Category Archives: Mesopotamian and Israelite religions

Visions of the End: Where did they come from? (End 1.1)

This term I am teaching a course on early Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, including legacies for the medieval and modern eras. You can get a glimpse into this course on Visions of the End on my courses page. One of the key questions to start with in such a course is where did apocalypticism come from? By “apocalypticism” I mean, in part, the worldview that I have outlined in skeletal form in the post: It’s the end of the world as we know it: Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. I have also dealt with such issues in many previous posts collected together in my blog category apocalypticism, as well as my category on the history of Satan.

Like most questions of origin, the issue of the origins of the apocalyptic worldview is a slippery one to handle and there are no simple answers, despite my attempt at a sketchy but partial answer here. The first time that we witness what scholars often identify as the Jewish apocalyptic worldview in its “full-blown” sense is in writings such as 1 Enoch and Daniel around the turn of the second century BCE. Yet there are important pieces of the puzzle from various cultural spheres that preceded the Jewish apocalyptic worldview and that help us to make better sense of the full picture.

First of all, there is the importance of the Mesopotamian “combat myth” (on which see my earlier post here). Central to the later Jewish apocalyptic worldview is the combat between God and Satan which will come to a complete end in the certain defeat of Satan, who is sometimes identified with that age-old monster or dragon Leviathan (as in Revelation 12-13). As far back as the earliest written evidence of civilization we find a recurrent theme in the mythology of Mesopotamia and the Near East generally. This particular recurrent theme or plot which scholars have labeled “the combat myth” involves the following:

One among the many gods engages in activity that seriously threatens the very order of the society of the gods, and it seems that all may revert to chaos (i.e. almost literally all hell is breaking loose). None among the older generation of gods seems willing or able to stand up against this chaotic threat which may undo the cosmos. A young or up-and-coming god (e.g. Ninurta or Marduk) steps up after being offered kingship over all the gods if he succeeds in restoring order among the gods. That young god succeeds in slaying the chaotic god or monster and reigns supreme (at least until the next threat of chaos).

This pattern can be seen in the story of Ninurta vs. Anzu and in others such as Ba’al’s defeat of Yamm (personified Sea) and Marduk’s defeat of the chaotic sea-monster Tiamat, from whose body Marduk fashions the world as we know it (in the Babylonian Enuma elish).

This pattern is also reflected in the basic assumptions of some authors of the Hebrew Bible, who speak of Yahweh slaying Leviathan, Rahab, or Yam, sometimes in connection with his creation of the world (see Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 89:5-18; Isaiah 51:9-11). There is some truth in the claim that the apocalyptic worldview is the combat myth writ large: instead of simply being a recurrent theme in mythology, the ongoing combat between God and Satan (the ultimate adversary) is central to the overall apocalyptic worldview and now there is a vision of a future, final battle in which Satan will be put out of business permanently.

Second, there is the Persian case of Zoroastrian apocalypticism, about which I have posted in connection with Plutarch’s ethnographic summary (and, no, the actual Ahura Mazda was not interviewed on The Daily Show — yes, I had an email asking if he had been). The Zoroastrian material speaks of an ongoing battle between Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (Evil Spirit) that will come to a complete end in the defeat of the power of darkness and all of its allies. An end-time figure (Saoshyant = “future benefactor”) will play some role in bringing about Lord Wisdom’s plans. There will be a resurrection of the dead and judgment will follow. The power of light will punish or destroy all evil and will “make things wonderful” by establishing a blissful existence for all humans who chose to live in accordance with Truth rather than the Lie.

Clearly there are many parallels between this Persian (Iranian) worldview and Jewish apocalypticism. Yet there are difficulties in assessing what is the relation between the two: We don’t know precisely when Zoroaster lived (either the sixth century BCE or the 12th century BCE!); it is difficult to know what aspects of later Zoroastrianism go back to Zoroaster himself; and all of our writings from Zoroastrians themselves (Avesta and Pahlavi) were only put into the written form we have from the fifth century CE on (i.e. either around seventeen or eleven centuries after Zoroaster lived). So there will always be debate on how the two influenced one another.

