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Did the Demons Fall or Just Get Traded?

May 7, 2011

I’m intrigued by Zoroastrianism. Not because I think it’s some hip alternative religion that I want to sign up for. Rather, I think it’s interesting because of the potential impact Zoroastrianism may have had on post-exilic Judaism and, by extension, Christianity.

Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persians. After defeating the Babylonians, the Persians allowed the Jews the freedom to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. Second Isaiah goes so far as to call Cyrus the Great the LORD’s “Messiah” (Isa. 45:1). Matthew would later depict magi, likely Zoroastrian astrologers, as attendees at Christ’s baby shower.  I don’t think it too large a stretch to assume that some segments of Judaism may have had a soft spot for their Persian liberators.

What’s interesting to me is the difference between pre-exilic Judaism and post-exilic Judaism. Many of the ideas that show up for the first time in 2nd Temple literature bear resemblance to aspects of Zoroastrian thought (eg. the resurrection of the dead, the apocalyptic destruction of evil, etc.). One has to be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that Judaism simply borrowed from Zoroastrianism. Our Zoroastrian sources are relatively late, so it’s not entirely clear what the religion looked like at the time of Persian rule. And of course one shouldn’t overlook the influence of Greek thought following years of Judean Hellenization. Nonetheless, there does appear to be a relationship of some sort between Zoroastrian thinking and some novel aspects of 2nd Temple Jewish thought.

At pages 187-189 of Thom Stark’s critique of Paul Copan, Stark has occasion to reproduce the entry for “demon” in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. The gist of the entry is that the exile brought about a shift in Jewish thinking from cosmic monism to cosmic dualism and that this shift is likely attributable to the influence of the thoroughly dualistic worldview of Zoroastrianism.

Pre-exilic Israelite religion, like its near eastern neighbors, was monistic in the sense that it “viewed the universe as a unified system in which each member, divine and human, had its proper domain and function above, upon, or below the earth.” There was no band of demons, led by Satan, fighting against God and seeking to undermine his purposes. Rather, God had at his disposal both benevolent spirits and spirits of calamity. The significant point is that the malevolent spirits were not fighting against God; they were doing God’s bidding.

This viewpoint is quite foreign to us, because we’re far more familiar with the dualistic worldview that emerged post-exile in which Satan and his demons are thought to be rebellious angels battling against God. But recognizing that this was not the way pre-exilic Israel thought helps to explain a number of passages that tend to bother us moderns. Among the examples cited by the Dictionary of Dieties entry are the following:

1 Samuel 16:14

Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him.

1 Kings 22:19-23

… I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.”

Exodus 12:23

For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.

I can’t help but think also of the portrait of Satan in the book of Job, where ha-Satan (“the Accuser” or “the Adversary”) appears in the heavenly council of Yahweh and gives a report of his activities. As a kid, I always imagined this as an incredibly tense scene in which God’s arch-nemesis boldly ventures into enemy territory. But this simply isn’t to be found in the text. As many biblical scholars have noted, the Adversary here is to be understood as part of God’s retinue – God’s prosecutor, if you will.

In the 2nd Temple period, this idea of dark powers acting at the behest of God begins to give way to the idea of evil forces struggling against God. The Dictionary of Deities explains Zoroastrian dualism and its influence on Judaism as follows:

This cosmology postulated two warring spiritual camps controlled by their leaders, the Zoroastrian God and Devil, and commanded by archangels and archdemons and their descending ranks of lesser spirits. They fought over the loyalty of humans, loyalty expressed in righteous or unrighteous behavior and eventuating in eternal life or fiery destruction. The old gods of the nations and their servant divinities, the lesser spirits of nature and cosmos, were ‘demonized,’ demoted to the class of wicked spirits, tempting humans to sin and enticing them from the true faith by the false doctrines of other religions. Eventually, however, there would be an End, a victory by God, a savior to bring the opposing powers to destruction, a Last Judgment, and a New Age. Circles within Judaism used this framework to revalue older myths and produced after the Exile the dualistic strains of Judaism visible in post-exilic and intertestamental literature and in Christianity.

