Appears only in the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16. Two goats were designated by lot (16.8), one for the Lord and one for Azazel, perhaps the name of a demon. The Lord's goat became a sacrificial sin‐offering, while the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness after Aaron placed his hands on it and confessed the people's sins (16.21). The latter verse uses three words for sin, but does not mention impurity (unlike 16.16). Thus, the scapegoat ritual is for sins alone, and reveals the sacrificial cult's inability to achieve complete atonement by itself.

Some scholars suspect that the scapegoat was added to the chapter; if so, it has been well integrated into the text. In 16.17, Aaron makes atonement “for the assembly of Israel,” making the scapegoat seem unnecessary. Yet it was necessary: this involves the riddance of something profoundly unwanted. The sin offering could not carry the sins away like the scapegoat. The magical Azazel ritual assured that the sins were sent away.

The Septuagint rendered Azazel as “sending away.” In the Ethiopic book of Enoch, Azazel is a fallen angel. The Midrash and many modern commentators see Azazel as the demon to whom the scapegoat was sent. In the Mishnah, the practice was to throw the scapegoat over a cliff; the rabbis derived from this an etymology, accepted by some (NEB: Azazel = “precipice”). Scholars have proposed other etymologies, but the origin and meaning of Azazel remain uncertain.

Philip Stern