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Demons in the Old Testament
Issues in Translation

Dennis Bratcher

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There are places in the Old Testament where some English translations use the word "demon" or "devils" (for example, "demons": Deut 32:17, Psa 106:37; "goat-demons": Lev 17:7, Isa 13:21, NRSV; "devils": 2 Chron 11:15, AV). In other places, it is easy for people in the modern world who are accustomed to reading the New Testament to think "demons" when they read things like "an evil spirit," even though the text clearly says that the evil spirit is from God (for example, Jud 9:23, 1 Sam 16:14-23).

In spite of the translations, there is no word in Hebrew equivalent to the English word "demon," nor any word that communicates the same meaning that the term communicates in English as an malevolent being in the service of the devil out to destroy humans. That idea today has been shaped by the imagination of medieval writers and popularized in the modern church in terms of evil beings against which Christians need to wage "spiritual warfare." Yet, the ancient Israelites lived in a world in which that view of "demons" was not part of their culture or way of thinking.

This disparity between our own modern notions and what lies behind the Hebrew terms and concepts often leads to misunderstanding the point of the biblical text and what it communicates. It is always a good idea to read what the biblical text actually says about a topic, and understand the passage against the social and cultural background of ancient Israel and the early church before we impose too many of our modern assumptions and preconceptions about meaning onto Scripture.

Idols and Demons

A good place to begin is Deuteronomy 32:16-17:

16 They made him jealous with strange gods, with abhorrent things they provoked him. 17 They sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known, to new ones recently arrived, whom your ancestors had not feared. (NRSV)
                

The Hebrew word translated "demons" in verse 17 (שׁד, seed) occurs here in the plural with the preposition "to" and vocalized with the definite article "the" (לשּׁדים, lassedim), which gives us "to the demons."

It is important to be aware that translation is not a matter of finding a single word in one language that translates another word in another language. Translation is more often the translation of ideas and concepts rather than merely words, and there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence of single words between languages. This is especially true of languages that are separated by 3,000 years of history and culture.

Also, there are other features of language besides just the words that affect translation. Words do not have fixed or inherent meaning in any language. The historical and cultural context in which they are used, the literary features that accompany them, the topics they are used to address, even who is speaking or writing the words can all affect "meaning," what a term communicates and how it is to be understood. There are many words in English that can take on different meanings in different circumstances, or that can be used as technical terms in one context and yet take on a more common meaning in another context.

Take for example the simple English verb "run." It has a fairly simple meaning in most contexts, referring to a human action, "to go faster than a walk." However, in different contexts it can refer to what a candidate does in a political campaign, to play a musical passage quickly, to go back and forth or spread out between two points, to melt, to remain constant, to penetrate or slip through, etc. It is usually a context or contexts, as well as other terms in that context, that give us clues to which meaning is meant.

Rather than complicating the meaning, in many places in Hebrew Scriptures some of these features actually help us better understand the meaning of a term no matter what English word we use to translate it. There is one unique and prominent feature of Hebrew writing that is especially helpful in providing a context for the meaning of words. It is known as parallelism, in which ideas are related and emphasized by the grouping of synonyms or antonyms (see Parallelism in Hebrew Writing).

Along with the term translated "demons," in the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 32:16-17 there are a whole series of terms with similar meaning ("synonymous parallelism") that will help us understand how the writer is using the term שׁד (seed). In these two verses, there are four other parallel terms and phrases that are used with the word translated as "demons":

strange or foreign gods (זרים, zariym)
abhorrent things (תועבת, to‘eybot)
demons (לשּׁדים, lashshediym)
gods [they did not know] (אלהים, elohiym)
new ones [recently come {of whom} your fathers were not afraid] (חדשים, chadashim,)

The first of these parallel terms is simply the word "strange" (or "stranger") or "foreign" ("foreigner"). It is most often used of things that present a threat to the community, such as foreign people who are enemies (Hos 7:9, Isa 1:7, Jer 5:19, etc.), prostitutes ("strange women," Prov 2:16), or things that violate custom or law ("strange fire," Lev 10:1, Num 3:4; "strange incense," Ex 30:9). In this sense it is also used to refer to the gods of foreign peoples that present a threat to the proper worship of God (Psa 44:21, Isa 43:12, Jer 2:25, etc.).

The same is true of the second term, "abhorrent things." This term is often used to refer generally to the whole practice of Baal worship that included cult objects like household idols, images, sacred poles, trees, and high places, as well as sexual practices of the fertility religion, which were all "abhorrent" or "offensive" to Israelites (Lev. 18:22, Deut 7:25, 1 King 14:24, etc).

