Old Testament demonology

A scholarly review of demonology in the Old Testament and its implications for ministry today

Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D., is the director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Much has been written on demonology in the context of the New Testament, where the presence of demons is clearly taught; the Old Testament witness, however, isn't as explicit. Nevertheless, the topic is touched upon in the Old Testament, and it does reveal enough to help pastors understand the nature of what they're up against if, indeed, they find themselves confronted with a bona fide case of demon possession.

To begin, though the word demon is etymologically related to the Greek term daimonion, they do not mean the same thing. The Greek term designated a deity, specifically good or evil lesser deities. 1 Demon, in contrast, commonly designates an evil supernatural, autonomous power openly antagonistic against God and His people.

Hebrew terms

The Hebrew term shedim (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37) is usually translated "demons." The LXX renders it as daimoniois. The modern translation is based on the Akkadian cognate shedu, which designates both evil and good spirits or demons.2 The biblical passages describe the heathen gods as inferior and evil supernatural powers because they required human sacrifices.

Another Hebrew term for demons is seirim, from a root meaning "to be hairy." The noun means "hairy one" but could also designate a "(hairy) goat" and a "demon."3 Some have interpreted it to mean a goat-like demon (a satyr), even if the attempt to define the appearance of the demon from etymology isn't sound. In the ancient Near East, deities and demons were represented under the symbol of animals in order to illustrate the attributes of those spiritual beings. Goats usually inhabited the wilderness, and demons in the Bible and in the ancient Near East were associated with the wilderness as a symbol of infertility.4

Ancient Near Easterners believed that demons dwelt in the underworld. In Egypt, there are references to "bloodthirsty demons,"5 a possible reference to the seirim, to whom bloody sacrifices were offered. The realm of the dead was also the realm of the demonic, which probably explains why the Old Testament condemns communication with the dead (Deut. 18:10, 11), an activity considered to be an attempt to contact the impure and demonic. The wisdom books implicitly state that the dead do not know anything about the realm of the living and therefore they have no secret knowledge to impart (Job 14:21; Eccl. 9:4-6,10). Interestingly, the spirits consulted by the necromancer are called 'elohim ("gods, divine beings"; 1 Sam. 28:13;Isa. 8:19),but they can be recognized as demonic powers because of their association with the dead. These spirits possessed the medium and apparently spoke through him or her (Lev. 20:27).

It is generally recognized that the noun 'azazel, used in Leviticus 16:8, 10, 26, designates a demon. This refers to a personal being, because it's in parallelism with the name of the Lord (16:8). The importance of this figure and the ritual associated with it is significant in Old Testament demonology, and most scholars date the ritual to an early phase of Israelite history.

The term lilit, used only in Isaiah 34:14, is commonly understood to refer to a demon (LXX, daimonion).6 The noun seems to belong to the word group for "night, darkness" (Heb. layla). But Akkadian uses the same root for a name of a demon (lilitu), a female demon connected in some way with sexual relationships. 7 Most English translations render it as "night creatures," suggesting that the reference to a demon is uncertain. In the context, mention is made of several other animals, some of whom have been considered demons. Here again the term seirim is rendered "demons" (Lev. 17:7), but because it could also designate a goat, the meaning is uncertain (cf. Isa. 13:24).

Sometimes the biblical writer personifies "plague" (reshep) and "pestilence" (deber) and describes them as accompany ing the Lord as his instruments of judgment (Hab. 3:5; Deut. 32:24). Reshep was the name of a West Semitic god of the under world, considered dangerous as well as benevolent, who was in charge of battles and diseases.8 Because deber in ancient Near Eastern literature does not refer to a deity or a demon, it could be argued that in the Bible both terms are used as personifications of destructive powers only. However, in the ancient Near East demons inflicted diseases on people and caused great pain, 9 a concept perhaps implicit in Psalm 91:5, 6. 10 The Psalm states that those who fear the Lord will be protected from those evil powers ("the arrow that flies by day," "the pestilence that stalks in the darkness," "the plague that destroys at midday"). It could be that these powers are represented in verse 13 by the symbols of a lion and a snake.

