One for Azazel // Leviticus

…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.

            Leviticus 16.10

Disgrace upon you, Azazel! For Abraham’s lot is in heaven, but yours is upon the earth. Because you have chosen and loved this for the dwelling place of your uncleanness. [T]herefore the Eternal Mighty Lord made you to be a dweller upon the earth […] for God, the Eternal Mighty One, has not permitted that the bodies of the righteous should be in your hand, in order that thereby the life of the righteous and the destruction of the unclean may be assured. […] [Abraham] is an enemy to you, and to those who follow you and love what you desire. For, behold, the vesture which in heaven was formerly yours has been set aside for him, and the mortality which was his has been transferred to you.

            The Apocalypse of Abraham 13

And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.

            The Book of Enoch 10.8

The concept of the sacrifice occupies an immense territory in human imagination. As a ritual practice, sacrifices have existed in so many different cultures throughout so many periods of history, and while the form in which this practice appears has changed, it has by no means diminished. With Christianity’s absolute focus on the theology of redemption taken from Paul, a core theme of contemporary Christian thought has described, in legal terms, the self-sacrifice of Jesus as fulfilling and thereby nullifying the Ancient Jewish requirements surrounding the rite of sacrifice. Because of his singular nature—being both fully human and fully divine while managing to live without sin of any kind—Jesus was able to serve as the scapegoat, bearing in his body the sins of all humanity. By submitting himself to a public execution, Jesus fulfilled the blood-debt for all humanity once and for all, allowing for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins. All counts of guilt could then be rendered, not innocent, but paid for, in a cosmic system of exchange functioning through notions of debt and debt-repayment. Sanctified humans—washed in the blood of the Lamb, as it were—no longer need to shed the blood of a sacrificial creature to cleanse their sins. With the consummate sacrifice already performed, the redeemed are made free to sacrifice themselves daily, to take up their own crosses—but this continuing sacrificial language translates the rite into one of abstract spirituality and inwardness. One goes on living by considering oneself dead, sacrificed to the greater sacrifice and thereby becoming eternally indebted—indentured, enslaved—to Christ.

This account of sacrifice as based in exchange and legal sentences of guilt is not the oldest biblical account, though the juridical/economic one does bear traces of the older model. For the original account, we would need to pay attention to the suggestions within the Bible of the practice as preexisting any institutionalization of Jewish worship, and those suggestions are certainly all over Genesis and Exodus. (There is, of course, the first blood in Genesis, where God sacrificed an animal to provide clothing for Adam and Eve following their first act of disobedience.) But instead of that, I would like to focus on the first place the practice is codified as an official part of the religious ritual practices of Israel, and where better to identify this institutionalization than in Leviticus—everyone’s favorite book.

Tell anyone that you’re reading through the Bible, and one of the first things they’ll remark is how much of a slog Leviticus is to get through. This may be true if you’re looking for a page-turner, but you have to place the book in its proper genre. Leviticus offers the account of the instructions YHWH gives to the Israelites following their exodus from Egypt, preparing them to ritually protect his dwelling among them in the tabernacle during their sojourn through the wilderness. Read from this perspective—that Leviticus constitutes a codification of the Israelite god’s first systematic list of instructions for his chosen people—the book offers an exceptional glimpse into the soul of this people and their relationship to their god.

In my post on Exodus I described the law as a way of identifying a people and separating them from other peoples. This post continues on that theme but with special attention to the role of sacrifice (which is to say, the role of violence) as well as to that which is beyond the law, to what and who is outside it. The text offers two understated figures key to this second theme: that of the wilderness, the territory of the outside, and that of Azazel, the god of the outside.

In this pre-Temple era of Jewish history, the tabernacle served as the dwelling place of YHWH. A mobile yet ornate structure, it was re-erected at the center of each new encampment along their journey and served as the site of their ritual practice. It was the center of their community both spatially and symbolically, and in the Holy of Holies—that inner sanctum of the tabernacle where only one person, a priest, could enter only once a year and only in a cloud of incense—their occulted god resided. When we understand the position of this tabernacle and its role as a house for the divine, the ritual laws that are given seem far less arbitrary than they are made out to be by some critics today. In fact, there is a unifying logic to these instructions, if a nevertheless mystical one predicated on a certain metaphysics of sin.

I think the general impression among lay Christians of the nature of Leviticus is that it offers a list of sins with their respective legal punishments. If you do this, then the just retribution is that, and so on. But this is not exactly the case. Rather, when we read the text for its intrinsic definition of sin, we don’t necessarily arrive at one of legal infractions calling for a retributive debt-fulfillment. Instead, sin is made to look much more like disease or a festering wound—it is a communicable impurity, prone to spreading through contact, leaching the life of the body. Sin, as festering impurity, is then not understood as a breach of social contract—as it would be in a modern legal sense—but rather as a natural byproduct that leaks from certain activities, many of which are not necessarily intentionally performed, and which manifests itself at times in visible blemishes on skin, furniture, or cloth. Most of the sacrificial offerings prescribed in Leviticus are aimed at ritually cleansing this festering impurity, and though they are often called “sin offerings” or “guilt offerings” it would be more accurate to call them “purification offerings” (Lev. 4.1-35n). (The other offerings described are gift offerings of food for the divine, performed as spontaneous acts of religious devotion, and these include burnt offerings, grain offerings, and well-being offerings.)

