Is Azazel a Goat, Place, Demon, or Deity?
Azazel in Leviticus
The annual Yom Kippur ritual for the purification of the temple and the community, described in Leviticus, includes the enigmatic offering of two goats:
ויקרא טז:ח וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גּוֹרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַי־הוָה וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל׃
Lev 16:8 and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for YHWH and the other lot for Azazel.
The goat that goes to YHWH is sacrificed in the holy precinct; the goat that goes to Azazel is sent into the wilderness, carrying away the faults of the people so that they can receive atonement (v. 10). Later in the chapter, we are told that Aaron is to transfer the sins of the people onto the second goat:
ויקרא טז:כא וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי (ידו) [יָדָיו] עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת כָּל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה. טז:כב וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹתָם אֶל אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Lev 16:21 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. 16:22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
The goat carries the iniquities of Israel into the wilderness to Azazel. The person who sends the goat to Azazel must wash his clothes and his body before reentering the camp (v. 26).
Who or what is Azazel?
The Meaning of the Name Azazel
ʿAzaʾzel (עזאזל) as spelled in the Masoretic text has no clear meaning in Hebrew. It is probably a correction of an original form ʿAzaz +ʾel (עזזאל), attested in some manuscripts of the Samaritan Pentateuch and in the Temple Scroll’s (11QTS) rendition of the scapegoat ritual. This spelling is also found in the so called “Pesher on the Periods” (4Q180), which will be discussed below.
The form ‘Azaz’el (עזזאל) combines the Semitic root ע.ז.ז, meaning to be “enraged,” “fierce,” or “strong,” with ʾel, referring either to the proper name of the god El, or perhaps the generic term for a god in Hebrew. Azazel could mean something like “El/the god is fierce/strong” or perhaps “the rage of El/the god.” The biblical name עֲזַזְיָהוּ Azazyahu/ Azaziah (1 Chr 15:21; 27:20; 2Chr 31:13) follows the same format, with the Yahwistic theophoric element, yahu, instead of El.
Alternatively, since a god named Azuz/Aziz (ʿzz) is attested in Mesopotamian and Levantine (especially Phoenician) sources, the name could mean “Azaz is god,” referring to an incarnation of this deity.
Demon or Deity
The ritual of the two goats appears to present Azazel as a deity, since Azazel is parallel to YHWH in the ritual, with one goat going to each. Several clues in the passage suggest, however, that the god Azazel has been “demoted.”
The goat must first be presented to YHWH before being sent off to Azazel, indicating YHWH’s superior status:
ויקרא טז:ז וְלָקַח אֶת שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם וְהֶעֱמִיד אֹתָם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Lev 16:7 He shall take the two goats and set them before YHWH at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
Moreover, unlike YHWH, Azazel does not receive a sacrifice but is rather the target of an apotropaic ritual, performed to ward off impurity and effect atonement. Finally, Azazel resides not in a temple, but in the desert (v. 10 hammiddbarah), a space which is often connected with chaos and death.
Azazel may once have played a more powerful role in Israelite religion, but Leviticus 16 now treats him as a demonic entity who presides over the wilderness and chaotic spaces, where impurity belongs, and as the recipient of an elimination ritual.
Against this background, it seems likely that the change in spelling from ʿAzazʾel (עזזאל) to ʿAzaʾzel (עזאזל)—i.e., by moving the aleph—is a theological correction, intended to erase any theophoric element from it, or to distinguish its name from an angel’s name.
Avoiding Azazel’s Name (LXX)
Another possible theological correction is the understanding of Azazel in the 3rd century B.C.E. Greek Septuagint (LXX), which offers two different translations of Azazel.
In the first three instances of Azazel in the chapter, LXX translates using the Greek root apopomp- as if it means “the one who eliminates” or “the one who wards off evil.” In Greek religion, the expression hoi ampopompaîoi denotes divine agents responsible for, or that receive apotropaic rituals. All this vocabulary belongs to the context of Greek purification and atonement rituals, some of which even involve the sending away of goats, exactly as it happens in the biblical ritual.
