The Bizarre Belief in Evil Angels
Since, as we saw in earlier essays that I wrote, demons and evil angels played such a large part in the lives of many Jews, it is advisable to explore the origin of the belief in some depth.
The average Jew today is convinced that angels exist. He or she is certain that the loving God assigned good angels as divine assistants, to assist God in helping mankind. The Jew, as I mentioned previously, fears evil angels – Satan and demons – who are constantly present, especially at night, committing mischief and destructive acts.
This average Jew would be surprised to learn that (1) biblical statements about good angels do not refer to heavenly beings, (2) there is no explicit mention of evil angels in the Hebrew Bible, (3) many Jews believed in angels in ancient times but the notion of evil angels is quite recent, (4) the doctrine of evil angels developed during the past two thousand years, growing more and more irrational as it developed, (5) rational Jewish thinkers have rejected the notion of both good and bad angels and (6) the concept of angels, especially evil ones, has hindered the advancement of humanity.
- Why call the belief in evil angels “bizarre, irrational and harmful”?
- What biblical statements do some scholars cite to support their claim that the Bible mentions bad angels?
- How do rationalists understand the biblical verses that appear to speak of good and bad angels?
- When did the first clear mention of evil angels appear?
- How did the notion of evil angels develop after its first appearance?
- What do some of the ancient sources say about evil angels?
Jewish Thinkers: Diverging Views on the Belief in Good and Bad Angels
Jewish doctrine concerning angels developed over a long stretch of time, influenced by the suffering that Jews experienced under alien nations, their inability or reluctance to help themselves and their longing for divine intervention. Involved in their own problems, Jews were unable to see that the notion of angels – especially evil ones – that they developed did not conform to strict monotheism.
The Hebrew malachim – commonly translated as “angel” – appears in the Bible, as in Genesis 32:4, but the word does not necessarily refer to heavenly beings. The noun could be understood as “messenger” or “angel,” and different commentators, with different beliefs about heavenly beings, understood it in one form or the other.
Angels, as popularly understood, are mentioned frequently in post-biblical Jewish liturgy, the Talmuds and Bible commentaries. For example, mystics introduced the practice to recite Shalom Aleichem, a poem welcoming two angels who they believed accompany each Jew home from the synagogue on Friday evening. According to their tradition, when the Jew enters his home, the angels examine the Sabbath preparations. If they are good – the table festively set, the best foods prepared, delicious wine brought out – the good angel exclaims, “May it be so next week!” However, if the home is ill-prepared – looking no better than a weekday table – the malicious angel laughingly proclaims, “May it be like this next week also!”
Many Jews take the story literally. Singing Shalom Aleichem (“welcome to you,” in the plural), they greet the two angels with joy and song as a gesture of thanks for the expected blessing for future good weeks. These Jews do not realize that the story of two angels, one good and one bad, who accompany them from the synagogue to their home, was drawn from the ancient Christian work Shepherd of Hermes. It was also a teaching of the leading Christian teacher Origen.
Others Jews sing the song more soberly, with the understanding that it is an ancient metaphor, an intellectual reminder to prepare properly for the Sabbath. Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:22, interprets the two angels as figurative depictions of the natural human good and bad inclinations.
Still others feel that although the story has a positive figurative message, it is based on a bad, indeed, an erroneous, idea – that angels exist and that they can influence our lives. Therefore they feel that it is far better and more instructive to refrain from singing the mystics’ song.
Similarly, the evening benediction Hashkivenu states “remove Satan from before us and from behind us.” The words of this prayer and others imply a belief in the existence of the demon Satan. Some people take the word Satan literally, but others understand it as a figurative personification of human evil.
Three Alleged References to Evil Angels in the Bible
There are only three passages in the entire Hebrew Bible that some – though certainly not all – scholars construe to refer to corrupt angels.
Genesis 6:1–4 relates a brief tale of “b’nei haElohim [who] saw the daughters of men, that they were fair; and they took them as wives, whomever they chose.” The union produced “mighty men … men of renown.” Scripture does not explain the meaning of b’nei haElohim or the significance of the “mighty men,” who it also calls nephilim.
Elohim is the term used in the Bible for “God” but it also refers to anyone in a position of power, as el means “strong” or “powerful.” The term nephilim “falling” could denote “fallen angels” or “strong men who made the hearts of others fall in fear when they saw them,” as ibn Ezra and others explain. Thus b’nei HaElohim and nephilim could mean “sons of God who were fallen” or “fallen angels,” but it could also denote intelligent men who selected their wives with proper discernment and produced good, strong children. This would be in contrast to the other men of the time who produced bad children, evil people whom God punished in the flood.
