Sermon: Azazel: Beginnings

Sermon: Azazel: Beginnings

Where are the Witnesses of Scripture?
David C. Grabbe
Given 27-Aug-22; 73 minutes 2022-08-27

watch: Go to the The Azazel (sermon series)

description: (hide) The primary hermeneutic established by the Church of God is that the Bible interprets the Bible. A doctrine should never be established by one solitary scripture but should require the testimony of two to three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; II Corinthians 13:1). Regarding the enigmatic word "azazel," there is not only a paucity of conclusive definitions, but what is uncovered is conflicting, with contradictory etymologies, encouraging picking from a menu of meanings according to one’s taste. The only other sources consist of apocryphal Jewish sources (including the dubious book of Enoch and Cabalistic mysticism), Arabic folk tales, and Muslim tradition from the Koran, none of which could be considered valid. On the other hand, Scripture provides support for one function of Jesus Christ to bear the sins of many (Hebrews 9:28), bearing our sins in His body on the tree (I Peter 2:24), corresponding to the function attributed to the second goat bearing away all the iniquities from the tabernacle (Leviticus 16:21- 22) as well as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53:4-6) whom the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:11-12 adds that this Suffering Servant bore the sins of many, making intercession for the transgressors.


We will begin in John 5, if you would start turning there.

Today we will look at the enigmatic azazel, the word used to describe the second goat in the Day of Atonement ceremony in Leviticus 16. Part of the reason for the mystery is that there is not a definition scripture for the word. The word azazel is only used four times, all within the same chapter, and that’s it. That’s not a lot to go on.

Because there is no definition Scripture, we must start somewhere else to understand the azazel, and through it, what God teaches us about Atonement. But just as a faulty foundation endangers everything built on it, the starting point we choose is critical, because if we begin with a wrong premise, we cannot arrive at the correct conclusion.

The Day of Atonement only comes around once a year, and depending on how fasting affects you, you may be a bit fuzzy-headed and not thinking clearly. And then after Atonement, we are off to the Feast, and the whole matter is all but forgotten until the next year. This is a subject that is easy not to give much thought to. For those who are curious, it is simple to look up azazel in a Bible help, and just accept with what it says without evaluating whether it aligns with Scripture. Others just go along with what they have heard, or what their church teaches, and I was guilty of that. But very, very few take the trouble to blow the dust off their Bibles, and do their own study from God’s word.

More Than One Witness

Here in John 5, Jesus provides a key principle that will help us. In verse 31, He defends Himself against accusations of blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. He says,

John 5:31 “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.”

His statement may seem unusual because, for us, what He says is the final word on any matter. He is “the Faithful and True Witness” (Revelation 3:14). For us, His testimony outweighs everything. But the ESV suggests a word that helps to make His meaning clear. It says, “If I alone bear witness about [M]yself, [M]y testimony is not true.” In other words, within the context, if His witness about Himself were the only witness, it would not have been accepted by those who were accusing Him. On a human level, Jesus acknowledges that something additional was required for even His own witness to be a valid testimony.

The basis for Christ’s statement is the law He gave about establishing significant matters by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; II Corinthians 13:1). In the rest of John 5, down through verse 46, He then provides additional witnesses of Himself to prove that He was neither blaspheming, nor guilty of violating the Fourth Commandment.

Jesus thus sets the pattern for us in establishing or judging critical matters. This must be our approach when it comes to biblical teaching: We must find multiple witnesses of Scripture to keep away from “disputes over doubtful things” (Romans 14:1). Jesus teaches that a single testimony is invalid. He says a couple of chapters later, “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory” (John 7:18). An untested interpretation is the same as leaning on our own understanding, or being wise in our own eyes (Proverbs 3:5-7; 26:12; Isaiah 5:21).

Sometimes pride or fear keep us from taking an honest look at a matter, and allowing that we may be mistaken. Yet God says, “. . . on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2). If we desire for God to look on us favorably, trembling at His word must be our guiding principle. Proverbs 28:26 says bluntly, “he who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” We must always seek witnesses of Scripture to ensure that a teaching has more support than just human reasoning.

The Uncertainty of Words

In addition to this law of using multiple witnesses, another time-tested law of Bible study is that we should not base a teaching—and especially a doctrine—on the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. One reason is that a given word can have a multitude of meanings, depending on the context. Concordances are not menus that we pick from according to our preference, or according to a conclusion that we desire.

Another reason not to base a doctrine on the meaning of a word is that languages change over time, and modern Greek and Hebrew can differ significantly from biblical Greek and Hebrew. The exact meaning of a word in ancient times is not always certain, and therefore, more is required than looking up a word in a concordance or other study aid. Lexicons and Biblical dictionaries can help, but they are just that—a help, not a solid base. They have their place, certainly, but their definitions must be tested against biblical usage.

If you have been in the church for any length of time, you’ve probably observed that resting a teaching on the meaning of a word leads to arguments about words, which Paul warns against (I Timothy 6:4). Instead of meaningful discussions about “the whole counsel of God,” this approach encourages heaping up “teachers” (II Timothy 4:3)—such as scholars or reference works—that agree with a specific definition. Yet this is dangerous, because you can find support among scholars for almost any perspective, even ones that are anti-God.

But the most important reason not to base a doctrine on the definition of a word is that the definition only constitutes a single witness. Such a solitary testimony is not valid, as Jesus Himself establishes. A solid foundation consists of multiple witnesses that do not contradict the rest of the Word of God.

