The Origin of Evil Spirits in Early Jewish Literature
The pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch, in particular the Book of Watchers, chapters 1–36, played a key role in the developing demonology in Early Judaism and eventually the NT. 1 Enoch is described as a Midrash of Genesis 6.1-4 in which the Sons of God have sexual relations with the daughters of humanity and giant offspring are born to them. As a result of the union, the author of 1 Enoch presents an origin of evil spirits which will be taken up with the ensuing literature of the 2TP[Second Temple period] and result in a full-blown demonology by the 1st c. C.E.
See Also: The Origin of Evil Spirits (Fortress Press; Revised edition, 2015).
By Archie T. Wright
The topic of evil spirits is one that is often approached with some skepticism by scholars and non-scholars alike. It is perhaps in part due to the bizarre and farfetched features that are granted the topic in the world of fiction novels and the “big screen”. Through the course of the history of biblical interpretation, it is clear that some, particularly in the modern era, have steered away from the topic due to the supernatural element involved with the alleged reality of these spiritual beings. As has been the case with other supernatural elements of the biblical text (e.g. the miracles of Jesus, the exorcisms performed by Jesus, or even the baptism of the Holy Spirit), many have refused to accept the historicity of the “demonic” events in the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament. However, in the biblical and post-biblical periods of Israel and the later world of early Christianity, it appears the topic of the “demonic” was one of grave concern to a majority of those who held to certain aspects of a Jewish or Jewish-Christian worldview.
In what follows, we will examine the origins of the concept of demonology and how it emerged or evolved from the texts of the Jews during the historical period known as the Second Temple period (ca. 5th c B.C.E. to 70 C.E; hereafter 2TP). It is the general consensus amongst biblical scholars that there is little in the way of the “Christian” concept of demons in the Jewish Scriptures (Hebrew Bible and Greek Septuaginta), but as we will see there are certainly hints at the beginnings of these spiritual beings in the biblical worldview of the people of Israel during the 2TP. We will attempt to follow to some degree a chronological approach, although this is certainly not a simple matter to determine as the dating of various biblical and extra-biblical texts which we will discuss is a matter of great debate in the academy. We will examine what are identified as Second Temple Period Jewish texts, or early Jewish literature, including texts identified as Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
One point of clarification before moving on. I will for the most part, when discussing the subject in light of the biblical and extra-biblical texts, use the phrase “evil spirit(s)” rather than the term “demon”. As will be seen in the discussion to follow, the term ‘demon’ carries with it a lot of baggage from the ancient world, which will be set out in the material below.
II. Origins of Demonology in the Ancient World
The origins of the word “demon” can be traced to the Greek term daimon – from the root word daio – “to divide destinies”. However, the concept of “demons” in the Greek worldview was quite different in relation to their role and function as is found in the Christian worldview of demonology. The Greek understanding suggests a “spirit that controls or guides one’s fate,” but the usage of the term varies from author to author. We also find it used for the “lesser deities”, those who function under the rule of Zeus of the Olympic Pantheon. There may be some correspondence between this view and that of the ‘sons of God’ in the Hebrew Bible cosmology. Greek usage since Homer understands daimon as a ‘divinity” of which typical examples can found in writings such as Homer’s Iliad 3.420 and Odyssey 3.27. In other Greek texts daimon was often identified as one of the offspring of the gods themselves.
Other Greek authors identify daimon as an “intermediary deity.” The most well-known of these beings is found in Plato’s, Symposium §202e, which contains the familiar story of Socrates’ demon who is his guide through life. This concept of a divine guide may be the source behind the popular idea of “guardian angels”. Plato also equates the term to “divine power” in his work the Republic §383e. Hesiod, a Greek author who lived sometime between 750 – 650 B.C.E., in his writing Works §122-24, describes the “souls of the Golden Age” as daimons who watch over humanity. We may find here a possible connection to the “Watcher Angels” of the Jewish pseudepigraphal text 1 Enoch, which we will discuss below.
