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Demonology in the Old Testament

Solomon Nigosian
Demons—in the modern sense of malign spirits—are not necessarily in themselves personifications of
evils, but only of the forces supposed to cause them. Most of the Old Testament passages which refer to
demons belong to the later periods of Israelite history, but this does not argue against a belief in the
existence of demons in earlier times. On the contrary, demons often survive as figures of speech long
after they have ceased to be figures of belief (e.g., the use of the word “gremlins” in contemporary
Deserts, tombs, waste places and ruins seem to be the favorite haunts of demons. During the wilderness
days of Israel, the desert of Palestine was regarded as the abode of ‘Azazel, the mysterious demonic being
to whom guilt-offering was made (Lev. 16:7-28). Two he-goats were to be brought as an offering by the
Israelite to the “door of the tent of meeting,” where Aaron was to cast lots upon them; one goat for
YHWH‟s portion, and the other for ‘Azazel. ‘Azazel’s goat was to be sent to the wilderness as an offering.
The power of demons was greatest at night time. Lilith, the female “night-hag,” haunted desolate places in
company with such unclean birds as the kite, the pelican, and the owl, and with such ghoulish beasts as
wildcats and jackals (Isa. 34:11-15). Other demons of the waste and wilderness were the seraphim, the
“burning” or fiery serpent-form demons who killed many of the Israelites with their sting (Num. 21:6;
Deut. 8:15; cf. also Isa. 14:29; 30:6). No doubt, the “serpent” of Genesis 3 belongs to this category of
demonic being. Similarly, the se’irim, “hairy he-goats,” were conceived as theriomorphic (animal-form)
demons; they were originally worshipped in high places, and special priests performed sacrificial rituals
to them (Lev. 17:7; Isa. 13:21; 34:14; cf. 2 Kings 23:8 with 2 Chron. 11:15).
In addition to the se’irim there were other theriomorphic demons of the waste, and some of them are
mentioned in Isa. 13:21-22. The izi’im, usually translated as “wild beasts” (cf. Jer. 1:39), were regarded as
the inhibiters of the waste. The ohim, the “howling” demons, also liked to haunt the waste. The benoth
ya’anah, it seems, were conceived as the voracious demons who haunted the desolate places in order to
devour lonely beings. Other types of demons were the iyyim and the tannim; probably they were pictured
as harmful supra-normal creatures who lurked about with evil intentions.
Various misfortunes and pathological conditions, including plagues and diseases, were attributed to evil
spirits or demonic beings. Such was the mysterious resef, who was regarded as the demon of plague and
pestilence (Deut. 32:24; Hab. 3:5; Ps. 78:48; Job 5:7). Such was also qeteb, the evil creature of
catastrophe demon known as „aluqah who sucked human blood and had two greedy and insatiable
daughters (Prov. 30:15).
To exhaust all the types of demons and demonic creatures mentioned in the Old Testament is not an easy
task. Besides the ones already referred to, there were numerous other evil spirits and demonic creatures
(cf. Isa. 27:1; Deut. 32:17; Isa. 19:9, 10; Job 40:15) which were feared or worshipped by the Old
Testament people, and to which they offered their children, animals and victuals (Ps. 106:37).
The magical rites of offerings were not the only means of warding off the attacks of evil spirits or
demons. Many protective amulets, whose efficacy had been proven in protection against evil powers and
influences, were also used. The commandment to “bind the words of God upon the hand,” and to let them
be as “frontlets” between the eyes, and to place them on the doorposts and on gates (Exod. 13:16; Deut.
6:8; 11:19; Prov. 7:3), doubtless alludes to the widespread custom of wearing and affixing amuletic
objects. To the same order belongs the practice of smearing doorposts and lintels with sacrificial blood
(Exod. 12:7). Naturally, the practice was rationalized—either by the Israelites or by the codifiers of the
law—but even so, it was still remembered that the primary purpose was to avert the entry of the demon of
plague into the home (Exod. 12:13).