We will be spending some time considering the most common starting places, the beginnings, that you have encountered or will encounter if you study into the azazel. These are the foundations upon which interpretations are built, so we need to evaluate their trustworthiness. And I will tell you up front, not one of them is certain, which is the reason there is disagreement over the word azazel. Some of these beginnings are a bit technical, and if that isn’t your cup of tea, that’s OK—we won’t spend too much time on the technical ones. But taken together, they illustrate why it is unwise to base a doctrine on any of these solitary witnesses. The central issue is not which starting point makes the most sense to us, but which has the most support, if any, from the rest of Scripture.

A First Beginning: God’s Strength

One starting point comes from separating the word azazel into two roots. The first root is ‘azaz (Strong’s #5810). It means, “to strengthen” or “to prevail.” The second root is the well-known El (Strong’s #410), which is a title of God. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that combining these roots would give azazel a meaning of, “the strength of God.” However, the difficulty with this starting point is that it does not clearly relate to what happens within the chapter, and particularly the second goat.

Now, just to give you an idea of the ambiguity of the Hebrew, other scholars use the very same roots to suggest that azazel means, “a powerful god,” but with a lowercase ‘g,’ meaning a demon. This is because on rare occasion, el is used for a god other than the true one. So, the exact same roots are used, but they lead to very different interpretations.

A Second Beginning: Location

A second starting point is that azazel is the name of a place, and specifically a location east of Jerusalem. This interpretation comes from rabbinic Judaism, which developed in the centuries after the Jews returned from Babylon. In this view, azazel describes a particularly hard and difficult land to which the second goat was taken with all the sins of the nation. In later practice—many centuries after God gave these instructions—the second goat was brought to a cliff, and it was pushed over the cliff backwards. Of course, the Jews have added to God’s Word here, because those actions are not part of His instructions.

This interpretation focuses on a specific, accursed location to which the goat bears the sins. In modern Hebrew, there is a phrase: lekh la'aza'zel, which means “go to azazel.” It is the Hebrew equivalent of saying, “go to hell.” In this starting point, azazel represents a bad place.

A basic problem with this idea is that Leviticus 16 was given while Israel was in the wilderness, and their camp location always changed. God did not record that Israel always camped in the same place for the Day of Atonement, nor stopped each year within walking distance of a specific cliff. This starting point derives a meaning based on a practice that developed 1,000 years after Leviticus was written, and then applies it retroactively. In addition, this interpretation puts the focus on a specific location, yet the instructions in the chapter focus on how God removes the sins of the nation, not where the sins end up.

A Third Beginning: Departure, Removal, and Going Away

A third starting point also comes from separating azazel into two different roots. The first root is ‘ez (Strong’s #5795), which means “goat.” The second root is 'azal (Strong’s #235), meaning “to go away.” Putting these together, Strong’s Concordance defines azazel as, “goat of departure.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says a possible meaning is, “the goat of entire removal.” The Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words renders it as, “the goat for complete sending away.” This starting point at least fits with what happens to the second goat, yet it has its detractors as well. Some scholars are not certain that the first root, ‘ez—the word for “goat”—is correct.

Now, there is a related interpretation. Some suggest that the word azazel is a reduplication—meaning a doubling up or a repetition—of the word ‘azal, the word for “going away” or “removal.” These scholars propose that the original word was azalzel, which is a repetition of the word ‘azal, and it was shortened to azazel. Because the same word is repeated, it has the implication of, “removal removal,” which is why the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon says azazel means, “entire removal.”

Looked at in this way, the word azazel is abstract, describing a function rather than an animal or personality. The repetition of the word indicates a series of acts that produces the result, and thus, the complete removal comes from a certain procedure. So, instead of azazel meaning, “the goat of departure,” it would mean simply, “the complete removal.”

The Septuagint provides some support for this starting point. The Septuagint was written two or three centuries before Christ, and it is often quoted in the New Testament. In its translation of the Hebrew word azazel, it uses the word apopompaios, which means, “sent out.” The translators of the Septuagint did not interpret azazel to mean Satan, but instead rendered it with the idea of “removal” or “sending away.”

A Fourth Beginning: A Bad Name

A fourth starting point for understanding the azazel is also technical, but it is worth being aware of. This approach likewise comes from separating the word azazel into roots, but the roots themselves are interpreted through a negative lens. This interpretation begins with the assumption that the azazel must be bad, simply because the azazel is not the first goat, which everyone agrees was fulfilled by Christ.

This beginning also uses the root ‘azal (Strong’s #235), which, as I mentioned, is a verb that means, “removal, going away, or being sent away.” It combines that with the word ‘az (Strong’s #5794). It is an adjective with the basic meaning of “strong.” It is variously translated as “fierce, greedy, mighty, powerful, and rough.” From these two words, the following meaning is derived: “the strong and obstinate one (who is destined) to go away and disappear.” According to those who interpret azazel this way, it is a highly derogatory and offensive name, describing bad character.

But this starting point contains a significant problem of bias. It is an example of picking from a menu of meanings according to one’s taste. That is, while ‘az can describe negative aspects of character, such as fierceness (Genesis 49:7; Deuteronomy 28:50; Isaiah 19:4; Daniel 8:23), it also describes many things that are morally neutral, such as the sea (Nehemiah 9:11; Isaiah 43:16), wind (Exodus 14:21), ants (Proverbs 30:25), and a lion (Judges 14:14, 18).

Significantly, its first usage is in Genesis 49:3, where Jacob describes Reuben as “My might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power [‘az].” Though Reuben had his problems, Jacob uses the word here as praise. So, the basic problem with this interpretation is that any number of people, animals, and environmental forces have strength or power, but they do not all have fierceness or bad character. In other words, ‘az essentially describes strength, but this starting point concludes that the strength is negative, and thus, indicates Satan.

