This gets my goat

The one who led the goat into the desert and sent it off to the demon Azazel must take a bath and wash his clothes before coming back into camp.

Lev 16:26, CEV

There is a general principle about Bible translations that goes something like this, “If you’re going to put something weird in your translation, footnote it.” I was looking at Hebrews 13 and the phrase “go outside the camp.” And this led me to Leviticus 16:26. I was pretty surprised to see the CEV rendering without any kind of footnote or cross-reference. In their favor, I will say that the translators put a good note in at Leviticus 16:8:

f 16.8 Azazel: It was believed that a demon named Azazel lived in the desert.

The online NLT Study Bible has this:

The term Azazel is found only in 16:8, 10, 26. This word has generally been interpreted in four different ways: (1) as a word meaning “the goat of going away”; (2) as a demon that lived in the wilderness; (3) as a strengthened form of the Hebrew word for “go, leave,” meaning “utter loss”; and (4) as a rocky cliff over which the goat was pushed. Since this goat represented the removal of the sins of Israel from the camp (16:22), the first interpretation is probably the simplest solution.

The NET Bible Online has this note.

I think many translators hope that their translation will stand on its own. But in practice most people have some sort of Biblical knowledge before they get to read your translation. So if you’re going to say something quite different from the dominant Bible translation it’s a good idea in my opinion to footnote, share the alternative and explain why you chose this rendering. At the very least we should put something in like that indicates that we’re aware of the more common rendering.

If the CEV had at least a cross-reference at Lev. 16:26 to verse 8, there wouldn’t have been any confusion on my part.

Another resource that I found helpful was the NIV Archaeological Study Bible.

You have to admit this is a freaky passage of Scripture. It sounds like the Israelites are indulging in some syncretism. The NET translation really brings that out:

and Aaron is to cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and one lot for Azazel.

A Better Bible would show the ambiguity of this passage without creating undue alarm.

The CEV Learning Bible has a footnote that seems to get things exactly backwards:

16.26 one who led the goat… take a bath and wash his clothes: The person who led the goat out of the camp carrying the people’s sins and those who removed the remains of the bull and goat from the camp had to wash and change clothes, since they had come into contact with holy things. See also Heb. 13.11.

Here are some more sources for information on this passage and the mysterious Azazel: A good roundup of sources about Azazel. A comparison 13 English translations of this verse.

12 thoughts on “This gets my goat

  1. Theophrastus says:

    You see … this is why Gentiles just don’t grok the Torah. My goodness, this is the Scapegoat! You’ve got to read some Rashi (or your favorite commentator) to see what is going on.

    By the way, we read this verse at Yom Kippur, so any good machzor should contain more than enough commentary for you.

  2. codepoke says:

    Fascinating. Thank you, David. I have been going through Leviticus in the NIV “Bible Experience” and heard this reference to scapegoat. I immediately thought that the word must be unique, and if so then it must be open to wild interpretation. Little did I know. 🙂

    Thank you for covering the subject so roundly.

    Theophrastus, Rashi says: Azazel: This is a strong and hard mountain, [with] a high cliff, as the Scripture says [in describing Azazel] (verse 22 below),“a precipitous land (אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה),” meaning a cut-off land [i.e., a sheer drop]. — [Torath Kohanim 16:28; Yoma 67b]

    Is that what you expected?

  3. codepoke says:

    On the surface, the encyclopedia seems to reinforce my perception of the Jewish religion as steeped in superstition. It’s really quite discouraging with its references to miscegenation between demons and women, and Yhwh involving geolocated demons in the carrying away of the sins of many. It’s really pretty discouraging.

  4. Theophrastus says:

    The Jewish Encyclopedia for its day was an amazing resource, but today it has been surpassed by a number of better works. Perhaps the most accessible of these in English is the Encyclopedia Judaica (in its 2nd edition now). Here is the entry for there, which I think is considerably more balanced:


    AZAZEL (Heb. עֲזָאזֵל), name of the place or the “power” (see below) to which one of the goats in the Temple service of the *Day of Atonement was sent. There is a great deal of confusion regarding the exact meaning of the word. The name appears in Leviticus (16:8–10): “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the Lord, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.”

