The Scapegoat Ritual and Its Ancient Near Eastern Parallels
The Scapegoat Ritual in Leviticus 16
The ritual of cleansing the Tabernacle, which was to take place every Yom Kippur, features the “sent-away goat” (שעיר המשתלח; a rabbinic term) ritual. Aaron is to take two billy goats from the Israelites (v. 5) and stand them at the entrance before the tent of meeting (v. 7). He places lots on the two goats, one for YHWH and the other for Azazel (v. 8). He brings forward the goat intended for YHWH, which will be a ḥaṭṭā’t (חטאת), a “sin” or “purification” offering (v. 9). The second billy goat is treated differently:
ויקרא טז:י וְהַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַעֲזָאזֵל יָעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה.
Lev 16:10 while the billy goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before YHWH, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.
The means through which the second goat expiates is clarified later in the chapter:
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... טז:כו וְהַמְשַׁלֵּחַ אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר לַעֲזָאזֵל יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמָּיִם וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבוֹא אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה.
Lev 16:21 Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live billy goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the billy goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. 16:22 Thus the billy goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the billy goat shall be sent off to the wilderness… 16:26 He who sent off the billy goat for Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may reenter the camp.
Traditional commentaries through the ages have struggled to understand the rite, which is unusual in the biblical corpus. Animal rituals, especially in the Priestly text, are almost always sacrifices, i.e., offerings to God. Nevertheless, one parallel law does appear in the Priestly text.
Sending Away One of Two Birds to Purify a Metzoraʿ (Lev 14)
Leviticus 14:1–7 lays out the process of purification for a metzoraʿ, a person who had been suffering from a serious skin disease (often translated as leprosy in older Bible translations), part of which includes a ritual involving two birds:
ויקרא יד:ד וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וְלָקַח לַמִּטַּהֵר שְׁתֵּי צִפֳּרִים חַיּוֹת טְהֹרוֹת וְעֵץ אֶרֶז וּשְׁנִי תוֹלַעַת וְאֵזֹב.
Lev 14:4 The priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson threads, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed.
One bird is slaughtered and the live bird, together with the other objects, is dipped in the blood, which is then sprinkled on the person being purified, after which he or she is considered pure. Then,
יד:ז ...וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה.
14:7 …and he shall send off the live bird in the open country.
This ritual, and that of the scapegoat, stand out as unique in the biblical corpus. Many biblical scholars have noted that the slaughter of the first bird takes place outside the camp (v. 3) and is not called a ḥaṭṭāʾt. This indicates that the bird rite reflects an earlier stage than that of the scapegoat law in Lev 16, as it does not conform to the school of laws of the Jerusalem Temple which demanded that the ḥaṭṭāʾt sacrifice be made within its precincts. Even so, the rituals are conceptually connected.
How are we to understand the meaning of these sending away rituals? Archaeology has uncovered texts from many different ancient Near Eastern societies that have parallel rituals that shed light on the meaning of these biblical rites.
Near Eastern Rituals of Sending Away an Animal
Sending away rituals generally involve dispatching to an uninhabited place an animal carrying on its body abstract evils—such as impurity, bad words, curses, etc.—or plagues and disease. After the evils or disease are transferred from a place or people to that dispatched animal, its release purifies the territory and/or cures the people.
Here are some examples from several cultures of the 3rd, 2nd and 1st millennia B.C.E.:
An Eblaite Goat Ritual
The most ancient example of a sending away ritual was uncovered in the Ebla archives (Tell Mardikh in Modern Syria) from the twenty-fourth century B.C.E. A tablet describes a ritual in which an animal is sent away in order to purify the house of the dead prior to a royal wedding:
We purify the mausoleum before the entrance of (the gods) Kura and Barama. A goat, a silver bracelet (hanging from) its neck, towards the steppe of Alini we let it go.
Here the goat is sent out, dressed up in a decorative silver bracelet, and carries with it the impurity, allowing the gods, and later the king and queen, to enter the mausoleum as part of the wedding ceremony.
A Multi-animal Ritual from Hatti
A Hurro-Hittite rite for purifying the king and queen, recorded in the latter half of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. by the name “The Ritual of Šamuha” and found in the archives of Hattuša (Bogazköy in modern Turkey), states:
[The exorcist] releases [one bull] for [the king], but one cow, ewe, and nanny goat [fo]r the queen’s implements—[all] as a nakušši (“sent-away”)—and [th]en declares as follows:
“Whatever evil word, false oath, curse, (or) [im]purity has been committed in the sight of the deity—may these nakuššis [c]arry them [off] from before the deity. May the deity and the ritual patron (=king and queen) be purified of these things!”
According to this text, the exorcist lets loose a number of live animals, referred to as nakuššis, which carry off abstract evils, and by doing so, purifies the patients and the deity alike. Interestingly, the purification of the deity here is consistent with the Priestly view propounded in the Pentateuch that the impurity of the Temple is caused by human sin.
A Mouse Ritual from Hatti
A Luwian-Hittite ritual from the same age and site, transmitted by the old woman Ambazzi, describes how the exorcist sends a mouse that is tied with a red thread, previously bound upon the “patrons” (i.e., the patients), into an uninhabited region:
She (=the exorcist) wraps a small piece of tin in a thread and binds it around the right hand and foot of the (ritual) patron[s]. Then (she) takes it from them, binding it around a mouse, (saying):
“I have taken the [e]vil from you. I have bound it around the mouse. May [th]is [mo]use carry it to the high mountains, to the deepest valle[ys], to the long roads.”