Third, there are other important traditions within Israelite religion (before the building of the second temple around 500 BCE) that provide a framework for the development of apocalypticism.

On the one hand there is the wisdom tradition, reflected in writings such as Proverbs. An assumption behind this tradition is that God has wisdom, and that he imparts this wisdom to very special human beings, to wise men. The apocalyptic worldview makes this same assumption and, in this case, the content of the wisdom relates to God’s plan for the coming final intervention to destroy evil and save the righteous (as well as how God runs the universe as a whole). The figure of Daniel, for instance, is presented as the ultimate wise man of Yahweh whose wisdom surpasses that of the Babylonian “wise men”, such that he (someone writing in his name) is the natural candidate to produce one of our earliest apocalyptic writings.

On the other hand, and closely related, is what we can call the prophetic tradition. The writings of the prophets preserved in the Hebrew Bible struggle to explain why God has allowed terrible things to happen to the people he chose (namely, to explain the fall of the Northern kingdom to Assyria in 721 BCE and then the fall of the Southern temple to Babylonia in 586 BCE). An assumption held by these prophets is that God has future plans for his people (namely to save them) and he reveals important aspects of this plan to the people through the prophet.

In the process of communicating what Yahweh tells them to tell the people (as they see it), many prophets look forward to “that day”, namely, the day when Israel would be freed from foreign domination and restored to its united glory. Quite often Yahweh’s communications take the form of visions, like Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones or the two sticks (Ezekiel 37). “That day” also often includes the “judgment” and/or subjugation of foreign nations. As we approach the (most likely) post-exilic era, a prophecy such as that in Isaiah 24-27 (the so-called “Isaiah Apocalypse”) can say that on “that day” (which is imminent) Yahweh will “lay waste the earth and make it desolate” (24:1), that he “will punish the host of heaven in heaven [heavenly beings], and on earth the kings of the earth ” (24:21), and that this can be compared to Yahweh repeating in some more final manner the slaying of “Leviathan the twisting serpent” (27:1 [RSV]).

Although I would hesitate to call the material in Isaiah 24-27 the “full-blown apocalyptic worldview”, we are certainly well on our way towards its development. Many of the pieces of the puzzle were quite quickly coming together in the wake of exile and return, in the fifth century BCE. Soon “that day” would be the day on which Yahweh, God of Israel, did battle with Satan (or some other ultimate adversary) and all of Satan’s earthly allies (kings of other nations) in order to wipe out evil forever and establish an eternal kingdom for the righteous. By soon, I mean sometime before 1 Enoch and the book of Daniel were written (c. 225-160s BCE). By then, the apocalypse had arrived in various senses, although Satan was yet to develop fully as his completely evil self.

Much more could be said, but this will have to do for now (the post is too long!!). You can read more about such things in books by the likes of John J. Collins and Norman Cohn as listed in the outline for my course.

Other predecessors of Satan in Israelite religion and the Hebrew Bible (Satan 3)

When reading the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. “Old Testament”) for historical purposes, it is important not to project back into its pages later developments in Judaism and Christianity, and this is particularly true in the case of “Satan”. Although there is no full-blown notion of personified evil in Israelite religion, there are indeed important messenger or angelic figures associated with Yahweh (“LORD”), God of the Israelites. Sometimes these figures could later on be associated with the notion of Satan as a thoroughly evil figure. (“Israelite religion” is the term scholars often use to refer to the religious life of the Hebrews before the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE, while “Judaism” is generally used in reference to developments following the return under Cyrus and foundation of the second temple in Judea, hence “Second Temple Judaism”). Here I want to briefly discuss three closely related, recurring figures associated with Yahweh’s (God’s) heavenly entourage or council: (1) “the adversary” (ha-satan), (2) the injurious, or evil, spirit (rucha ra’a) and (2) the “messenger” (mal’ak).

