The ancient biblical rite performed by the priests on the Day of Atonement including the dispatching of a goat to Azazel, to carry off the collective sins of the people, described in Leviticus 16.[1] The goat sent to Azazel served not only as a public ridding of the people's sins, but as a public acknowledgment by the community of its transgressions. In modern usage, "scapegoat" came to refer to an individual whom people blame for their own misfortunes or failings.

The English term "scapegoat" was coined by William Tyndale, the first to translate the Hebrew Bible into English. The concept of a person, animal or object to whom the impurity or guilt of a community was formally transferred and then removed, is found among many ancient peoples; often that figure was a goat. In Babylonia, it was customary to give a goat as a substitute for a human being to Ereshkigal, the goddess of the abyss. In an Akkadian magical inscription from the city of Assur which deals with the cure for a man who is unable to eat and drink, it is prescribed that a goat should be tied to his bed and that thus the sickness will pass to the goat; on the following morning, the goat is to be taken to the desert and decapitated.

During periods of plagues, the ancient Hittites used to send a goat into enemy territory in order that it should carry the plague there; on the head of the goat they would bind a crown made of colored wool. This custom recalls the Israelite ritual as performed during Second Temple times: the High Priest drew lots and tied a thread of crimson wool onto the head of the goat chosen for Azazel.[2] In the Hellenistic world there were also "scapegoat" rituals, but humans and not animals were sent out of the city and sometimes even killed.

There is a great deal of confusion regarding the exact meaning of the word "Azazel." Most scholars agree that in ancient times, it referred to a demonic power residing in the desert (whose abode was regarded as a focus of impurity) or alternatively, to the abode itself. As the wilderness was widely held to be the habitat of demons[3], we can understand how the original purpose of the ritual might have been to get rid of evil by banishing it to its original source. Twelfth century grammarian David Kimhi[4] associates the word Azazel with the mountain to which the goat was taken.

The goat which was dispatched to Azazel was not intended to be a sacrifice, as it was not slaughtered. "And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot feel 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."[5]. The two goats recall the birds mentioned also in Leviticus, in which one of the two birds is set free to fly over the field.[6]

And yet, according to the description in the Mishnah, during the Second Temple period, a priest specially qualified to do so was responsible for pushing the goat backward over a cliff.[7] While the death of the goat was not indispensable, as the High Priest could continue the divine service once the goat was dispatched without having to wait for the goat to be killed, it is possible that this custom evolved so as to avoid the possibility that the goat return to inhabited places, laden with sin.

[1] Lev. 16:10, 21-22. [back]
[2] Mishnah, Yoma 4:2 [back]
[3] Lev. 13:21, 34:14, 17:7 [back]
[4] Commentator and grammarian David Kimhi (c.1160-1235) wrote a grammar book/dictionary called Book of Roots [back]
[5] Lev. 16:8-10 [back]
[6] Lev. 14:4-7 [back]
[7] Mishnah, Yoma 6:3 [back]

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