Understood this way, we might read Leviticus not so much as a codification of legal proscriptions but rather as step-by-step guide to cleanliness, but one for which the stakes are incredibly high. To follow these instructions is a simple matter of survival: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” (Deut. 30.19). Jeffrey Stackert, in his contribution to Leviticus in the footnotes of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, describes the view of sin this way:

[The Priestly source] portrays sin both as a weight of guilt shouldered by the offender until it is borne away through forgiveness and as a defiling object attracted to the sanctuary like certain metals to a magnet. Left unremedied, such sins will accumulate in the sanctuary and drive the deity from it. (Lev. 5.1n)

And he describes ritual impurity—related but not identical to sin—in this way:

In Priestly literature, impurity is a real, though invisible, film that adheres to persons and objects and is attracted to the tabernacle as some metals are attracted to a magnet. However, impurity is fundamentally different from sin: impurity is contracted in the course of normal, daily activities and carries no moral stigma … Yet because impurity is contagious and threatens the continued presence of the deity in the sanctuary, its disposal must be accomplished fastidiously. Failure to purify is sinful and carries dire consequences (cf. 15.31). The sources of impurity are human and animal corpses (ch 11; Num 19), normal and abnormal genital discharges (chs 12; 15), and a disease, “surface affliction,” often mistranslated as “leprosy” (chs 13-14). The common denominator among these sources of impurity is their association with death or at least a loss of life force. (Lev. 11.1-16.34n)

As always, it helps our understanding of this religious imaginary by positioning ourselves, as best we can, within the perspective of an ancient people living in a time of constant tribal wars of conquest, wandering precariously through the wilderness, without the benefit of modern medicine or natural science. The threat of death was a condition of daily life, and you can imagine the horror they might associate with the spread of disease, especially when such disease bubbles on the surface of someone’s skin or, as in cases of mold or lichen, seems to eat away at their clothing and the structures of their dwelling places. It seemed that death, itself, was spreading across the surfaces of their lives. What can stop the spread of these ill-understood conditions? And more than that, what can cause these impurities? When all natural occurrences—as well as many human feats—are associated with some kind of divine intention as a response to the soul-health and moral behavior of the people, these festering impurities have a cosmic significance as well as local ramifications for daily life. They need a way of immunizing themselves against this threat of death, the disintegration of their body as a people. Believing that YHWH has been their rescuer and protector, delivering them from their enslavement in Egypt, the people turns to him as the one who can sustain them and rescue them from other dangers that creep into their lives as a condition of living.

This also serves to explain the strange (to a modern point of view) prescriptions surrounding genital discharge, childbirth, and menstruation. On the one hand, the key element in these things is the role of blood. I have mentioned before the significance of blood in the Bible, but Leviticus offers us another entry-point by which to understand how blood is made to mean. Here, blood is a contaminant, making the garments and people it touches unclean. Even when the flesh of a sacrificial animal is considered holy, the blood remains a contaminant, as in the discussion of animal sacrifices for purification offerings: “The priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall become holy; and when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place. […] But no sin offering shall be eaten from which any blood is brought into the tent of meeting for atonement in the holy place; it shall be burned with fire” (Lev. 6.26-27,30). Stackert explains, “The blood of the offering seems to decontaminate by absorbing impurities, which explains how it contaminates garments and vessels” (Lev.6.26n). Blood is a contaminant because it absorbs the impurities contracted through daily activities and sinful acts. Blood is the detergent, washing away the things that threaten the life of the community—the life which is located in their blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Lev. 17.11). Blood, then, is both the carrier of life and the carrier of death—it has the capacity to sustain and to absorb within itself that which festers and destroys.

For this people, life always seems to be understood within a frame that takes death as primal. The positive of life is thought always alongside the negative of the risk of death, such that life is that which has been protected from death. The sexual prescriptions—for ritual washing and containment after sexual acts, after menstruation, after less common genital discharges, and after childbirth—have to do with the danger of loss of life associated with these acts and with the spilling of blood more generally. René Girard, the great theorist of ritual and religion, makes this point within his broader argument that sacrifice, in all religious practice, constitutes a people’s way of containing and immunizing violence. Sacrifice, for Girard, is a method by which the violence inherent to a community—particularly the potential cycles of vengeance that can escalate from a singular act of intra-communal violence—can be relocated onto an acceptable substitute, thereby transferring the community’s inherent violence to something perceived as outside the community, dissociated from it in some way: “All our sacrificial victims […] are invariably distinguishable from the non-sacrificeable beings by one essential characteristic: between these victims and the community a crucial social link is missing, so they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance” (252). Girard remarks on the strong risk of death that these communities observed in childbirth and as a consequence of sexual acts: “Sexuality is impure because it has to do with violence. […] Like violence, sexual desire tends to fasten upon surrogate objects if the object to which it was originally attracted remains inaccessible; it willingly accepts substitutes” (271-2). So there is both a mimetic and a physical correlation between sexuality and violence in the imagination of such ancient communities.

