There’s a Devil in the Details of the Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16, is a central element of the Jewish faith, even though it is not practiced today as it was in ancient times. Although many Christians have heard of the day, most would be startled to learn that a sinister figure lurks in the shadows of Leviticus 16.

The Day of Atonement ritual required a ram, a bull, and two goats (Lev 16:3–5). The ram was for a burnt offering intended to please God (Lev 16:3–4). The bull, taken “from the herd,” served as a sin offering for Aaron, the high priest, and his family. In this case, the sin offering restored the priest to ritual purity, allowing him to occupy sacred space and be near God’s presence. Curiously, two goats taken “from the congregation” were needed for the single sin offering for the people (Lev 16:5). Elsewhere the sin offering involved only one animal (e.g., Lev 4:1–12). So why two goats?

The high priest would cast lots over the two goats, with one chosen as a sacrifice “for the Lord” (Lev 16:8). The blood of that goat would purify the people. The second goat was not sacrificed or designated “for the Lord.” On the contrary, this goat—the one that symbolically carried the sins away from the camp of Israel into the wilderness—was “for Azazel” (Lev 16:8–10).

What—or who—is Azazel?

The Hebrew term azazel (עזאזל) occurs four times in Leviticus 16 but nowhere else in the Bible. Many translations prefer to translate the term as a phrase, “the goat that goes away,” which is the same idea conveyed in the King James Version’s “scapegoat.” Other translations treat the word as a name: Azazel. The “scapegoat” option is possible, but since the phrase “for Azazel” parallels the phrase “for Yahweh” (“for the Lord”), the wording suggests that two divine figures are being contrasted by the two goats.

A strong case can be made for translating the term as the name Azazel. Ancient Jewish texts show that Azazel was understood as a demonic figure associated with the wilderness. The Mishnah (ca. ad 200; Yoma 6:6) records that the goat for Azazel was led to a cliff and pushed over, ensuring it would die and not return. This association of the wilderness with evil is also evident in the New Testament, as this was where Jesus met the devil (Matt 4:1). Also, in Leviticus 17:1–7 we learn that some Israelites had been accustomed to sacrificing offerings to “goat demons.” The Day of Atonement replaced this illegitimate practice.

The second goat was not sent into the wilderness as a sacrifice to a foreign god or demon. The act of sending the live goat out into the wilderness, which was unholy ground, was to send the sins of the people where they belonged—to the demonic domain. With one goat sacrificed to bring purification and access to God and one goat sent to carry the people’s sins to the demonic domain, this annual ritual reinforced the identity of the true God and His mercy and holiness.

When Jesus dies on the cross for all of humanity’s sins, he is crucified outside the city, paralleling the sins of the people being cast to the wilderness via the goat to Azazel. Jesus dies once for all sinners, negating the need for this ritual.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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  • I was taught & I believe both goats are symbolic of Messiah and what Messiah did for us. He took our sins & shed his blood. He is our Atonement. The Day of Atonement like the other Holidays and feast are a foreshadow of the work of Messiah.
    Thank you for your article.

  • Is there anything that suggests a demon possessed the goat like when Jesus sent Legion into the pigs?

  • If we look at Hebrews chapters 8-10, we can see The Specific Atonement Activities JESUS finished in Heaven. The far away place is Heaven and The Living Goat might better represent JESUS. Thus HE is the finished sacrifice and all the animal types represent HIM – including both goats. HE is The One upon which all our sins, transgressions and iniquities are laid and carried away.

    The patterns and similarities between the Spring Festivals and The Fall Festivals are remarkable, and yet the differences point to things too big for me to understand. Much has been written and it seems I too will ‘understand it better bye and bye.’

  • Dr. Heiser is it possible that the cliff was not a symbolic statement of sending the sins back to the demonic realm but in fact the actual physical, geographical location of where Azazel is in chains under the earth, as stated by both Peter and Jude? Just as there are burial markers and monuments to patriarchs is it possible that the priests had records, books or maps showing or telling where the watchers were imprisoned in the earth?
    Also if there were other watchers involved with the sins committed against humanity, was Azazel responsible and held accountable for leading the watchers in this sin?
    Why did the priests send the goat over the cliff to Azazel, sending the “sins” back to where they came from, If Paul shows in Romans that sin came into this world by one man and by sin, death?
    Didn’t Adam sin before the watchers came down in Genesis 6? Paul does not say that sin came into this world by a watcher. Jesus died for man’s sin. There were two goats, is it possible that one goat was for man and the other for the watchers that were not held accountable?

  • What is great to know is, that Jesus finished the price or cost for my atonement and that one day he is coming again to take me unto himself that where he is, there is where I will be also and, not only me, but all who believe and have placed their faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. Whether we understand the full scope of the two Goat/scape goat doctrine or not, we know Jesus is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the World, and he is our Lord And Savior. If ye believe not that I am He, Ye shall all die in your sins. Believe me for the very works sake if for no other reason. What Jesus has done in his life and in his ministry would be enough for me to believe if for no other reason He died that I might live eternally with him in Glory and reign with him in the Millenium. He is My Savior. My God and My Lord…He is my life Colossians 3:4;Hebrews 2:8-18; Acts10:34-43 and many other I know tell who He is and what He did for you and for me, forever and ever….Amen!

  • Jimmey thank you for stating what is really important. Not only from the comments preceding yours but throughout my life I have not come across a definitive view on Azazel and his destination. Why engage in “doubtful disputations” Romans 14:1 or “endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith” 1Timothy 1:4 rather than real meaning of the death of the Lord Jesus.Clearly the Day of Atonement foreshadows the work of my Saviour for which I shall be eternally grateful. Let us rejoice in the indisputable words of Psalm 103:12 “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us”

  • Great article!!! Thanks for sharing. I love your books and have most of them. I did a short pulpit series using cited information from The Unseen Realm a while back and got a lot of inquires about your book. Good stuff….

  • I want to thank you for touching on this subject, most people I talk to won’t think the 2nd was for the devil, so I thank you!!
    However, we can not let Yahusha replace the Devil’s role in this!
    Rev. 20 speak of this;

    20 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended.

    The New International Version. (2011). (Re 20:1–3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

    I think the 2nd goat is returning the sins to the sender.

    Zechariah 3 also speaks of the final Day of Atonement; It is not talking about Joshua in the OT times but prophesying about Yahusha. His clothes are filthy because of our sin! !

    Clean Garments for the High Priest
    3 Then he showed me Joshua u the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan v standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
    3 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”
    Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”
    5 Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by.
    6 The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: 7 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in obedience to me and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.
    8 “ ‘Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. 9 See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes l on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.
    10 “ ‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”

    The New International Version. (2011). (Zec 3:1–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

    When Yahusha died on the tree, He fulfilled the sacrifice for YHWH, the Day of Atonement will not be fulfilled until Rev. 20 is fulfilled!

Written by Michael S. Heiser