    The goat which was dispatched to Azazel was not a sacrifice since it was not slaughtered. From the actual verses themselves it is not even certain whether the goat was killed; thus it seems that the two goats can be compared to the two birds used in the purification ritual of the leper. Just as there one of the birds is set free to fly over the field (Lev. 14:4–7), so here too the goat of Azazel was sent into the wilderness. The goat was dispatched in order to carry the sins of Israel into the wilderness, i.e., to cleanse the people of their sins. This is also the reason why the ritual took place on the Day of Atonement.

    The idea that the goat was loaded with the sins of Israel is expressed in the Mishnah (Yoma 6:4) which relates that the Babylonians (or the Alexandrians) used to pluck the hair of the goat and proclaim “Take and go” which is explained as meaning “why is this goat waiting here when the sins of the generation are many and are upon them” (Yoma 66b., cf. the text cited by R. Hananel ad loc.).

    A detailed description of the ritual in the Second Temple is found in the Mishnah in the general description of the *avodah of the Day of Atonement: the high priest cast lots – upon one the word L-YHWH (“For the Lord”) was written and upon the other La-ʿAzazel (“For Azazel”). Afterward he drew lots and on the head of the goat chosen for Azazel he bound a thread of crimson wool and stood the animal opposite the gate through which it would ultimately be taken (Yoma 4:1–2). After the high priest had performed several other rituals he returned to the goat, placed his hands on it and confessed: “O God, Thy people, the house of Israel, has sinned and transgressed before Thee….” He then handed the goat over to the person who was going to take it, called Iʾsh ʿItti (Lev. 16:21), i.e., the man who had been prepared for that time (et). Although any Jew was qualified to fulfill this function, the high priests did not allow non-priests to do it (Yoma 6:3). When the Iʾsh ʿItti reached the cliff, he pushed the goat over it backward and it hardly reached the halfway mark in its descent before it was completely dismembered (Yoma 6:2–6).

    It seems that even in the time of the Second Temple when they used to kill the goat, its actual death was not considered indispensable since, as soon as the goat reached the desert, the high priest was permitted to continue with the divine service and was not required to wait until the goat was killed. It is possible that the goat was killed in order to ensure that it would not return – laden with the sins – to inhabited places.

    There have been efforts to compare the ritual of the goat to several customs of the ancient world. In Babylonia, for instance, it was customary on the festival of Akītu (the New Year) to give a goat as a substitute for a human being (pūḫ) to Ereshkigal (the goddess of the abyss). In an Akkadian magical inscription from the city of Assur which deals with the cure for a man who is unable to eat and drink, it is prescribed that a goat should be tied to his bed and that thus the sickness will pass to the goat. On the following morning, the goat is to be taken to the desert and decapitated. Its flesh is then cooked and put in a pit together with honey and oil, perhaps as an offering to the demons. During plagues, the Hittites used to send a goat into enemy territory in order that it should carry the plague there. On the head of the goat they would bind a crown made of colored wool, comparable perhaps to the thread of crimson wool which was tied to the head of the goat in the Second Temple period (Yoma 4:2). In the Hellenistic world there were also “scapegoat” rituals, but they had the custom to take a man as “scapegoat” and not an animal. In some places these rituals were performed in times of trouble, in others at fixed appointed times of the year. However, in the Hellenistic world the important part of the ceremony was not the killing of the “scapegoat,” but its being sent out of the city and indeed, in some places, it was not even killed.

    The exact meaning of Azazel was a point of dispute already in the times of the talmudic sages: some held that it is the name of the place to which the goat was sent, while others believed that it was the name of some “power.” According to the first opinion, the word Azazel is a parallel to “a land which is cut off” (Lev. 16:22), meaning (according to the rabbinic interpretation) an area of rocks and cliffs, i.e., inaccessible. The word Azazel is also interpreted as meaning strong and hard as though it were written עזז אל, namely, hardest of the mountains (Yoma 63b; cf. Sifra Aḥarei Mot 2:8; Targum Jonathan to Lev. 16:10). It does appear, however, that this is an attempt to reconcile the meaning of the word Azazel with the actual usage in the time of the Second Temple, namely to bring the goat to a cliff and to push it over. The interpretation does not quite fit the written form of the word עזאזל. The second opinion, which sees Azazel as a supernatural power, also treats the word as though it were written עַזָזֵאל. This opinion is based on Leviticus (16:8): “One lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel,” i.e., just as the first goat is set aside for the Lord so the second is set aside for Azazel, Azazel being a parallel to the Lord (cf. PdRE ch. 46, p. 111a). God gets a burnt offering while Azazel gets a sin offering. This view is reinforced by the widespread belief that the wilderness was the habitat of demons (see Lev. 13:21; 34:14; esp. Lev. 17:7). The demonic identification would indicate that the original purpose of the ritual was to get rid of the evil by banishing it to its original source.

