The Problem of Evil 1: Old Testament Demonology
Part 1 of a series I never finished. What exactly is evil in the bible?
Now that I'm feeling quite a bit better, I want to write about something that's been on my mind throughout my struggle with depression: the problem of evil. I've been working through a cluster of related questions, including:
If God is good and all powerful, why does evil exist?
In particular, why are there tragedies like natural disasters?
Why does God do things that seem evil (e.g. hell or the violence of the Old Testament)?
What actually is the difference between "good" and "evil" anyways?
Obviously these are questions that people have spent entire lifetimes studying, so I don't expect to find "the answer" or something completely satisfactory, but as usual I want to use this blog as a way of sorting out my thoughts.
If we're going to talk about evil and the Christian faith, I think it's important to have a fully developed demonology --- as a result, the first three posts of this series are (I currently intend) going to be about demons: their role in the Old Testament, their role in the New Testament (especially Jesus' crucifixion), and finally a third post diving into how the biblical view informs our everyday life and particularly our answers to the above questions. These posts owe a huge debt to Michael Heiser's The Unseen Realm, John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, and Gregory Boyd's The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but since these are blog posts I'm not going to go to the effort of properly footnoting stuff.
Before we start, a word about evil. I think it's really easy when we discuss theodicy to start to think of evil in very abstract, impersonal terms, as if "good" and "evil" are just labels we assign to cosmic teams. But evil isn't just another word for things we don't like: it's something painful, often traumatic, with serious and brutal consequences in the lives of real people. I find it helpful to keep times I've seriously suffered in the back of my mind to remind myself that the problem of evil is not merely a philosophical quandary but something that actually matters and whose solutions have actual effects on real people's lives.
This post will largely consist of "raw data", seeking to answer the question: "How does the Old Testament portray the demonic world?", leaving the hard work of interpretation and application to a future post. It will be in three sections, representing what I see as the biggest three themes in OT demonology: the gods of other nations, chaoskampf and creation, and the roots of human evil.
The Gods of Other Nations
It's common to describe the biblical perspective as monotheistic, since Jews and Christians only believe in a single God. But when you start to look closely at the biblical texts, a strange thing happens: the gods of Israel's neighbors start to show up as characters!
For example, in Exodus we find the Egyptian pantheon:
"On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord."
and in Jeremiah we find the god Bel:
I will punish Bel in Babylon and make him spew out what he has swallowed. The nations will no longer stream to him. And the wall of Babylon will fall.
who returns with a friend in Isaiah:
Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity.
If we're committed to taking the Old Testament seriously, therefore, we'll have to be a bit more specific about what we mean by monotheism, and particularly what we mean by a "god". With some exceptions in the second half of Isaiah, the OT authors seem to assume that the gods of nearby nations exist and are able to exert some sort of control. Heiser (and to a lesser extent, Boyd) argues that we should use Deuteronomy 32 to contextualize this:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.
"Sons of God" here is a term referring to the created spiritual beings we'd now call "angels" and "demons". While a full exegesis of this passage would make this post even more unwieldily long , the basic premise is fairly clear: at least initially, each tribe or nation was given a "guardian angel", so to speak, with God keeping the Israelites for himself. Over time, the rest of the canon makes clear, the other "gods" rebelled and hence are engaged in a cosmic war against Yahweh, the one true Lord. Thus, the position of the Old Testament, and indeed the early Christian church, is that the gods of other religions not only exist but are in fact powerful demons.
The Hebrew Bible's appropriation of other religions does not stop at the level of gods, either. In Genesis 6 we come along the following fun little passage:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
Once again, the "sons of God" refer to angelic beings, and since they're acting rebelliously they're what we'd now refer to as demons. The "men of renown" probably refer to various ANE folk heroes, who the biblical author is recasting as literally the demon-spawn. We don't hear from them again in the bible until the New Testament, although the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch significantly expands on their Genesis 6 adventures.
This enmity between spiritual forces occasionally erupts into actual fighting, although as with much of the spiritual realm the details are generally left up to the imagination. In Daniel we find the following:
A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees.He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling.
Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”
Here the "princes" are again angels and demons, and the "prince of Persia" is the head "god" (demon) of contemporary Persian worship. It's not really clear how supernatural beings fight, and Daniel's angel does not seem particularly interested in giving us the details. It suffices to note that big and important battles are going on "behind the scenes" that significantly influence human affairs.