The second passage is from Isaiah 14:12–15. Though obscure, Christian tradition argues that it refers to the fall of Satan. The unidentified protagonist in the passage says, “I will ascend into the heaven … I will be like the Most High.” The passage concludes with a prediction of failure, “You will be brought down to the nether-world, to the uttermost parts of the pit.” The general interpretation is that it is the prideful and misguided exclamation of a certain Babylonian king, but others read it as the arrogance of certain power-seeking angels.
The third possible, though unlikely, source is Psalms 82. It contains the words “You are gods and are all sons of the Most High. Yet you will die like men and fall like one of the princes.” The psalm is usually understood as a figurative description of wicked rulers who saw themselves as gods, but some read it as a reference to sinful angels.
We should note that there is no single theme in these three sources. In the unlikely event that they refer to angels, Genesis may be hinting that they “sinned” by demeaning and corrupting their angelic status by marrying human females. This is a difficult interpretation: the passage does not indicate that the b’nei haElohim did wrong. Isaiah may refer to angels seeking to ascend to a higher status, but it is more likely that it concerns the king of Babylon, who, like the humans in Genesis 11, figuratively attempted to scale to heaven in a Tower of Babel. Psalms 82 seems to be speaking about people, rulers or angels who arrogantly thought of themselves as being like gods. Each of these three sources is different. One talks of falling down, the second about going up and the third about a negative attitude.
The three passages are also ambiguous. The original and more obvious interpretation is that they describe humans in different situations: intelligent people, those who strive beyond their ability and those who are arrogant. It was only in later years, after being influenced by outside cultures, that some Jews started to interpret these passages as descriptions of sinful angels.
The Origin of the Concept of Evil Cosmic Forces: Ancient Persian and Babylonian Myths
The word satan appears in the biblical book of Job, where it is no more than a figurative accuser. When Jews began to believe in angels and in a leader of angels, they gave this leader the name Satan.
Scholars are in general agreement that Jews drew the notion of evil heavenly beings from ancient Babylonian and Persian myths. The Babylonian epics, for example, describe a dualistic struggle of Marduk, the good god of light, with the primeval dragon Tiamit. The correspondence between Marduk and God and Tiamit the dragon and the devil is easy to see, especially since the devil is pictured even in the modern age with serpentine features.
The Term “Devil” Derived From the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Satan
The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, around 250 B.C.E. The Greek version translates the Hebrew noun satan, which means no more than “that which leads a person astray,” into diabolos. The Greek term adds the connotation of “false accuser” and “slanderer.” The noun “devil” and related words in other languages are derived from the word diabolos.
The Earliest Explicit Source on Evil Angels: 200 B.C.E.
The first book that interprets Genesis 6 as a description of fallen angels is I Enoch, composed sometime around 200 B.C.E. The third century was a period of enormous distress for Jews, and the masses, unable to help themselves, sought an explanation for the evil around them and prayed for supernatural aid. The writings of the times did not generally reflect mainstream Jewish thinking and contained many borrowed terms from non-Jewish sources.
I Enoch describes a group of angels who descend to earth because of a sexual lust for earthly women. They defile their pure heavenly essence by joining with the women and having children who are giants. They teach their wives and children knowledge that humans should not have, such as the ability to write and the process of performing abortions. Their children befoul the earth and lead to the flood in the days of Noah.
Variations of the story appeared in later books. All of the versions saw the angels as an explanation for the presence of evil and wrong ideas in the world. However, the angels in Enoch are not the devil, or Satan in conventional thought; rather, they are heavenly beings who acted improperly and indirectly caused others to misbehave.
The Concept of a Leader of Bad Angels and the Name Satan: 150 B.C.E.
The first work to identify the chief of the malicious spirits is the book of Jubilees, probably composed in the second century B.C.E. This chief, later called Satan, is named Mastema in Jubilees. The book does not reveal his origin. His task is to tempt people to do wrong. If he succeeds, he accuses them before God.
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, probably written just after Jubilees, was the first to call this angel Satan, using the name of the adversary in the book of Job; however, it also calls him Beliar. Quite a few other post-biblical and pre-New Testament writings mention a chief devil, and they give him different names and different functions.
Bad Angels: The Cosmic Power of Evil at Work in the World
A host of other books in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, written by and for Jews, followed the Testaments and further developed the new alien concept of angels. Most, if not all, were prompted by the puzzling questions: Why does God allow evil in this world? Is there another force, separate from God, which can act on its own, contrary to the will of God? Is there a group of angels led by Satan? How do they function? How can people combat them? These writers experienced the wickedness around them as so enormous that they begin to write as if they almost believed in a kind of dual power – like the two equally strong angels who are said to accompany the Jew on Friday night from the synagogue to his home.