Incidentally, the root of ‘az is ‘azaz (Strong’s #5810), which I mentioned before. ‘Azaz means, “to be strong; to prevail; to make firm or strengthen.” It describes unrighteous people a couple of times (Proverbs 7:13; 21:29), but it also portrays God’s actions in numerous places (Judges 3:10; Psalm 68:28; 89:13; Proverbs 8:28), as well as wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:19). The act of “strengthening” is neutral—the wicked do it, but so do the righteous, including God Himself. So, this starting point chooses a meaning based on a conclusion, because the roots themselves have multiple meanings.

Some scholars suggest that azazel is a name because compound nouns are frequently used as proper nouns. Azazel appears to be a compound noun, and thus, it could be a name. But it is not definitive. In English, it’s easy to recognize proper nouns because they begin with a capital letter, but in Hebrew, only the meaning or context will identify proper nouns. The question is, if azazel is a name, whom does it identify?

Well, consider this: You are probably aware that the word satan (Strong’s #7854) means, “adversary.” That describes the Devil’s primary role. However, the first two times the word satan is used, it does not describe the Devil, but rather God, who calls Himself an adversary of the wicked (Numbers 22:22, 32). And so, even if the word azazel is a proper noun, more biblical support is required before we conclude that it is the name of a demon.

Those of you who are older in the faith are familiar with the Moffatt translation—it was a favorite of some within the WCG. Well, Moffatt makes a great leap in Leviticus 16, because he renders the word azazel as “Azâzel the demon.” This is not a translation, but a risky addition and assumption, because the Hebrew in the chapter makes no mention of demons. And yet that idea is reinforced every time Moffatt’s rendering of Leviticus 16 is read.

A Fifth Beginning: Tradition

The fifth and final starting point for interpreting the word azazel is the one we are most familiar with. It is not technical, but rather the tradition that the azazel is a type of Satan. This is the starting point used by the Seventh Day Adventists and the WCG. We will spend the most time on this one because it has many aspects that need to be examined. My intent in all of this is not to disparage any servant of God. Even so, in the course of proving all things, some things have come to light which, while they might make us uncomfortable, we need to look at squarely and evaluate honestly if we are going to hold fast to truth.

The eminent Seventh Day Adventist scholar, J. N. Andrews, in his book, The Judgment, Its Events and Their Order, uses the following to support the teaching that the azazel is a type of Satan:

Another confirmation is found in the Book of Enoch, where the name Azalzel, evidently a corruption of Azazel, is given to one of the fallen angels, thus plainly showing what was the prevalent understanding of the Jews at that day [two to three centuries before Christ]. Still another evidence is found in the Arabic, where Azazel is employed as the name of the evil spirit. In addition to these, we have the evidence of the Jewish work, Zohar, and of the Cabalistic and Rabbinical writers. They tell us that the following proverb was current among the Jews: 'On the day of atonement, a gift to Sammael [a name for Satan in Jewish folklore].'

Notice that Scripture is entirely missing from these supports. Instead, what is leaned upon is Arabic tradition, rabbinical interpretation, and even Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism. None of these are even good supports, let alone a foundation for doctrine. We will return to Adventist teaching later because it plays a larger part in this subject than many realize.

The Worldwide Church of God likewise leaned heavily on tradition in its teaching on the azazel. I encourage you to take a fresh look at the materials I will mention, and really analyze the starting points that are used—whether the teaching begins with Scripture, or whether the identification of the azazel is based on tradition and scholarly interpretation. If the scholars can make their case from Scripture, then they can be quite helpful. But if their explanations are Scripture-free, they are really just the opinions and wisdom of mere men.

The original Ambassador College Correspondence Course, published in 1965, teaches that azazel is the name of a demon, based on—it says—“ancient Jewish literature” and “apocryphal literature.” For those who may not be aware, “apocryphal” means, “of doubtful authenticity.” It is a writing that is sketchy, not something to use as a primary source.

The updated, 1986 edition of the Correspondence Course uses more sources to explain azazel, but not scriptures. It first draws on Arabic tradition, quoting the Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon as saying, “This name was used for that of an evil demon….The name Azazel…is also used by the Arabs as that of an evil demon.” We will return to Arab tradition later.

The Correspondence Course then quotes from a book entitled, Islam and Its Founder, to establish that, “the devil, named Eblis in the Koran, was once one of the archangels in heaven, and was called Azazil, but by disobedience fell.”

Take a moment and let that sink in. Not the quote, but the fact that Islam is used for establishing biblical doctrine. Islam’s beginning tells us of its credibility problem. I will give you the quick version. This is a summary of the story told in two books, one by Karen Armstrong, called Muhammad, and the other by Alfred Guillaume, called Life of Muhammad.

According to these authors, Islamic history holds that Muhammed received the contents of the Koran from Allah, the moon god. But first, Muhammed had to be put into a proper frame of mind by a spirit calling himself “Gabriel,” who bears no resemblance to the Gabriel of the Bible. Muhammed was asleep in a mountain cave when he was suddenly awakened and overwhelmed by a devastating spiritual presence. He recounted later that “Gabriel” enveloped him in a terrifying embrace, and Muhammed felt like his breath was being forced from his body.