The most straightforward way to understand this term according to the Greek syntax is to consider the word as a substantive participle which stands in parallel with “the Lord” (τῷ κυρίῳ). Nevertheless, the LXX avoids making Azazel a proper name, perhaps feeling that such an exact parallel to YHWH would be problematic.
In the final appearance of the name, however, the LXX uses a totally different root:
Lev 16:26 and the one who will send out the goat to be designated for the release (εἰς ἄφεσιν) shall wash his clothes and clean his body with water, and after that he shall come to the camp.
Here the translator has chosen a periphrastic expression that refers to the “release” or “sending away” (aphesis) of the goat. This translation may well correspond to an etymological reading of the name Azazel according to the Aramaic root ʾazal, “to leave.” Thus, in verse 26, any reference to Azazel as a kind of power has disappeared.
While it is unclear why the LXX changed roots here, it is possible that the belief in a being called Azazel was unknown to the Greek translator, and the meaning of the word was confusing. Thus, he responded in diverse and creative ways.
Azazel is the Goat: Philo’s Allegory
Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E. – ca. 50 C.E.), a Jewish philosopher whose main source was the LXX translation of the Torah, discusses this ritual in his “Who Is the Heir?” He makes no mention of a being but seems to understand LXX’s renderings of Azazel as describing the sent away goat (Her. 179):
A great impression is made upon me by the selection and division of the two goats which are brought as an offering for the purpose of atonement, and which are divided by an obscure and uncertain principle of division, namely, by lot. For of two principles, the one which is occupied about the affairs of divine virtue is consecrated and set apart to be offered to God; but that which devotes itself to the concerns of human unhappiness is appropriated to the banished creature (τῇ φυγάδι), for the share which that has obtained the sacred scriptures call the scapegoat (ἀποπομπαῖον), since it is removed from its place, and pursued and driven away to a great distance from wisdom. (Yonge trans., adjusted)
As Philo’s main approach was to interpret the Torah allegorically, here he suggests that the goat running away represents the soul that “runs away” from wisdom.
Azazel Is a Place: Talmud
Later Septuagint codices corrected the original Greek formulation by specifying that Azazel denotes “a rocky and fortified place” where the goat is sent off to. This reading goes back to the Septuagint revisers, such as Aquila, who worked in Palestine around the 2nd century C.E.
Such a correction aligns with other rabbinic interpretations of Azazel, according to which Azazel is not the name of a demon but of the deserted place where the goat is sent (e.g., b. Yoma 67b).
תנו רבנן: עזאזל - שיהא עז וקשה... תניא אידך: עזאזל - קשה שבהרים...
Our rabbis taught: “Azazel—[the land] should be strong and hard…” Another text taught: “Azazel—the roughest mountain…”
In the quote, the first two interpretations assume that Azazel is not a being at all, but a description of the wilderness area where the goat is sent.
A Reminder of Angelic Sin: Talmud and Midrash
The same passage in the Babylonian Talmud continues with a third tradition:
תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: עזאזל - שמכפר על מעשה עוזא ועזאל.
The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: “Azazel—it atones for the acts of Uzza and Azael.”
According to this, the ritual of sending the goat to Azazel is connected to a myth about the act of two wicked angels, Uzza and Azael. As Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) explains in his commentary, the sin is connected to the story in Genesis 6:1–4 about divine beings (בני אלהים) taking human wives and producing demi-god children.
While the text does not clarify whether Azazel is one of these angels or if it is a place named after some combination of the names of these two angels, a midrashic text called Midrash Avkir (early 2nd millennium C.E.) has another version of the story—with a different and more famous first angel—and here it is clear that Azazel is Azael. In this version, after the two angels sin with human women, God warns them that their descendants will all be drowned in the flood.
