Jacob Milgrom discusses Azazel and elimination rites in the Ancient Near East; the Mesopotamian practice was informed, in part, by belief in the reality of demons.

Jacob Milgrom

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991), 1071-79

Jacob Milgrom
Reading Public

E. Azazel and Elimination Rites in the Ancient Near East

The antiquity and ubiquity of the Azazel rite are immediately apparent. Purgation and elimination rites go together in the ancient world. Exorcism of impurity is not enough (COMMENT C, above); and its power must be nullified. This was accomplished in one of three ways: curse, destruction, or banishment. The last mentioned, as the examples below will demonstrate, was used frequently: evil was banished to its place of origin (e.g., netherworld, wilderness) or to some place in which its malefic powers could work to benefit its sender (e.g., to enemy territory) or which it could do no harm at all (mountains, wilderness).

In the Mesopotamian world, the wilderness (ṣēru) is one of the symbolic designations o the netherworld. Moreover, ḫurbū (ḥurbātu)/namû (namūtu)/kīdi/tillanu/karmu, which usually denote “ruins/waste/desolation,” can also refer to the netherworld (Tallquist 1934: 17022). Demons were believed to come out of the netherworld through a hole in the ground (Tawil 1980: 48-50), for example, “As soon as the hero Nergal opened a hole in the netherworld, the ghost of Enbidu came forth from the netherworld, like a breath of wind” (Gilgamesh 12.78-80 [=83084]; cf. ANET3 98). Elimination rites are therefore employed to drive the demons from human habitations and back to the wilderness, which is another way of saying that the demons are driven back to their point of origin, the underworld, for instance, “May the spell go out (from the patient) and vanish in the wilderness; may it meet a strong ghost and may they roam the desolated places” (BRM 4.18.22-24, cited by Tawil 1980: 48-50). Thus, in Israel, the goat for Azazel bearing the sins of Israel, though it is bound for the wilderness, is in reality returning evil to its source, the netherworld.

In the Hittite world, evils are returned to enemy lands or to uninhabited mountain regions; the detergent materials are burned, dumped in the open country, or thrown into the river or seas. As in Mesopotamia, these places are connected with the underworld.

. . .

The foregoing examples of Mesopotamian elimination rites resemble the biblical scapegoat rite in that an object that is selected to draw the evil from the affected person is consequently disposed of. The differences between them are more significant: (1) In Mesopotamia, the evil removed by such rites is demonic and very real; in the Bible, while the impurity is real, it does not possess the vitality and independence of demonic evil. (2) There are no group transfer rites in Mesopotamia, the biblical scapegoat, in contrast, removes the sin of the entire nation. (3) The Mesopotamian rites seek the aid of the deities of the wilderness to accept the evils; in the Bible, the entire rite is done under the aegis of its one God. (4) The Bible rejects the idea of substitution, which presupposes demonic attack and the appeasement of threatening demons (see now Wright 1987: 60-74).

Citations in Mormonr Qnas
Copyright © B. H. Roberts Foundation
The B. H. Roberts Foundation is not owned by, operated by, or affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.