Question: "What is the meaning of Azazel / the scapegoat?"
Answer: “Azazel” or “the scapegoat” is mentioned in Leviticus 16 as part of God’s instructions to the Israelites regarding the Day of Atonement. On this day, the high priest would first offer a sacrifice for his sins and those of his household; then he would perform sacrifices for the nation. “From the Israelite community [the high priest was instructed] to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering” (v. 5). The priest brought the animals before the Lord and cast lots between the two goats – one to be a sacrifice and the other to be the scapegoat. The first goat was slaughtered for the sins of the people and its blood used to cleanse the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar (v. 20). After the cleansing, the live goat was brought to the high priest. Laying his hands on the scapegoat, the high priest was to “confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness” (vv. 21-22). Symbolically, the scapegoat took on the sins of the Israelites and removed them (v. 10). For Christians, this is a foreshadowing of Christ.
Christ is the complete atonement for our sins. In many ways, He embodies each aspect of the Day of Atonement. We are told that He is our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). He is also the “Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) as a sacrifice for our sins. And He is our scapegoat. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Our sins were laid on Christ – He bore our sins just as the scapegoat bore the sins of the Israelites. Isaiah 53:6 prophesies Christ’s acceptance of the sin burden: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” After the sins were laid on the scapegoat, it was considered unclean and driven into the wilderness. In essence, the goat was cast out. The same happened to Jesus. He was crucified outside of the city. “He was despised and rejected by men … He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:3a, 12). Jesus embodied what the scapegoat represented – the removal of sins from the perpetrators.
Truly, the Old Testament rituals carry a depth and richness that only God could create. The Day of Atonement foreshadowed the ultimate atonement Christ provides. No longer do we need to sacrifice animals to cover our sins, nor do we need to impute our sins to a scapegoat to have them carried away. Jesus has been sacrificed and “scapegoated” for us. Our sins have been atoned for and removed. “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves,” we are told in Hebrews 10:1. “For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. … Those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. … We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:3-4, 10).
As a side note, the name “Azazel” shows up in some Jewish mythology. While there are different versions in the Book of Enoch, the Book of the Giants, and other pseudepigraphal books, the story is essentially that Azazel was the name of one of the fallen angels who sinned in Genesis chapter 6. As a curse on his sin, Azazel was forced to take the form of a goat-like demon. This myth is not recorded in the Bible. Regardless of the identity of Azazel, the Bible emphasizes the sufficiency and completeness of Christ’s sacrifice both to remove our sin and to reconcile us to God.