In Leviticus 16, the word Azazel is used four times. In fact, Azazel is only used four times in the entire Bible, all in Leviticus 16. This wouldn’t be too big a deal, except that this chapter describes the ritual process surrounding the Day of Atonement. Yes, that Day of Atonement, the one that Jesus ultimately fulfills once and for all on the cross.
On the Day of Atonement, two goats are selected. The high priest casts lots and one goat is set aside for the Lord, and the other goat is set aside for Azazel. Huh? Who or what is Azazel?
It turns out that there are three or four major options. The first option takes the original Hebrew word and breaks it up into parts, one part meaning “goat” or “goats,” and the other part meaning “to go away.” This is where the idea of scapegoat comes from, the Goat that Went Away. The second major option is that Azazel is the proper name for a demon of the wilderness, maybe even the Devil himself. Apparently, an increasing number of scholars today are leaning toward the second option, which is why the ESV Bible renders the proper noun Azazel rather than using the generic word scapegoat as the NASB or KJV does.
This brings to light one of the most difficult things I have faced as I have gone through the last six years of theological education, namely, the Bible often seems to create more questions than it answers. Most certainly, the Bible asks more questions than the average church attendee wants to think it does. The Bible is not a bunch of pithy sayings used to comfort people or bang people over the head with. It is the written word, the revelation of the Living God, who is infinite, and therefore infinitely complex.
I am not advocating some pomo idea that the Bible can hold contradictory truths and that be OK. Instead, I am recognizing that we look through a glass darkly and there is much we don’t understand. God is infinite and explodes all the boxes we try to put him in. His Bible, his word is the same way. It reveals an infinite God and exposes a bunch of questions along the way.
So, what to do? How do we handle all these questions? Some days I attack them with relish, believing wholeheartedly what my friend loves to say, “Apparent contradictions are theological goldmines.” Other days, I can waver in my faith and wonder how there can be so many disparate views and understandings of the same passage.
It is at those times that I have to stop and center myself on the truths in the Bible that are rock solid, the truths that are the core of my faith and are so solid no question can assail their walls.
Paul understood the crux of this when wrote to the Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” A few paragraphs later he added the oft quoted, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
The core reality that I hold on to is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no other truth like this truth. There is no other defining reality that separates the sheep from the goats like this reality. There is no other historical event upon which belief determines the eternal destiny of souls. That Jesus Christ be raised is the defining moment in history upon which everything balances.
So, while I still question Azazel, I remember that my faith is not dependent on who or what that term refers to. I can worship a God who is complex and deep, whose words are wrought with layers of meaning, and rejoice in both the complexity and the simplicity of who he is.