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1-1-1 Israel In Exile:

The Babylonian / Persian Influence

Of especially significant influence upon Judaism were the Persian views of Zoroastrianism. This was a philosophy which began in Persia about 600 B.C., and was growing in popularity when Judah went to Babylon / Persia in captivity. This philosophy posited that there was a good god of light (Mazda) and an evil god of darkness (Ahriman). The well known passage in Is. 45:5-7 is a clear warning to the Jews in captivity not to buy into this- Israel's God alone made the light and the darkness, the good and the "evil". He alone had the power to give “the treasures of darkness” to a man (Is. 45:3), even though such “treasures” were thought to be under the control of the supposed ‘Lord of darkness’. But Isaiah is in fact full of other allusions to Zoroastrian ideas, seeking to teach Judah the true position on these things. Thus it was taught that "Saviours will come from the seed of Zoroaster, and in the end, the great Saviour", who would be born of a virgin, resurrect the dead and give immortality (1). These ideas are picked up in Is. 9:6 and applied prophetically to the ultimate Saviour, Jesus- as if to warn the Jews not to accept the prevalent Persian ideas in this area. Indeed, it appears that [under Divine inspiration] much of the Hebrew Bible was rewritten in Babylon, in order to deconstruct the ideas which Israel were meeting in Babylon (2). Hence we find Persian-era phrases in books like Job, which on one level were clearly very old Hebrew writings, and yet have been edited under a Persian-era hand. The Jews were also influenced by the Zoroastrian idea that somehow God Himself would never cause evil in our lives- and therefore, God is to be seen as somehow distanced from all good or evil actions, as these are under the control of the good and evil gods. Zeph. 1:12 warns against this Persian view: " I will search Jerusalem with lamps; and I will punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil". The fact is, God personally is passionately involved with this world and with our lives; and so it is He who brings about the dark and the light, good and evil.

Ahriman, the Lord of Darkness, is portrayed in Persian bas reliefs as having wings- and hence Satan came to be depicted as having wings, even though the Bible is utterly silent about this. According to Zoroastrianism, Ahriman envied Jupiter / Ohrmazd, and tried to storm Heaven. This mythology was eagerly adapted by the Jews to their myth of some rebellion in Heaven, and was later picked up by writers such as Milton and made standard Christian doctrine- even though the Hebrew Bible is utterly silent about it. It has been commented by a careful, lifelong student of the history of the Devil idea: "In pre-exilic Hebrew religion, Yahweh made all that was in heaven and earth, both of good and of evil. The Devil did not exist" (3).

Especially during their captivity in Babylon, the Jews shifted towards understanding that there was actually a separate entity responsible for disaster. "Much of Judaism adopted a dualistic worldview, which led it to see human problems... as the result of machinations by superhuman powers opposed to the divine will. This view infiltrated Jewish thinking during the time of the exile of Israel in Babylon" (4). "The idea that demons were responsible for all moral and physical evil penetrated deeply into jewish religious thought in the period following the Babylonian exile, no doubt as a result of the Iranian influence on Judaism" (5). Hence Isaiah 45:5-8 warns them not to adopt the views of Babylon in this area, but to remain firm in their faith that God, their God, the God of Israel, the one and only Yahweh, was the ultimate source of all things, both positive and negative, having no equal or competitor in Heaven. This becomes a frequent theme of second Isaiah and other prophets who wrote in the context of Israel in captivity. But whilst Judah were in captivity, the Jews began to speculate upon the origins of the Angels who brought calamity, and under Persian influence the idea developed that such Angels were independent of God. The Jews went further and concluded that "the destructive aspect of God's personality broke away from the good and is known as the Devil", going on to develop the Jewish legends of a personal Satan [or Sammael] with 12 wings, appearing like a goat, and responsible for all disease and death (6). The Jews of course were monotheists, and these ideas were developed in order to allow them to believe in both one God, and yet also the dualistic, god of evil / god of good idea of the Persians. It was in this period that the Jews fell in love with the idea of sinful Angels, even though the Old Testament knows nothing of them. They didn't want to compromise their monotheism by saying there was more than one God; and so they set up the 'evil god' as in fact a very powerful, sinful Angel. And this wrong notion was picked up by early Christians equally eager to accommodate the surrounding pagan ideas about evil.

