Discover more from Life is a Sacred Text
Like a Goat Outta Hell
Appeasing Demons and Facing Our Sins
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re generally working our way through Leviticus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Today let’s talk about scapegoats, demons, and (as we so often do) textual mysteries!
So in the middle of the Yom Kippur ritual, mostly comprised of straightforward sacrifices and blood sprinklings, we get this strange interlude:
And [Aaron] shall take the two goats, and present them before God at the door of the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for God, and the other lot for ῾Azazel. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which God’s lot fell, and offer it for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for ῾Azazel, shall be presented alive before God, to kpr/cover over/expunge/make atonement over it, and to let it go to ῾Azazel into the wilderness…and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send it away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon it all their iniquities to a barren land. (Leviticus 16:8-10, 21-22).
What is this “Azazel”?
And why do we have to give it/him/them a goat?
A lot of people have thoughts on this question.
First of all, sending away an animal into an uninhabited place to carry some sort of conceptual evil—curses, impurities, disease, and so forth—was a known concept in the Ancient Near East. From as far back as 2400 BCE, there are texts describing goats, cows, mice, and frogs being sent away in Ebalite, Hittite, Ugaritic and Neo-Assyrian cultures. Some are circled with bracelets around their necks or, in the case of the Hittite mouse, a red thread. Do with that information what you will.
Second of all, yes, this is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. What happened is this: The Jews translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek chose to translate “Azazel” as “the goat set free.” (Aez—”goat”, azal—Aramaic for “go”) When William Tyndale did the first biblical translation (including the Hebrew Bible, as our texts were also part of his tradition’s sacred text) straight from Hebrew (and Greek, for his bits) he went for “escape goat.” And it’s pretty straightforward from there.
Of course, some people think Azazel is the name of a demon (more demon stuff below, don’t worry), some people think it’s the name of the place. Some people think it’s the name of The Bad Place.
It’s not for nothing that in Modern Hebrew (evidently dating back a few hundred years!!), the phrase, “lech l’Azazel” means, “Go to Hell,” and “Agh! L’Azazel!” is a curse word, somewhere on the crassness level between ‘damn’ and the one that starts with “f,” I’d say? (Feel free to argue this important point with me in the comments, Yidden.) (L/ל is the preposition “to” in Hebrew).
And then there is the question of how the Jews read this.
So first of all, we should look at the Mishnah, which elaborates on this ritual. The Torah says that the goat is sent off into the wilderness—the midbar, which is the same word for the desert/wilderness in which the people Israel wandered for 40 years. (In fact, our rendering of the Book of Numbers is Bamidbar, aka “In the Wilderness.” So.) But in the Mishnah, something different happens:
The High Priest tied a strip of crimson wool upon the head of the scapegoat and positioned the goat opposite the place from which it was dispatched…What did the one designated to dispatch the goat do there? He divided a strip of crimson into two parts, half of the strip tied to the rock, and half of it tied between the two horns of the goat. And he pushed the goat backward, and it rolls and descends. (Mishnah Yoma 4:2, 6:6)
First of all, that crimson thread, like that lil’ Hittite mouse. 🐁 I don’t make the news, folks, I just report it.
Second of all, this goat isn’t just released somewhere in the desert. It’s… thrown off a cliff. Quite literally. (The rest of that mishnah makes it pretty graphically clear.) And though it’s not entirely certain which cliff it was, some other indications in texts elsewhere (like notes in the Dead Sea Scrolls) suggest that during the Second Temple they’d hurl our scapegoat around Nahal Kidron (the Kidron River, literally, but really kind of the Kidron Valley.) This, I think, would be a view looking up—definitely not all the way up—at the Jerusalem city walls.
The mishnaic goat was not meant to survive.
But again, that’s not what the Torah says.
According to the Torah, we just send it out into the midbar.
The vast, howling, wild, open space.
Of course, with something so esoteric, the Jews have questions.
Ibn Ezra (11-12th c. Spain) offered a mysterious hint about the meaning of “Azazel,” writing, “When you turn 33 you will know it.”
Nahmanides (13th c. Spain) spelled out what Ibn Ezra was talking about. That is to say: if you count 33 verses from where we first meet Azazel in Leviticus (16:8), you wind up at:
“And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto goat-demons, after whom they have gone astray. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.” (Leviticus 17:7)
No more sacrifices to seirim, literally kinda goat-demons—don’t DO that.
So now, that offering with regards to the goat and the wilderness…? I suddenly have even more questions.
Lucky for us, though, Nahmanides is a talker:
It is explained more clearly in the Chapters of the great Rabbi Eliezer: “The reason why they would give Sammael [i.e., Satan] a conciliatory gift on Yom Kippur was so that he [Satan] should not annul [the effect of] their [the Israelites’] offerings [to God on Yom Kippur]…Now the intention in our sending away the goat to the desert was not that it should be an offering from us to [Satan, and thus a violation of the Leviticus 17:7 verse] — Heaven forbid! Rather, our intention should be to fulfill the wish of our Creator, Who commanded us to do so.