[To read the entry in its entirety, click here for Stark’s review and scroll to page 187.]

In other words, once dualistic notions of a cosmic conflict between good and evil emerged, some within Judaism began to read their holy texts in this light. Satan, competing deities and other dark powers were reassigned to the evil camp. The notion of a “fall from heaven” emerged to explain (I assume) how this competing camp arose. Verses such as Isaiah 14:12, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!”, which was originally a prophecy against the king of Babylonian, were co-opted in support of the new narrative. By the time we get to the New Testament – take the book of Revelation, for example – the dualism is fully developed and Satan is “that ancient serpent” whom God will finally destroy.

All of this does leave me wondering. Did Satan and the demons really fall from heaven or did they just get traded to the new expansion team? Or is the need for personified evil a leftover bit of ancient thinking that we no longer need? Your thoughts?

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Phil Harland’s podcast episode devoted to the issue of Zoroastrianism and its potential impact on Judaism.

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10 comments

  1. After a long hiatus from bible-reading (a couple decades) I went back and read Job. All of a sudden, the Satan of Job sounded a lot less like the Great Evil and a lot more like the wily Coyote of Native American folk-tales. A trickster and deceitful prankster who doesn’t really care whether his jokes are at the expense of another, that just makes the trick even funnier, but not a Cosmic Enemy of God in the Eternal War for the Souls of Mankind.


    • There isn’t much mention of him in the early OT, so it’s hard to get a sense of exactly how he was understood. It would be interesting to know if other ancient near eastern religions had a similar accuser/adversary/Wile E. Coyote 😉 character in their divine councils. Any scholars out there?


  2. thanks for this – I learned a lot. Fascinating stuff – for all the talk Christians have about heaven and hell and Satan you’d think it’d be plain in the Bible – it’s anything but.


    • Yah, it’s one topic where the typical Western understanding is largely an extra-biblical construct.


  3. Reading Dante’s Satan into the OT (or even much of the NT) is perhaps a dangerous game. Especially if it seems that the ancient authors were not trying to describe that thing at all! Jesus’ metaphors about Satan are vague indeed and even St. Paul doesn’t provide a consistent description of what all these “evil powers” are up to or where they come from!

    I like what Girard has to say about Satan. http://www.amazon.com/See-Satan-Fall-Like-Lightning/dp/1570753199

    If violence/evil are in the perversion of memetic desire, then demons represent a kind of “fall” anyway, irrespective of the metaphor one uses to try and describe what they are.

    Personally, I find the Job play (piece of theatre) simply to offer an artistic exploration/snapshot of opinions.


  4. I’ve heard bits and pieces of this topic alluded to before, but this is the fist time I ever read a complete overview of the evolution of this theology. Very interesting.

    Thanks for posting it. I will certainly want to dig deeper. I’ve been listening to Phil Harland’s podcasts lately.


  5. Christ’s baby shower?!?!?! You’re killing me!!! So funny. I hadn’t heard of these Zoroastrians before – gonna have to look in to that. Thanks!


  6. Its interesting discussions like this that make your blog so attractive for return visits. Its also the tantalizing appearance of a reasonable, historical, rational approach to long held beliefs like those youre discussing here. But i cant help but walk away from each post further confused. Yes, valid observations on Zoroastrian effects on Jewish beliefs. Yes, modern dualism probably is a vestige of ancient belief systems from Persia. Josephus doesnt hide the Greek influence on Jeish afterlife theology either. But why do you come to see metaphor and vestigial shreds in ancient belief in the “dark” theology of demons/devils, and not arrive at a similar reflection of “light” theology? Why not notice the progressive development of divine theology from the stone age on and say it too is a vestige of ancient thought?



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