The Old Testament contains several narratives in which spiritual beings are described as performing a negative function at the service of God. The first one is an "evil spirit" (ruah raa) sent by God to create antagonism "between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem"(Judges 9:23; the LXX reads, pneumaponeron; cf. Mark 1:23; 7:25; Acts 5:16). It was under the control of God and His instrument of judgment. It could be argued that this "spirit" is not personified but is rather a psychological or emotional condition that disrupts social interaction. But the phrase "evil spirit/wind" (Akk. sham lemnu) in the ancient Near East was employed to refer to demonic powers that produced all kinds of diseases. 11

After the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, he was tormented by an "evil spirit from the Lord" (1 Sam. 16:14). Music relieved him (16:23) temporarily. Under the strong influence of this spirit Saul attempted to kill David (18:10-12; 19:9), yet this evil power was under the control of God and not a totally independent power.

Micaiah had a vision in which he saw the heavenly council in session discussing the final fate of King Ahab (1 Kings 22:19-23; 2 Chron. 18:20-23). During the discussion "a spirit" offered his service to entice Ahab by being "a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets" of Baal. The Lord said to him, "You will succeed in enticing him.... Go and do it" (1 Kings 22:22). It is difficult to decide whether this is a benevolent spirit acting in a malevolent way, as was the case with some spiritual beings in the ancient Near East, or an essentially evil spirit whom the Lord uses to accomplish His purpose. That it seems to be a member of the heavenly council would support the first option; however, a comparison with the incident of Job leads to a different conclusion.

"Satan" and God's archenemy

It is usually argued that Satan as the archenemy of God is unknown in the Old Testament. 12 The noun satan means "adversary, opponent" and is used for human and celestial beings. The first celestial being called satan was the angel of the Lord (Num. 22:22, 32), hardly a demonic figure. Therefore the noun cannot be used to determine the nature of the celestial being. The first time it is used as a proper name is in 1 Chronicles 21:1, to describe a being who incited David to take a census. Interestingly, in 2 Samuel 24:1 this same function is ascribed to God. This is understandable because, as we have seen, evil powers are used by God to accomplish His own purposes. When those powers become a threat to His people, He protects them and limits their activities.

In Zechariah 3:1,2 satan is an accuser of the servants of God. The Angel of the Lord, the Lord and Satan are together. What is at stake is God's right to forgive His people. This evil power cannot tolerate God's forgiving grace and seeks to hinder sinners from enjoying fellowship with God.

But possibly the most significant use of the noun satan is recorded in the book of Job, where he is described as the greatest enemy of God (1:7; 2:2). Like the "lying spirit" in the vision of Micaiah, he is a member of the heavenly council and is under the control of the Lord, unable to act in total independence from Him. He is certainly the accuser of Job before the heavenly assembly and the instigator of disease and disaster. In the dialogue with God, satan is in fact attacking God's system of government. 13 He is arguing that God buys human service, and he nurtures selfishness by blessing and protecting human beings. God's way of ruling the universe is not controlled by disinterested love, he argues, but rather by the principle of "I give in order to receive."

This is unquestionably an attack on God's rule of love and grace. Here the true nature of the demonic in the Old Testament is revealed. This demonic being came to be known as Satan.

Although the Old Testament does not say much about this figure, it indicated that it was God's enemy, not His equal. Hints about his origin are recorded in Isaiah 14:12-19 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 when, in the description of the rise and fall of the kings of Babylon and Tyre, the prophets use the imagery of God's primeval fight with this demonic being. This cherub, who was very close to God, attempted in an act of rebellion to be like God and was expelled from God's presence. 14 Apparently, he continued to have limited access to heaven. 15 Distorted traces of this primeval conflict may have been preserved in the ancient Near Eastern mythologies that depict a cosmic battle among the gods.

Then there's the narrative about the serpent and the woman (Gen. 3). The serpent is described as "more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made" (Gen. 3:1). The text implies that it was one of God's creatures. As the narrative progresses, it becomes obvious that behind it is an antagonistic power, one at war with God. It contradicts God's statements, ascribes to God evil intent, and leads the woman into rebellion. Because snakes "are commonly associated with selected deities and demons and with magic and incantations in the ancient Near East," 16 it's pretty clear that, under the symbol of the serpent, Genesis 3 depicts a demonic power. 17 This evil being does not belong to the animal kingdom; it can talk and reason. Thus, in that respect, it is closer to the level of humans. Yet it is more than human in that it alleges to have a knowledge not available to humans, and it's here that the demonic element reveals itself.18