The earrings worn by the members of the household of Jacob, and which Jacob hid under the oak tree,
may have been protective objects (Gen. 35:4). A similar case is that of Gideon who requested the golden
earrings, and along with other ornamental and superstitious objects made an “ephod of it and put it in his
city in Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot after it” (Judg. 8:22-27).
A common dread in the ancient East was the “evil eye,” and the chief charm against it was the knotted
chord which many people carried. The commandment mentioned in Num. 15:38 bids the people of the
Old Testament “to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put
upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue.”
Probably, in the course of time, many of these protective amulets became simply ornaments; nevertheless,
the remarkable passage in Isa. 3:18-20 shows how persistently ingrained superstition was among the
people of the Old Testament.
Bells made of pure gold and alternated with pomegranates were used as apotropaic devices fastened to the
hem of the high priest‟s robe (Exod. 28:33; 39:25-26). By striking against one another at every movement
of the priest, these bells produced a jingling. What was the function of these bells? In the words of J.G.
Frazer, “the chiming of the holy bells was thought to drive far off the envious and wicked spirits who
lurked about the door of the sanctuary, ready to pounce on and carry off the richly apparelled minister as
he stepped across the threshold in the discharge of his sacred office.”
One wonders if the performance of fumigation by the high priest was not also done to expel or frighten
away demons (Lev. 16:12-13).
Another dominant element in the Old Testament was the sacrificial rite of human beings, animals, and
victuals offered not only to deities, but also to demons and departed spirits. The practices in question were
diverse and varied not only in form but also in motivation and significance. Some were expiatory in
nature; that is to say, they were designed to provide a purging from social or cultic offences. Any contact
with impurity, either physical or moral (and the two do not seem to be strictly differentiated), any
infringement of traditional taboos, or any violation of cultic regulations, was regarded by the Old
Testament people as an offense.
Various restrictions were imposed not so much to please the deity, but to protect oneself against the
dangers and harms of demons, hostile spirits, and magical powers. The motive behind these restrictions
was neither a concern for health (an unknown motive in primitive cultures), nor, as often thought, a
sentimental humanitarianism, but a desire to protect against contamination from mysterious spirits, evil
influences, and magical powers.
Thus, the reason for certain animal taboos (Lev. 11; Deut. 14:3-20) was not that these animals were
kinsmen (totems) of certain tribal clans, nor that they were the “divine animals of the heathen,” but
simply that they were regarded as demonic creatures—and this sufficed to render them taboo.
Furthermore, the Old Testament food taboos also belong to the same class as the prohibition of “unclean”
animals. Typical of these taboos were the regulations prohibiting the sacrifice on the same day of an
animal and its young (Lev. 22:28), or seething of a kid in its mother‟s milk (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut.
14:21), or eating any raw meat (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 12:16, 23).
The mysterious facts of sexual life were also attributed to special invisible powers; hence the many sexual
taboos imposed upon men and women. The emission of semen, ejaculated from the genital organs (Gen.
24:2-3; 47:29; cf. also Deut. 25:11) at the height of the sexual act, produced uncleanness in the man, if
discharged by accident (Deut. 23:10), and in both man and woman, if it‟s emission occurred during sexual
intercourse (Lev. 15:16-18). In any case, the period of uncleanness lasted only until the evening. Any
abnormal discharge from the male organs made the man unclean for seven days after the discharge had
ceased (Lev. 15:1-15). Even the spittle of such a man with discharge made the one on whom it fell
unclean (Lev. 15:8).
A woman‟s menstrual flow, probably because of its cyclic occurrence analogous to mysterious cosmic
rhythms, produced an impurity of seven days‟ duration in her, and also in any man who had sexual
intercourse with her during this period (Lev. 15:19-24; cf. 2 Sam. 11:4).