“Gabriel” then commanded Muhammed to recite what was flooding into his mind, and after “Gabriel” strangled Muhammed two more times, such that he felt he could not endure any longer, Muhammed started involuntarily speaking what became the Koran. Muhammed wrote later that, when this happened, he believed he had been possessed, if you can imagine. He was so terrified of the thought of falling under a demonic influence that he intended to throw himself off the mountain to kill himself. However, he was reassured by the strangling “Gabriel” that he had been chosen to be Allah’s apostle, and then it was all OK.

Now, scripture never depicts the angels of the true God acting this way, yet this obviously demonic activity was the critical genesis of Islam and its sacred book. If this “Gabriel” is indicative of the Islamic concept of a good sprit being, we certainly cannot give that tradition any credence for identifying the natures of spirit beings. So, even though the Koran states that the devil was once named “Azazil,” the Koran and Islamic tradition are simply not reliable witnesses for understanding what is in the Bible. God does not leave us without the means to understand His Word, such that we should look to that religion.

This is a side note, but it is quite striking. If you compare Islamic prophecy of the end times with biblical prophecy of the end times, you will find that they mirror each other. That is, the prophecies contain similar accounts of end-time events, but the good guys and the bad guys are exactly opposite in each perspective, just like in a mirror. The descriptions of the heroes that over 1 billion Muslims are waiting for match the descriptions of the Beast and the False Prophet in Revelation. And the enemies of Allah described in Islamic prophecy match God’s people in biblical prophecy. They are completely opposite. So, again, this is not a clean source for identifying a key element of one of God’s holy days.

The Correspondence Course’s primary support is a Jewish commentary called, The Torah—a Modern Commentary:

Azazel . . . was probably a demonic being. . . . Apocryphal Jewish works, composed in the last few centuries before the Christian era, tell of angels who were lured . . . into rebellion against God. . . . These mythological stories, which must have been widely known, seem to confirm the essentially demonic character of the old biblical Azazel. (Ellipses theirs.)

“Apocryphal Jewish works, composed in the last few centuries before the Christian era” clearly refers to the Book of Enoch. However, in the Book of Enoch, Azazel is not the devil. In that fantasy, Azazel is a lesser demon who is said to cause all of mankind’s sins. Now, that should give us pause as well, because the very sources the Correspondence Course uses are contradictory on a significant point. That is, in the Koran, the devil was called Azazil, but in apocryphal Jewish works, Azazel isn’t even Satan, but just one of his minions. What sort of structure can possibly be built on such an unsteady foundation?

Yet the Book of Enoch is not part of the Bible. Like with the Koran, we have no need of it to understand one of God’s holy days. Leviticus 16 was written long before all these traditions developed, which means we need to start there, not with the ideas of carnal men that came a millennium later, or two millennia, in the case of the Koran.

In Titus 1:14, Paul specifically warns against giving heed to Jewish myths and fables, and the apocryphal Jewish works that the Correspondence Course uses as proof certainly fit that description and warning. II Timothy 3:16 says that Scripture is profitable for doctrine. Extra-biblical fantasy is not. Mythical stories have no validity as a starting point for understanding what God teaches about the Day of Atonement.

More Traditions

Some Bible students distance themselves from apocryphal works, but still note that both the Jews and the Arabs have longstanding traditions of a malignant spirit that lived in the wilderness. There could be a germ of truth here, but it may not lend the support expected.

The Bible records that the Israelites did interact with a Spirit Being in the wilderness. That part is quite true. That Spirit Being led them and provided for them for 40 years, through an area that many would consider to be cursed. The surrounding nations—which included the Edomites and the Ishmaelites, later the Arabs—were well-aware of the Israelites as they were led by that Spirit Being. But was that Spirit in the wilderness evil or good? Was He malignant or benevolent?

Consider the perspectives of those handing down the traditions. The Arab perspective is self-evident: The Arabs, as a people, have never worshipped the true God. They do not yet have eyes to recognize Him. They saw Israel and Israel’s fearsome God as evil. Arab tradition that a [S]pirit in the wilderness was evil is not a reliable witness, and could easily argue for the reverse, given that the carnal mind looks on what is godly as evil.

Something similar can be said for many of the traditions handed down by the Jews. Certainly, not all traditions are problematic. The Fiddler on the Roof movie portrays well how tradition can keep a community together and be a positive thing. But not all traditions are reliable and good. We must evaluate each one, and discard any that contradict the Word of God. In this case, the Spirit Being who led the Israelites in the wilderness was not evil—He only seemed so in the minds of those who were carnal.

Remember, the Israelites carried idols with them throughout their time in the wilderness (Amos 5:25-26; Acts 7:42-43). Their idols seemed good to them, but the true God did not. God’s way of life undoubtedly seemed devilish—it was chaffing and constraining, which is one reason they always complained. They did not see the true God as a force for good in their lives. They believed He was bent on their destruction (Deuteronomy 1:27-28). Joshua rebuked Israel because, as he said, serving the true God seemed evil to them (Joshua 24:15)! The Israelites accepted Baal, Molech, and other demons, and yet, as Stephen told the council during his trial, the fathers always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51).

Isaiah castigated ancient Judah for calling evil good and good evil, for putting darkness for light and light for darkness (Isaiah 5:20). Their backwards judgment was still on display during Christ’s ministry, which is why He denounced their traditions that interfered with true worship. The Jewish leadership considered the Son of God to be evil, and they put to death their own Messiah. If they were unable to identify God in the flesh when He walked among them, how trustworthy is their folklore about a spirit being in the wilderness?

The Curious Case of the Comprehensive Commentary

There is one more piece of literature we will consider. Maybe this seems like it is belaboring the point, but it is important that we have all the information so that we can test whether these starting points are solid enough to support a major teaching.

