Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Azazel (Lev16): Finally a Plausible Explanation

While you're on Hebrew studies, you may enjoy this as much as I did. It concerns new evidence of a sensible explanation and interpretation of the word "Azazel" in Leviticus 16:6-10:

Its from the July 25 post on Doug's blog, Biblia Hebraica et Graeca:

The Scapegoat Ritual in Leviticus 16

Azazel from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal(Paris,1825).
Leviticus 16 presents the ritual requirements for the Day of Atonement. One of the most enigmatic rituals involves the scapegoat sent off into the wilderness for “Azazel” described in Lev 16:6-10:
6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 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.
There has been much speculation about who or what “Azazel” was: the main interpretations have been a local deity, a wilderness goat-demon, or a desert mountain. Later Jewish literature, notably the Book of Enoch, understood Azazel as a demon, one of the fallen angels and brings him into its complex mythology of supernatural angels and demons.

Rabbinic interpretation understood Azazel to be a cliff off which the goat was driven to its death.
The Rabbis, interpreting "Azazel" as "Azaz" (rugged), and "el" (strong), refer it to the rugged and rough mountain cliff from which the goat was cast down (Yoma 67b; Sifra, Ahare, ii. 2; Targ. Yer. Lev. xiv. 10, and most medieval commentators). Most modern scholars, after having for some time indorsed the old view, have accepted the opinion mysteriously hinted at by Ibn Ezra and expressly stated by Nahmanides to Lev. xvi. 8, that Azazel belongs to the class of "se'irim," goat-like demons, jinn haunting the desert, to which the Israelites were wont to offer sacrifice (Lev. xvii. 7 [A. V. "devils"] (from the Jewish Encyclopedia).
Of course, all of that may be for naught if this Hittite parallel is correct and the term is connected with a type of offering.
“In the Leviticus 16 ritual a crux has always been the term laʿazāʾzēl rendered in the Septuagint and Vulgate by “as a scapegoat” (followed by the English AV), but replaced in more recent English translations by “for Azazel,” sometimes thought to denote a wilderness demon. Appealing to scapegoat rites in the Hurrian language from the Hittite archives, Janowski and Wilhelm would derive the biblical term from a Hurrian offering term, azazḫiya. This is particularly appealing to me. There were two goats used in the Leviticus 16 ritual. One is designated for Yahweh as a “sin offering” (Heb. ḥaṭṭāʾṭ, LXX peri hamartias) (16:9), and the other is “for Azazel,” but is presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement, and is sent away into the wilderness “to/for Azazel.” The contrast is twofold: (1) Yahweh versus Azazel, and (2) sin offering versus Azazel. If one adopts the first, Azazel seems to be a divine being or demon, who must be appeased. But if one adopts the second as primary, the word ʿazāʾzēl represents the goal of the action. In the system of Hurrian offering terms to which Wilhelm’s azazḫiya belongs, the terms represent either a benefit that is sought by the offering (e.g., keldiya “for wellbeing,” cf. Heb. šelāmîm), or the central element offered (e.g., zurgiya “blood”). If Janowski and Wilhelm’s theory is correct, the Hebrew term would not denote a demon as recipient of the goat, but some benefit desired (e.g., removal of the sins and impurities) or the primary method of the offering (e.g. the banishment of the goat).”[1]
Similar rituals are widely attested in the ancient Near East with examples from Ebla and elsewhere. I'm sure much more could be said about the practice and its ancient parallels. Leviticus 16 and the term Azazel provide a fascinating example of how misunderstandings and speculation sometimes spin off into elaborate traditions that fall far from the likely original meaning of the biblical text.

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Hittite-Israelite Cultural Parallels” in Hallo, W. W., & Younger, K. L. (2003). Context of Scripture, vol. 3 (xxxii). Leiden; Boston: Brill.

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