Who is Azazel?

While the Devil and Satan as rebellious spiritual powers at enmity with Yahweh, the God of Israel, are well-known figures, there are others who are perhaps less well-known though no less important for understanding the nature of the demonic powers presented in the Scriptures.  Within Second Temple literature there is a demonic figure commonly associated with Cain and his descendants’ corruption in Genesis and the corruption of the material world. That figure is the fallen angel Azazel. It is not a coincidence that Azazel is also the figure referenced in the institution of the Day of Atonement ritual (Lev 16). The figure of Azazel within the ritual atonement practiced in Israel and later Judea was understood by the first century AD to be the same demonic figure found behind the narratives of Genesis 4-6 leading up to the flood of Noah.

While it is entirely possible within the original context of Leviticus 16:8, 10, and 26 that the goat “for Azazel” may indicate that the goat is going to be used as a scapegoat, in early Jewish interpretation as represented within Second Temple literature, Azazel is a demonic figure. He is sometimes, but not always, associated with the serpent of Genesis 3. The source of the initial identification of Azazel as such a demonic entity may be a connection between Azazel’s association with the wilderness in the Day of Atonement ritual and the “goat demon” in the wilderness whose worship is condemned in Leviticus 17:7, not long after the description of the ritual in the text.

The primary extant source for the portrayal of Azazel as a demonic entity of the wilderness associated with the Day of Atonement ritual is the Enochic literature and other literature under its influence. The relevant portion of 1 Enoch is the Book of the Watchers which comprises the first 36 chapters of the text.  The Book of the Watchers consists of a retelling of the early chapters of Genesis from an apocalyptic perspective which purports to reveal spiritual realities underlying the scriptural text. In the case of the genealogy of Cain and his descendants, 1 Enoch describes that the various technological and cultural innovations made by Cain and his line came into existence through the revelation of secret wisdom by rebellious angels. Azazel is the chief angelic being involved in the revelation of this wisdom as described in 1 Enoch 8:1–3. A direct connection is made here between the metallurgical innovations attributed to Tubal-Cain in Genesis 4:22 and the work of Azazel. The result is that “the world was changed” because of the impiety and sexual immorality of human beings at Azazel’s instigation, rendering everything subject to corruption.

Later in 1 Enoch, the results of Azazel’s wickedness and patronage of wicked men are summarized more broadly. First Enoch 9:6 states, “See then what Azazel has done. That he has taught all sin on the earth and revealed the eternal mysteries which were made in heaven.” In 1 Enoch 10, divine judgment is pronounced against Azazel to be carried out by the Archangel Raphael. First Enoch describes this judgment as his being bound hand and foot, thrown into a hole in the desert from a rocky crag, and buried in sharp rocks, likely related to the tradition of throwing the goat for Azazel from such a crag which evolved in later Judean practice. This was not a part of the original ritual, in which the goat was not expressly killed, but likely came into the practice for practical reasons, i.e. to prevent the goat from wandering back from its exile.  From this bound imprisonment, Azazel will be hurled into the lake of fire on the last day (10:4–6, cf. 54:5).

The figure of the Devil or the ‘Evil One’ as he appears in the Johannine literature, in particular, has a number of resonances with the figure of Azazel which may already be apparent.  Cain is described as the son, and therefore image, of the evil one (1 John 3:12).  Other sinners, particularly those who conspire to murder the righteous, are identified likewise (John 8:44).  The dragon of the Apocalypse is bound and subdued within the earth until the time of the end (Rev 20:1-3).  On that day, he is hurled into the lake of fire (v. 10).  It is worth noting that the imagery of the lake of fire is not found as such in the Old Testament, but is found in 1 Enoch, St. Matthew’s Gospel, and St. John’s Apocalypse.

After describing the scene of his punishment, 1 Enoch 10:8 describes the charges against Azazel, “And the whole earth has been corrupted by the teaching of the works of Azazel. To him ascribe all sin.” This statement has both a historical and ritual significance. It ascribes to Azazel as a hostile spiritual power the responsibility for human sin and the corruption of the earth through his works. The ascription of all sin to Azazel also mirrors the pronouncement by Aaron over the goat for Azazel of all the sins of the people (Lev 16:21). This language regarding Azazel also parallels closely the language used by 1 John regarding the devil. In particular, it mirrors 1 John 5:19’s statement that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” and 3:8’s statement that the Son of God appeared to destroy “the works of the devil.”

The other significant text describing Azazel as a demonic entity is the Apocalypse of Abraham. He is described in this text in terms remarkably similar to those of the Enochic literature proper, arguing for an influence of the latter on the former. Specifically, in both texts, Azazel is the leader of the band of rebel angels who have conspired against God. Both connect the angels to the stars of the heavens. In both, Azazel is responsible for revealing the secrets of heaven and is, therefore, cast out into the wilderness where he is imprisoned.