שמחזאי חזר בתשובה ותלה עצמו בין השמים ראשו למטה ורגליו למעלה ועדיין הוא תלוי בתשובה בין ארץ לשמים. עזאל לא חזר בתשובה ועדיין הוא עומד בקלקולו להסית בני אדם לדבר עבירה במיני צבעונין של נשים...  והוא עזאזל שבתורה.
Shemhazai repented and suspended himself from the heavens, with his head below and his feet above, and he is still suspended between heaven and earth in repentance. Azael did not repent, and he still continues with his sinfulness, tempting men to sin with the production of colorful female garments… and this is the Azazel of the Torah.
Here we see Azael/Azazel as a permanent fixture in the world, the wicked tempter of humanity. This interpretation, which made it into the rabbinic corpus very late, was the standard interpretation in Second Temple literature.
Azazel Affects Sin and Is Banished to the Desert
Several Second Temple traditions elaborate on the demonic nature of Azazel. For example, 4Q180, פשר על הקיצים, “the Pesher on the Periods,” ties Azazel into the story in Genesis 6:1–4, of angels mixing with human women and giving birth to demigods, and further accuses Azazel and these angels of introducing sin into the world:
7 פ֯שר על עזזאלׄ והמלאכים אש[ר באו אל בנות האדם] 8[וי]לׄדׄו להם גברים ועל עזזאלׄ [ אשר למד לעשות חמס] 9[לאהוב ]עולה וׄלהנחיל רשעה...
A pesher on Azazel and the angels wh[o laid with human women] [and they] gave birth to giants, and about Azazel [who taught the commission of violence] [to love] iniquity and to give evil as an inheritance…
Azazel is specifically responsible for teaching people metallurgy, jewelry, and make-up, leading to the world’s corruption through sex and violence:
1 Enoch 8:1 And Azazel taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates. And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all kinds of coloured dyes. And the world was changed. 8:2 And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.
The good angels then complain to God of the behavior of their wicked comrades, including a specific mention of Azazel:
9:6 See then what Azazel has done, how he has taught all iniquity on the earth and revealed the eternal secrets which were made in heaven.
In God’s instructions for dealing with the angel rebellion, God has Raphael dispose of Azazel in such a way as to provide the needed back story for the ritual in Leviticus 16 and Azazel’s presence in the desert:
1 Enoch 10:4 And further the LORD said to Raphael: “Bind Azazel by his hands and his feet, and throw him into the darkness. And split open the desert which is in Dudael, and throw him there. 10:5 And throw on him jagged and sharp stones, and cover him with darkness; and let him stay there forever, and cover his face, that he may not see light, 10:6 and that on the great day of judgment he may be hurled into the fire…. 10:8 And the whole earth has been ruined by the teaching of the works of Azazel, and against him write down all sin.”
The punishment recalls several features of the ritual involving Azazel in Leviticus, such as his association with the desert, the transfer of the sins of the people onto him (which in some versions of Enoch are literally “written” upon him), and the presence of rugged elements which are supposed to be in the region.
Azazel Tempts Abraham
The Apocalypse of Abraham, dating to the first or second century C.E., retells the Covenant Between the Parts (Gen 15:7–21), with Azazel as the bird of prey that tries to consume the animals or parts of animals that Abram had cut up in the covenant ritual (v. 17). The bird first addresses Abram, trying to convince him to leave:
Apoc. Abr. 13:4 And the impure bird spoke to me and said, “What are you doing Abraham, on the holy heights, where no one eats or drinks, nor is there upon them food of men. But these will all be consumed by fire and they will burn you up. 13:5 Leave the man who is with you and flee! Since if you ascend to the height, they will destroy you.”
Abraham is not fooled by this message, and turns to the angel who is with him to explain, and learns that the bird is none other than Azazel himself:
Apoc. Abr. 13:6 And it came to pass when I saw the bird speaking I said to the angel, “What is this, my lord?” And he said, “This is iniquity, this is Azazel!”
The angel then reproaches Azazel with a lengthy rebuke, and teaches Abraham what to say to Azazel to neutralize his effect:
Apoc. Abr. 14:5 Say to him, “May you be the fire brand of the furnace of the earth! Go, Azazel, into the untrodden parts of the earth….”