The Old Testament, along with the New Testament for that matter, personifies evil and sin. However, Edersheim outlines reasons for believing that as Rabbinic Judaism developed during the exile in Babylon, this personification of evil became extended in the Jewish writings to such a point that sin and evil began to be spoken of as independent beings. And of course, we can understand why this happened- in order to narrow the gap between Judaism and the surrounding Babylonian belief in such beings. Edersheim shows how the Biblical understanding of the yetzer ha 'ra, the sinful inclination within humanity, became understood as an evil personal being called "the tempter" (7).

It needs to be understood that the Persians weren't the first to adopt a dualistic view of the cosmos- i.e. that there is a good God and who gives blessing and positive things, and an evil god who brings disaster. The Egyptians had Osiris as the good god, and Typhon as the evil god. Native Indians in Peru have Carnac as the good god, and Cupai as the evil god; the early Scandinavian peoples had Locke as the evil god and Thor as the good one; the Eskimos had Ukouna the good and Ouikan the evil (8). The Sumerian Gilgamesh epic had the same idea- Gilgamesh and Huwawa stood in opposition to each other. This thinking is totally human- it rests upon the assumption that our view of good and evil is ultimately true. The Biblical position that humanity is usually wrong in their judgments of moral matters, and that God's thoughts are far above ours (Isaiah 55) needs to be given its full weight. For frequently we end up realizing that what we perceived as "evil" actually resulted in our greater good- Joseph could comment to his brothers: "You thought evil against me [and they did evil against him!], but God meant it unto good... to save much people alive" (Gen. 50:20).

Dualism in the form which influenced Judaism and later apostate Christianity is really proposing two gods. Yet the Bible is emphatic from cover to cover that there is only one God, the Father, the God revealed in the Bible. This leaves no space for a second god or a bad god. Here we come right up hard against why this matter is important to any Bible-believing person. Helene Celmina was a non-religious Latvian imprisoned in the Soviet gulag. She later wrote of her fellow prisoners who were Jehovah's Witnesses- and word for word I can identify with her reflections here: "... I remember, too, another conversation I had with the Jehovah's Witnesses about the gods. They insisted that there were two gods, Jehovah and another [Satan], whom Jehovah would fight. No matter how hard they tried, using modern science, chemistry, and the newest findings in physics, they could not prove the existence of the other god to me" (9). These are the words of a woman who was incarcerated in one of history's most evil and abusive systems- but it didn't make her believe in the existence of a 'second god', but rather it brought her to believe more strongly that the one true God is the only God. Solzhenitsyn, as we shall later remark, learnt the very same lesson from the same gulag.

Prophets And Monsters

Time and again the Old Testament prophets refer to the chaos monster myths- and applies them to Egypt or other earthly enemies of God's people. Thus the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea is described in terms of Rahab the dragon being cut in pieces and pierced, his heads broken in the waters, and the heads of Leviathan likewise crushed (Ps. 74:13,14 NRSV- other references in Ez. 29:3-5; 32:2-8; Ps. 87:4; Is. 30:7; Jer. 46:7,8). This is quite some emphasis- and the point of it is that the real enemy of God's people is not the chaos monster, but rather human, earthly people and systems. And there ought to be great joy in the fact that God overcomes them time and again. Thus Israel so often were directed back to the historical victory over Egypt in the plagues and Exodus- for this was what they should have been thinking about, rather than myths of chaos monsters involved in cosmic battles. And all this is true for us; it is God's victory over real, visible opponents to us which is our cause for rejoicing, His creation of us as His people, which is the ultimate reality which should grip our lives- rather than stories of cosmic conflict. For our Egypt is still all around us; as Martin Luther King observed, "Egypt symbolized evil in the form of humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation, and crushing domination" (10). These earthly realities are the real 'satan' / adversary with which we daily engage, rather than with a cosmic monster. And the whole glorious history of God's dealing with 'Egypt' is our inspiration and encouragement. The popular contemporary idea of a cosmic dragon being trodden underfoot and thrown into the sea is picked up in Mic. 7:19 and reapplied to sin: "He will tread our iniquities under foot and cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (R.V.). Again- the prophet is refocusing our attention away from myths of cosmic dragons, and onto our sins as the real Satan / adversary.

