Yom Kippur and the Gerasene Exorcism

by Doug Ward

For a high priest in ancient Israel, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew) was the most important occasion of the year. On that day he performed rituals that led to the removal of sin and impurity from the tabernacle or temple.


In one of those rituals, the high priest laid his hands on the head of a goat selected by lot from two candidates and confessed over it the sins of the Israelites. The goat was then led away to a remote area to symbolize the removal of those sins from Israel (Lev 16:21-22). This ritual reminds us of what David said in praise of God's mercy in Ps 103:12: "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us."


In Jewish tradition the goat came to be identified with the sins that it carried. When the ritual was conducted in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, people would spit on the goat or pull on its hair as it was being led out of the city, and some would shout, "Bear our sins and be gone!" Measures were taken to ensure that the goat did not come back, so that those sins did not return. After the goat was led to "the wilderness," a location five Sabbath days' journey outside the city, it was pushed backward over a cliff and fell to its death in a ravine below.1


By the time of Jesus the goat and the ritual were also associated with the future judgment of spiritual forces of evil. When lots were cast for the two goat candidates on Yom Kippur, one lot was said to be "for the Lord" and the other "for Azazel" (Lev 16:8). The Hebrew word azazel appears in the Bible only in Lev 16, and its meaning is uncertain. Anciently the word was often interpreted as a proper name denoting an entity who is being contrasted with God. In this reading Azazel is the devil or a demon, and the ritual assigns to Azazel ultimate responsibility for sin that it brought into the world.


In the apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period, a prominent fallen angel named Azazel (or its variant Asael) appears in several works, including 1 Enoch, the Book of Giants, and the Apocalypse of Abraham.2 Of particular interest is 1 Enoch 6-11, a section of 1 Enoch believed to date from the second century BC. In this story, which takes Gen 6:1-4 as its point of departure, a group of two hundred rebellious angels called the Watchers decides to come to earth and have children with human women. Eighteen leaders of this group are listed in 1 Enoch 6, including one named Asael/Azazel.


The Watchers wreak havoc on earth, fathering malicious giants (Chap 7) and showing people how to make war (Chap 8). As the world becomes increasingly chaotic, God sends archangels to warn Noah about a coming deluge and restrain the activities of Azazel:


"And again the Lord said to Raphael: `Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgement he shall be cast into the fire. And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted.... And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin' " (1 Enoch 10:4-9).


We can see Lev 16 in the background of this excerpt from 1 Enoch. Azazel bears the sins of the Watchers as the goat in the Yom Kippur ritual carries the sins of Israel. (Notice the phrase "to him ascribe all sin.") Moreover, like the goat, Azazel is taken to a rocky desert place and not allowed to return.


Keeping Lev 16 and 1 Enoch in mind, let us now consider the accounts in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39 of Jesus' healing of a demon-possessed man on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the village of Gerasa. We can quickly notice a correspondence between the Yom Kippur ritual, where a goat carries the sins of Israel into the wilderness and is sent off a cliff; and the Gerasene exorcism, where a herd of pigs carries a legion of demons down a steep precipice into the Sea of Galilee.


There are some additional parallels in the details of these passages. In Lev 16 the people "afflict their souls" through fasting and self-denial (v. 29). The community is spiritually cleansed on Yom Kippur (v. 30) and prepared to continue its mission as a light to the world. Before the exorcism the demon-possessed man afflicts himself by cutting himself (Mark 5:5). When the demons are cast out he is restored to health and proclaims to his people what Jesus has done for him (vv. 15-20). The presence of the herd of pigs signals that the man is not a Jew, and his witness is a first step in announcing the Gospel to the nations.


On Yom Kippur the goat was subject to verbal and physical abuse as it was led out of Jerusalem. In Mark 5:7-8 the demons feel tormented when Jesus commands them to leave the man. In Luke 8:31 they beg Jesus not to be sent "into the abyss," like the "abyss of fire" where Azazel and the Watchers will be tormented forever (1 Enoch 10:13-14). The demons in Mark 5 and Luke 8 exhibit the same kind of fear and trembling as Azazel and the Watchers do in 1 Enoch 13.


In the Bible the sea, like the wilderness, symbolizes chaos and the territories over which God has not yet moved to exert complete authority. Significantly, Jesus takes control over the waves of the Sea of Galilee shortly before the exorcism (Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25).


Scholars have noted additional symbolism in the fact that Legion is cast into pigs. There was a Roman legion, the Legio X Fretensis, which carried the standard of a boar. The death of the pigs can be seen as a hint that judgment is coming for the kingdoms of this world (Rev 11:15).3


The accounts of the Gerasene exorcism give a powerful announcement that through Jesus, Satan's kingdom is thrown down as the Kingdom of God breaks into the world, bringing healing to the nations. The final judgment of evil supernatural powers and their human servants has begun. When we understand the connections between the exorcism and the rituals of Lev 16, this announcement is magnified and brought into sharper focus.


1These traditions are described in the Mishnah in tractate Yoma, chapter 6.


2See for example The Symbolism of the Azazel Goat by Ralph D. Levy, Christian Universities Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1999, pp. 39-51.


3See Hans M. Moscicke, "The Gerasene Exorcism and Jesus' Eschatological Expulsion of Cosmic Powers: Echoes of Second Temple Scapegoat Traditions in Mark 5.1-20," Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 41, no. 3, 2019, pp. 363-383.

Issue 35


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