This "supernatural war" theme will dominate our discussion of New Testament demonology, and it can also clarify our reading of (especially the violent passages of) the Old Testament: behind the Israelite conquest of Canaan is a supernatural struggle between Yahweh and the Canaanite deities, and Elijah's summoning of fire from heaven represents the Lord's destruction of and judgment on the storm god Baal.
The Chaoskampf and Creation
Today we tend to think of creation in terms of "something" vs. "nothing": in the beginning there was nothing, and then God made "something" pop into existence, but this isn't how Ancient Near Eastern cultures, including the authors of the Old Testament, perceived the world.
Instead of emptiness, the default state of the world for ANE thinkers was chaos, and "creation" was the act of bringing order out of chaos. The chaos was typically personified by "waters" or a mythic sea monster figure, who battled with the "good" gods. This is exemplified in ANE cosmology, which viewed the earth as a flat disk surrounded by violent waters below and above (the sky being a "vault" supporting the "waters above", as in Genesis 1).
The Old Testament writers appropriate this belief, portraying God as the force of order battling demonic forces of chaos. The "chaos monsters" personifying the destructive and violent tendencies of evil are typically referred to as Rahab ("blusterer") and Leviathan.
Hence we have doxologies in the Psalms:
You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
The OT authors apply this "battle against chaos" motif not only to creation, but to Israel's flight from Egypt: somehow in splitting the Red Sea, God defeated some demonic monster trying to trap the Israelites and foil His plans:
Awake, awake, arm of the Lord, clothe yourself with strength! Awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old. Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced that monster through? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?
The picture we receive is one in which the forces of chaos surround the world on all sides, aching to destroy and conquer, and it is only through God's strength and constant action that they're held back.
The longest and most detailed meditation on the chaos monsters comes in Job 40-41, which introduces "Behemoth" and "Leviathan." Each is portrayed as mighty and terrifying (Leviathan even breathes fire), and in some sense represent God's answer to Job's questions about evil. ("Oh, I'm not doing enough to help you? Did you slay the chaos monsters that threatened to destroy the universe?)
Once again, the thrust of OT demonology is to show that more is going on "behind the scenes". Chaotic forces threaten the created order and occasionally leak through (e..g. natural disasters) to cause real and traumatic human suffering. God is portrayed as a warrior doing battle with these "monsters", in a way that won't be fully clarified until we reach Revelation next week. This will play a key role in our theology of "natural evil": why a world God has proclaimed as good can do so much harm.
The Roots of Human Evil
Probably the most famous story in the Old Testament is that of Adam and Eve, and it gives a good glimpse of the interplay between human and demonic evil. The snake, which Christian tradition is essentially unanimous in reading as Satan, does not actually perform the act of rebellion, but he plays an integral role in tempting Eve and by extension Adam to fall. He lies, he connives, and he tricks to get people to do what he wants: rebel against the created order.
In my reading of the Hebrew prophets, the primary two categories of sin are idolatry and injustice. Idolatry, which includes both worshiping other Gods and failing to worship any God at all, we've already seen to be portrayed as tantamount to demon worship.
The other type of evil, which is less clearly demonic, is injustice: a category including sexism, racism, etc. but which in the prophets is most clearly seen as classism, or more simply the failure to help the economically disadvantaged.
Psalm 82 will form the basis of our interpretation:
God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:
"Gods" here has the same meaning as "sons of God" did above: the collection of powerful, spiritual beings we'd now call angels and demons. These were believed in ancient Israel to take the form of an "assembly" or a "divine counsel" who assisted God in making decisions and carrying out his works.
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
In ancient times, what we'd now call structural forces were believed to be strongly influenced by supernatural beings. If we recall the worldview Deuteronomy 32 above, we're left with the impression that the angels God placed in charge of the nations of the world have rebelled and become demons, enforcing systems of injustice and oppression. Hence, while the rest of the OT makes clear that people can and will be held responsible for their oppressive behavior, the psalmist wants to point out that "something else" is going on behind the scenes --- something tempting people to the greed and cruelty encompassing the world.
“The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.
We'll talk more about judgment on the demons next week, but for now it suffices to note that God has already announced his plan to judge the wicked forces. The exact nature of this plan will be as much of a surprise to the unfortunate demons as it is to us, but will have to inform our view of the problem of "human evil": why the unjust and harmful man-made systems can continue to exist as they do.