1) The Hebrew word for an opponent, prosecutor, adversary, or one who obstructs, satan, occurs in a number of places in the Bible, sometimes in reference to human opponents and sometimes in reference to a figure sent by God. In 2 Samuel 19:22 and in 1 Kings 11:14-25, for instance, the term satan is used of human adversaries of the protagonists (David and Solomon). In most other cases, it is a heavenly figure or messenger (mal’ak = Greek angelos) that God sends to act as an obstruction, adversary, or accuser (see, for instance the story of Balaam in Numbers 22, especially verse 22). The most well-known case of “satan” is the adversary among the “sons of God” (bene ha-elohim) in The Book of Job (chapters 1-2; seventh-fourth centuries BCE). This figure acts almost as a legal prosecutor in challenging Job’s piety and in letting loose severe treatment (e.g. killing all of Job’s 10 children) as a test, all with the active consent of God. The adversary is by no means an evil figure opposed to God in this story (online resources for Job here).

The closest we come to the notion of an angelic adversary (satan) going against the will of God and perhaps even needing to be stopped is in Zechariah (c. 520 BCE), where “the satan” is a prosecutorial figure against Joshua, and Yahweh “rebukes” the satan for accusing Joshua in this particular case (see Zechariah 3; also see 1 Chronicles 21:1, where a “satan” apparently opposes Israel, but with little clarification by the author). There is no indication that these angelic figures are inherently evil in an ongoing manner, however.

2) A recurring figure in the Hebrew Bible sent to do God’s work, either in opposition to or in support of humans, is the mal’ak, or messenger (translated in an ancient Greek translation of the Bible [LXX] as angelos and now often as “angel” in English). Thus, for instance, it is an angel of Yahweh that appears to Moses in a flame of fire (the burning bush) and an angel (as well as pillars of cloud or fire) that helps to guide the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery (Exodus 3:2 and 14:19-24). But we have already seen above that an angel can also serve God’s will in an oppositional manner, if necessary (as in Numbers). And there are passages which imply or state that an angel is involved as a “destroyer” on God’s behalf, as in the Passover incident (Exodus 12:23; cf. 2 Samuel 24:16).

3) Quite similar to the latter role of the messenger sent by God to cause injury is the “evil spirit” in the Hebrew Bible (especially in the so-called Deuteronomistic History, sixth century BCE and earlier). This figure, who is directly distinguished from the “spirit of Yahweh”, is sometimes sent by God to facilitate things happening in the way that God wants them to happen, sometimes inciting violence (see Judges 9:22-23; 1 Samuel 16:14-16; 18:10-11; 19:9-11; also see 1 Kings 22:19-22 for a “lying spirit”).

The most important distinction between these “satans” (including the one in Job), “messengers”, or “evil spirits” and the evil Satan figure of later apocalypticism is that the Hebrew Bible’s satans and angels are almost always acting in conjunction with the will of Yahweh, or God. They are almost always sent by God to be an obstruction or to act as an adversary or prosecutor against some person or persons.

However, even these same passages involving the Israelite God taking adversarial action against certain people could be interpreted differently by later Jews or Christians. This is the case with those in later centuries who did indeed hold a view of Satan as an evil figure opposed to God (such as Jubilees, where Mastema, Enmity personified, takes on some of these same roles, as we shall see later). With the full-blown, apocalyptic Satan, just about the only thing that is in accordance with God’s will is the existence of this figure, whose intentions are directly opposed to God but who unwittingly plays a crucial part in the unfolding of God’s plan (according to many ancient apocalyptic Jews and Christians).

I am indebted to Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy, pp. 107-123 (cited in full in the previous entry) for getting me going on analyzing the passages (I disagree somewhat with his take on Zechariah).

