The significance of the act depends on the provenance of the Day of Atonement. Critical scholarship sets this in the postexilic period, while allowing that it developed various ancient rites, including the offering of a scapegoat to Azazel. However, it is unlikely that the Jews in the exilic period would have deliberately introduced a specifically pagan concept. Moreover, the view of a late date for the Day of Atonement has been seriously weakened by archeological discoveries in Babylonia and Ugarit, which show that there were rituals connected with the New Year festivals analagous to the Day of Atonement. The consigning of a goat to Azazel was prob. one of many features adapted from contemporary cultic life in the Mosaic period and incorporated into the Israelite cultus, receiving an entirely different significance in the process. Leviticus 17:7 precludes the view that the goat provided a sacrifice for Azazel; in all likelihood this custom meant no more than a symbolic transfer of sin from the realm of society into that of death.
N. Micklem, Leviticus IB II (1953), 77-84; W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd ed. (1957), 329; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 507-510; J. Gray, The Canaanites (1964), 137, 138.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(`aza’zel apopompaios; the King James Version Scapegoat, the Revised Version, margin "removal"):
I. THE MEANING OF THE WORD 1. The Passages to Be Considered
2. The Proposed Interpretations
(1) The Etymology
(2) The Explanation
II. WHAT IS DONE IN CONNECTION WITH AZAZEL 1. The Significance of This Action
2. The Jewish Liturgy
I. The Meaning of the Word 1. The Passages to Be Considered:
This word is found in connection with the ceremony of the Day of Atonement (which see). According to Le 16:8, Aaron is to cast lots upon the two goats which on the part of the congregation are to serve as a sin offering (Le 16:5), "one be lot for Yahweh, and the other lot for Azazel." In Le 16:10, after the first goat has been set apart as a sin offering for Yahweh, we read: "But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before Yahweh, to make atonement for him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness." In Le 16:26 we read: "And he that letteth go the goat for Azazel shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water." Before this, in Le 16:21f mention had been made of what should be done with the goat. After the purification of the (inner) sanctuary, of the tent of meeting, and of the altar, the living goat is to brought, "and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all .... their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a man that is in readiness into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a solitary land: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness." But in this last mentioned and most important passage the term under consideration is not found.
2. The Proposed Interpretations:
(1) The Etymology.
Some have derived the word from `az plus ’azal (fortis abiens, "passing away in his strength" or from an intentional alteration of ’el plus `azaz, robur Dei, "strength of God"; compare below the angel of the Book of Enoch); while others have regarded the word as a broken plural of a substantive in the Arabic `azala, and translated it as "lonesomeness," "desert." Now there is an inclination to regard it as a reduplication from `azalzel, derived from the root `azal. If we accept this view, although it is without certainty and an exact analogue cannot be found, we could conclude from the way in which this noun has been formed that we have before us not an abstract term (remotio, "removal," or abitus, "departure"), but a concrete noun, or an adjective, longe remotus ("far removed") or porro abiens ("going far away").
(2) The Explanation.
II. What Is Done in Connection with Azazel. 1. The Significance of This Action:
Both goats, according to Le 16:5, are to be regarded as a single sin-sacrifice, even should we interpret Azazel as demon or Satan, and we are accordingly not at all to understand that a sacrifice was brought to these beings. This too is made impossible by the whole tenor of the Old Testament in general, as of Le 16 in particular, so that in 16:8 the two members introduced by the preposition le- would not at all be beings of exactly the same importance. Both goats, so to say, represent two sides of the same thing. The second is necessary to make clear what the first one, which has been slain, can no longer represent, namely, the removal of the sin, and accordingly has quite often aptly been called the hircus redivivus. But what is to be represented finds its expression in the ceremony described in Le 16:20f. Whatever may be the significance of the laying on of hands in other connections, whether the emphasis is placed more on the disposal or on the appropriation of the property, at this place it certainly is only a symbol of the transfer of guilt, which is confessed over the goat and is then carried into the wilderness by the goat upon which it has been laid. In order to make this transfer all the more impressive, both the hands are here brought into action, while e.g. in Le 1:4 only one hand is used. The fact that the goat is accompanied by somebody and that it is to be taken to an uninhabited place is to indicate the absolute impossibility of its return, i.e. the guilt has been absolutely forgiven and erased, a deep thought made objectively evident in a transparent manner and independently of the explanation of Azazel, which is even yet not altogether certain. In the personal interpretation, we could have, in addition to the idea of the removal of the guilt, also a second idea, namely, that Azazel can do no harm to Israel, but must be content with his claim to a goat which takes Israel’s place.
2. The Jewish Liturgy:
The actions in connection with Azazel, as was also the case with the Day of Atonement, were interpreted more fully by the Talmud and the traditions based on it (compare ATONEMENT, DAY OF, sec. III, 2). The lots could be made of different materials; in later times they were made of gold. The manner of casting the lots was described in full. The goat that was to be sent into the wilderness was designated by a black mark on the head, the other by one on the neck. On the way from Jerusalem to the wilderness, huts were erected. From a distance it was possible to see how the goat was hurled backward from a certain cliff, called Beth-Hadudu (Beth-chadedun, 12 miles East of Jerusalem). By means of signals made with garments, news was at once sent to Jerusalem when the wilderness had been reached.