In the world of the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Persia; hereafter ANE), the concept of demon underwent a fundamental change. This resulted in a transformation in the Jewish cosmology during the Exilic and post-Exilic periods which is primarily attributed to the emerging dualistic worldview that Jews encountered in Babylonia – possibly through Zoroastrianism. Within the monistic culture of ANE, there is no archenemy of God with a group of evil spirits who tempted humanity. However, many evil spirits/demons existed in the mythical literature of the ANE that took on many shapes. For example, we find in the myth of Atrahasis the description of a demon that stole babies for the gods to keep the population level low. In the 3rd c. B.C.E. Jewish document, Sirach 39.28-29, the author describes spirits created by YHWH to punish humanity: spirits of fire, hail, famine, and pestilence.
The authors of various texts in the HB identified evil spirits or demons in several instances. These creatures, often described in “hybrid” animal language, occupied the desert wilderness in Isaiah 34.14; here the author provides a list of the various types of spirits that existed on the fringes of civilization. Similarly in Psalm 91, we find a midday demon that may attack those who are unaware of the existence of evil spirits.
During the biblical period the gods of the nations were demonized by the Israelites as Judaism moved toward a monotheistic cosmology. These foreign gods had lesser spirits (minor gods that later would become identified as part of the angel hierarchy) serve them on the earth. Psalm 96.5 establishes daimon as the byword for pagan deities and eventually became identified with idols and the practice of idolatry. From this brief introduction you will have recognized that the origin of the concept of demon dated prior to the writing of the Jewish Scriptures. Evil spirits/demons likely took on their current malevolent character in an evolutionary process over centuries that was highly influenced by other cultures and the current events of the various authors’ day.
III. Evil Spirits in 2TP Jewish Literature
The pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch, in particular the Book of Watchers, chapters 1–36, played a key role in the developing demonology in Early Judaism and eventually the NT. 1 Enoch is described as a Midrash of Genesis 6.1-4 in which the Sons of God have sexual relations with the daughters of humanity and giant offspring are born to them. As a result of the union, the author of 1 Enoch presents an origin of evil spirits which will be taken up with the ensuing literature of the 2TP and result in a full-blown demonology by the 1st c. C.E.
There is some debate as to which story came first, Genesis 6 or 1 Enoch 6-11. Some scholars argue that the 1 Enoch text came first which would suggest that the tradition found in it concerning the ‘sons of God’ is much older than previously suspected; while at the same time it would suggest that the author of Genesis 6.1-4 has taken a much longer oral or possibly written tradition and shortened it considerably, suggesting that his audience was already familiar with the complex story told in 1 Enoch and the Book of Watchers.
A. The Fallen Watcher Tradition
Scholars have argued that the main purpose of 1 Enoch, among numerous other minor points, is to present the origins of evil spirits. The author goes about this task by describing the events of Genesis 6.1-4 along with the heavenly journey of the Patriarch Enoch based on the text of Gen. 5.24: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” What is interesting of the Hebrew of this text is that it states he walks with haelohim, “the elohim”. If one keeps in mind that elohim is also representative of angels, particularly with the definite article “the” as is the case here, one might read the passage as “Enoch walked with the angels, then he was no more, because God took him.” This would make sense as to how the authors of 1 Enoch have interpreted and rewritten the story to describe the heavenly journey of Enoch. It might also suggest that the readers of the Genesis passage were very much aware of the longer story involving Enoch’s heavenly journey and the author of Genesis 5.24 and 6:1-4 did not need to repeat it.