The final two terms also refer to the gods of Canaan with which the Israelites had come into contact only after their entry into the land (for the time frame of Deuteronomy see The Book of Deuteronomy; the "golden calf" or bull in Exodus 32 may have reflected Egyptian religious beliefs). In this sense they were "new" gods that the people "did not know" before.

It seems obvious in this context from these parallel terms that the term translated "demons" also refers to the gods of the surrounding peoples that posed a threat to Israel’s worship of Yahweh. In this passage in Deuteronomy, the wider context is an appeal, in the form of recounting Israel’s failure to worship God and their practice of worshipping the idols of Canaan, to worship God properly as the only God.

The immediate context of the use of שׁד(seed) here is also important. Just a few verses later in this passage, there is a clear statement that these "demons" or "strange gods" or "abhorrent things" that the people are so tempted to elevate to deity and use to replace Yahweh are really no gods at all (Deut 32:21):

32:21 They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols.

This leads to the conclusion that the word translated as "demons" does not refer to anything close to what we moderns think of as demons, but is a pejorative term to refer to the idols of Baal worship that are declared to be nothing at all (compare Isa 44:6-20, where the writer pokes fun at the gods of Canaan as nothing but wood and stone). What is emphasized is that they are "no god."

In light of this verse, we might note that verse 17a can be translated in two ways. In NRSV, it is translated: "they sacrificed to demons, not God." This would imply that the verse should be understood to say that they sacrificed "to the demons" instead of sacrificing to God. However the construction in 17a is identical to verse 21, which means it could as easily be translated "they sacrificed to demons that are not god," which would further emphasize the pejorative use of the term שׁד (seed) here (the LXX supports the NRSV translation).

In any case, a closer look at the word שׁד (seed) in Hebrew emphasizes that it refers in a negative way to Canaanite idols and deities. Actually, the term שׁד (seed, "demons") does not even originate in Hebrew. It is a loanword from Assyria, from the Assyrian word šędu. This word in Assyrian refers to the mythological creatures that were supposed to guard the sphinx-colossus of Asshur, the primary deity of the Assyrians (in Western mythology they are called griffons). The word in Hebrew, then, originally referred to mythological creatures associated with Assyrian deities. The very purpose of using the term, and paralleling them with other terms for pagan idols and deities, seems to be to emphasize that the pagan deities are not something to fear because they are not really gods at all. In Hebrew thought, that is equivalent to saying that they do not exist, or have no power or importance of which to fear.

It is instructive, then, to note that LXX translates שׁד (seed) in Deuteronomy 32:17 with δαιμονίοις (daimoniois, "demons"), not in the context of "demonic powers" or minions of the devil as we want to hear the term, or even in the context of the NT usage, but in the context of mythological creatures that are specifically stated to be "no-god" (ου θεω, ou theo). In other words, even though the Greek translation uses a term that sounds much closer to our word "demons," the meaning is not what that word means to us in English, but rather what the Hebrew term communicates.

Further, the word שׁד (seed) only occurs twice in the MT, here in Deuteronomy 32:17 and in Psalm 106:36-37. It is no accident that the context in the Psalm is precisely the same as the Deuteronomy passage; that is, the condemnation of the Israelites for worshipping the idols of foreign deities.

Psalm 106:36 They served their idols and they became a hindrance to them; 37 they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons. 38 they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood.

Once again, parallelism gives us some indication of the meaning of the word. The Hebrew word שׁד (seed) in verse 36 is parallel to the word עצבים (‘atsabim), "idols" or "graven images, and in verse 38 to  עצבי כנען  (‘atsabey kená‘an), "idols of Canaan." Clearly, שׁד (seed) is related to the gods of the Canaanites. And again the Septuagint translates שּׁדים (sedim) by τοις δαιμονιοις (tois daimoniois) to describe these false gods of the Canaanites, as is clear from the latter part of the verse.

So, it can be concluded that the Hebrew termשׁד (seed) is a loanword from the mythology of the surrounding peoples. Originally, it referred to the mythological creatures of Canaanite and Assyrian religion that were representations of various gods. In biblical usage, it becomes synonymous with "idol," a pejorative way to refer to Canaanite deities.