The Apocalypse of Abraham uses the Enochic portrayal of Azazel to dramatize a final, eschatological Day of Atonement. Abraham’s angelic companion who accompanies him through his series of apocalyptic visions is Yahoel. This heavenly figure is described in high priestly terms, beginning with his described attire. The end of Abraham’s journey is, in fact, the heavenly sanctuary that the Apocalypse depicts as being the true temple of God over against the earthly copy. Just as the entrance of the high priest into the earthly sanctuary accompanies the sending away of the sins of the people to Azazel in his goat, so also is the entrance into the heavenly sanctuary to purify the creation accompanied by the sending out and final condemnation of Azazel. The action of the Apocalypse of Abraham surrounding Azazel revolves around his condemnation to the fiery pit. Along with him, the angels and humans whom he has led into sin are likewise condemned. This condemnation of Azazel and his “children” is part and parcel of the final cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary. In a parallel with the works of Azazel, Yahoel teaches the rite of condemnation to Abraham who performs the condemnation as a “priest in training.”  All of these themes play out in the Epistle to the Hebrews as Christ is portrayed as the great high priest entering the heavenly sanctuary and performed the eschatological Day of Atonement.  It is precisely here that themes of the purification of sacred space in atonement and the defeat of hostile spiritual powers connect into one conceptual reality in Messianic prophecy.

Azazel is also mentioned as a demonic being in similar terms in 4Q180 and 4Q203, the “Book of the Giants.” Both of these Qumran texts describe the punishment of Azazel. In both, he receives the responsibility, and the punishment, for all of the sins of the other fallen angelic beings as well as those instigated by them and committed by human agents. This tradition likely evolved from the depiction of demonic entities dwelling in the wilderness in certain Akkadian texts describing demons who escape the underworld through crags and crevices in the ground to make their abode in desert places.  The terminology used to describe these demonic spirits is the same used to describe sin “crouching” as it awaited Cain (Gen 4:7).

Second Temple traditions regarding Azazel present him as a devil figure who is responsible for the corruption not only of humanity through sin, but of the world itself through the corruption and curse brought about by that sin. Having been corrupted by his works, performed by his spiritual children beginning with Cain, the whole world now lies under his power.  To free the world from his power and corruption, his works must be destroyed and this takes place through the atonement.  Within these Second Temple traditions, a final eschatological Day of Atonement is envisioned, performed by a heavenly high priest. In New Testament texts as diverse as St. Matthew’s Gospel, Hebrews, and the Johannine literature, Christ is described as the one who performs this high priestly function. This atonement is made not only for the sins of the Christian assembly, the Church, as it once had been for Israel, but now also “for the whole world” in purifying the world of the corruption and curse resulting from sin. Christ fulfills the Day of Atonement ritual not only by, once and for all, purifying the Church and the world from sin and its corruption, but also by finally defeating Azazel, the demonic agent behind that evil and setting the creation free.

16 comments:

  1. Father, forgive me, but I’m a little confused. It seems to me that there are multiple…devils or demonic leaders who led rebellions against God. Is there one Satan, that is, one devil who is the primary demonic power who wages war with us or multiple? Or is there one Satan, but he has multiple names?

    Or is this kind of like Tolkien’s mythos of Middle Earth where multiple individuals were called the “Dark Lord” but ultimately they were all just mimicking Morgoth, the first Dark Lord.

    I know you did a series on this awhile back, I remember still being a little confused.

    1. This is really a late entry into that old blog series you refer to. There are 5 devil figures in Second Temple and early Christian traditions. But at the same time, nobody says there are five. There are generally, at most, two or so, and those five get combined in various ways in various parts of the tradition. Seeing as demons are beings of chaos and lies, it’s not something that we can fully fit into a grid.

  2. Thank you for the article father.
    Just found also in Wiki
    A number of commentators claim that Azazel is the name of the rock from which a goat was thrown, sent to the desert (Babylonian Talmud, Treatise Yoma, fol. 37).

    “Azazel,” writes Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, the greatest commentator of the Torah and Talmud; France, XI century), is the name of a rocky mountain in the desert. “

    1. This is a good example of why medieval Rabbinic interpretation is pretty much irrelevant. The idea that it is a particular mountain, first of all, makes no sense as the command was given when Israel was in the wilderness of Sinai and was still carried out when the temple was in Jerusalem. That would have been a long trip for the guy leading the goat. Linguistically, ‘Azazel’ is not related to any term for a rocky outcropping or mountain so it would have to be a proper name. If you don’t want it to be a demonic entity, the only linguistically supportable assumption is that it means ‘the goat that goes away’. The response to that is that both Second Temple and early Christian traditions uniformly present Azazel as a demonic entity. But once Rabbinic Judaism rejected so much of its own tradition to distance itself from Christianity, it has had to resort to special pleading in this and all sorts of other areas to try to explain what was previously quite clear.

