LCG Article

The Two Goats of the Day of Atonement

two goats in a meadow

The Day of Atonement with its unusual Azazel goat ritual pictures the future separation of Satan the devil from humanity.

Peter G. Nathan

Every year, members of God’s Church observe a Holy Day described in Leviticus 16 as the Day of Atonement. We understand that it is not an archaic “Jewish” festival; rather, it is filled with meaning for those who understand the plan of God and who are striving to live by every word of God.

Of course, as a result of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and the destruction of the Temple soon afterward, neither Jews nor Christians today perform each detail of the rituals described in Leviticus 16. Yet, as we study God’s instructions to the Israelites, we can learn much that helps us understand not only His plan for the whole world, but also His plan for our lives.

A central part of God’s instructions to the Israelites in Leviticus 16 involve the Azazel goat. In the ancient ceremonies God gave to Israel concerning the Day of Atonement, perhaps one of the strangest to many concerned the two goats presented to the high priest that day. Lots were cast so that one goat was clearly chosen by God as being “for the Lord,” with the other being designated as “for Azazel” (v. 8, Jubilee Bible 2000). The goat for the Eternal is sacrificed as a sin offering, but the goat for Azazel is removed alive into the wilderness—a unique ritual done only on the Day of Atonement.

If one goat is “for the Lord,” then clearly the other is not—but then what or who is it for? What does the goat chosen “for Azazel” represent? This article will help us better understand what this second goat does and does not symbolize, and the significance of that symbolism for Christians today.

Azazel Likely Should Be Treated as a Name

The English term “scapegoat” as a translation of the Hebrew term Azazel comes to us via William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, yet it is a problematic term that has fostered much confusion, especially among those unfamiliar with the religion of ancient Israel. Like the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, Tyndale used the term “scapegoat”—but the “as a scapegoat” translation is driven by incorrect theology, not by the actual Hebrew text.

It is true that the word Azazel is a compound of two Hebrew words, but there is some debate about which two words and what they mean together. The pairing could be interpreted as a combination of azaz and el, which some would hastily interpret as “strength” (azaz) plus “God” (el). However, more scholars believe that the two words are ez, meaning “goat,” and azal, meaning “gone,” “spent,” or “removed,” which certainly is a fitting description of what takes place. (In Hebrew, vowels can change as words are combined.) But this still adds no understanding concerning the meaning of the ritual, nor does it explain what the goat not selected “for the Lord” represents.

But there is more to consider. Compound nouns such as Azazel—nouns made from two different Hebrew words—are, as authors Paul Joüon and Takamitsu Muraoka remind us, “frequently used as proper nouns…. [But] on the other hand they are very rarely used as common nouns” (A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 2006, pp. 218–19). Indeed, the Hebrew language used in introducing the term Azazel in Leviticus 16:8–10 can only indicate a proper noun—that is, a name—rather than a function of the goat. The Hebrew text of verse 8 sets out both goats in parallel language—one lot for the Eternal, the other lot for Azazel. The implication is that if one goat is “for the Lord,” the second goat clearly is not but is for another—for Azazel.

We should note that in verse 10, the expression “go for a scapegoat into the wilderness,” used with little variation in both the King James Version and the New King James Version, is not accurate Hebrew. It should read “go to Azazel into the wilderness,” as it is indeed rendered in many newer English translations. For example, the Jubilee Bible 2000 translates verse 10 as “the he goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make the reconciliation upon him and to send him to Azazel into the wilderness.” This ensures that the preposition used of both goats is translated consistently throughout, and treats the term as it likely should be treated—as a name.

The Azazel Goat Was Not a Sin Offering

We understand from Scripture that the blood of the sin offering goat—not the goat for Azazel—was used to make atonement for the Tabernacle and the people of Israel. But what does “atonement” mean? The English word atonement is translated from the Hebrew word kippur (“to cover”). The blood of the sin offering was a covering for the sin of the people (Leviticus 16:15). Christians will recognize that this is the function of the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). English-speakers familiar with the Ark of the Covenant may be particularly interested to learn that the English term “mercy seat”—describing the seat covering the Ark—is a poor translation of a Hebrew word derived from kippur. French translators who understood the Hebrew more correctly described the covering as le propitiatoire or l’expiatoire—“propitiation” or “expiation” in English.

In Leviticus 16, the Hebrew word kippur is also used regarding the goat called Azazel, but it is used in a notably different way. The blood of the sacrificed sin-offering goat made atonement for whatever it was placed upon, and it is that goat “which is for the people” (v. 15). By contrast, the living Azazel goat had to have atonement placed upon it (v. 10). In the summary statement at the chapter’s end (vv. 29–34), we see that the Azazel goat is not part of the process that made atonement for the people. Rather, it was covered with the sins of the people and sent away alive, a very literal expiation or removal of sins by their physical removal to a remote place.