As mentioned, the Fallen Watcher Angels in 1 Enoch have sexual relations with human women and produce what are described as giant offspring. These offspring begin to literally eat the humans out of house and home. Once they have eaten all the food that humans produce, they turn on the humans and begin to devour them; it is then that the call goes up to heaven for God to deliver humanity from the giants. These giants are considered a hybrid offspring, they are part human and also part heavenly being (angel); although the percentage of division (e.g. 50/50) between the two is unclear. The result of the call to heaven by the oppressed humans brings about the destruction of the physical giants by the Archangels Raphael, Michael, Sariel, and Gabriel. The death of the ‘giants’ is brought about by the Flood event in Genesis, which, at the same time, cleanses the earth of the blood shed by the giants and also eliminates corrupt humanity. However, the hybrid spirits of the physical giants survive the flood and are identified in 1 Enoch, and other early Jewish texts, as evil spirits (or demons). The fathers of the giants, the Watcher angels, are locked in a deep pit identified as Tartarus and are bound there with chains and covered with rocks, thus the image you see in the movie “Noah” of the giant beings who seem to be assisting Noah in various aspects of the Flood episode. The Watchers will be held there until the Day of Judgment – there is no notion in 1 Enoch that the evil spirits are fallen angels, rather the spirits of the giant offspring become the evil spirits or demons of the age.
The evil spirits that would now pervade the earthly realm and bring affliction and persecution upon humanity are identified in 1 Enoch 15.8-12 as the ‘spirits of the giant offspring’ – the children of the ‘Sons of God” (bene haelohim) and the daughters of humanity.
And now, the giants, who are produced from the heavenly spirits [Watchers] and flesh [humans], will be called evil spirits upon the earth, and the earth will be their dwelling [place]. Evil spirits have proceeded from their bodies; because they are born from humanity and from the holy Watchers; this was their beginning and primal origin; they shall be evil spirits on earth, and evil spirits they will be called. As for the spirits of heaven, heaven shall be their dwelling place, but as for the spirits of the earth [the giants] which were born upon the earth, the earth will be their dwelling place. And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offences. And these spirits shall rise up against the children of men and against the women, because they have proceeded from them.
This last sentence may indicate a reason as to why the evil spirit seeks to possess a fleshly human body, as appears to be the case in the NT. As can be understood, the problem with the giant offspring is they are a hybrid being, a mix of human and angel. Because of this mixed nature, they can only exist in the earthly realm; they are not allowed to enter into the heavenly realms. The text describes the giants as violent; they cause destruction, attack humans, and cause illness amongst humanity. It appears form the Watcher Tradition that their only desire is to rise up against humanity. As we have seen, 1 Enoch serves as a foundation of the emerging demonology of 2TP Judaism. The traditions found in 1 Enoch are taken up by other authors of the period.
B. The Watcher Tradition in the Book of Jubilees
We will now turn our focus to the Watcher Tradition found in the Book of Jubilees. This second century B.C.E. Jewish work is classified by most scholars as “Rewritten Bible”; in other words, the author has taken the biblical narrative and expanded it or amended it for his theological purposes.
The Book of Jubilees offers an account of how Moses could have been the author of Genesis and other OT books. The story suggests that an angel or several angels were given the task by God to tell Moses the history of the Patriarchs and creation. It was in fact through an angel that God mediated the Sinai Law to Moses. The narrative of Jubilees retells the Book of Genesis and a portion of Exodus. The book offers a further expansion of the Fallen Watcher Tradition found in 1 Enoch. Our primary interest in the Jubilees account is the post-Flood narrative and how the evil spirits affected humanity and, in particular, Noah and his family. The Jubilees Watcher story is similar to the 1 Enoch account, but the author has included the Flood narrative from Genesis.
The author of Jubilees 7.21-22 offers three reasons for the Flood upon the earth. The passage reads
On account of these three things came the flood upon the earth, namely, owing to the fornication wherein the Watchers, against the law of their ordinances, went a whoring after the daughters of humanity, and took themselves wives of all which they chose: and they made the beginning of uncleanness. And they begat sons, the Naphidim, and they were all unlike, and they devoured one another: and the giants slew the Naphil, and the Naphil slew the Eljo, and the Eljo humanity, and one man another. And every one sold himself to work iniquity and to shed much blood, and the earth was filled with iniquity.