      1. Thank you father. But if the goat was for azazel as demonic entity – was it sacrifice for devil then? Why?

        1. No, because the goat for Azazel wasn’t sacrificed in any sense. Once it had the sins placed upon it, it was unclean and accursed and therefore couldn’t be sacrificed. Sacrificial animals had to be pure and free from blemish.

  3. Hi Father
    When we pray the Lord’s, prayer and ask to be delivered from the evil one, who is the evil one? Is it Azazel or Lucifer or are we talking about some umbrella term that encompasses all the evil ones(although he is referred to in the singular in the prayer)?
    Thank you for your comprehensive post once again.

    1. It’s not clear (at all) whether the clause in the Lord’s Prayer refers to ‘evil’ or ‘the evil one’. The Greek could equally mean either option. But assuming it does refer to ‘the evil one’ that would refer to demonic powers in general, not just from one of them in particular. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense to pray to be protected from one demon with all the other ones out there who are after us.

      1. True. I like how St. John Chrysostom in one of his Homilies on Matthew interprets the same word with it’s article : Matthew 5:38,39 as Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say to you, That you resist not the Evil One. St. John explains to see the violence as coming from the evil One not the one actually hitting you.

      2. such a great answer to this question, going to bookmark it! miss you in the remnant chat, but I don’t blame you for moving on….i wish they had incorporated you into the show in some manner, or given you time on the show for all the contributions in the chat. blessings!

  4. Pairing this article with the content discussed on the Lord of Spirits podcast it places an emphasis on Christ’s ministry in the desert. He often leads people in the desert and spends time alone in the desert. His teaching in the desert is often accompanied by healings and exorcisms of the people, not to mention the feeding of the thousands. By doing this is He demonstrating His power over and defeating of the evil spirits that live in these desert places?

    1. The wilderness or desert is a place of chaos and death in pretty much all Ancient Near Eastern cultures. This is alluded to in St. Mark’s reference to Christ being among the wild animals when he fasted in the desert. That’s also where he goes to confront Satan.

  5. Fr Stephen, I find your articles very interesting, you add a new dimension to the history of mankind.
    William Holman Hunt’s painting “The Scapegoat” from 1854-6, makes a very good illustration to your text. The scene was painted at Oosdoom, on the margin of the salt-encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea. The mountains beyond are those of Edom. “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.”( Leviticus 16:22) On the Day of Atonement, a goat would have its horns wrapped with a red cloth – representing the sins of the community – and be driven off. I find this painting rather moving and it is thought that Holman Hunt saw the similarities with the Messiah when he painted it.

  6. You are a great writer and researcher. Please do a writing to clear up who is the Morning Star / Eosphoros / Lucifer because with the modern literal interpretation of Esaias 14:12 and Theosophic Society/New Age use of the name, and Christ saying He is the Bright and Morning Star in Revelation has lead quite a few to entertain the idea that Christ might be Satan. It appears to me the problem largely due to a misappropriation of the name Lucifer by the followers of the Devil during the Renaissance to call their god who he is not.
    Esaias 5:20 (New King James Version)
    Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
    After all there was a pious bishop in the 4th century with the name “Lucifer”: a bishop of Cagliari in Sardinia known for his passionate opposition to Arianism. He is venerated as a Saint in Sardinia, though his status remains controversial.
    Remember to examine Job 38:12, 13 in the Seventy (Brenton Septuagint Translation)
    Or did I order the morning light in thy time; and did the morning star then first see his appointed place; to lay hold of the extremities of the earth, to cast out the ungodly out of it?
    In addition, it would be great to shine light on why or how, (any information on), Christ is the Morning Star.

  7. Fr. Stephen,
    Just a quick hello from Charleston, WV ! I have not been on social media for a long time so I was not aware of this blog… I have much reading to catch up on but look forward to it ! I just listened to Ep 1 of “Lord of Spirits” and can’t wait to hear more. Thanks to you and Fr. Andrew for sharing your knowledge.

    Julia

  8. Fr. Stephen,

    I’m going through The Lord of Spirits episodes right now and looked up your blog, how relevant. I am familiar with parts of 1 Enoch, but confess I have not actually read it for myself. It is my understanding that 1 Enoch is not canonical to many Orthodox, yet I also understand it’s importance in revealing the unseen realm. Forgive me if you have written about this somewhere else, but how do you view the book of 1 Enoch? If not canonical, is it still true? If not true, is it merely helpful? How much can we really trust what it says?

    I’ll peruse your other writings on the topic, perhaps I will find my answer to some of these questions there.

    Cory

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *