My own non-scholarly hunch is that this ritual was based upon the earlier, and well-known practices of idol worshipers who had their own scapegoat rituals. Given the evidence of parallel practices, this solution seems unavoidable (5) Though the word Azazel was originally the name of a demon, over time it evolved, becoming the name of a cliff. Such evolution has continued, and today the word "Azazel" means "hell" in modern Hebrew.
(1) The difficulty with Rashi's explanation, is that Leviticus says that the lot placed on the goat was to read "l'Azazel." In Hebrew, the letter lamed is a prefix of possession. It means the goat belonged to Azazel.
(2) Rashbam is reading like a Karaite. Pharisee priests sent the goat to be killed, not to some goat retirement home. (Interestingly enough, the Jerusalem Talmud says Sadducee priests conveniently lost the goat.)
(3) Those who follow Rambam reject the possibility that evil powers or demons exist, though Ramban did think they were real but subordinate to "torah" powers. Ibn Ezra sided with the Rambam on this question making his position puzzling, unless he means to suggest that the offering to "Azazel" was intended as a remedy and an atonement for any previous demon worshiping on the part of the Jewish people.
(4) Robert Alter is a kofer.
(5) Why would God give us a ritual based on the practices of other people? For that matter, why did he command us to build a long room tripartite temple in imitation of many other Mesopotamian cults? There's an easy answer here, of course, and one that I am avoiding in favor of a more appealing possibility: The value of a ritual is not the effect it has on the cosmos, but the effect it has on the person who performs it. The Azazel ritual had meaning only to people who recognized it from the surrounding cultures. Had it not been based on something familiar, the rite would have been less significant to the people bidden to perform it.
- Is the Seder based on the Greek symposia?
- Josh Waxman explains Azazel
Search for more information about Azazal at 4torah.com.