Sacrifice, then, is a vaccination against death—against the violence that is seen as “eminently communicable,” as Girard explains: “Ritual precautions are intended both to prevent this flooding and to offer protection, insofar as it is possible, to those who find themselves in the path of ritual impurity—that is, caught in the floodtide of violence” (267).

The quintessential act of sacrifice, in this model, that is prescribed in Leviticus is that prescribed for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the annual ceremony established for the consummate purging of impurity from the community. This is the day when one priest would enter the Holy of Holies and meet with their occulted god to plead atonement for the sins of the whole community. It is, in other words, the day set aside for deep cleaning those hard-to-reach places. As a part of this ceremony, three animals are sacrificed. First, a bull is sacrificed for the sins of the priest, to wash him clean enough to enter the holy place. Next, the priest takes two goats, casting lots to decide which one is sacrificed for YHWH. This goat’s blood is shed for the people upon the mercy seat that sits atop the Ark of the Covenant, which is the residence of YHWH within the inner sanctum of the tabernacle. On this one day of the year, the sacrificial blood is spread deeper into the holy place than at any other time.

It is the other goat that interests me the most because the language surrounding the other goat troubles the idea that this was a monotheistic people. This is the goat on which the lot falls “for Azazel” (Lev. 16.8):

When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16.20-22)

In many translations of these passages, this phrase is rendered as the much more well-known term “scapegoat.” Here’s the King James Version translation of this verse: “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.” Stackert explains this difference as follows: “Azazel, probably, ‘angry’ or ‘fierce god,’ a demonic figure (cf. 17.7), in contrast to the Israelite deity. Rabbinic interpreters understood Azazel as ‘the goat that goes away,’ i.e., the ‘scapegoat’” (Lev. 18.8n). As is often the case with moments in the Bible that challenge our views of its consistency regarding theology and cosmology, this figure has often been rendered as a symbol or metaphor and not representative of a legitimate belief in a second deity. For instance, the Jewish Encyclopedia cites the account of the 13th-century Talmudist Nachmanides: “Far from involving the recognition of Azazel as a deity, the sending of the goat was, as stated by Naḥmanides, 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 Yhwh before the one was sacrificed and the other sent into the wilderness, was proof that Azazel was not ranked with Yhwh, but regarded simply as the personification of wickedness in contrast with the righteous government of Yhwh.” This symbolic sense of the scapegoat translates into our modern use of the term: some person, group, or object gets (often unfairly) designated as the one who will bear the guilt of others or as the one to blame for certain problems and is punished as a way of eschewing punishment for other wrongdoers.

However, it seems incontrovertible to me that there is a sense in Leviticus that Azazel was an actual being—a demon at least but perhaps a deity who dwelled in the wilderness beyond the camp. He is the one to whom sacrifices are made by the communities outside the tribes of Israel. He is the one to whom illegitimate sacrifices are made when the sacrifice has not been blessed by a priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Lev. 17.6-7). I see this anti-worship of Azazel as the necessary consequent of the sacrificial immunization of this community. The “holiness” they so valued really means a “separateness”—their ritual washings cleansed them from the outside, from the death of the wilderness, that constantly seemed to creep into the inside of their community. Life meant a connection to YHWH sustained through his continual dwelling among them. Death meant a separation from him, but death was always linked to these festering impurities spreading over their members, which required removal from the camp. On Yom Kippur, the day of purgation, the impurities of the entire community were soaked in blood and spread onto another living goat, who was then cast into the wilderness, carrying their risk of separation from YHWH out to the anti-divine whose territory was the Outside: one goat for the god who lived among them and sustained their life, one goat for the god who lived beyond them and threatened them with infectious death. In both cases, the powers of life and death are in the suprahuman hands of a supernatural being (though in a world where there is no distinction between natural and supernatural). If they one to whom they devote themselves in worship is their rescuer, their life-giver, and in so doing has made them into a closed community, then who animates the threat of the outside? It cannot also be their rescuing god, so it must be some other divine. I think this helps to explain the later use by Christians of the figure of Satan—the second god who must exist for the first god’s identification with a community’s life to make sense.


Girard, René. “From Violence and the Sacred.” Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader, edited by Jeffrey Carter, Bloomsbury, 2003, pp. 239-275.

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