    Ibn Ezra and Naḥmanides both interpret Azazel as the name of the goat and this view is also found in the Talmud: “The school of Rabbi Ishmael explained it is called Azazel because it atones for the acts of the fallen *angels *Uzza and Azael” (Yoma 67b, cf. Targ. Jon., Gen. 6:1; Deut. R. 11:10). In the various Greek translations of the Bible and the Vulgate the word Azazel is interpreted in a different form – as being made up of the word עֵז (“goat”) and the Aramaic root אזל (“to go”) thus making “the goat which goes.” The Septuagint has χίμαρον… ὲπ᾽ αὑτὸν ὸ κλῆρος τοῦ άποπομπαίου (Lev. 16:10, cf. 8, i.e., the goat on which went the lot of dismissal); also, verse 26, i.e., the goat which goes free. Symmachus has τράγως ἁπερχόμενος and the Vulgate caper emissarius.

    David Kimḥi in his Book of Roots explains the word as being the name of the mountain to which the goat was taken and the mount was so called because the goat was taken there. Latterly N.H. Tur *Sinai has explained the word as meaning a wild goat.

    In the retelling of the story of the sons of God and daughters of men (Gen. 6:1–4) in the First Book of Enoch, Azazel (or Azael) is one of the leaders of the angels who desired the daughters of men (6:4), and it was he who taught human beings how to manufacture weapons and ornaments (8:1–2). The identification of this Azazel with the biblical Azazel is clear from the continuation of the story, as the angel Raphael is commanded to “bind the hands and feet of Azazel and cast him into the darkness. Make an opening to the wilderness which is in Dudael and cast him there. Put upon him hard sharp rocks” (10:4–5). Dudael is the Bet Hadudo (or Bet Harudo) which is mentioned in the Mishnah (Yoma 6:8) and the association is certainly with the cliff from which the goat was cast. The remnant of a pesher (commentary) on Azazel and the angels found in Cave 4 at Qumran resembles the account in the Book of Enoch. Although the remnant is deficient, it is possible to learn from it that the pesher is dealing with Azazel and the angels who lusted after the daughters of men so that they might bear them strong men, and that Azazel taught human beings how to deal wickedly. Azael is also identified with Azazel in several late Midrashim (cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Gen. 44; Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, vol. 4, p. 127). Azazel also appears in the Apocalypse of *Abraham where he takes the form of a fallen angel.


    J.E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (19223), 95–109; J. Pederson, Israel, Its Life and Culture, 3–4 (1940), 454, 712; L. Rost, in: ZDPV, 66 (1943), 213–4; W. Gipsen, in: Orientalia Neerlandica (1948), 156–61 (Eng.); E. Kutsch, in: RGG3, 6 (1962), 506–7; Oxford Classical Dictionary, S.V. Pharmakos, Sacrifice and Thargelia; C. Lattey, in: VT, 1 (1951), 272; S. Hooke, ibid., 2 (1952), 8–10; O.R. Gurney, The Hittites (1952), 162; Pritchard, Texts, 347; W.F. Albright, in: VT Supplement, 4 (1956), 245–6; G.R. Driver, in: JSS, 1 (1956), 97–98; C.L. Finberg, in: Bibliotheca Sacra, 115 (1958), 320–3; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 508–9; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 224–6; M.H. Segal, in JQR, 53 (1962/63), 248–51; H. Wohlstein, in: ZDMG, 113 (1963), 487–9; J.G. Frazer, in: T.H. Gaster (ed.), The New Golden Bough (1964), xviii, xxiii, 609–23, 638–40; H.M. Kuemmel, in: ZAW, 80 (1968), 290–318; J.M. Allegro, Qumrân Cave 4 (1968), 78.

    [Shmuel Ahituv]

  5. Theophrastus says:

    Codepoke, yes, I am familiar with the Rashi — his point is that Azazel is not a type of demon, but rather it is the name of the place (that the goat falls off). The other possibility, as mentioned in the article is that Azazel is the name of the goat. Both of these views have Talmudic support. In contrast to your reasoning, these views go out of their way to not identify the ritual with a demon.