The three reasons are understood to be fornication, uncleanness, and iniquity. In Jubilees 7.27 we see the emergence of the evil spirits of the giants that begin to afflict humanity. The author writes, “For I see, behold the demons have begun (their) seductions against you and against your children, and now I fear on your behalf, that after my death you will shed the blood of men upon the earth, and that you, too, will be destroyed from the face of the earth.” In addition, we are told in chapter 10.1-13 of the post-Flood events concerning Noah and the spirits of the giants. The story depicts the evil spirits that came from the bodies of the giant offspring of the Watchers and human women as leading the grandchildren of Noah astray, causing them to depart the ways of God. These spirits are identified as demons in Jubilees 10.2: “And the sons of Noah came to Noah their father, and they told him about the demons which were leading astray and blinding and slaying his grandchildren.” In response, Noah prays a prayer of pleading, asking that the spirits be arrested. He asks they be shut up in the Pit with their fathers the Fallen Watchers. God agrees and, in the process of telling the archangels to do bind up the spirits of the giants, the figure Mastema intercedes. In Jubilees 10.7, Mastema pleads with God that some of the spirits might be left with him to help him in his task to afflict and test humankind. The author states,
And the Lord our God instructed us [the archangels] to bind all the demons. But the chief of the spirits, Mastema, came and said: ‘Lord, Creator, let some of them [the spirits] remain before me, and let them obey me, that they will do all that I will say to them; for if some of them are not left to me, I shall not be able to execute the power of my will on humanity; for these are for corruption and the leading astray of humanity before my judgment, for great is the wickedness of humanity.
This passage suggests the notion as to why the “satan” figure continues to accuse and oppress humanity – because of the wickedness of the people. In Jubilees 10.11, the figure Mastema is identified as the “satan”, but he is not the “Satan” of the Christian tradition. The Archangels tell us, “And we did according to all his [God’s] words: all the malignant evil ones we bound in the place of condemnation, and a tenth part of them we left that they might be subject to satan on the earth.”
In Jubilees 11.4-5, the author reveals Mastema’s role in idol worship in Ur, which resulted in the emergence of ‘cruel spirits’. He states:
And they made for themselves molten images, and they worshipped the idols, the molten image which they had made for themselves, and they began to make graven and unclean images, and malignant spirits assisted and seduced (them) into committing transgression and uncleanness. And the prince Mastema exerted himself to do all this, and he sent forth other spirits, those which were put under his hand, to do all manner of wrong and sin, and all manner of transgression, to corrupt and destroy, and to shed blood upon the earth.
We find here similar wording as is written in 1 Enoch 10.8 in which the spirits of the giants commit comparable acts upon humanity. As we move through the 2TP, we find further developments of demonology in the Jewish cosmology in Palestine in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We now turn attention to the relevant texts first discovered on the shores of the Dead Sea in 1948.
C. The Demonology of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scroll (hereafter, DSS) collection attests to a heightened awareness of the role of evil spirits in 2TP in particular amongst the sectarian Essene group. The Scrolls in question primarily date from the 2nd c. B.C.E. through the 1st c. C.E. Demons are identified as spirits throughout the various fragmentary texts found at Qumran, see for example, 1QS 3.18-19, 25; CD 12.2-3; 1QH 3.21-23; 11.13; 1QM 13.2, 11-12; 14.10; 4Q403 1 i 35. (Translations for these texts can be found online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/gopher/other/courses/rels/225/Texts or in various English translation volumes.) However, it is perhaps misleading to continue to use the term ‘demon’ in this case as this term is rarely used at Qumran, but rather evil, unclean, or wicked spirit is the preferred terminology used by the various authors. As we will discover the demonology of the DSS shapes aspects of cosmology in the 1st c. C.E. and more specifically in the early Christian worldview.