We should note that although two goats were to be presented before the Eternal, Scripture makes it clear that there would be only one sin offering—singular rather than plural. A sin offering requires the shedding of blood by the sacrificed animal, and the Azazel goat neither dies nor loses any blood in the Tabernacle or Temple, nor does it have blood placed upon it. Put plainly, it could not be a sin offering—not according to Leviticus 4, which plainly describes the requirements for sin offerings, and not according to Hebrews 9, which states flatly that “without shedding of blood there is no remission” of sins (v. 22).

It is instructive that the term “sin offering” is always used in the singular, not the plural. The plural is used regarding sins of the people, but never of the goats. If both goats were to be sin offerings, there would be no need for divine selection of the animals. However, the goats had to be presented before the Eternal so that He could choose which of the two was to be the sin offering. The slain goat is referred to in the rest of the chapter as the goat of the sin offering (Leviticus 16:15; cf. vv. 9, 27), while the goat that was not selected was to be for Azazel. As mentioned, no aspect of the part played by the Azazel goat has any relationship to a sin offering. No blood was shed by it—hence, only one goat was a sin offering.

Furthermore, the Eternal—not the priests—chose which goat would become the sin offering. In choosing one for Himself (v. 8) and hence rejecting the other, the Eternal was making a difference between the goats. It is especially significant that God Himself made the choice. This fact should call to mind the Apostle Paul’s admonition that Satan can transform himself so that he is seen as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). We would not expect those without the insight of God’s Holy Spirit to be able to distinguish between the things of God and the things of the devil, just as God Himself must distinguish between the two goats.

Only the blood of the sacrificed sin offering provided for atonement, but in verse 21 the meaning of atonement is set out for us in the confession of sins (“Leviticus,” The JPS Torah Commentary, 1989, p. 103). The consequence of that confession was that the Azazel was, in some way, to bear the burden of the sins of the nation into the wilderness.

The Azazel Goat Represented Satan the Devil

Reading only the English translation of Leviticus 16, one might easily assume that the Azazel goat takes a pleasant walk into the wilderness. The Hebrew, however, conveys that the goat is driven or forced into the wilderness—a trip that a male goat would not want to take of its own volition. It may be worth noting, as has been pointed out to me by some friends who have raised goats, that the Day of Atonement comes at a time of the year when female goats are typically in heat, such that a male goat would want to be with the females, not alone in the wilderness. The “suitable man” (v. 21) taking the goat into “an uninhabited land” (v. 22) would need great strength to control a goat reluctant to be separated from the herds of Israel and taken where it could no longer influence them. Contrast this to the example of Jesus Christ, who willingly gave up His life to be our Passover sacrifice. As we consider the typology of the Azazel goat, it is clear that an unwilling goat being driven by force away from the camp of Israel cannot picture our Savior and High Priest in any way! Interestingly, as an aside, this conveyance to the wilderness is the only Day of Atonement function that the high priest did not himself perform.

We should notice that every scriptural reference to Jesus Christ bearing our sins is in relation to His death, not a sojourn in the wilderness—e.g., Isaiah 53:1–12; Hebrews 7:27; 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24. Some people mistakenly use Isaiah 53 in imagining Jesus as the Azazel goat, but all the references in that chapter relate to the death of the sin-bearer. The verses in Hebrews and 1 Peter contain the Greek term that is used to convey what Leviticus 16:21 speaks about—but all of these verses speak of Christ bearing our sins through His death. Something else is therefore being portrayed in Leviticus 16:21–22. Christ’s blood is shed to make atonement for our sins, whereas the Azazel goat is used alive to send unrighteousness away or to separate it from the people.

It is important for us as Christians to remember that not every historical Temple ritual has its roots in the Bible’s direct commands. Scrupulous Hebrew scholars debated what God must have meant by the term “uninhabited” in verse 22; the original Hebrew word has the sense of a solitary land, a separate place cut off from other contact, and some concluded that the Azazel goat could not be fully separated from Israel unless it were to die. This led to the practice, established sometime during the Second Temple period, of the priesthood throwing the Azazel goat into a ravine or abyss. The Hebrew of Leviticus 16, however, does not call for such an execution. Many Jewish texts written in or before the first century AD support the perspective that the Azazel goat was a representation of Satan, and Christians mindful of Revelation 20:1–3 will also see a parallel between the Leviticus 16 exile of the Azazel and the thousand-year solitary exile of the immortal spirit being known as Satan, in which he is separated from humanity.

Once again, we see the Azazel in the role of Satan, not in the role of Christ. Taking place between the Feast of Trumpets and the Feast of Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement does its part, as well, in symbolizing a crucial step in the plan of God. The Feast of Trumpets pictures the year-long Day of the Lord that climaxes with the return of the King of kings, and the Feast of Tabernacles pictures the Millennial reign of Christ with His true servants. The Day of Atonement with its unusual Azazel goat ritual pictures that great event that must take place between them: the separation of Satan the devil from humanity. Bound and thrown into a bottomless pit by an angel appointed for the task (cf. Leviticus 16:21, “by the hand of a suitable man”), Satan will be utterly separated from humanity and unable to deceive and tempt mankind again until the thousand years are finished (Revelation 20:3).

