Chapter 16 begins after the death of Aaron’s two sons. God gives Moses the instructions regarding the Yom Kippur worship, sacrifice and how to perform the ritual regarding the two goats.
Chapter 17 deals with how to properly present a sacrifice, which must be done at the door to the Tent of Meeting and the order to not eat blood, which is the life of the animal.
Chapter 18 outlines the restrictions on improper marriages (intermarriage between close relatives) and a warning that child sacrifice and the religious practices of the Egyptians is prohibited.
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Leviticus 16:8-10 gives the instructions for the handling of the two goats for the Yom Kippur sacrifice, and has been a source of confusion over the centuries. Here are the instructions God gave to Moses and Aaron (Chumash):
And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one for the LORD, and the other for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat for 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 confusion that this passage has caused is because no one really knows who Azazel is, or even what it is. I have found the explanation that my Chumash has to be the most logical and reasonable one I have seen, and that is what I would like to share with you now.
Time Out: The Chumash I use is the book called “Pentateuch and Haftorahs“, edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz and published by Soncino Press, London 1965. The term “chumash” comes from the Hebrew word for five (chamesh, pronounced kwah-masyh), representing the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Now, back to the message….
The Chumash tells us that in the Septuagint, the Hebrew word “Azazel” means “the one sent away”, which agrees with the Mishnah use of that word. The Vulgate uses the word “scapegoat.” However, we are told that the Hebrew word “Azazel” is not a proper name; rather it is a noun, which is rarely used in Hebrew and means “dismissal’ or “entire removal.”
This ancient technical term is used to describe the entire removal of the sins and guilt from the people, symbolized by the sending of the goat into the wilderness.
Many years later, the Azazel goat was hurled off of a steep cliff because the Talmud translated Azazel as “steep mountain”, so to send the goat to Azazel was to throw it off a steep cliff or mountain. I don’t know how they could have thought that was OK since the Torah is clear that God commanded it was to be left alive.
At an earlier period, the word Azazel was personified, meaning given a life of its own. This also happened with the descriptive words Sheol (underworld) and Abaddon (destruction), which were originally meant as adjectives but later given their own identity as a noun. From this personification of Azazel (also called Azalzel) arose legends and theories. For instance, one such traditional belief is that Azazel is foremost among the fallen angels who taught unrighteousness to the children of men. This is from the Book of Enoch. This belief that Azazel is a demon living in the desert was actually shared by Ibn Ezra and the great Nachmanides, as well.
However, when we think about it, it seems untenable that God would command we send a goat as an offering to a desert goat-god. In fact, in the very next chapter (Lev. 7:7) God specifically forbids making an offering to any goat demon. Therefore, the idea that sending a goat as an offering to Azazel, a satyr demon, is just ridiculous.
The idea that something God commands us to do later becoming something idolatrous is not so far-fetched as you may think. In fact, it happened with the bronze snake God told Moses to make in Numbers 21:8-9. God sent snakes to kill the Israelites as punishment for their rebellion (yes, they were still rebelling even after years in the desert.) When they repented, the bronze snake God told Moses to make and place on a stake was a symbol that they could look to if they were bitten, so they wouldn’t die. Many centuries later, we read in 2 Kings 18:4 how that symbol was turned into an idol, called Nehushtan. Here we have another example of how what God gave us as a symbol of his holiness and forgiveness was turned into an idol, i.e. a thing personified into a being. The same thing happened with Azazel; and that was by learned, pious men of the Torah!
So what does this have to do with us, today? The lesson is that anyone, learned or unlearned, pious or sacrilegious, can make something out of nothing and use it to turn people away from God. Sports figures, Hollywood celebrities, political power mongers, or even something as simple and seemingly innocent as a lottery ticket can cause us to fall into sin and idolize a thing as if it were a person or entity.
Remember this: anything that comes between us and God is an idol.
Another warning is that extra-biblical documents must be read with care, not given the same importance as accepted scripture and always compared against the Bible to make sure that it is hermeneutically accurate.
The personification of Azazel over the centuries has turned it from a symbol of God’s forgiveness to a symbol of idolatrous goat-worship. This is not the first or only example of this happening. For this reason, we need to remember that anything can become an idol if we are not careful.
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This is Friday, so I wish you all Shabbat Shalom, L’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!