Analogous to the menstrual impurity, but no doubt more serious, was the uncleanness caused by the
prolonged hemorrhage of a woman (Lev. 15:25-30). Childbirth produced a similar uncleanness—this
lasted for forty days from the birth of a boy, and for eighty days from the birth of a girl—and the mother
was prohibited during this time to touch any sacred object, lest her contact contaminate the object as well
(Lev. 12:2-8).
Any kind of abnormality or deformity in the sexual organs (Deut. 20:1), practices of bestiality (Lev.
18:23; 20:15; Deut. 27:21) or homosexuality (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), and incest (Lev. 18:6-18; 20:11-22;
Deut. 27:20-23), were all regarded as unclean and an abomination.
To avert evil and to correct all these conditions, recourse was made to various magical rites which
consisted of two parts. The first ritual was usually (though not always) performed by the offerant or priest
laying his hand on the victim‟s head (Exod. 29:10; Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 24, 29, 33; 16:21; 24:14;
Num. 27:18) in order to remove and transfer the contagion. After this initial mimetic performance, a
second step was required in order to regenerate the infected offender. This consisted of having the priest
apply drops of the sacrificial blood to the right ear, thumb, and big toe of the offender (cf. Exod. 29:20;
Lev. 8:23, 24; 14:14; 14:25).
One of the most fearful causes of contamination was contact with a corpse, for this left one open to
retribution by the departed spirit of the dead body. The funeral customs of the Old Testament people
indicate various magical beliefs and practices.
Specific rituals concerning the burial of the dead are described in numerous passages in the Old
Testament. Time and again, it is related that persons were “buried with their fathers” (cf. Gen. 25:8, 17;
35:29; Num. 27:13; 31:2). The idea of reunion in one sepulchre had a peculiar significance to the Old
Testament people. The most horrible fate that could overtake a man was that his body should be left
unburied (cf. Jer. 8:12; 14:16; 7:33; 9:22; 16:4; 1 kings 13:22; 21:24; 2 Kings 9:10; Ezek. 29:5). The
violation of tombs and the burning of their contents were viewed as a most horrible desecration and
heinous crime (cf. 1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:16; Amos 2:1).
The abodes of the departed spirits were conceived of in various ways. One notion was that the dead went
down to the depths of the “pit” (Isa. 14:15, 19; Ps. 88:4), which was probably regarded as the “pit of
destruction” (cf. Isa. 38:17; Job 17:14). Another view was that the dead, when properly buried, remained
either in close connection with the grave, or descended beneath the earth to sheol (Gen. 37:35; 42:38;
44:29f.; Num. 16:30, 33; Ps. 28:1; 30:3; Isa. 14:15; 38:18; Ezek. 26:20), which was variously regarded as
a “house appointed for all living” (Job 30:23; 17:13), a “place of darkness” (Ps. 22:15; 30:9) and of
“silence” (Ps. 115:17), a “land of no return” (2 Sam. 12:23; Job 7:9f.; 10:21).
Great emphasis was laid upon the right performance of certain apotropaic rites. The first act of a mourner
after the burial was to remove or rend his garments, and reclothe himself with sackcloth (Gen. 37:34; 2
Sam. 13:31; 1 Kings 20:31, 32; Isa. 20:2; 32:11; Mic. 1:8). The reason for this can be ascribed to the
general Semitic notion of fear of contagion. The dangerous emanation from the dead might attach itself to
the clothes which were being worn at the time when the death occurred.
Covering the head and other parts of the body (cf. 2 Sam. 15:30; Esther 6:12; Ezek. 24:17; Exod. 3:6; 1
Kings 19:13) was another important practice, and was done in order to protect the mourner from the
dreaded contact with the wandering spirit. Also, whatever the magical purpose was, self-mutilation and
the “tonsure for the dead” (i.e. cutting a lock of hair or part of the beard; cf. 1 Kings 18:28; Isa. 15:2; Jer.
16:6; 48:37; Ezek. 7:18; 27:31; Amos 8:10; Mic. 1:16; note also the prohibition in Lev. 19:27-28; Deut.
14:1) were also part of the mourning ritual.
