Leviticus 16:8 says, “And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel” (ESV). Depending on what Bible translation you’re using, your version might say “scapegoat” instead of Azazel.
On Sunday I made a case for Azazel as a proper noun – the name of a desert demon. Much of my time was spent demonstrating why I think that’s the best way to look at the text, but I also acknowledged that other opinions had some good evidence, too. So here, I’d like to present the other side of things.
Some translators believe the term means “scapegoat.” Some scholars believe the term refers to the “rough ground” or “rocky area” that the goat goes to in the wilderness. Here are a few points that are usually made in defense of these positions:
First, the Hebrew term azazel appears to derive from the noun “goat” (az) and the verb “go away” (azel). The “go-away goat” or the “scapegoat.” So the word itself allows for the “scapegoat” translation. It may alternatively derive from an Arabic word and mean “rough ground” or the like. So depending on the word’s etymology, there are several possibilities other than “Azazel.”
Second, supporters of the “scapegoat” translation point to the multitude of ancient translations and writings that interpreted the word as “scapegoat.” The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew text), the Vulgate (Latin translation) and the Mishnah (written record of oral tradition of the rabbis) all interpret the word to mean “scapegoat.”
Third, on Sunday I pointed to the parallelism in verse 8, “one lot for YHWH” and “the other lot for Azazel.” If YHWH/the LORD is a proper noun referring to a living being, then it makes sense Azazel is too. But supporters of the “rocky ground” translation point out that the word “for” (which in Hebrew is just a simple letter – lamed) can mean toward. In other words, it can be directional instead of denoting possession. “Toward YHWH” can mean that one goat’s destination is towards the Tabernacle, since its blood will be taken inside the Holy of Holies and sprinkled before God. The second half of the parallel could mean “towards the rocky ground.”
Fourth, the end of the text of verse 10 reads, “that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel” (ESV). If the text doesn’t intend a proper noun, the “rough ground” translation may work here if it is in apposition to “the wilderness.” It could be translated something like this: “that it may be sent away into the wilderness, namely, the rocky ground.” The points here demonstrate that the language of the text could indicate something other than a demonic entity. Now, as I mentioned in my sermon, I’m more convinced for the evidence that the text speaks of a demon (you’ll have to listen to the sermon for the reasons why), so all of these points have counter-points which I find more convincing. But the issue is certainly not black and white and intelligent defenses can come from several angles, so any interpretation we hold to we must hold loosely.