The demonology of the DSS is focused on the conflict between the so-called ‘Sons of Light’ and the ‘Sons of Darkness’ (terminology later used by Jesus in Luke 16:8). This ongoing conflict is widely understood as an ethical dualism and results in the battle of good and evil in the cosmos and amongst humanity. This is true of the demonology of most cultures or religions in the ancient world. Various names exist in the Scrolls for the evil beings that interact with humans, but are not necessarily opposed to God. The Community Rule mentions one of the spirits that operates with Mastema/Belial. In 1QS 4:9-14, the author writes
The operations of the spirit of falsehood result in greed, neglect of righteous deeds, wickedness, lying, pride and haughtiness, cruel deceit and fraud, massive hypocrisy, a want of self-control and abundant foolishness, a zeal for arrogance, abominable deeds fashioned by whorish desire, lechery in its filthy manifestation, a reviling tongue, blind eyes, deaf ears, stiff neck, and hard heart—to the end of walking in all the ways of darkness and evil cunning. The judgment of all who walk in such ways will be multiple afflictions at the hand of all the angels of perdition, everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness. For all their eras, generation by generation, they will know doleful sorrow, bitter evil, and dark happenstance, until their utter destruction with neither remnant nor rescue.
In addition, the Damascus Document tells us that other spirits are known to inflict the punishment of YHWH upon the ones wavering from Torah. The author writes in CD 2:5-7, “But Strength, Might, and great Wrath in the flames of fire with all the angels of destruction shall come against all who rebel against the proper way and who despise the law, until they are without remnant or survivor, for God had not chosen them from ancient eternity. Before they were created, He knew what they would do.”
The “evil” spirits/angels described in the DSS are often acting as God’s ministers who perform specific tasks while under his authority. One must ask if these spirits should be considered ‘demons’ as understood in modern Christian terms.
Several Scrolls typically identify the spirits that work under the rule of Mastema as an ‘unclean spirit’. 11Q5 19:15 perhaps offers a parallel with NT demonology, such as is found in Mark 5. The author writes, “Let Satan have no dominion over me, nor an unclean spirit; let neither pain nor the will to do evil rule in me.” The Scrolls also describe individuals as belonging to Belial’s Lot and doing his work for him. Belial is a figure that can be paralleled to the Mastema figure found in Jubilees. The writings from the Qumran Community reveal a sectarian Jewish group that stands against the spirits of Belial and the human members of Belial’s Lot, those Jews who are outside of the Community, see e.g. 1QS 2.19.
It appears possible that Belial and his spirits could afflict the righteous members of the Qumran Community. The Damascus Document suggests that Belial’s “three nets”, fornication, wealth, and defiling the Sanctuary (CD 4.12-18), will tempt them. One of the weapons of the community to defend against the attacks of Belial and his spirits is ‘apotropaic prayer’.
Two Scroll texts, 4Q510 and 4Q511 – Songs of the Sage, belong to this apotropaic liturgy. It is possible as some scholars suggest these texts may reflect part of the liturgy of the Jerusalem Temple. The individual identified in these texts is called the “Maskil” (a Wisdom teacher); he holds an important “priestly” position at Qumran. It is believed that he was the leader of the community at some point and is possibly the author of these two scrolls. These two Scrolls contain psalms that proclaim the majesty of God in order to frighten and deter evil spirits from attacking individuals; in particular, we find in 4Q510 frag. 1.4-8,
And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendor so as to frighten and to te[rrify] all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers, and [desert dwellers …] and those which fall upon men without warning to lead them astray from a spirit of understanding and to make their heart and their […] desolate during the present dominion of wickedness and predetermined time of humiliations for the sons of lig[ht], by the guilt of the ages of [those] smitten by iniquity—not for eternal destruction, [bu]t for an era of humiliation for transgression. […] Sing for joy, O righteous ones, for the God of Wonder.
It is suggested that these apotropaic prayers were used to protect the righteous of the community from the affliction of the evil spirits of Belial/Mastema. 4Q510and 511, along with 1 Enoch 6-16, identify the origin of evil spirits as the “spirits of the bastards”, that is the spirits of the offspring of the Sons of God (Watcher angels) and the daughters of humanity found in Genesis 6.1-4.