For those of you who like detective stories, we will call this, “The Curious Case of the Comprehensive Commentary.” This mystery begins in a booklet that most of us are familiar with, called, Pagan Holidays—or God’s Holy Days—Which? It discusses the pagan origins of things like Christmas and Easter, and then briefly explains the significance of the annual Sabbaths.

Now, when the booklet gets to the Day of Atonement in chapter 3, like the Correspondence Course, it does not use a foundation of Scripture. That should be a red flag. Instead, the booklet begins its explanation of the azazel with two commentaries. It uses the opinions of scholars, which certainly can be helpful, yet only if they give clarity that is Scripture-based. But the two commentaries used in the booklet do not have any support from Scripture.

We will focus on the first commentary. The booklet says,

The Comprehensive Commentary has: ’Spencer, after the oldest opinions of the Hebrews and Christians, thinks Azazel is the name of the Devil, and so Rosen . . . . The word scapegoat signifies the goat which went away.’”

So, the booklet begins with the meaning of a Hebrew word as explained by commentators. But this first reference is curious because the Comprehensive Commentary is pretty obscure. This same quote is used in the Correspondence Course, but otherwise, the Comprehensive Commentary is not used in any other WCG literature. It doesn’t appear to have been sitting on a shelf somewhere at Headquarters as a go-to reference work.

Also puzzling is the fact that this short excerpt is entirely unremarkable. It contains no exposition of Scripture, nor any sort of clear or powerful discussion. It is simply the opinions of men about whom we know very little, and one of whose names is misspelled. So, why was that excerpt chosen to make the case that the azazel was a type of Satan?

If you do some Internet detective work, you will find that very same quote from the Comprehensive Commentary used in other places. Think back to the excerpt that I gave from the book called, The Judgment, Its Events and Their Order, by Adventist scholar J.N. Andrews. Well, just a page after Mr. Andrews says that further support for identifying the azazel comes from the Book of Enoch, and from Arabic tradition, rabbinical interpretation, and Jewish mysticism, he uses this same quote from the Comprehensive Commentary. However, Mr. Andrews gets the names of both scholars right, and he also includes a line about a differing opinion that the booklet leaves out.

Mr. Andrews’ book was published in 1890, but there is an even earlier use of that same quotation. It is found in an article titled, “The Law of Moses.” It was published in an Adventist newsletter called The Day-Star Extra in 1846. The article was authored by a man named O.R.L. Crosier. That name is not familiar to most of us, but Mr. Crosier is noteworthy because he was the architect of the Adventist understanding of the azazel as Satan.

Mr. Crosier’s unique contribution was to interpret Leviticus 16 according to sequence. I don’t want to get bogged down with Mr. Crosier, but you’ll see why this matters in a moment. He was the first one to use the quote from the Comprehensive Commentary. He then stated that the azazel could not represent Christ because of the order of the symbols within Leviticus 16 as compared to Christ’s death and resurrection. In his view, the first goat is a type of the crucified Christ. The high priest entering the Holy of Holies is a type of the resurrected Christ. Therefore, Mr. Crosier deduces that the azazel could only be fulfilled by someone other than Christ, and after Christ’s ascension. For Mr. Crosier, the key was in the symbolic sequence. (And you can find this on the Ellen G. White estate website at

Now, one difficulty with this view is that it is highly selective. Mr. Crosier chose to focus on just three elements within the chapter. If he had tried to interpret all the elements in the chapter according to the sequence of their later fulfillment, his mind would have exploded, because it cannot be done. The chapter contains more than two sacrificial animals, and the high priest does much more than just enter the Holy of Holies. But Mr. Crosier chose just a slice of the chapter on which to build his interpretation and ignored everything else.

Now, to bring this full circle, we will get back to the Pagan Holidays booklet. After the booklet uses the unremarkable Comprehensive Commentary quote and another commentary as a starting point, it then uses the very same sequential explanation as Mr. Crosier. It says the slain goat represents the crucified Christ, the high priest represents the resurrected Christ, and therefore, the azazel must represent something else. The booklet uses the same obscure commentary and the same basic reasoning as Mr. Crosier.

You can draw your own conclusions as far as how to connect these dots, but for my part, it is hard to shake the impression that the WCG borrowed from Seventh Day Adventist teaching in this particular matter.

There is an ironic epilogue to this curious case of the Comprehensive Commentary. Incidentally, the full title is, The Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible. It was copyrighted in 1837 and edited by William Jenks. Mr. Crosier used an abbreviated title in his article, and others have copied it without knowing it was an abbreviation. You can find digital scans of it on the University of Michigan website, and those scans reveal something noteworthy. In the section that is commonly quoted, the commentary simply notes what various scholars think. It just gives a variety of viewpoints. However, when you get to the commentary’s own explanation of what the azazel represents, it lays out a compelling case from Scripture that the azazel points to Jesus Christ’s work. The section that keeps on being quoted is just a listing of opinions, while the meat of the commentary argues against the view of Mr. Crosier and Mr. Andrews, and it does so with Scripture.

Which Foundation?

That was a lot to wade through, but I think you can see that it was necessary for really evaluating where to begin. The overall point is that the meaning of the Hebrew word azazel is ambiguous, and we have seen some of the confusion surrounding it. We have examined the most common beginnings, some of which are reasonable, and others are doubtful, if not demonic. But none of them has two, let alone three, witnesses of Scripture that would qualify it to be used as a solid foundation. They are simply assertions and possibilities.