Goats and Satyrs

In other places, other Hebrew terms are sometimes also translated as "demons." However, in every case, the context of the term is an attack upon the idolatrous practices of Baal worship, or a negative reference to Canaanite mythology. For example, in 2 Chronicles 11:15, an account of the pagan practices introduced by Jeroboam in the Northern Kingdom, the KJV translates "devils" for a different Hebrew term.

11:15 And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made. (KJV)

11:15 and had appointed his own priests for the high places, and for the goat-demons, and for the calves that he had made. (NRSV)

Here the Hebrew word translated "devils" in the KJV or "goat-demons" in the NRSV is שׂעיר (sa‘iyr). The most common meaning of the word שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) is "goat," specifically "he-goat" or buck (for example, Gen 37:1; Lev 4:24, etc.; 53 times in the MT). A feminine form of the word occurs twice to refer to "she-goat" (Lev 4:28, 5:6). The root of this word in Hebrew is the word שׂער (se‘ar), which means "hair," either of animals (Gen 25:25) or of persons (Ju 16:22). Another derived cognate of this word is the word שׂערה (se‘orah), which is usually translated "barley," that is, a hairy or bearded grain. The connotation of שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) is that of a "hairy" animal, which is appropriate since many goats in the Middle East are longhaired or Angora goats.

However, there are four occurrences in the Hebrew text where the term שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) takes on a slightly different shade of meaning (2 Chron 11:15, Lev 17:7, Isa 13:21, and 34:14) while at the same time retaining the basic meaning of "he-goat." Leviticus 17:7 reads:

Lev 17:7 . . . they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves . . ..

The context here is the regulation of the killing and eating of meat, specifically prohibiting the killing of animals in the open fields or even within the camp without subsuming the taking of life under the covenantal worship of God. Directly forbidden in verse seven is the offering of sacrifices to the "he-goats" instead of to Yahweh. It becomes clear, then, that the "he-goat" is not just an ordinary goat, but refers to something that is a false object of worship, especially with the term "prostitute" that is commonly used in the Old Testament to describe graphically the unfaithfulness of the people in worshipping pagan gods.

In 2 Chronicles 11:15,שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) is connected with "calves" and "high places" that are both associated with pagan Canaanite religious practices. Likewise, in Leviticus 17:7, "he-goat" refers to idolatrous images, either physically represented or part of Canaanite mythology.

The two other occurrences of שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) are both in Isaiah (13:21; 34:14). Although in a different context with a different emphasis, the meaning is similar in both passages.

13:21 But wild animals will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will live, and there goat-demons will dance. 13:22 Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time is close at hand, and its days will not be prolonged.

34:13 Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. 34:14 Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest. 34:15 There shall the owl nest and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow; there too the buzzards shall gather, each one with its mate.

In both passages the emphasis is on wild animals that inhabit the desolate places of the desert. These verses are highly poetic descriptions of the desolation of the land under God’s judgment, specifically Babylon (ch. 13) and Edom (ch. 34). The imagery is that of cities being so thoroughly destroyed and overgrown with thorns that only wild animals live there. Among the wild animals, the Hebrew text refers to שׂעיר (sa‘iyr). While it could be argued that the term refers to the ordinary goat, this was a domesticated animal in biblical times. Even though it wandered the hillsides, it was not really a "wild" animal. In other words, "goat" does not fit the imagery here to symbolize devastated and uninhabitable land.

Some versions (for example, KJV) translate שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) in these verses not as "devils" or "evil spirits" or even "he-goat" but as "satyr". The satyr is a legendary creature that shows up in the mythologies of various cultures of the ancient world as the guardian of holy places or deities, or as the personification of debauchery and revelry. It was portrayed as half-human and half-animal, usually with the feet, tail and ears of a longhaired goat or horse and the torso, head and arms of a man. In Greek mythology, the satyrs were the escorts, guardians, and companions of the god Dionysus, the god of mirth, wine, and revelry. They were thought to inhabit the countryside, especially waste areas and ruins. The Greek god Pan was often portrayed in paintings as a satyr.

Much of what we know about satyrs in ancient mythology comes from Greek and Roman sources. Yet, there seems to be some connection between the idea of שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) in the ancient Middle East and the satyr in western mythology. Some have even suggested a linguistic connection between the terms. In any case, the Hebrew term שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) in these four verses seems to refer to mythological creatures from Canaanite religion, false idols that the people worshipped instead of Yahweh.