Mesopotamian gods, chaos-monsters, and the “combat myth” (Satan 2)

A rebellious fallen angel who later develops into a full-blown personification of evil (as Satan) first begins to appear clearly in our sources within the context of Jewish apocalypticism around 200 BCE (in book 1 of 1 Enoch). The story of this personified evil figure continues to develop and play an important role in early Christianity. Yet there are important predecessors in the Ancient Near East which help us to understand subsequent stories surrounding the figure of Satan. Among the predecessors is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman (the opponent of Ahura Mazda) within Zoroastrianism, which I have discussed here in an earlier entry on this blog.

Oldest among these predecessors are the chaos-monsters (also gods) who are slayed by an up-and-coming Mesopotamian (or Hittite or Canaanite or Israelite) deity in traditions dating as far back as the third millenium BCE (our earliest evidence for literate civilizations). In particular, the portrayal of Satan in John’s Apocalypse (written c. 90s CE), which became the most potent early image of Satan as the ancient serpent or dragon, cannot be understood without reference to these older gods who threaten or even personify chaos and are ultimately defeated in combat (see especially Revelation, chapters 12-13).

Although there is considerable diversity among these stories of the Mesopotamian gods and we should not imagine that they’re all the same, there is nonetheless a common pattern that emerges in many of these combat stories:

1) A god among the pantheon engages in activity that threatens the well-being (or even existence) of other gods and the society of the gods.

2) The opposition from the chaos-god seems insurmountable and other gods desperately seek (with great difficulty) someone who can solve the problem.

3) Finally, a less prominent or younger god steps forward and acts as a hero in battling and successfully defeating and killing the monstrous threat, re-establishing order in the universe. Often, there are two rounds in the fight, with the hero losing the first. Sometimes (as in the case of Marduk vs. Tiamat and Yahweh vs. Leviathan) the slaying of the chaos-monster coincides with the creation of the world of humans by the hero-god. In essence, the hero-god has saved the entire cosmos from reverting to chaos and now has a new status as a chief or king among the gods.

It is important to state that the gods who threaten to bring chaos to the entire cosmos are not inherently evil in these traditions, however, and they are indeed gods (which Satan is not within early Judaism and Christianity). Yet the role of the chaos-monster as opponent or adversary of the hero-god and the centrality of the battle between the two (“combat myth”) which ends in triumph for the hero are, in many respects, at the heart of Satan’s story and his function within early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic worldviews.

Perhaps the most well known case of this mythology is the Babylonian story of Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, the chaotic sea-monster and mother of all gods, whose husband, Apsu, had plans to do away with her noisy children, the rest of the gods. (As chaotic sea-monster, Tiamat is comparable to the Israelite Leviathan or the Canaanite Yamm). Marduk then uses the corpse of Tiamat to create the world as we know it. You can read that story in the Enuma elish (When on high) online.

The other story I want to briefly cite here, a poetic myth dating back to the second millenium BCE, is also intriguing with regard to the chaos-god as a jealous rebel against the current head of the gods. This is the story of the frightful, monstrous bird Anzu (also Zu), who brings chaos in the world of the gods by stealing the tablet of destinies — the record of all the plans of the gods and locus of power — away from Ellil (also spelled Enlil), the father of the gods (see photo below). What better time to rebel than when Ellil’s taking a shower. The problem begins like this:

