Translating the Bible: Azazel

Bible Translations

The Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur, was considered to be the holiest day in the religious calendar of the people of Israel.

The ritual for the Day of Atonement is described in detail in Leviticus Chapter 16. In Leviticus 16 God spoke to Moses giving instructions on how to make atonement for the sins of the priests, of the people, and of the nation.

The Day of Atonement was celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month. The Day of Atonement was a day of solemn rest, fasting, and sacrifices. On that day the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people and the nation and to make atonement for the tabernacle and the altar.

In the present post, I will not discuss all the events that occurred on the Day of Atonement.  I will return to this topic at a later time. Rather, I want to discuss the selection of the two goats to be used on the Day of Atonement.

According to the ritual described in Leviticus 16, Aaron must make personal preparations to enter the Holy of Holies. He must bathe in water, put on his holy vestments, and make a sacrifice for himself and for his family. As for the sacrifice for the people, Aaron must take two male goats and place them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Then, lots would be cast upon the two goals.

The English translations differ on how to interpret the selection of the two goats. All translations agree that the first goat is for the Lord. The problem comes with the selection of the second goat.

Below are four translations of Leviticus16:8-10:

King James Version: “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.”

The Douay-Rheims: “And casting lots upon them both, one to be offered to the Lord, and the other to be the emissary goat: That whose lot fell to be offered to the Lord, he shall offer for sin: But that whose lot was to be the emissary goat, he shall present alive before the Lord, that he may pour out prayers upon him, and let him go into the wilderness.”

The New Living Translation: “He is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be reserved as an offering to the LORD and which will carry the sins of the people to the wilderness of Azazel. Aaron will then present as a sin offering the goat chosen by lot for the LORD. The other goat, the scapegoat chosen by lot to be sent away, will be kept alive, standing before the LORD. When it is sent away to Azazel in the wilderness, the people will be purified and made right with the LORD.”

The New Revised Standard Version: “and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; 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.”

Before the goat was sent away into the wilderness, the high priest would place his hands on the head of the goat, and lay the sins of the people on the goat. After the priest had transferred the sins of the people to the goat, then the goat would be sent out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the community.

There has been a great amount of confusion on the exact meaning of the Hebrew word Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל). It is clear from the text that the second goat was not a sacrifice, since the goat was not killed, but sent away into the wilderness carrying away the sins of Israel. The symbolism behind this act was that the goat was removing the sins of the people into the wilderness.

However, the exact meaning of the Hebrew word Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) is a matter of dispute among scholars. Some believe that Azazel was the name of a far away place to which the goat was sent in order to remove the sins of the people.

The King James Version translates Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) by dividing the one Hebrew word into two words.  The KJV translates word עז meaning “goat” and the word אזל meaning “to send.” Thus, the translation “scapegoat” or “the goat that goes.”

The Douay-Rheims translates Azazel as “the emissary goat.” This translation follows the Vulgate, the Latin Version of the Bible, which translates the word Azazel as caper emissarius.

Others believe that Azazel was the name of a being.  This is the position taken by the New Revised Standard Version. In the same way that the first goat was dedicated to Yahweh (the name of a being), the second was was sent to Azazel (the name of a being).

The Bible says that the wilderness was the place where demons lived. Leviticus 17:7 reads: “So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore” (ESV). If Azazel was the name of a desert demon, then the symbolim behind the ritual was to send evil back to its place of origin.

The New Living Translation attempts to make a compromise with the various meanings of the word Azazel. The expression “wilderness of Azazel” could be construed in this translation to be the name of a place. In the translation, “The other goat, the scapegoat chosen by lot,” the word Azazel is translated as “scapegoat,” while the expression “to Azazel in the wilderness” is clearly a reference to a being.

Thus, it is evident from the evidence above that the meaning of the word Azazel is uncertain. Some translations use the term “scapegoat” while others use Azazel as the name of a being. However, since the name Azazel stands in a parallel relationship with Yahweh in verses 9-10, it is clear that the name Azazel refers either to a place or to a demon that lived in the wilderness.

NOTE: For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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