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Goat Demons and the Power of Chaos

July 16, 2008

I was recently reading “A Note on the Azazel-goat Ritual” by Dominic Rudman (ZAW 116. Bd., S. 396–401; available here). The article has an interesting discussion of biblical understandings of mythic geography — the ways that biblical writers conceptualize the center vs. the periphery, linking the periphery with chaos not simply in a political and spiritual sense but in a cultic sense as well.

Deserts, wilderness areas, and ruins, precisely because they are uninhabited (and/or uninhabitable to most animal life), are understood as being places of non-creation, or of uncreation …. That is to say, deserts and wildernesses are viewed as chaotic areas. One could imagine them as places which God’s creative power has failed to penetrate. (399)

However, Rudman overstates his chaos on the rational of the scapegoat’s exile. He wants to link the scapegoat rite in Lev 16 to the desert as place of chaos.

In Leviticus 16, the purpose of the goat designated as being »for Azazel« is to bear »all the iniquity of the Israelites, all their rebellion, and all their sin« ( את כל עונת בני ישראל ואת כל פשעיהם לכל חטאתם) . In doing so, chaos in all its forms is removed from Israel. (398-99)

This understanding is predicated upon an equivalence between “chaos” and sin. However, we’re not even sure from the text that the scapegoat rite is to be equated with the previous purification of the adytum, let alone that this sin and rebellion can be chalked up to the forces of chaos.

It feels to Augustinian to define “sin” as the uncreative powers of chaos. The priestly writers (PT and HS) seem more concerned with purity and sin than with the uncreative powers of chaos. The mention of “rebellion” in 16:21 might find a link with the rebellion of chaotic forces (a la Enuma Elish), but I’m not convinced (cf. my earlier thoughts on the Enuma Elish).

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