Re-Focus Upon Earthly Realities

This re-focusing of cosmic conflict legends onto real, concrete human beings and empires upon earth is to be found throughout the Old Testament. The pagan legends are alluded to only in order to deconstruct them and re-focus Israel's attention upon the essential conflicts- against our own human sin, and against the spiritual opposition of the unbelieving world around us. Hab. 3:8 asks: "Was Your wrath against the rivers, O Lord, was Your anger against the rivers, or Your indignation against the sea?". Remember that sea and rivers were seen as the abode of various gods, and were even at times identified directly with them. Hab. 3:12 goes on to answer the question- that no, Yahweh's anger wasn't against those sea / river gods, but "You did bestride / judge the earth in fury; You trampled the nations in anger". The real conflict of Yahweh was with the enemies of Israel, not with the pagan gods. For He was the one and only God.

Consider the following examples of what I'm calling 're-focusing':

- One of the Ras Shamra documents records the Canaanite poem about Baal's war against the Prince of the Sea: "Lo, thine enemies, O Baal, lo, thou didst smite through thine enemies, behold thou dost annihilate thy foes" (11). This is effectively translated into Hebrew in Ps. 92:10 and applied to Yahweh's conflict with Israel's enemies and all sinners: "For, lo, thine enemies, O Lord, for, lo, Thine enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered". The myths about the supposed netherworld of Sea gods become reapplied to wicked men and nations- the true source of evil in Israel's world.

- Jer. 9:21 speaks of how "death [Mawet- a reference to the pagan god of the underworld, Mot] has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces". The allusion is to how Mot, the supposed god of death and the underworld, was thought to enter people's houses by their windows and slay them. Thus the Ras Shamra texts record how in his cosmic conflict with Mot, Baal built himself a palace without windows so that Mot couldn't enter and kill him (12). But the historical reference of Jer. 9:21 is clearly to the Babylonian invasion of Judah. Thus the well known idea of cosmic conflict between Baal and Mot is re-focused upon the Babylonian armies whom the one true God had sent against the erring people of Judah.

- The Ras Shamra texts include a section on the fall and death of Baal. Although written in Ugaritic, this section has amazing similarities with the poem of Isaiah 14 about the fall of Babylon- e.g. "The death of Baal" includes lines such as "From the throne on which he sits... how hath Baal come down, how hath the mighty been cast down!". Isaiah's message was therefore: 'Forget those stories about Baal being cast down; what's relevant for us is that mighty Babylon, which tempts us to trust in her rather than Yahweh God of Israel, is to be cast down, let's apply the language of Baal's fall to the kingdoms of this world which we know and live amongst'. Another such example is to be found in Is. 47:1: "Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne". This is almost quoting [albeit through translation] from the 'Death of Baal' poem (13).

- The Ras Shamra poem about King Keret speaks of how this heavenly being earnestly sought a wife through whom he could have children, so that they could receive from him the inheritance of the whole world; and he grieved that only his servant would inherit the world, and not his own children (14). The Biblical record of Abraham's similar lament, and the promises that in fact he would have a seed, who would inherit the earth (Gen. 15:1-3 etc.) is so similar. Why the similarities? To re-focus Israel away from the pagan myths which they'd encountered onto a real, actual historical person in the form of Abraham.

