I’m not quite sure why I got stuck on it, but I did. I know that I’ve noticed this difference in translations before. The word is only used four times in Scripture . . . all here in Leviticus 16 . . . and the ESV is the “contrary one.” Every other translation renders the word “scapegoat” . . . the ESV keeps with the original word, capitalizes it, and renders it as a place, Azazel. A footnote in the ESV qualifies their translation this way, “The meaning of Azazel is uncertain; possibly the name of a place or a demon, traditionally a scapegoat.” Not helpful.
Honestly, I prefer the rendering, “scapegoat,” over “Azazel.” Why? Because I’m a Hebrew scholar? No, just because I do. It seems . . . well, cleaner. But then something hits me . . . what does it matter? Whether the original word is intended to put a label on the animal or on a place is really missing the point. As the saying goes, I’m kind of “majoring on minors.” If, after reading this passage, I sit back and stew on why the ESV translators “went rogue,” then maybe I’m allowing the seed of the Word that’s been scattered this morning to be swept away by incidentals. Focusing on what, apparently, isn’t so clear, instead of meditating on what is. That two goats were offered on the Day of Atonement. One as a sacrificial offering and the other as Azazel.
Two goats were to be taken as the sin offering for the people on the Day of Atonement. One was to be slaughtered and offered on the altar with fire, the other was to be a “living offering” that would be led into the wilderness.
Aaron, the high priest, first would make atonement “for himself and his house.” He would then make atonement for the congregation, “because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16). And this was to be done with the blood of the first goat selected for the sin offering. The blood would be sprinkled throughout the tent of meeting to cleanse it from the defilement associated with being in the midst of a people inclined towards uncleanliness and sin. The foreshadow is evident . . . “and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1John 1:7).
But the second goat was to be a living offering . . .
And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22 ESV)
The sin has been atoned for by blood of the first goat, the price has been paid. But, even though the price is paid, what actually happens to the sin? Enter the second goat. The sin of the people is placed on the head of — transferred to — the other goat, some translations calling it, the scapegoat, which bears that sin into the wilderness. But where does the sin go? One translation says to Azazel, an unknown, mysterious place. Another foreshadow? ” . . . as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). The sin borne to a place beyond finding. A place which completely removes the remembrance of the sin atoned for.
Jesus paid the price for our sin with His blood. And, Jesus took our sin fully upon Himself and bore it to a mysterious place that is as far as the east is from the west. Blotting out our transgressions so completely, and bearing our sin so far away, that there is nothing to be remembered (Isa. 43:25, Jer. 31:34).
Should it be translated scapegoat? Should it be translated as the unknown place, Azazel?
Glorious yes! To the praise of our Redeemer . . . for the worship of the Lamb . . . for the glory of our loving God!