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Post Yom Kippur and Scapegoats; from Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 10/08/19 9:07 AM

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Yom Kippur and Scapegoats; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 10/08/19 9:07 am)

Gary Moore writes:

JE has asked, in a sense, why I don't think William Tyndale (burned at the stake in 1536) should be blamed for giving us the word "scapegoat" through his mis-translation of the Bible.

Angering a then-beleaguered Church by producing the first Bible in English that worked directly from the old texts, Tyndale's 1530 translation also left a less-understood byproduct--which fits with this Tuesday, the beginning of the Yom Kippur holy day.

This is because Tyndale's translation rendered Leviticus 16:8 as "one lotte for the Lorde, and another for a scapegoote." Trials notwithstanding, the result came down to the King James Version in 1611 as: "one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat." "Scape" was then a familiar short form of "escape," but Tyndale pulled his "escape-goat" from the Hebrew word לַעֲזָאזֵֽל --which doesn't say "goat" at all.

The ages have agonized about what that Hebrew word really does say --this lone place in all the Bible that speaks of לַעֲזָאזֵֽל (la-‘ă-zā-zêl, or Azazel). But the link to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is clear. To expiate the collective sins of Israel, the passage says, two goats were picked, but only one was sacrificed, hence the drawing of lots. The goat that drew the luckier lot was not ritually slain, but was led out into the wilderness to roam free, carrying Israel's sins with it.

In ritual newer than Leviticus, the practice evolved into throwing the second goat off a cliff, less luckily. But in the Old Testament the goat definitely escapes ("let him goo fre in to the wildernesse") (or as the KJV puts it:" let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness").

Tyndale seems not to be to blame here, though, because the Church's own Vulgate had long been translating לַעֲזָאזֵֽל (the mystery word Azazel) as "caper emissarius"--Latin for "emissary goat." Yet in some modern translations this disappears, and, cryptically, we get the word itself, "Azazel." (English Standard Version: "one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.") It's thrown in with the English text amid a discreet lack of explanation.

To make a long story short, Leviticus never directly says (though the apocryphal Book of Enoch did) that Azazel is an evil spirit. He roams the wilderness, out on the fringes of the known, in this case waiting to receive his goat. The passage balances his name against Yahweh's as the two receivers. For over a millennium of Christian translations--from not only Tyndale but the Church that urged his burning, and from Martin Luther, no papist--there were intricate contortions over the original telegraphic Hebrew symbols, in order to avoid an iceberg's tip that winks up from the goat. Here was an affront to the bedrock pride of a great universe of Mosaic legacy--not only Jewish and Christian, but Islamic as well--in that it re-interprets the idea of monotheism.

As with the djinni of fiercely monotheistic Islam, and the droves of demons roaming from medieval Catholicism to modern Evangelism and Mormonism, the pesky spoiler Azazel could be read as implying that monotheism, in this universe, is not exactly the apical climax of civilized abstraction by philosophers that we may have thought, but, in a universe still noisily crowded with invisible hobbits, could be looked at as more of a way to say which one of them is boss.

JE comments: An awesome reflection, and most timely for Yom Kippur. A little atonement never hurt anyone, but this animal-lover asks in earnestness: why must goats pay the price? Animal cruelty of all stripes really gets my goat.

I hope our Hebrew and Old Testament scholar Ed Jajko will comment. A side question: what is the proper greeting for Yom Kippur? Certainly not "happy Yom Kippur..."

Gary Moore is scratching the surface of a deep theological question: are the so-called Monotheistic religions genuinely "mono"? I vote no, and cite as another example the pantheon of Christian saints.


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  • Yom Kippur 1982 (Edward Jajko, USA 10/09/19 9:51 AM)
    I'll send a more detailed response to Gary Moore's posting on Yom Kippur and the scapegoat, from which I learned a lot, sometime later when I have a chance, but for now I will note only that for this practicing Roman Catholic, Yom Kippur is a day I sort of keep in my heart.

    It was on Yom Kippur, Monday, September 27, 1982, that I had my job interview at the Hoover Institution Library. A successful day.


    JE comments: Extremely successful, I'd say, Ed. For if you hadn't come to Hoover, you wouldn't have met Ronald Hilton, and may never have become a citizen of WAISworld.


    And I'm on pins and needles for your comment on scapegoats.  Did Gary Moore and I get the Hebrew right?  I was editing on faith alone.

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