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The Bizarre Belief in Evil Angels
Medieval Jewish Bible Commentators Accept the Existence of Angelic Beings
Many medieval Bible commentators were not affected by rational philosophy. Principal among them is Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaqi (Rashi), Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides) and Abraham Saba (born 1407). These Bible commentators accepted the notion of the existence of evil angelic beings. Rashi, for example, avers that Genesis 6:4 refers to “the sons of heavenly princes who perform the mission of God. They had also mixed with [human females].” In his commentary to Genesis 6:19, he writes that Noah took the demons on board his ark and saved them from extinction in the impending flood. Abraham Saba agrees with Nachmanides’ belief (stated in his commentary on Leviticus 16:8) that God instructed Jews to give Samael (another name for Satan) a goat as a bribe on the holiday of Yom Kippur in order to discourage the demon from accusing Jews for misdeeds they committed during the past year.
The Zohar: Filled with Satan, Demons, and Other Evil Forces That Populate and Pollute the World
The mystical work The Zohar appeared around the year 1280 and became one of the most decisive and arguably the most anti-rational piece of literature in Jewish history. It passed on its opinions – many drawn from the surrounding non-Jewish environment – to the simple, naïve, unlearned Jew who felt that its statements were expressions of Jewish religious piety. The book is filled with demons, witches, sorcerers, magic, occult, incantations, spells, amulets, and the like. Despite the biblical prohibitions of Exodus 22:17, Deuteronomy 18:10 and other verses condemning sorcery and occult practices, the Zohar abounds with them.
The thirteenth-century book introduces what the twentieth-century Gershon Scholem called a dualistic “gnostical cabala,” because it furthers a thesis, first introduced roughly a century earlier, that asserts that evil exists and functions independently of God who has no effective control over it. God, according to the Zohar and other mystical works of the period, operates in the world through ten Sefirot, emanations. According to the Zohar, the first few emanations are pure, but the remaining seven are split between pure angelic beings on the right side and seven groups of demons on the left, or “other,” side. The two groups, the good and bad emanations from God, are constantly at war.
Some mystical books have a different count. For example, Moses Cordovera of the sixteenth century counts ten Sefirot on each side and says that the ten evil emanations resemble the ten pure ones much in the same way that an ape is similar to man.
Be this as it may, the world of the Zohar is a universe constantly at war with the left, or “other,” side, filled with demons and evil forces known as kelipoth, “husks,” with Samael, also known as Satan, looming large as a threatening and forceful diabolical leader. This is a dualistic world that cannot be reconciled with strict monotheism, the spirit of prophetic Judaism or simple reason.
Samael/Satan, the Zohar maintains, was repeatedly involved in Jewish history. He was what the Bible called the snake in the Garden of Eden. He seduced Eve both intellectually, as Scripture states, and sexually, and Eve bore Cain from this union. He was the “man” who wrestled with the patriarch Jacob in Genesis 32:25, and whom Jacob barely defeated. He ruthlessly loaned Pharaoh six hundred chariots to enable him to pursue the Israelites whom God had just released from Egyptian bondage in Exodus 14:7.
Rationalists Repudiate the Notion of Satan, Angels and Demons
Rational Jewish thinkers like Saadiah Gaon, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides insist, as I stated earlier, that biblical, midrashic, and talmudic declarations that contradict reason, science, and philosophy must be interpreted in a rational manner.
Saadiah asserts that satan in Scripture’s Job is a human, a contemporary of Job, who despises Job. The “sons of God,” also mentioned in Job, are members of a religious group. God, the book is telling us, does not interfere and allows Job’s human enemies to torment him.
Ibn Ezra offers four possible explanations of Genesis 6: (1) The b’nei haElohim are children of nobles, (2) people of lofty character, (3) exalted descendants of Seth who yielded to lust and cohabitated with the ethically inferior descendants of Cain or (4) people with astrological knowledge (ibn Ezra, like most people of his age, believed in the efficacy of astrology) who chose proper wives based on their superior knowledge.