Regarding the traditional view, please consider that if the Day of Atonement can only be understood by using apocryphal books, Arabic tradition, and Jewish folklore—or through the scholars who lean on such sources—perhaps there is a larger conversation the body of Christ needs to have about what our trusted source of truth really is.

We need a foundation of Scripture upon which to build an understanding of Leviticus 16. There is no need to rely on tradition or deduction, because God has already given the interpretation. What remains is for us to search it out like buried treasure.

If we do not allow Scripture to interpret itself, any other explanation—no matter how dogmatically declared—is so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In John’s keynote sermon, “Do You See God?,” several times he states a basic law of human behavior. He says, “We see what we want to see. We see what we expect to see. We see what we are educated to see.” In this vein, if a man reads Leviticus 16 with the expectation that Satan must be found there, that man will find him, somehow. The man will interpret the objects, the events, and meanings of Hebrew words according to his expectation. If he grew up hearing that azazel is the name of a demon—as I did—he will read Leviticus 16 with that education and that expectation. Something extraordinary must occur for it to dawn on him that his perspective of the azazel lacks a biblical foundation.

Identifying Actions

Please start turning to Leviticus 16. Since there is no definition scripture for azazel, and disagreement among scholars over the meaning of the word, where else can we begin?

Well, another principle of Bible study we have been taught is to begin with clear scriptures to establish a foundation before going to the verses that are less clear. So, setting aside the uncertainty surrounding the word azazel, we will start with the clearest and simplest scriptures possible. We will start with actions.

Leviticus 16:21-22 Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

These verses show the live goat involved in two basic actions:

  1. All the iniquities, transgressions, and sins of the people are laid on its head.
  2. The live goat bears all these sins into the wilderness, away from the tabernacle.

These are not minor details. These actions describe the primary role of the live goat. Their fulfillments should be easily found in God’s Word—and indeed, they are. These two identifying actions are found in the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 53:

Isaiah 53:4-6 Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Verse 6 gives a clear fulfillment of Leviticus 16:21. The Eternal laid our iniquities on the Messiah, just as the high priest laid his hands on the azazel and confessed over it all the iniquities of the people.

In general, the laying on of hands indicates a solemn identification, a testimony, or a setting apart. It frequently contains the idea of transference. In the sin offering, the laying on of hands symbolizes the identification of an innocent substitute to whom sin is transferred from the guilty party. The hands also identify who is to bear the sin.

Now, the live goat was a substitute. It was not guilty, nor was it being blamed for sin. Instead, the sins of the nation were symbolically transferred it, and it bore them away from God’s presence in the tabernacle. The purpose of a substitutionary sacrifice is to have an innocent representative standing in the place of a person or group, so the guilty party does not have to bear the sins. The animal stands in for the sinner(s). The azazel was the type in receiving the sins of the nation, and the Messiah was the antitype in receiving our sins.

In verse 4, the Messiah is prophesied to bear our griefs and sorrows, which are not the sins themselves, but which are the effects of sin. Verses 4-5 portray the trauma the Messiah would undergo. They foretell that the Messiah would do more than just die. If God only required death for His justice to be satisfied, He could have had the Romans cut Christ’s throat, just like an animal’s. One quick and deadly slice, and it would be over. Yet Isaiah foretells that the Messiah would undergo incredible suffering before death.

There is a potent lesson here, which is that sin incurs more than just the death penalty. Sin also causes physical and emotional pain. It causes grief and sorrow. It causes separation between people, and more critically, between mankind and God, beginning with mankind’s expulsion from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24; see Isaiah 59:1-2).

There is much that could be said about all the rotten fruit that sin produces, but for our purposes, it is enough to recognize that when God laid our iniquities on the Messiah, that action caused more than death. It caused unparalleled agony and disfigurement.

Isaiah 52:14 says that Christ was marred more than any man, such that it was hard to tell He was even human. That is what sin does—it distorts and corrupts the image in which mankind was created. We were created in God’s image, but sin destroys that likeness.

The Bearing of Sins and Iniquities

We will continue in verse 11:

Isaiah 53:11-12 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

These verses contain two references to the second function prefigured in the azazel and performed by the Messiah, that of bearing sin. As it says in Leviticus 16:22, the azazel was to bear on itself all the iniquities of the people. Its primary role was bearing sins as a substitute. Verse 11 teaches that justification results from the Messiah bearing iniquities. Verse 12 uses the prophetic past-tense, saying that the Messiah “bore the sins of many.” When this prophecy was given, His work was as good as done. Here are two more clear scriptures about Christ that directly link to the role of the azazel. We are already on our third witness of a Messianic fulfillment of the azazel.

Please begin turning to Hebrews 9. The book of Hebrews has been described as the Leviticus of the New Testament. A main purpose of Hebrews was to help the church—particularly those of a Jewish background—to understand the Scriptures through the lens of Christ’s life, death, and High Priesthood. Chapter 9 contains the New Testament explanation of the Day of Atonement. If there were a confirmation that sins will be laid on the head of either the Devil or one of his minions, and that he will bear them, there could hardly be a more fitting place to make note of it than Hebrews 9.

However, the author does not even hint at Satan’s involvement with atonement in any way. Instead, the flow of the chapter reinforces Christ’s fulfillment of the Day of Atonement at every point. Hebrews 9:22-25 describes the purifying of the holy place, which is what the first goat accomplished. No sins were confessed on it, so its blood allowed entrance into the Holy of Holies, even as Jesus entered the heavenly Holy of Holies with His own pure blood.