Philo on Angels
The belief in angels was widespread by the beginning of the Common Era. Philo, an Egyptian Jew, devoted an entire book to the interpretation of Genesis 6, Concerning the Giants. The Greek Bible translation, the Septuagint, translates b’nei haElohim as “sons of angels,” and, drawing upon this translation/interpretation, Philo describes a group of angels descending from heaven, marrying human females and producing giants. These giants recognize that they are much more powerful than humans and use their strength to take advantage of humans and act in a corrupt manner. Philo uses the term demons, but he considers demons nothing more than another name for angels, because he could not conceive that an angel or demon could be bad. The angels of Genesis were bad only after they had taken human form.
Gnosticism: A Concept of Two Gods
At the beginning of the Common Era, Jewish thought began to be influenced by Gnosticism, a religion/philosophy based on Babylonian, Persian, and Egyptian myths, misguided Jewish piety and spread the type of thought we saw earlier. Though there were many variations, most Gnostics believed in a dual system including a transcendent and unknowable God who is good, and a Demiurge, the God who created the world and who acts in it, who is immoral and wicked. Gnosticism explained the presence of pain and suffering in this world as the work of the “creator god” but not the “transcendent God.”
The Gnostics also emphasized the difference between the soul and the body, a marked dualism that became embodied in Christianity but was repudiated by mainstream Judaism. In many but not all Christian texts the body was considered foul and sinful and, like the Demiurge, it accounted for much of the wickedness in this world.
The concept of the Demiurge was adopted with some modifications by many Christian thinkers into the concept of the Antichrist in the tenth century.
The New Testament’s First Epistle of John states: “We know that we belong to God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Ephesians 6 warns the early Christians: “We struggle not with blood and flesh, but with the angelic rulers, the angelic authorities, the potentates of the dark that are present, the spirit of evil in the heavenly sphere.” The Church Father and theologian Origen (c.185–254), one of the profoundest thinkers of the Church and a proponent of a philosophic and spiritual conception of Christianity, included the belief in the devil and his cohort of demon angels in his list of the principles of the Christian faith, although it was not included in the “Apostles’ Creed” (a statement of beliefs believed to have been developed in the first or second century).
Midrashim, Talmud, and the Targum Try to Weaken the Belief in Satan and Angels
Popular Judaism, laity and clergy alike, retained a faint echo of the concept of the villainous Demiurge and the sinful body in some mystical and mythical beliefs. However, this was not the case with traditional rabbinic Jewish literature, which generally attempted to suppress these notions.
The rabbinically accepted Onkelos translation renders b’nei haElohim in Genesis 6 as “the sons of nobles.”
The Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 16a, reports the third century sage Resh Lakish rationally identifying angels as part of nature, “Satan, the evil inclination and the angel of death are one and the same.”
Unfortunately, the majority of people did not accept this rational approach, the approach followed by Maimonides, because they needed demons on a psychological level, to explain why they were oppressed and suffered.
Rabbinic Judaism: Retaining the Concept of Demons and Angels
Thus, while some rabbis attempted to wean the masses away from a belief in angels and demons, others expanded on the idea.
Some parts of rabbinic literature accept but down-play the popular notion of demons. Satan is mentioned only as an agent of God performing a sometimes over-zealous prosecutorial function similar to the satan in the book of Job. Some Midrashim describe angels not as superior and powerful beings, but as fallible entities. For example, Genesis Rabbah 8:10 relates a tale of the angels thinking that the newly created Adam was God until they saw him sleeping. In 50:9, this Midrash states that some “ministering angels revealed God’s secrets and were banished from their precincts for one hundred and thirty eight years.” The Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10 contends that only two angels descended to earth, coveted human girls and corrupted their ways until God suspended them between heaven and earth.
Other rabbis speak of angels and demons at great length. They describe angels who are the heavenly princes and guardians of the nations. These guardian angels not only protect their nations but are to some extent the source of cosmic evil rather than a single angel or Demiurge. Jews, say these rabbis, are under the direct guidance of God, but non-Jews are ruled by guardian angels assigned to their particular nation. (Since Jewish sources are not monolithic, it is not surprising to find that some say that not God but Michael is the guardian angel of the Jews and that others assign this function to both Michael and Gabriel.)
Sometimes, rather than a guardian angel, the rabbinic source speaks of an astrological force that fashions and controls the lives of non-Jews; however, according to these sources Jews do not have this same agent, being entirely under God’s protection. These declarations can be understood as figurative statements, using popular imagery to teach Jews to avoid relying on the protection of other nations or superstitious or magical powers. However, it is more likely that their authors meant them to be taken literally.
 Parts one and two are from a chapter in my book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.”
 Readers should not be surprised that Jews unknowingly absorbed notions that they consider significant and even fundamental elements of religion from other cultures, including Christianity. Many Jewish laypersons and rabbis are convinced that the concept of “original sin” is Jewish, even though it was clearly invented by the Christian St. Augustine in the fourth century.