But this is not the only discovery we find in these two important scrolls. 4Q510 frag. 1.4-5 suggests a connection to other creatures identified as evil spirits/demons in the OT. The Maskil frightens away “all the spirits of the ravaging angels and the bastard spirits, demons, Lilith, owls, and jackals”. These are the creatures mentioned in Isaiah 34:14 discussed above. 4Q511 frag. 1.6-7 contains a likely “prayer of deliverance from the evil spirits”, which was brought about by the individual declaring the “glory of God”. In addition, 4Q511 frag. 10 contains a prayer against the “evil spirits” that are named in HB text - Lilith, owls, and jackals. Further, we find a similar list of creatures in 4Q511 f10.1-4, which reads, “[spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons,] Lili[th,] [howlers and desert dwellers … and those which fall upon men without warning to] lead them astray from a spirit of [understanding and to make their heart and their … desolate during] the present dominion of wickedness [and predetermined time of humiliations for the sons of light.” 4Q511 frag 35 further strengthens the connection to the evil spirits that emerged from the Watcher Tradition of 1 Enoch. The author writes that evil spirits of the giants will have their time of dominion on the earth, but the Maskil will offer help through the fear of God. 4Q511 frag. 35.6-8 reads, “And I am pouring out the fear of God to the ends of my generations, to exalt the Name [… to frighten] by His strength al[l] the spirits of the bastards, to subdue them by [His] fear […] [eternal fe]stivals […] the end of their dominion […].”
There are other Scrolls that contain similar prayers of protection against evil spirits. Although quite fragmentary in their content, we find a familiar way of understanding how to deal with the evil spirits that are now very much a part of the Jewish worldview in the 2TP. 11Q11 (Apocryphal Psalms) is attributed to King Solomon; col. 2.2-4 reads, [… A Psalm of ] Solomon. He call[ed …] [… the spi]rits and the demons […] […] these are [the de]mons and the pri[nce of Maste]mah. Solomon’s reputation as an exorcist is widely known in the 2TP, in particular in the Testament of Solomon, which describes how he used evil spirits to help him build the Jerusalem Temple. He invokes prayers and in particular the name of God against evil spirits and demons in particular the “Prince of Animosity” (Mastema). It appears likely that he is invoking the name of YHWH against these spirits; this is suggested in 11Q11 col. 4, line 10; and col. 3 lines 9-10. Members of the Community are encouraged to speak to the evil spirit in order to take power over it.
Moreover, these apotropaic prayers are also attributed to King David in 11Q11 col. 5 line 4 which reads, “Of David, ag[ainst . . . An incanta]tion in the name of YHW[H”. The use of the name of YHWH seems to be key in warding off the evil spirits. The text of 11Q11 col. 5 is David’s Psalm 91 found in the HB. It is clear from its use here, and also the names of evil spirits that it contains, that it should be considered an apotropaic prayer, an incantation against evil spirits. Evidence suggests that the Scroll supports the idea that “dead of night” is the spirit Lilith; the “arrow that flies at mid-day”, the “plague that rages at noonday”, and the “pestilence in darkness” are all evil spirits that the author is speaking against in this prayer of protection. Interestingly, the satan figure in Luke 4 attempts to use this Psalm against Jesus to get him to try to test God’s protection of him while standing on the pinnacle of the Temple.
In conclusion, it may be suggested that many ideas concerning the demonology that emerged from the Jewish Scriptures are moved along in the DSS and other 2TP Jewish texts. However, the demonology of the 2TP and biblical Israel has little in common. We see the development of the idea of a leader of the spirits, who appears to operate under the authority of God in his efforts to test and try humanity, both righteous and unrighteous, in their faith in God. In doing so, he uses the remaining “bastard spirits” of the offspring of the Fallen Watchers from the Enochic Book of Watchers. These spirits emerge in a loose hierarchy of spirits that includes unclean spirits, spirits of falsehood, spirits of fornication, lying spirits, and spirits of haughtiness, among others. The advancing demonology in the Jewish worldview in the 2TP comes to full fruition in the NT when we see a virtual explosion of demonic activity during and after the ministry of Jesus.
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