“Ellil appointed him (Anzu) to the entrance of the chamber which he had perfected.
He would bathe in holy water in his presence.
His eyes would gaze at the trappings of Ellil-power:
His lordly crown, his robe of divinity,
The Tablet of Destinies in his hands, Anzu gazed,
And gazed at Duranki’s god (i.e. Ellil), father of the gods,
And fixed his purpose, to usurp the Ellil-power.
Anzu often gazed at Duranki’s god, father of the gods,
And fixed his purpose to usurp the Ellil-power.
‘I shall take the gods’ Tablet of Destinies for myself
And control the orders for all the gods,
And shall possess the throne and be master of the rites!
I shall direct every one of the Igigi (category of gods)!’
He plotted opposition in his heart
And at the chamber’s entrance from which he often gazed,
he waited for the start of the day.
While Ellil was bathing in the holy water,
Stripped and with his crown laid down on the throne,
He gained the Tablet of Destinies for himself,
Took away the Ellil-power. Rites were abandoned,
Anzu flew off and went into hiding.
Radiance faded (?), silence reigned,
Father Ellil, their counsellor, was dumbstruck,
For he (Anzu) had stripped the chamber of its radiance.
The gods of the land searched high and low for a solution.”
Standard Babylonian version, tablet 1, iii, first millenium BCE; Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 206-207.

The abandonment of rites in honour of the gods, the silence, and the dumbstruck state of Ellil (as well as other passages which indicate that Anzu’s action has halted water for agriculture) are symbolic of the utter chaos that ensues in the cosmos as a result of Anzu stealing the tablet of destinies, the power of Ellil. After interviewing several divine candidates to fight Anzu, all of which are not up to the seemingly impossible task, young Ninurta (or Ningirsu in some versions) is put forward for the job, and is instructed by his mother, Belet-ili:

“Seize him by the throat: conquer Anzu,
And let the winds bring his feathers as good news to Ekur, to your father Ellil’s house. Rush and inundate the mountain pastures
And slit the throat of wicked Anzu. . .
Show prowess to the gods and your name shall be Powerful!” (SBV, tablet 2).

Ninurta vs. Anzu

In the first battle-sequence, Anzu gains the upper hand by using his Ellil-power to disassemble any of Ninurta’s arrows before they can approach Anzu and Anzu has the power to release and return his own feathers as a smokescreen (using the phrase “Wing to wing” to employ this power). Ninurta then consults with Ea, god of wisdom, who advises that Ninurta disguise his own arrows as though they were Anzu’s feathers, and to time his shooting to coincide with Anzu’s use of his “super-power” (emitting and recalling his feathers). Thus in the second, overwhelming confrontation:

“(As Anzu) shouted ‘Wing to wing’, a shaft came up (?) at him,
A dart passed through his very heart.
He (Ninurta) made an arrow pass through pinion and wing. . .
He slew the mountains (symbolic of Anzu), inundated their proud pastures (ending drought). . . slew wicked Anzu.
And warrior Ninurta regained the gods’ Tablet of Destinies for his own hand.”

Problem solved, and Ninurta’s reward for slaying the jealous and rebellious god who brought chaos was supremacy among the gods:
“You have won complete dominion, every single rite.”

Here, then, is the essence of what scholars call the “combat myth” which, via the Israelite case of Yahweh vs. Leviathan, came to play an important role within the apocalyptic worldview, with its battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the dragon or ancient serpent in John’s Apocalypse.

For an online scholarly article about Ninurta and Anzu (and Azag, another combatant), go here. For Israelite instances of the combat myth, with Yahweh vs. Leviathan or Rahab or Behemoth or Tananim, see the following biblical passages: Psalms, chapters 74, 104; Isaiah chapter 27; Job chapters 40-41. You can view William Blake’s illustration of Leviathan and Behemoth (1825) online at the Tate gallery here. There are also several useful online overviews concerning Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and gods of the Sumerians, the Babylonians and Assyrians, the Canaanites, the Hittites and Hurrians.

Excellent books on the relevance of Mesopotamian combat myths and chaos-monsters for early Judaism and Christianity (including Satan) include: Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (2nd edition; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), and Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

Photo (above): Ninurta pursues Anzu, as depicted on a stone sculpture in the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud, Iraq. Drawing from Austen Henry Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh (London: John Murray, 1853), volume 2, plate 5. This full work, now in the public domain, is available online at ABZU.