This archenemy of God is known in the Hebrew cultus as a demonic being, Azazel. When the ritual of the scapegoat is placed within its ancient Near Eastern context, it becomes clear that this is an elimination rite through which sin/ impurity was returned to its source and originator. 19 The ritual teaches that Israel believed there was a demonic being directly responsible for whatever disrupted a proper relationship with God. It is true that God assumed responsibility for the sin/impurity of the repentant sinner, but He was not its originator. During the Day of Atonement the true culprit was identified: the demonic being, Azazel. Here again the Lord reveals Himself as the One who has power to destroy the works and to overcome the authority of evil powers (cf. 1 John 3:8).

Conclusions and implications

The Old Testament testifies to the existence of a demonic being in conflict with God and His people. This archenemy of God is found throughout Old Testament narratives, hymns, and prophetic speeches.

Next, the biblical evidence suggest that this evil power resulted from the self-corruption of a celestial being. Although this being was created perfect, in a mysterious way sin was found in him. The use of the plural in some passages to refer to evil powers suggests that more than one celestial being was corrupted and in conflict with God.

These beings are associated with idolatry and identified with heathen gods, which implies that behind the power of these gods was the power of these evil forces. Spiritual creatures were still reaching out to become god.

Pastors confronting manifestations of demonic powers must remember, first, that these powers cannot act in complete independence from God. He can use them. But He also is able to restrain these powers by protecting His people from them and by liberating them from their oppression. Those who have been victims of demonic powers should be led to find refuge in the Lord through prayer and commitment to Him. Second, with hardly no evidence of exorcism in the Old Testament, one can conclude that a ministry based on or revolving around the practice of exorcism lacks biblical foundation. Third, in places where offerings are given to the spirit of the dead, the pastor should point to our Creator and Redeemer as the only spiritual power to whom we must submit. Any other spiritual force claiming our allegiance or service is of demonic origin.

Finally, as we minister to our parishioners, preachers should stress that God wants us to think more about His sovereign power to save than about the destructive power of evil forces. These may well be the subliminal message communicated through the little emphasis that the Old Testament places on the demonic. There is security for us in our covenant relationship with the Lord, and because of that even when evil touches us we can advisely say "God touched me." Believers are under the constant care of the Lord even as they "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4). Concerning our Saviour it is said, "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit... to be tempted by the devil" (Matt. 4:1). His encounter with the enemy was planned and controlled by the Lord. In short, perhaps the clearest message from the Old Testament in this context is that we are not cosmic chips functioning as targets for the unrestrained assault of the demonic but rather children of a loving God who at His time will extinguish those forces from His universe.

1. Werner Foerster, "Daimon," Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. 2, Gerhard Kittel, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 2,3.

2. Wolfram von Soden, The Ancient Orient (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 199.

3.. Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann J. Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 3:1341.

4. See S. Talmon, "Midbar," Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, and H. J. Fabry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 8:114-115.

5. B. Kedar-Kopfstein, "Dam," Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 2:238.

6. Koehler, Baumgarter, and Stamm, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 529.

7. M. Hutter, "Lilitri," Dictionary of Deities, cols. 973-976.

8. See P. Xella, "Reshep," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1995), cols. 1324-1326.

9. Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, God, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas, 1992), 67.

10. Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 455.

11. See R. C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, vol.1 (London: Luzac, 1904), xlvi-xlvii; and P. K. McCarter, "Evil Spirit of God," Dictionary of Deities and Demons, col. 602.

12. Peggy L. Day, An Adversary in Heaven: Satan in the Hebrew Bible (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988), 5,6.

13. E.g., David J. A. Clines, Job 1-20 (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1989), 18-27.

14. See Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity, 1997), 157-162.

15. See Angel M. Rodriguez, "Bible Questions Answered: Cosmic Conflict," Adventist Review, 8 May 1997,28.

16. R. S. Handel, "Serpent," Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, col. 1405.

17. See Boyd, God at War, 154-157.

18. Handel describes the serpent as "crossing or blurring the boundaries between the categories of animal, human, and divine" concluding that he is in fact a trickster (Handel, 1410).

19. See, for instance, John E. Hartley, Leviticus (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1992), 238.

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Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D., is the director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

June 1998

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