Then they release the mouse, (saying):
“Zarni[za], Tarpattašši—You, take this for yourself, and we shall [gi]ve you (something) [el]se to [e]at.”
This ritual has several significant connections with the Israelite scapegoat ritual. Firstly, it notes specifically that the mouse is to be sent into an uninhabited region, just as the biblical scapegoat is to be sent to “inaccessible region” (ארץ גזירה). At the same time, however, the mouse is said to be an offering for the minor gods Zarniza or Tarpattašši.
This is highly reminiscent of the biblical description of the scapegoat, in which the sins are carried by the animal to the wilderness area, while dedicated to Azazel, thereby transferring the impurity from YHWH’s realm to another. Secondly, this rite—as other Luwian-Hittite rites which are not cited here—includes the tying of a thread around the sent-away animal and a pronouncement over it. This thread is associated here with the evil whose transfer to the mouse effects the removal of the evil. While this custom is absent in the Bible, it is a part of the Mishnaic scapegoat ritual (Yoma 4:2).
An Ugaritic Goat Ritual
In the latter half of the second millennium B.C.E., Ugarit (Ras Shamra in Modern Syria) had the following comprehensive wording for, apparently, the same practice of sending away an animal when a danger threatens the city and its citizens:
If a city is captured (or) if the people die, (all) the people shall take a goat and lead it far off.
In contrast to the rituals of sending away a live animal into an uninhabited area practiced in the Syro-Anatolian region, the Mesopotamian equivalents usually include an animal carcass (or its skin) for “transporting” impurity. Nevertheless, a few Neo-Assyrian rites points to a closely-corresponding worldview of the Syro-Anatolian rituals, including the biblical one.
A Neo-Assyrian Frog Ritual
A ritual recorded on a Neo-Assyrian tablet describes how a frog is brought to a sick person, who must then pronounce the following words three times:
“Frog, you know the ‘grain’-disease which seized me, [but I do not know it]. Frog, [you know] the li’bu-disease which seized me, [but I do not know it]. When you (try to) hop off and return to your waters, you will return [the evil to] its steppe.”
After the sick person spits into the frog’s mouth three times, symbolically passing the illness onto it through the patient’s saliva, the exorcist takes the frog to the steppe, where he ties a red-and-white thread to its feet, fastening them with thorns. This sent-away frog thus carries away the person’s illness to its own natural habitat which, although it is in fact water, is twice referred to as a steppe.
A Neo-Assyrian Billy Goat Ritual
In this Neo-Assyrian ritual, a billy goat is tied to the head of the sick person’s bed and the following morning led alive into the steppe—together with a bough, a staff adorned with red-dyed wool, and a full cup of water. The red-colored staff and cup are laid down along the way, while the billy goat is taken to the end of the journey with the bough. Only then it is slaughtered, and the ritual is completed with its carcass. Notably, the fact that it is led into the steppe —i.e., the perimeter of the inhabited world—while still alive, diverges from the Mesopotamian customary practice of “transporting” impurity and is a reminiscent of what is done in the biblical and other Syro-Anatolian scapegoat ritual.
Apotropaic Sending-Away Rituals and the Biblical Texts
The extant ancient Near Eastern texts describe an apotropaic practice of sending away a live animal to an uninhabited region in order to ward off any malevolence threatening people or a place, such as evil, impurity, or plague. As the examples noted above and others reveal, the affliction, after having been removed from the body of the patients, is “loaded” onto the sent-away animal, with either a verbal accompaniment or with threads tied around its body. Following the release of the live animal, it is sometimes said that the entity, whether a god or a person, that encounters it receives the malevolence it carries. Thus, finally, the patient is purified.
This fits with the meaning of the sent away animals in the metzora and scapegoat rituals. In the former the impurity of the person is transferred to the bird, and in the latter the impurity of the temple / the sins of the people are transferred to the billy goat. When the animals are sent out into the uninhabited wilderness, the impurities go along with them, no longer able to harm people.
A Shared Ritual Tradition
Some may argue that the biblical scapegoat rite was influenced by Hittite culture, despite the substantial geographic and chronological disparities between the two cultures, but this is unlikely. Rather, this practice’s wide distribution, from the 24th century onward, among the inhabitants of Ebla and Ugarit, as well as the Luwians and the Hurrians—in contrast to its rarity in Mesopotamia—demonstrates that this is another shared practice of the Syro-Anatolian region, which the ancient Israelite civilization is part of.
Additional examples for this shared cultural region include the purification by blood and the burning of sacrifices on altars, which have been found or are echoed in neighboring cultures stretching from Asia Minor through Syria and down to the Sinai Peninsula. In speaking of such practices, it is best not to speak of the Israelites borrowing the custom either directly or through nomadic mediators, but of Israel inheriting them from their predecessors of the 2nd millennium Syro-Anatolian region.
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Dr. Noga Ayali-Darshan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and is the the author of Treading on the Back of the Sea [Hebrew], recently published in a revised English edition: The Storm-God and the Sea: The Origin, Versions, and Diffusion of a Myth throughout the Ancient Near East (Mohr-Siebeck, 2020).
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