Moulton Lava

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Some Thoughts on Yom Kippur

Speculations on some theological notions about scape-goating rituals.

Caprice

The Fantastic Flying Scape-Goat for Azazel


Inspiration comes at times from strange and unexpected sources.

One night few weeks ago, a handful of friends who occasionally get together for Bible Study were slated to talk about Baptism — the Christian sin-cleansing ritual that signifies acceptance of the tenets of the faith.

It turned out that none of the practicing Christians in the small group knew how the practice of Baptism arose and came to be a sacred ritual in their faith.

The sect of pre-Christians who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls were called Early Morning Baptisers because of their ritual morning baths. Even to this day, there are Jewish communities that have 'Mikvah' ritual baths. The Halachic Jewish Law spells out the formalities of the Mikvah Ritual Bath, as well as related rituals for washing the hands and the eating utensils to purify them for ceremonial occasions.

The High Priest (Kohen Gadol) took a prescribed ritual bath before beginning the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) ceremony to expiate the collective sins of the community (Lev. 16:4).

The Yom Kippur Ceremony of Leviticus 16 is no longer practiced in modern times, but it's inspiring, to say the least.

In that ceremony (which you can read about in Leviticus 16 or on any number of modern discussions on the Web), the High Priest selected by lot a pair of young, unblemished goats to bear the collective sins of the community. The Goat of Expiation was called the Goat for Azazel.

Of all the obscure terms in the Old or New Testament, none are quite so intriguing or controversial as this name: Azazel.

Scholars are divided on how to interpret the name. Some say it just means 'The Goat Departed' — the Goat Sent Away. In the first English translation (in 1530) of the Hebrew text of Leviticus, William Tyndale translated 'Azazel' as 'scapegoat' — the goat that was set free (escaped from ritual slaughter) in the wilderness.

Other scholars claim that 'Azazel' means 'rugged one of the Lord' or 'rocky ledge on high'. The latter interpretation of 'Azazel' as a place name corresponds to the practice of leading the Goat for Azazel up to a rocky bluff and pitching it over the precipice (in contravention of the original Halachic Law of Leviticus which specifies to simply set it free, alive in the desert).

And yet other scholars say that 'Azazel' was the name of an evil spirit who dwelled in the desert wilderness.

The reason for pitching the hapless goat over the side of a mountain is clear from apocryphal stories. On at least one occasion, the goat bearing the collective sins of the community wandered back into the camp a few days later (presumably still bearing the sins of the community). No doubt this unscripted event mortified the elders, who took pains to revise the ceremony to ensure that the goat would not depart from the ritual script. One can imagine the younger children were somewhat less mortified than the elders, and perhaps a few of them might have thought this departure from the standard script was a riot.

But I digress. The physically fit man (think of Arnold Schwarzenegger) who led the Goat for Azazel into the desert wilderness (and who eventually found he had to schlep the hapless critter all the way up to the high bluff to pitch it over the top) was obliged to launder his clothes and bathe his body before returning to camp (Lev. 16:26), so as to wash away any of the 'sinful contamination' of handling the Goat for Azazel. Clearly we have a Baptism Ritual emerging in concert with the Scapegoat Ritual for the Expiation of Sin.

These stories are not lost on Christian scholars, many of whom suggest this story (both the prescribed ritual and the misadventure of the Goat Who Returned) inspired the planned script of the Passion of Christ. Like the Scapegoat for Azazel who departed from the canonical script and returned to camp after a few days wandering in the desert, Jesus planned to return from the ritual sacrifice, too.

But wait. There's more.

Did the goat of the revised ritual ever survive and return to camp, bruised and stigmatized after being pitched over the side of the mountain? The apocryphal stories are less clear on this twist, but there is some evidence that such stories exist, if only in legend.

The Greek or Latin word for goat is 'capra' (as in Capricorn). But consider the word 'caprice' which has the same root. If you look up the etymology of 'caprice' you find something both curious and astounding. 'Caprice' literally means 'fantastic goat leap'.

Thus we get the inspiring character of Caprice the Fantastic Flying Scape-Goat for Azazel who survives the ordeal and comes back, Christlike, to the community.

Whether it ever actually happened that way in history is unclear. But inspiring stories don't have to be historically accurate to be inspiring.

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