Next in the Leviticus 16 ritual, the azazel bore the sins of Israel. In the parallel in Hebrews, the author subsequently declares Who bore our sins:

Hebrews 9:28 so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.

This is basically the New Testament commentary on Leviticus 16, and it points us to Jesus Christ, not to Satan or a lesser demon called Azazel.

The apostle Peter provides yet another solid witness that, like the azazel, Jesus bore our sins:

I Peter 2:24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.

Notice that the exact terms and functions used to describe the live goat are later applied to Jesus as the Messiah. Now, Christ fulfilled the first goat as well, but the first goat did not bear any sins. The bearing of sins was specific to the second goat.

Peter tells us how and when Christ bore our sins: He bore them in His own body while He was on the tree. His bearing of sin was not simply a legal pronouncement. It had a real-life application and a recorded fulfillment. The bearing took place during His extreme suffering, which He endured for hours while He took on the shame, reproach, anguish, piercing, crushing, bruising, smiting, grief, separation, and other disfiguring effects of sin.

An Ugly Reality

We may not like to think about what happened to Jesus when our sins were laid on Him, but without admitting this facet of His sacrifice, we miss the foundational reason for His taking on human flesh (Romans 8:3). We understand that Jesus bore our sins and their penalty, but what can be harder to accept is that Paul says Christ became sin. We will see this in II Corinthians 5:21:

II Corinthians 5:21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Paul’s words may be startling and uncomfortable, but they are true: God the Father made Christ to be sin! This doesn’t mean God made Him commit sin. His life and nature were entirely flawless. But this says God made Him to be sin.

The instructions for sin offerings contain a detail that helps us to understand why Paul could make this statement. An interlinear Bible shows that in almost every verse in the Old Testament where a sin offering is mentioned, the word “offering” is supplied by the translators. It is not present in the Hebrew. This is because the word for “sin offering,” chatta'ah (Strong’s #2403), is also the word for “sin.” This word has multiple meanings. It can indicate sin, a sin offering, guilt because of sin, purification from sin, or punishment because of sin. The same word is used to signify all those things.

In a sin offering, the animal became symbolic of the guilt incurred by sin; it suffered punishment because of sin; and it was also the symbolic purification from sin. This is why the same word is used for both sin and sin offering. The animal—the substitute—essentially became the sin needing to be atoned. When the high priest laid all the iniquities of Israel on the azazel, that second goat became sin.

One translation tries to soften what is said here by saying that God made Christ to be the offering for our sin. While that is true, it is not faithful to the text. The Greek word for sin here is not like the Hebrew word, which can also indicate a sin offering. In the Greek, sin simply means sin. When a sin offering is indicated, another Greek word must be included. But here, Paul means just what we read: God made Christ to be sin.

Truly, the role of the azazel was a dreadful one, but it was part of the work that only the Messiah could do, and which He had to do for there to be reconciliation with God.

Cursed by God

There is another commonality between the azazel and the Messiah that is not immediately apparent when reading Leviticus 16, but it is important that we see it. I will read something from a study paper that crossed my desk a few years back. I don’t agree with all the paper, but this excerpt brings out a key symbol that further identifies who the azazel prefigures:

When all the sins are placed on the head of the goat for Azazel, then that amounts to a curse being placed on the individual who is represented by the goat for Azazel. The individual who is represented by that goat is clearly being cursed! And when that goat is then led into the wilderness, that too is a curse! It is a curse to be sent into the wilderness. The goat for Azazel is clearly cursed.

So, the azazel became cursed, not only through having sins laid on it, but also though being sent away from the Holy Place. Being sent outside the camp symbolized divine rejection. Symbolically, one was separated from fellowship with the source of life and all good, which is certainly a curse. Sin entered the world through Adam (Romans 5:12), and he was sent away from the Garden of Eden, away from God’s holy presence (Genesis 3:17, 23).

Now, Paul says this is precisely what happened with Jesus Christ:

Galatians 3:13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”)

Paul bases his statement on Deuteronomy 21:23, which says, “…he who is hanged is accursed of God.” Those instructions concern the requirement to bury a hanged man on the same day as his execution because he has been cursed by God. To leave an accursed thing hanging would defile the land. Now, Paul applies this to Jesus Christ, recognizing that because Jesus was hanged on a tree, He was cursed.

Think about Him crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Well, He knew why. He became a curse, not because of something He had done, but because of what we have done.

This refers to Christ on the tree, which is when and where He bore our sins, as we saw. The Father laid on Christ “the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6), just as the high priest laid the iniquities of Israel on the azazel. And Paul says Jesus became a curse. He does not say that Jesus is accursed in the present, because the curse of the law was fulfilled when Christ died. He was then raised up, and the next time He appears, it will be “apart from sin,” as it says in Hebrews 9:28—apart from what He took on and became. In the present, He is blessed (Romans 1:25; 9:5; I Timothy 6:15). Yet Paul declares that Christ became a curse for us. He fulfilled the awful, shameful role of the azazel, as only He could.

The Question of Location

We have seen when and how Christ bore our sins, and now we will look at where. The instructions for the regular sin offering specify that the animal had to be killed at the tabernacle (Leviticus 4:4, 14, 24, 29). Their carcasses were burned outside the camp (Leviticus 4:11-12, 21), but their deaths took place at the tabernacle (or later temple). The exception was the azazel. The fact that the priest left the azazel alive does not preclude it from being a sin offering. The life of the azazel was most certainly dedicated and consumed by its role of becoming sin, becoming cursed, and acting as a purification from sin. All of that fits within the meaning of chatta'ah, the word for sin offering that has a wide variety of uses. So, the life of the azazel did not end at the tabernacle. Instead, it was sent or led outside the camp, away from God’s presence, while bearing the sins of the nation.