“We’re offering a snack to Satan so he won’t bother us on our most holy day or try to mess with all our good atonement work. But it’s not worship!! We’re not worshipping Satan! Or, uh, goat demons! Just.. obeying God, who tells us to do this weird thing, you guys!!!”
Is it bad that I have this image of someone throwing a dog a bone (that’s actually a goat with people’s sins on it) reaaaally far away and telling him to fetch (knowing that it’ll take some time, and then he’ll be distracted with the bone for a while, and you can, like, finish Yom Kippur in the meantime?) Is Satan a puppy?
Nahmanides was a Kabbalist. His ideas about how the cosmos worked were verrrry specific. (No, I don’t believe in Satan. I believe in the oneness of God, without any celestial miscellany. We can have the conversation about how this reading might reflect our internal states and what kinds of concessions we can and should (?) make to our less optimal impulses—but that’s not what Nahmanides meant.)
Life is a Sacred Text is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Maimonides, on the other hand (12th c.), agued (Guide for the Perplexed, III:46) that the ritual was symbolic, meant to help people do the work of tshuvah/repentance psychologically, more than anything:
“These ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”
It’s no snack for Satan, but there’s a certain logic there, too.
Sometimes, in order to move forward, we need a way to signify that we are leaving something behind.
In order to make the next step towards change and transformation, we need to symbolically let go, cut ties, release or unburden something that we are done with—that we no longer want to be, or do—in some way.
For Maimonides, this ritual helped the Israelites do the work of tshuvah, of repentance and repair; casting away all of that sin helped them to see that another path, another way of being and doing, was truly possible.
I want to make an observation.
On Yom Kippur, we read Leviticus 16.
One son, sent off into the wilderness.
One goat, sent off into the wilderness.
One goat, put on the altar and sacrificed.
One son, put on the altar, ready for sacrifice.
So here’s another way of thinking about what’s going on in this text:
The Azazel goat is meant to carry the badness away, to where we don’t have to see it. The other sacrifice is meant for atoning, expiating.
In other words: We can try to send our problems away—to ignore them, to find workarounds, to just figure out how to get them out of our hair for this moment, at least—or we can try to expunge the situation at its root.
Because the thing is this about sending the goat away into the wilderness: It can come back. What was once the midbar can easily become your back yard. What is nowhere is also everywhere, and our unresolved problems can come to assert themselves and reassert themselves, time and time again.
Unless we try to address them, head-on. Confront them like we mean it.
Both the expiation sacrifice—that second goat—and the Binding of Isaac story teach us about really letting go.The Yom Kippur korbon seems to say that atonement requires requires, literally, sacrifice. The Binding, on the other hand, tweaks things a bit, suggesting that expiation comes not actually from letting go, but rather the willingness to do so, to knowing that that might need to be what happens—even if there are other possible outcomes on the table.
if you don’t face the issues in your life--if you just keep sending your goats back into the wilderness again and again and again--you can be sure, those same situations and old dramas will keep finding you—perhaps in slightly different form, but fundamentally the same.
And until you face the goat itself, face the thing that continues to return, it will be impossible to conceive of a different path, to think of anything that you might do differently. So maybe I disagree with Maimonides here. Maybe finding a scapegoat for the challenges you’re avoiding isn’t enough.
Because every time you kick out the goat, he comes back angrier, dragging the wilderness along as he returns.
The only path to tshuvah, to true tshuvah—to doing the work to face who you have been, to mend what must be mended, and do the work of growth and transformation needed to make tomorrow truly different from yesterday—requires incredible bravery. It requires climbing a great mountain—the mountain of our deepest fears, the mountain of everything we hold most sacred. It requires preparing to sacrifice the thing we are most terrified to lose, the thing we think we can’t live without.
Right now, I’m betting, there is a problem that is like a throbbing ache in your heart, or like a quiet mewling sound from somewhere down deep, the goat that keeps rushing into your life from the wilderness.
Take it up to Mount Moriah—the site of the Binding, the site of the Temple—and offer it up to God, to the Universe, to the Big Bigness, to the stars—and try to think about how you can strike it at the root, cut at its jugular, tear it out at the core. What would it mean to let go entirely? What would that look like?
And remember what Abraham learned: You do not know how this story is going to turn out. Your job is not to control the outcome, to dictate its terms. It will never turn out how you think it will—or, perhaps, how you fear most that it will.
Give the scapegoat a rest.
Throw Puppy Satan a chew toy or something, instead.
🌱 Like this? Get more:
Life is a Sacred Text is a reader-supported publication. To get new posts and support this project, become a free or paid subscriber. New posts Free every Monday, and paid subscribers get even more text and provocation, every Thursday.
And please know that if you want into the Thursday conversations but paying isn’t on the menu for you right now, we’ve got you. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org for a hookup.
And if you’d like to underwrite one of these donated subscriptions, you can do so here.
Please share this post:
💖 Sending a big pile of blessings and goodness your way. 💖
Obviously I’m working with the Torah text here. Not facing your problems, but rather pushing them away and then throwing them off the metaphoric cliff doesn’t seem particularly healthy to me, either, what can I say.
Yes, yes, both the Ishmael and Isaac story also teach us about family trauma and child abuse, I know. That’s why I linked to the original post on them. Because.. yeah.