So, then, why was the confession of the sins of the people made over the head of the Azazel goat if he does not die for those sins (Leviticus 16:21)? Scripture describes Satan as having deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9) and as having played a role in mankind’s sin from the very beginning (Genesis 3:1–5). It is on Satan’s head that the ultimate responsibility for sin rests. Jesus Christ, our High Priest, has already paid the penalty of sin for mankind. Satan, as the deceiver of all humanity, is to carry his responsibility for that sin, confessed over his head, from the presence of God. Leviticus also sets out who is normally to make the confession for sins: the party who is guilty (Leviticus 5:5; Psalm 32:5; Proverbs 28:13). But Satan is never shown in Scripture acknowledging his guilt—so the sins must be confessed over him by another. He goes into the bottomless pit with the weight of his own guilt laid fully upon him.

Jesus Christ’s Sacrifice Was a Sin Offering for All People

As we have seen, the Azazel goat cannot accurately be seen as a type of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the sin offering for Christians, and we see His role prefigured in the sacrifice of the goat for the Atonement sin offering. Yet it is important that we take care in how we understand type and antitype, and take care, as well, that we not lose sight of God’s overall plan, as revealed in the annual Holy Days. Without such understanding, we might make the same mistake made by the early Roman Catholic theologians, notably Origen of Alexandria, who—unaware of or uncomfortable with Jewish religious practice—incorrectly associated the Azazel goat with Jesus Christ. Concerning God’s Holy Days and the Old Testament, such individuals lacked the sort of knowledge that comes from obedience (cf. Psalm 111:10).

We must not forget that, while the sin offering at Atonement may in some important ways parallel the sin offering of Jesus Christ, our Savior is our Passover Lamb. Although this article is focused on Atonement, we must not neglect to recognize the interlinking of the Holy Days. Each does not exist in a vacuum, but relates to the others to create not just a picture of the physical harvest that the Eternal provided to Israel, but also a picture of the larger plan of God, established before the foundation of the world. In this regard, you may want to refer to my short piece “The Sacrifices of the Day of Atonement and the Holy Days.”

Jesus Christ, just days before He gave His life as our Passover, uttered a fascinating statement while in the Temple at Jerusalem: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:31–32). The text seems to indicate that He spoke these words on the tenth day of the month of Nisan, when the Passover lambs were chosen. John records that Jesus arrived in Bethlehem at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus six days before the Passover. That would make His arrival sometime on the daylight part of our Thursday. The banquet would need to be the next day, Friday, before His entrance into Jerusalem on the Sabbath (John 12:1, 2, 12). What did Christ mean when He stated that “now the ruler of this world will be cast out”? Notice His expression of this as a future event, not as something that had already happened. Indeed, even today, the ruler of this world—Satan—has not yet been cast out (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2). Christ was speaking of His death as the Passover lamb, and also about a subsequent event that has not yet occurred. Christ knew that His death would set in motion a chain of events that will conclude in our relatively near future, when Satan is cast out—an event echoed in the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement.

However, while the Atonement sin offering was made for the high priest and Israel, we should rejoice that Christ’s sacrifice was a sin offering for all people, including all those who will eventually be drawn to Him after the present ruler of this world is cast out. We may seldom think of the Passover as a sin offering, but the Bible record shows us that it was such. John the Baptist’s earliest statement about Jesus is couched in terms of a sin offering (John 1:29), as are statements by Christ’s apostles (Matthew 1:21; Hebrews 10:4–11; 1 Peter 1:19–21; 1 John 3:5).

God Seeks to Be at One with Humanity

Scripture frequently mentions how totally our Father removes our sins from us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). He talks of them being cast into the sea, to picture the inability to retrieve them (Micah 7:19, see also Isaiah 38:17; 43:25; Jeremiah 50:20). We know that the blood of Jesus Christ pays the penalty for our sins, but there is more insight to be had for those willing to see.

For some, the Day of Atonement may come and go with little to no thought about the Azazel goat. This is a shame, as the typology of the Azazel is well worth our meditation. The Holy Days show a clear progression in God’s overall plan for mankind. The events described by the book of Revelation—the seven trumpets of the Day of the Lord (Revelation 8–9, 11), the removal of the devil for a thousand years (20:1–3), the reign of Jesus Christ and the true Christians during that millennium (vv. 4–6), and the Great White Throne Judgment (vv. 11–15)—are powerfully pictured by the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Last Great Day. We should long for the world to keep these days, so that they can come to understand them as we do.

The English word atonement literally means a condition of being at one. As we fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29; 23:27), we seek to be at one with our Father and to embrace humility, the very opposite of the pride that fills the devil (Ezekiel 28:17; 1 Timothy 3:6). As we do so, let us also rejoice that God seeks to be not only at one with us, but with all humanity. Let us rejoice that His plan is not merely to separate humanity from sin and the devil for 1,000 years, but ultimately to separate us for Himself forever.