Friday, May 04, 2012

What is Azazel? And how did our conception of him develop

I blogged extensively about Azazel in 2009. Everything you ever wanted to know about the famous goat demon is here

My current theory is that Azazel developed as follows:

At first, in the mists of prehistory Jews, or proto-Jews believed some desert demon, connected somehow, or for some reason, to the goats that lived there, that needed to be appeased. So they sent him a goat offering. [Possible reasoning: The spiritual lord of that region loves goats. That's why there are so many out there. We shall appease him by sending him another of his favorite things. Also: The desert region is devoid of life, dangerous and inhospitable. The lord of that region must like that environment, and, being a lord, of course he wishes to conquer more land and cause the same desolation here, where we live,  in the habitable areas. Two things hold him at bay: The lord of our region, praise be His name, and the presents we send out to the desert.]

This is picked up both in the name of the ritual (an obvious pun on goat) and some of the language used in Leviticus (the command is to let the goat lose in the wilderness; nothing is said about tossing it off a cliff.) Also, the goat is designated l'azazal, in opposition to the second goat which is designated l'hashem. (The prefix clearly suggests these are parallel offerings.)

As monotheism developed the idea of worshiping the desert demon became untenable, but because the ritual was so deeply entrenched it had to be transformed. So the goat was killed, rather then set free (to show that its not a gift or offering.)

Later, at various stages, midrashim were developed to further explain or interpret the ritual. These midrashim do not agree with each other (in one, the goat is an offering to Samaael, God's Head of Evil; in another two fallen angles receive the gift as an atonement for immorality) In time, even this idea of offering a gift to God's servants became unacceptable, so the interpretations were developed further to exclude even that (See, eg, the Ramban or the Avi Ezer and his brilliant associations of the Azazel ritual with the whole fraught, highly symbolic* relationship between Yaakov and Esev)

* Of course, the relationship in its original conception was not highly symbolic of anything. Over time, however, it came to represent all sorts of things, and Avi Ezer cleverly connects those interpretations with his own 18th century (and therefore mystically charged) understanding of Azazel.

Everything you ever wanted to know about him is here

Search for more information about how ideas change and develop over time

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