    This passage is no more strange to me than Lev 14:4-7.

    I do think there is a strong stream of anti-Judaism especially in Codepoke’s reading, and also in the translation consulted by David. They are hyping up the weirdness factor (when there are far more weird things in the Bible — even in the New Testament — one doesn’t even need to look hard).

    It is clear that while there are a tiny number of scholars who hold on to the demon view, neither contemporary Jews nor the sages of the Talmudic period viewed this as “references to miscegenation between demons and women, and [God] involving geolocated demons in the carrying away of the sins of many” and Codepoke’s reading otherwise (even after consulting a standard commentary) seems to me to be taking the worst possible view. In David’s case, he identified a reasonable scholarly note (in the NET Bible) but seems to have instead relied on scholarship of the NLT Study Bible.

    So a bunch of people got carried away with a fanciful interpretation (and in the CEV’s case, a very serious mistranslation) of Scripture. Why does it matter? To my mind, it matters because these are core texts for a living religion. The translator and NLT commentators, for example, could have asked a Jewish person (or just read, say Milgrom’s book — which is perhaps the most famous contemporary commentary) and written a more accurate account. But instead they, and to some extent, this thread, saw to fit to take the weirdest possible interpretation. Since this is for a living religion — they start to look at Jews as believing a set of beliefs that in fact, they don’t do.

    It is a little like Aristotle’s famous claim that men have more teeth than women do. He reached that by consulting sources and abstract thought. He could have just gone to a woman and asked “can I count your teeth” and cleaned up the confusion, but instead, he started grooving on the who weirdness of the “men have more teeth than women” thing.

    Now, to anticipate a counter-remark, let me readily admit that Jews do this to Christians as well. For example, the influential Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz has take a perverse view of a number of New Testament references and has argued as a result that Christianity is a purely idolatrous religion (he has some more detailed and offensive remarks, but I don’t want to give him a soapbox here). Indeed, this view has become standard in certain circles (sometimes called, misleadingly, “ultra-Orthodox”).

    Now my point is that rather than just groove to the weirdness of some passage, one should (a) read classical and modern commentaries to see how people interpret the passage; and (b) actually speak to those who know and hold the passage holy, and find it out what it means to them.

    I don’t think the cause of understanding or inter-religious dialogue is enhanced when we say things such as Codepoke’s conclusion, “It’s really pretty discouraging.”

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    This view is reinforced by the widespread belief that the wilderness was the habitat of demons … The demonic identification would indicate that the original purpose of the ritual was to get rid of the evil by banishing it to its original source.

    This, from the Encyclopedia Judaica courtesy of Theophrastus, reminds me of the famous story in which Jesus cast demons out into a herd of pigs which then rushed down a steep slope into the sea – perhaps also considered the habitat of demons.

  7. codepoke says:

    Thank you, Theophrastus. The Encyclopedia Judaica was a great improvement over the Jewish Encyclopedia – much better balanced.

    You may have missed in my comment that I found the entry discouraging, not the religion. My interest in this thread is simple. I happen to be in Leviticus right now, and to have taken an interest in the scapegoat when – voila – David posts on the subject. Thanks to your comments I read 3 or 4 different commentaries this morning, and found all of them helpful. I still do and will consider it a bummer that the JE starts its article by directly identifying Azazel as the name of a supernatural/extrahuman being. The rest of my reading was quite encouraging.

    Thank you again for all the info you’ve added to this thread. I continue, also, to find it fascinating.

  8. codepoke says:


    > This passage is no more strange to me than Lev 14:4-7.


    Yes, this one has been on my mind, too. The discussion of the “suprarational” aspect of both this and the red heifer in the commentaries I read was fascinating. I have questions on the subject, but it would constitute a complete hijacking of a thread in which David is really faulting an English bible for a footnoting decision.

    I’ll retreat back to my rock – crawling under it, that is.

  9. David Ker says:

    Thanks, all for working out misunderstandings in a peaceful way.

    Despite my affection for CEV this is a place where the translators belie their commitment to clarity and simplicity. If it clearly meant “sent it off to the demon Azazel” it would be one thing but even my cursory reading (and everyone else’s more in-depth findings) show that this phrase is “clearly ambiguous.”

    Codepoke, I hope you won’t retreat for too long. I appreciate your contribution.

    T, I love the Aristotle’s teeth illustration!

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