- The Babylonian Account Of Creation claims (Tablet 4, line 137) that Marduk cleft Tiamat, the ocean goddess, with his sword. The Biblical idea of Yahweh cleaving the waters clearly picks up this idea (Hab. 3:9; Ps. 74:15; 78:13,15; Ex. 14:16,21; Jud. 15:19; Is. 35:6; 48:21; 63:12; Neh. 9:11). But these passages largely refer to the miracle God did at the Red Sea, bringing about the creation of His people out of the cleft waters of the Sea. Again, pagan creation is reinterpretted with reference to a historical, actual event in the experience of God's people.

- There were many pagan myths which featured fratricide- the murder of a brother by a brother. Israel in Egypt would've encountered the Egyptian legend of Seth who slew Osiris; and on entering Canaan, they would likely have heard the Canaanite story of Mot who murdered Baal. Moses in Gen. 4 gave Israel the true story of fratricide- that Cain had slain his brother Abel. The pagan myths were re-focused on a real, historical situation which had occurred, and from which personal warning should be taken to each reader with regard to the danger of envy and unacceptable approach to God.

- The Canaanite explanation of the family of the gods was that it contained a total of 70 gods- Ugaritic Tablet II AB 6.46 speaks of the "seventy sons of Asherah". This is re-focused by the record of Genesis 10- which speaks of 70 nations of men. Likewise Gen. 46:27 and Ex. 1:5 speak of the 70 sons of Jacob- and Dt. 32:8 says that the number of the Gentile nations was fixed "according to the number of the sons of God" or, "Israel" (according to some texts). The belief in the 70 gods of the Canaanite pantheon is therefore re-focused down to earth- where there were 70 sons of Jacob, 70 nations in the world around Israel, and Dt. 32:8 may imply that each is cared for by a guardian Angel in Heaven.

- The heroes of the early pagan myths were hunters who hunted fearsome animals and huge monsters- e.g. as recounted in the deeds of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. Gen. 10:9 says that God only took notice of a mighty hunter called Nimrod ("he was a mighty hunter before the Lord")- and he was no hero in God's record.

- The Mesopotamian records also feature chronological accounts just as Genesis does. But they claim that any leaders on earth came down from Heaven, and the kings were effectively divine beings. Genesis is silent about this; there's a clear boundary between Heaven and earth, and people don't come down from Heaven to become kings on earth. The Genesis 11 genealogies are very clear that the chronologies are of ordinary, mortal men. Yet both the Genesis record and the Mesopotamian traditions tend to use the numbers six and seven, or multiples of them, in stating how many years men lived, or in the numbers of people recorded in genealogies (15). Moses did this in order to show that he was consciously alluding to those surrounding traditions- and yet re-focusing the understanding of Israel upon the literal, human, earthly realities to the exclusion of myth and legend.

Correction In Captivity

There's significant evidence that under inspiration, the book of Deuteronomy and some of the historical books were edited by Jewish scribes in Babylon into their current form (16). This so-called Deuteronomic history sought to speak specifically to the needs and weaknesses of Judah in Babylonian captivity. In our present context it's interesting to note the occurrences of the term "son / children of Belial" to describe evil people. The apostate Jewish writings speak of a figure called Beliar, a kind of personal Satan figure. However, the Hebrew Bible's use of the term Belial- note the slight difference- is significant. For according to Strong's Hebrew lexicon, "Belial" essentially means "nothing" or "failure". Wicked people were therefore sons of nothing, empty, vapid... connecting with Paul's New Testament insistence that idols / demons are in fact nothing, they are no-gods. According to the Jewish Apocryphal writings, Beliar is active in leading Israel away from obedience to the Torah. But the Hebrew Bible says nothing of this- rather does is stress that Israel are themselves guilty for their disobedience and must bear full and total responsibility for this. Many of the Qumran writings mention how Belial can influence the moral center of a human being, so that they plan evil (see 1QH-a 2[10].16, 22; 4[12].12-13; 4[12].12; 6[14].21-22; 7[15].3; 10[2].16-17; 14[6].21). Yet this is totally the opposite of what the Hebrew Bible (as well as the New Testament) emphasize- that the human heart itself is the source of temptations, and therefore human beings are totally responsible for their own sins.