Maimonides contends that since God is good, God created only good things. Thus it is inconceivable that a Satan or evil heavenly beings exist. Additionally, in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:6 he states that “angel” denotes anything that implements the laws of nature. In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:16, he flatly denies the truth of the existence of angels and demons: “All of these things are lies and untruths with which the ancient idol worshippers deceived the people, to entice them to follow them. It is not fitting for Israel, who are a really wise nation, to be attracted by such vanities, or to suppose that they have any value…. Whoever believes in these things and their like, and thinks that they are genuine and a kind of wisdom, but that the Torah forbids them [even though they work] belongs to the fools and the deficient in knowledge.”
The Devil and His Cohorts: Still Thriving in Jewish Thought Today
The belief in the devil as the enemy of God and man as well as the source of all evil is clearly stated in the New Testament. The New York Times of May 21, 2006 reports the remarkable statistic “that among those who call themselves Christians, 59 percent don’t believe in Satan.” This means that 41 percent are convinced that Satan is somehow involved in and manipulating their lives. Jews living in a Christian environment consciously and unconsciously absorb this notion, which they hear almost daily, and find it hard to discard it.
David Brakke, in his 2006 book Demons and the Making of the Monk, studies the lives of monks in fourth- and fifth-century Egypt and relates that many people abandoned their natural lives and became monks to battle against demons whom they mistakenly believed were destroying their lives. “At the heart of [the monk’s] identity was struggle, resistance, and combat with the forces of evil that surrounded [him]…. [He] acknowledged and squarely confronted the evil that divided human beings from one another, tempting them away from God, and insinuating itself even into the most virtuous acts.” The story is told of a monk who thought that an innocent woman who was passing him was the devil. He grabbed a piece of burning iron from a fire, attacked the unsuspecting woman with righteous indignation and badly seared her entire face and body.
Many unsophisticated Jews and non-Jews allow themselves to be convinced by their clergy and others that they lack the intellectual ability to solve problems without clerical help. They accept the Christian view that belief and faith, rather than thought, is most important and the true desire of God. They buy into the vision of Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) that when they reach a chasm in thinking, when they momentarily feel unable to find an answer, they must make a “leap of faith,” ignoring the chasm and believing in the irrational solution of past ages.
These Jews use the doctrine of the devil as an easy excuse for their refusal to face the difficulties of life, to find a solution to evil and be partners with God in the continued creation of the world.
There is good reason to believe that the Bible has no knowledge of heavenly beings, which people call angels. It certainly makes no mention of evil angels, although, after being influenced by alien cultures, especially those of Babylon and Persia, some Jews interpreted three biblical passages as references to evil angels that for some reason fell from heaven and remained earth-bound, performing destructive acts. The noun satan found in the biblical book Job, used there as a description of an accuser, was reinterpreted as the name of the chief of the evil angels; the term devil was derived from diabolos, the Greek translation of the word.
Little by little the concept of evil angels developed, moving further and further away from strict monotheism and rationalism as the devil and his cohort of demons were given enhanced powers ultimately rivaling those of God, thereby creating a dual system of two equal divine powers engaged in constant conflict.
Christianity accepted the notion of malicious angels and incorporated the notion into the New Testament. Since these books are holy to Christians and since these ideas have not been removed from this scripture, they are still part of the Christian faith today.
It is difficult for people to change and more difficult to eradicate ideas that have become part of one’s thinking and fundamental to many as basic principles of life. Thus this superstition, although non-biblical and irrational, is indelibly implanted in many people’s minds.
The doctrine of the devil and his cohorts has had a pernicious effect upon people. Since they were able to blame the devil for the world’s evil and since they could claim that they had insufficient power to control or stop the devil, many people made no real attempts to improve the world and rid it of evil. A rational approach, like the one advocated by Maimonides, recognizes the true source of evil and encourages people to abandon superstitious myths, address the true problems of the world and resolve them.
Many Jews recognized the pernicious and stifling effect of the belief in demons and its irrationality, at least to some degree, and stopped speaking openly about demons, but they began to talk of an “evil inclination” without realizing that they were referring to the same evil force in a different guise, as we will see in an upcoming essay.
 “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.”
 “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer.”