Abraham says the required formula, and Azazel loses his power to affect him.
Azazel Is Promoted to Devil
Azazel is mentioned once more in the Apocalypse of Abraham, in the description of the end of days, where he functions something like the devil, analogizing the “fires of hell” (31:3) to the fire of Azazel’s tongue:
Apoc. Abr. 31:5 And those who followed after the idols and after their murders will rot in the womb of the Evil One—the belly of Azazel, and they will be burned by the fire of Azazel’s tongue.
According to this, Azazel is not merely an evil angel, but the ultimate source of evil, the devil himself who burns up sinners in the afterworld with his fiery tongue.
The Testament of Solomon, a 3rd century C.E. Christian work based on an older Jewish core (probably 1st cent. C.E.), sees Azazel as a positive figure who can protect one from harm. The work is written as if from Solomon, in which describes his encounters with various demons over whom he has power, thanks to a magic ring given to him by the angel Michael.
In one story, he summons a snakelike demon named Lix Tetrax and questions him:
Test. Sol. 7:5 “What is your activity?” I queried. He responded, “I create divisions among men, I make whirlwinds, start fires, I set fields on fire, and I make households nonfunctional. Usually, I carry on my activity in the summertime. If I get the chance, I slither in under the corners of houses during night or day. I am the direct offspring of the Great One."…
The demon further informs Solomon that he is in charge of the one-and-a-half day fever (v. 6), after which Solomon asks:
7 … Finally I asked him: “By what name are you thwarted?” He said: “By the name of the archangel Azael.”
Solomon then puts his seal on the angel and forces him to help build the Temple. But we learn from this demon that Azael is an archangel, and his name has the power to stop the demon from giving people fevers. Aza(z)el’s apotropaic function here may relate to his function in Leviticus 16 as the being who absorbs Israel’s sins. This interpretation, which is attested only by Christian sources, bears some affinity with the function of Christ as absorbing sins: it might well be derived from a Christian reading of the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16.
A Magical Name
The name Azazel was used in Greek Hellenistic and late antique magic traditions, in which the Jewish component played a considerable role. The name is attested, with various spellings, on incantation bowls, amulets, papyri and magical objects, until late antiquity. Interestingly, a Greek Christian amulet still bears the name of Azael accompanied by his etymology: “Azael: the force of God.”
It is possible that one element in the attractiveness of the name was its variability. Once the figures of Asael and Azazel were identified with each other, and the myth of the Watchers was translated in Aramean, Greek, and Coptic, the number of spellings for Asael/Azazel considerably increased. Such variability made Azazel a perfect nomen magicum, as magical names and formulae are often characterized by inner variation and phonetic play.
A Versatile Being
While later Jewish interpretation attempts to erase Azazel as a being, suggesting that it could be the name of a land or even as a reference to the scapegoat itself, he was a key figure in Second Temple period thinking. In Jewish interpretation, he is the instigator of sin which leads to the flood, and he continues to try to trip up the righteous, including Abraham himself. In some texts, he even begins to resemble what we would call the devil. While all this apparently derives from his place as a desert being to whom sins are to be sent, some Christian texts understood his role in the opposite way, seeing him as an apotropaic figure who could protect them harm.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 13, 2021
January 17, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Anna Angelini is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich in the ERC project “How God became a Lawgiver” (www.divlaw.uzh.ch). She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Siena (Italy) and is the author of Dal Leviatano al drago: mostri marini e zoologia antica fra Grecia e Levante (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2018), and of L’imaginaire du démoniaque dans la Septante. Une analyse comparée de la notion de démon dans la Septante et dans la Bible Hébraïque (Leiden: Brill, 2021). She is co-editor with Peter Altmann and Abra Spiciarich of the volume Food Taboos and Biblical Prohibitions (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020), and serves as associate editor for the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (jhsonline.org).
Essays on Related Topics: