – As the scapegoat ritual was repeated annually, it pointed to the need for Christ’s return to make all things new and completely abolish sin.
Christ fulfilled what the Old Testament sacrificial system could only hint at. The more we understand this imagery of atonement and purification, the more awe we will have at the saving work accomplished on our behalf!