There are overtones in the Isaiah passages of the mythological creatures associated with these particular animals, for example the idea of the satyr behind the use of שׂעיר (sa‘iyr). However, the real point is that Isaiah is using the creatures as metaphorical symbols of desolation, of destruction, of total devastation that results in a place fit only for wild creatures, real or mythological, who inhabit the humanly uninhabitable places of the earth. This picks up the overtones of "emptiness" that is associated with the idols elsewhere (see below). To read more into this by trying to connect the term with the modern idea of demons is drastically to misunderstand the function of poetic language (sometimes called "mythopoetic" language) in prophetic oracles.

An interesting passage in 2 Kings 23:8 can be further instructive at this point.

23:8 He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city.

The context of this passage is the religious reforms of Josiah in which he tore down the pagan altars and idols in response to the discovery of the law book in the temple. The Hebrew text here reads "high places of the gates" (השּׁערים, hashshe‘ariym, "the gates"). However, "gates" does not fit with the meaning of this verse here. Most textual scholars suggest that the letter  שׁ(sh) in the Massoretic text should be corrected to the letter (s). They suggest that the reading of the initial letter (s) as (sh) was influenced by the repeated occurrence of the word שׁער (sha‘ar) "gate" in the verse ("gate of Joshua," "gates of the city"). With this correction, the word would read השּׂערים (hasse‘iriym), "satyrs." So, a better translation of this passage is " . . .he broke down the high places of the satyrs that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city . . .

So again the usage of שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) indicates reference to a pagan idol that was being improperly worshipped as a symbol of Canaanite deity. This understanding makes 2 Chronicles 11:15 even more clear. The context there is the sin of Jeroboam I in banishing the Levitical priesthood from the Northern Kingdom and setting up idols of bulls and goats for the people to worship. In fact, this idolatry of Jeroboam I in setting up images of animals to represent the gods of the Canaanites became a paradigm in Israelite theology of the sinful ruler who rejected Yahweh to follow the false gods of the land (compare 1 Kings 12:25-33; 16:25-26).

It is again instructive to note the Septuagint rendering of these verses. In 2 Chronicles 11:15, rather than simply translating the Hebrew word שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) with another word, the translators attempt to translate the "concept" or the meaning. The Greek reading for שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) is "the idols and the worthless" (και τοις ειδωλοις και τοις ματαιοις, kai tois eidolois kai tois mataiois). This clearly indicates that the understanding of the term was pagan idols. Especially interesting here is the use of the nominal adjective ματαιοις (mataiois, "vanities," "emptiness," "worthless things") to describe these idols: they are empty, worthless, powerless things! (Note the use of the nominal form of this word in Ephesians 4:17.) It is with this understanding that we note that the word שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) in Leviticus 17:7 is translated in the Septuagint solely by the word τοις ματαιοις (tois mataiois): "And they shall no longer offer sacrifices to emptiness."

All of this clearly indicates that this word שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) is not used in Hebrew Scriptures to mean anything close to our idea of "demonic powers" but exclusively to refer to the idols of the pagan deities who were recognized to be nothing or empty, devoid of any power. This negative connotation of the imagery of "he-goat" may well be related to the use of a goat in the Israelite sacrificial system as the bearer of the sins of the people (for example, Lev 16:21-22), although it is impossible to know which way the influence ran.

It can be debated whether Israelites viewed these idols in ontological terms, whether they would ever have asked if the gods they represented "really" existed or not. They would most likely not have asked such a question, since those categories of ultimate reality are alien to the ancient world. They tended to express things in functional terms (what they can do) rather than ontological terms (whether they exist). However, it is clear that the biblical traditions did not view the שׁד (seed) or the שׂעיר (sa‘iyr) as anything to be feared. They simply represented the idols of the Canaanites, which were powerless and could be treated as "emptiness" or "nothing." In Hebrew thought, that comes close to what moderns mean when they say, "does not exist."

Conclusion

In summary, there is no Hebrew word that can be translated as "demons" to communicate what that word implies in English. There does lie behind the Old Testament conception a basic animistic and mythological world view with which the Israelites are in dialog. But they are using the terms and in dialog with such conceptions, not because they accept them or are dominated by them, but precisely to deny the validity of such mythological world views.  The biblical writers use the terms not to accept what they represent but precisely to reject it. It is clear that there was a popular belief among Israelites in such things as ghosts and the mythological creatures of Canaanite religion.  But the biblical tradition as it stands moves beyond such popular mythological conceptions to a vision of a Creator, a sovereign God who is in sole control of the world, and does not share that with anything or anyone. So again, there are no "demons" in the Old Testament, only idols that are rejected as "no-gods."

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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