Thus contact with the dead body of a human being was regarded as not only impure, but dangerous. Many
feared that the spirit of the dead may have been lurking nearby to do harm to anyone who approached.
Hence, contact with the corpse, or with a human bone, or even with the grave, caused uncleanness and
necessitated a magical purification ordeal.
He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean for seven days...This is the law
when a man dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent, and everyone who is in the tent,
shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel, which has no cover fastened upon it, is
unclean. And every open vessel, which has no cover fastened upon it, is unclean. Whoever in the
open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave,
shall be unclean seven days. [Num. 19:11-16]
Now follows the seven-day ordeal to avert the magical contamination and evil influences:
For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering, and running water shall be
added in a vessel; then a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it
upon the tent, and upon all the furnishings, and upon the persons who were there, and upon him
who touched the bone, or the slain, or the dead, or the grave; and the clean person shall sprinkle
upon the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall
cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be
clean. [Num. 19:17-19]
On the third day and on the seventh day the “water of impurity” (mixture of ashes and water) was to be
thrown upon everything and every person contaminated by the evil powers which emanated from the dead
Along with fear of contamination from contact with a corpse was the fear of the displeasure of the
departed spirit and the harm it could cause. There was a widespread belief in antiquity that departed
spirits were able to grant or withhold the fertility of the soil which was so necessary to both pastoral and
agricultural peoples. Two ancient stories suggest that the Old Testament people shared this belief. One is
the account of Cain, in which YHWH tells the murderer:
And now you are cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother‟s blood
from your hand; when you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. [Gen. 4:11-
In other words, the slain man‟s spirit, which had entered the soil in the form of blood, would deny to the
murderer the fruits of the soil.
The second story concerns the famine during the days of King David (2 Sam. 21:1-14). According to the
story, the famine occurred because his predecessor, King Saul, had slain the Gibeonites; and the situation
was not remedied until David permitted seven sons of Saul‟s dynasty to be put to death by the Gibeonites
at the beginning of the barley harvest. The spirits of the slain Gibeonites had withheld the fertility of the
soil until their rightful revenge was accomplished.
There was a slightly different ritual connected with an unknown murdered person; in such a case, a
bloody sacrifice was to be preformed, probably in order to appease the unquiet spirit of the slain who had
not been and could not be avenged (Deut. 21:1-9)
Another significant element in this complex of rituals was the proper performance of offerings or
sacrifices to the departed spirits in the form of funeral feasts (Deut. 26:14; Ps. 106:28; Jer. 16:5-7; Hos.
9:4).the archaeological evidence of “cup-marks” discovered on or by the side of the stones, upon bare
patches of rocks, and in caves, have been interpreted to represent the veneration of the dead. Another kind
of grave deposit, found in great numbers in tombs and on graves, was a small lamp. Among the numerous
suggestions which have been proposed, one in particular seems worthy of acceptance; this is based on the
premise that the Old Testament people believed that what one requires while on the earth he will also
need in the netherworld, so that a lamp is necessary for a spirit to find his way around in the dark
underground tombs. On the same principle, food and drinking vessels were left at tombs.
These various offering-performances were to be made by either an elder son or a close relative of the
deceased. Onan‟s fatal punishment resulted from his unwillingness to impregnate the widow of his
deceased brother (Gen. 38:8-10). To deprive the deceased of an heir was to destroy the last of the family
or to “extinguish the coal” (2 Sam. 14:7). In order to raise an heir to perform the due rites to the departed
spirit of her husband, Ruth married Boaz (Ruth 4:5, 10). All these apotropaic acts were aimed at the
protection of the living from the harm which might be done to them by the spirit of the departed.
Another practice of a magical nature was the offering of tribute to a deity in appreciation of the favors
received from him (cf. Lev. 17:12-15; 22:29; 2 Chron. 33:16; Jer. 17:26; Amos 4:5; Ps. 50:14, 23; 107:22;
116:17). Whether this kind of offering was also designed to propitiate the god on an outright basis of do
ut des (I give that you may give) is hard to say.