Now, where did Christ bear our sins? Hebrews 13:12 says that He “suffered outside the gate.” The standard sin offerings were killed at the tabernacle or temple, but Jesus suffered outside the gate. The most likely place for Christ’s crucifixion was across the Kidron Valley, on a slope of the Mount of Olives. Christ’s crucifixion was at a place where the centurion could see that the Temple veil, which faced east, was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 7:51-54; Mark 15:38-39). To be able to see that required that the centurion have a specific angle and a minimum elevation in order to see over the Temple wall. (I will refer you to John’s sermon entitled, “Eden, the Garden, and the Two Trees (Part Three)”.) Jesus did not suffer at the Temple, where the sin offerings had to be killed. The gospels say He was led away and He was sent from the Temple, from the symbolic presence of God … just like the azazel (Matthew 27:31; Mark 15:20; Luke 23:26; John 19:16). The Second Adam was led and sent away to fulfill the curse on the first Adam, so that we can now come back into God’s presence. That was part of the curse He took on our behalf.

Like the second goat, Christ’s sacrifice was not an immediate death. He was alive while He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24). Christ’s bearing of our sins took hours, and He felt every second. He became sin and a curse as He hung there, bearing our transgressions, outside the gate.

Symbols Blurred Through Time and Carnality

Let’s consider where the Jewish tradition that the azazel was a demonic being may have originated. This is speculative, but just try it on for size. As we have seen, through the laying on of hands and having sins confessed on it, the azazel became a representation of all the sins, iniquities, and transgressions of the nation. As Jewish thought developed over time, this cursed representative may have come to signify evil itself in the minds of those far from God. That is, instead of being seen as a substitute that was chosen for that role, the azazel may have come to be seen as something evil from the beginning that needed to be identified and blamed to bring about atonement, because human nature is eager to redirect the blame.

While the exact meaning of the word azazel is not certain, it clearly refers to a role that is detestable. It is but a small step in an active and carnal imagination—such as possessed by the writers of the Book of Enoch—to arrive at azazel picturing the source of sin rather than a substitute to bear sin, as Scripture shows. For those with a hazy understanding of God’s instructions, the azazel having sins transferred to it could easily blur into the azazel being blamed for sin because it was presumed to be inherently sinful, like a demon. Take note of the subtle difference, because the same thought pattern prevails today where the principles of God’s sacrificial system are not understood.

It is critical to remember that the azazel was a substitutionary sacrifice. It took the place of the nation so the people could be spared having to bear their own sins. The innocent goat became cursed when hands were laid on it, and the sins of the nation were confessed over it, and it was sent away. Its role was to become a symbol of sin and to bear the guilt of others, but it did not start out that way. It was a vile, shameful role, and we can rejoice that the Savior chose to become sin and become cursed so that we can enter God’s presence.

We have seen verses that directly match the wording of the role of the azazel in Leviticus 16, but if we broaden our search to synonyms and related themes, there is still more evidence of the Messiah’s fulfillment of that role:

  • Psalm 103:12 says that “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” This describes the same basic action as the sins being sent away, being borne away, being removed from the camp.
  • Regarding the record of our transgressions, Colossians 2:14 says that Jesus Christ “has taken them out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The Greek word for “taken” (airo; Strong’s #142) is the equivalent of the Hebrew word for “bear” (‘nasa; Strong’s #5375). This is the word used in Leviticus 16:22 (“The goat shall bear [‘nasa] on itself all their iniquities . . .”) and the Messianic prophecies (Isaiah 53:11-12). (Airo is translated as “bear” in Matthew 4:6; 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 4:11.)
  • In John 1:29, John the Baptist exclaims, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes [airo] away the sin of the world!”
  • I John 3:5 says that Jesus Christ “was manifested to take away [airo] our sins.”

There is nothing complicated or ambiguous about these verses. If we allow God’s Word to interpret itself, the identification falls into place quite readily. But any explanation of the azazel that does not allow Scripture to interpret itself leaves the interpreter blind to all these witnesses of Scripture the Most High God has provided of His Son. On the other hand, the Bible contains no record of sins being laid on Satan, or Satan bearing sins, which are the essential roles of the azazel, and the Messiah.

Notice also that there is a parallel with what happened during Christ’s ministry. When tradition and the opinions of men are held above the Word of God, His own people are blinded. Their expectations and their education cause their minds not to see the Messiah, even though, as He said, the Scriptures testify of Him. The same thing happens today when a foundation is laid using the traditions of carnal men and the opinions of scholars who are influenced by unreliable sources: Jesus Christ is kept out of the picture, and instead the great Counterfeiter becomes the focus of the most solemn day of the year.

To summarize: If you begin your study with material other than the Word of God, you will end up with one conclusion. But if you focus just on what is in God’s word, and finding witnesses there, you will come to a very different conclusion. That should tell you something. So, the next time you read or you hear that azazel is the name of a demon, just ask yourself what the authority is for that. The person may not know the source himself, but it certainly is not the Bible.

In the next sermon, God-willing, we will examine the overall ceremony within Leviticus 16, because there are key features that are often overlooked. In particular, we will see why two goats were used. We will see that the first goat being “for the LORD” does not mean what it is assumed to mean. I will give you a hint: the phrase “for the LORD,” as it is used in Scripture, does not have anything to do with representation. And finally, we will follow the various beginnings we considered through to their endings, to the proposed fulfillments, so we can have a complete picture.