The term “demon” is often used to refer to any and all malevolent superhuman (or supernatural) beings. Thus, all sorts of beings from the Hebrew Bible, ancient Judaism, and the ancient West Asia-evil angels, various disease demons, impure spirits, and many more-are known as “demonic beings.” Demons are not necessarily in themselves personifications of evil, but only of the forces supposed to cause them. Most of the Old Testament passages which refer to demons belong to the later periods of Israelite history, but this does not argue against a belief in the existence of demons in earlier times. Although the English 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. Demon, in contrast, commonly designates an evil supernatural, autonomous power openly antagonistic against God and His people.
Demonology in the Hebrew Bible and the Context of Ancient West Asia
The Hebrew term shedim (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37) is usually translated “demons.” The Septuagint translates it as daimoniois. The modern translation is based on the Akkadian cognate shedu, which designates either evil and good spirits or demons. Biblical passages describe the heathen gods as inferior or subordinate 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.” Some have interpreted it to mean a goat-like demon, even if the attempt to define the appearance of the demon from etymology is not sound. In ancient West Asia, 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 West Asia were associated with the wilderness as a symbol of infertility.
Ancient West Asian people believed that demons dwelt in the underworld. In Egypt, there are references to “bloodthirsty demons,” 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).
The Serpent and the Demonic Being Azazel
The narrative about the serpent and the woman is seen in the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible (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. It is pretty clear that, under the symbol of the serpent, Genesis 3 depicts a demonic power, because snakes “are commonly associated with selected deities and demons and with magic and incantations in the ancient West Asia”. 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 knowledge not available to humans, and it’s here that the demonic element reveals itself.
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. When the ritual of the scapegoat (Lev. 16) is placed within its ancient West Asian context, it becomes clear that this is an elimination rite through which sin/ impurity was returned to its source and originator. 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).
Evil-Demonic Spirits Sent by God
If we examine the issue of demons in the Hebrew Bible through an evaluation of an Akkadian subordinate supernatural being called rnbisu, the root of which is seen in Gen 4:7 (robes), is routinely thought to denote a demon. Akkadian texts indicate that the rnbisu is a neutral being that is nothing other than a current of wind dispatched by the deities to perform certain duties. This point not only informs the use of râbdsâ in Deut 29:19 but also permits a connection with “spirit of God” and “spirit of YHWH”, both of which are occasionally qualified with “evil”. Evidence demonstrates that, like the evil associated with rnbisu, the evil attributed to a divine spirit actually references its mission and not its moral standing. 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. Therefore, demons as inherently evil subordinate supernatural beings did not exist in the ancient West Asia. They are, rather, divinely articulated verdicts handed down as judgments in response to human transgressions.
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 Septuagint reads, pneumaponeron; cf. Mark 1:23; 7:25; Acts 5:16). But the phrase “evil spirit/wind” (Akk. sham lemnu) in the ancient West Asia was employed to refer to demonic powers that produced all kinds of diseases. 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).
Satan- The Fallen Angel and the Archenemy of God
Satan was an angel who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven. Other angels rebelled along with him and became his followers. These fallen angels became demons. “Demon” refers to the same being as “evil (or unclean or polluted) spirit.” Contrary to what may be common assumptions, this belief was not shared by most ancient Jews, including those who wrote and translated the Hebrew Bible, most writers of ancient non-canonical Jewish texts, and Jews in general before the rise of Christianity. The evil or fallen angels identified with demons, they were not choosing merely a generic word for evil beings. They were equating the fallen angels of contemporary Judaism with those beings the Greeks worshiped as gods or demigods.
It is usually argued that Satan as the archenemy of God is unknown in the Old Testament. 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.
Satan as the Accuser and the Day Star (Lucifer)
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 attacking God’s system of government. 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 therefore expelled from God’s presence.
The Hebrew Bible attests the existence and works of a demonic being in conflict with God and His people. This archenemy of God, Satan, is found throughout Old Testament narratives, hymns, and prophetic speeches. These beings are associated with idolatry and identified with other 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. The biblical evidence suggests 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.