A case could also be made that the whole record of Israel's rejection from entering the land of Canaan is framed to adduce a reason for this as the fact they chose to believe that the land was inhabited by an evil dragon who would consume them there. This was a slander of the good land, and the whole point was that if they had believed in the power of God, then whatever 'adversary' was in the land, in whatever form, was ultimately of no real power (Num. 13:32; 14:36; Dt. 1:25). And yet it was not God's way to specifically tell the people that there was no such dragon lurking in the land of Canaan- instead He worked with them according to their fears, by making the earth literally open and swallow up the apostate amongst them (Num. 16:30)- emphasizing that by doing this, He was doing "a new thing", something that had never been done before- for there was no dragon lurking in any land able to swallow up people. And throughout the prophets it is emphasized that God and not any dragon swallowed up people- "The Lord [and not any dragon] was as an enemy; He has swallowed up Israel" (Lam. 2:5 and frequently in the prophets). The people of Israel who left Egypt actually failed to inherit Canaan because they believed that it was a land who swallowed up the inhabitants of the land (Num. 13:32), relating this to the presence of giants in the land (Num. 13:33). As Joshua and Caleb pleaded with them, they needed to believe that whatever myths there were going around, God was greater than whatever mythical beast was there. And because they would not believe that, they failed to enter the land, which in type symbolized those who fail to attain that great salvation which God has prepared.

Isaiah's statement that Yahweh creates both good and evil / disaster, light and darkness, is not only aimed at criticizing the Babylonian dualistic view of the cosmos. It also has relevance to the false ideas which were developing amongst the Jews in Babylon, which would later come to term in the false view of Satan which most of Christendom later adopted. According to the Jewish Apocryphal writing The Visions of Amram, human beings choose to live under the control of one of two angels. Amram has a vision of the two opposing angels who have been given control over humanity (4Q544 frg. 1, col. 2.10–14 [Visions of Amram-b] = 4Q547 frgs. 1–2, col. 3.9–13). The good angel supposedly has power “over all the light”, whereas the evil angel has authority “over all the darkness” . Thus the idea of dualism - which is so attractive to all people- was alive and well amongst the Jews; and thus Is. 45:5-7 was also aimed at the developing Jewish belief in Babylon in a dualistic cosmos.


(1) Paul Carus, The History Of The Devil And The Idea Of Evil (New York: Gramercy Books, 1996) p. 58.

(2) I have exemplified this at length in Bible Lives Chapter 11.

(3) J.B. Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) p. 174.

(4) H.C. Kee, Medicine, Miracle And Magic (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1986) p. 70.

(5) Geza Vermes, Jesus The Jew (London: S.C.M., 1993) p. 61.

(6) E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts And Beliefs (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 1 pp. 471-483.

(7) Alfred Edersheim, The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah Vol. 2 (London: Longmans, 1899) Appendices 13 and 16.

(8) Kersey Graves documents these and many other examples from around the world in The Biography Of Satan (Chicago: Frontline Books, 2000) pp. 63-66.

(9) Helene Celmina, Women In Soviet Prisons (New York: Paragon House, 1985) p. 133. It's a translation of the Latvian original Sievietes PSRS Cietumos (Stockholm: Latvian National Fund, 1980).

(10) Martin Luther King, Strength To Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) p. 73.

(11) As quoted in Umberto Cassuto, Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 2 p. 98.

(12) Cassuto, ibid., p. 134.

(13) Cassuto, ibid. pp. 156, 164.

(14) English translation in Cassuto, ibid. pp. 206-208.

(15) Demonstrated in great detail by Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) Vol. 2 pp. 255-259.

(16) The similarities of style, language and indications of common editing are explained in detail in Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981); there is a good summary in Terrence Fretheim, Deuteronomic History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989). See too M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy And The Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).