In any case, first fruits and firstlings were offered as a tribute to the deity for all his benevolent acts
(Exod. 22;29; 23:19; 34:26; Lev. 23:10; Num. 15:20-21; 18:12-14; Deut. 18:4; cf. also, Neh. 10:37).
These offerings were made because the Israelites believed that the god(s) claimed the male firstborn;
however, in the case of human beings, as well as of unclean animals, provision was made for ransom by
monetary or other equivalents (Exod. 13:11-16; 34:19-20; Lev. 27:26; Num. 18:15-17; Deut. 14:23;
15:19). This specification of first fruits and firstlings as tributary offerings was probably influenced by the
widespread concept of a special virtue existing in anything new (or first) which rendered it inviolate, and
by reason of which it had to be set apart for gods or “sacred” beings (cf. Lev. 19:23-25). Furthermore, it
was probably believed that the surrender of a prime part would protect the rest from hurt.
Tributary offerings were also offered for votive purposes. A vow or promise was made by a suppliant to
make a gift to a god for fulfilling the wish or prospering his interest. This offering could be presented
either on making the vow, or, on a “pay later plan,” when the request had been granted (cf. Lev. 7:16-17;
22:21, 27; Num. 6:21; 15:3f.; 30:11; Deut. 29:21f.; Jonah 1:16).
An ancient Old Testament feast of lamentation commemorated Jephthah‟s sacrifice of his daughter in
fulfillment of a vow to his deity (Judg. 11:30-40), though in all probability the sacrifice was made as a
last desperate effort to secure divine favor.
That infant sacrifices were current among Old Testament people is proved not only by the little skeletons
discovered at Gezer, Megiddo, and Ta‟anach, but by the abundance of biblical passages. Although in the
old “Book of the Covenant” there stood the explicit command of the deity; “the firstborn of your sons you
shall give to me” (Exod. 22:29), and although Ezekiel admitted that YHWH had once demanded such
sacrifices (Ezek. 16:20; 20:25-26; Mic. 6:7), nevertheless Jeremiah vehemently protested that YHWH had
never made such a demand, nor had it ever occurred to the deity (Jer. 7:31-32; 32:35).
Moreover, so stern a demand as the slaying of the firstborn sons must have seemed too incompatible with
the spirit of YHWHism, and so voices of denunciation were raised, not only by the prophet Jeremiah, but
also by Isaiah (57:5-7), the editor(s) of the “Holiness Code” (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5), and Deuteronomy
redactors (Deut. 12:30-31; 18:10). In spite of these indignant protests child offerings were often
performed for various purposes.
Hiel, the rebuilder of Jericho, offered his two sons as a foundation sacrifice in order to avert evil powers
and influences from the new structure (1 Kings 16:34; cf. with Jos. 6:26). It was owing to the sacrifice of
his eldest son that King Mesha of Moab was able to avert the wrath of his god Chemosh from himself and
turn it upon his Israelite and Edomite foes (2 Kings 3:27). Similarly, kings Ahaz and Manasseh followed
this inhuman practice (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; cf. 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6), and although King Josiah tried to put
an end to the barbarous ritual (2 Kings 23:10), not only kings, but many other Israelites continued the
custom (2 Kings 17:17; Ps. 106:37-38).
These grim sacrifices were performed as a special place near Jerusalem, known as the Valley of Ben-
hinnom (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31-32; 32:35). Sons and daughters were burned as
gift-offerings to Molech (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35), to Ba’al (Jer. 19:1-9), and to
various idols and demons as food-offerings (Ezek. 23:37-39).
Hence, whatever the magical purpose of the human offering was—foundation sacrifice, votive tribute,
divine sustenance, aversion of evil, seeking divine favor—the people of the Old Testament were well-
acquainted with it and continued in its practice despite certain indignant voices of protest.
Taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, 1978, pp. 31-41