A tale of three strong men: Satan, Babylon, and Rome
On a few occasions Jesus attempts to clarify what his exorcistic ministry really means. On one of those occasions he claims the expulsion of demons proves that God’s kingdom has drawn near (Matthew 12:28, Luke 11:20). On another occasion, Jesus’ spiritual success is said to signal the binding of Satan.
How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered (Mark 3:23-27).
Jesus’ primary aim in this parabolic speech is to defend himself against those who suppose he casts out demons with the help of demonic power. Jesus reveals the absurdity of such a charge. Jesus is not a witch in league with Satan—why would Satan plunder his own house?
But the parable of the Strong Man also provides a larger framework through which to understand Jesus’ exorcisms. As expounded by Andrew Perriman here, the parable invokes LXX Isaiah 49:24-25.
Can anyone ransack a giant? What’s more, if someone takes a captive unjustly, can the prisoner be rescued?
The Lord answers: “If someone first captures the giant, then he can grab hold of his goods; by plundering the strong man the captive will be saved. In this way I will judge your cause and I will rescue your sons.”
Per the surrounding context, this figurative language of giants and strong men characterizes God’s deliverance of Israel from Babylon. The giant, that is, Babylon, has taken God’s property unjustly. Therefore God will take Babylon captive by the hand of Cyrus and in doing so rescue Israel from the strong man. God will free Israel by taking the captor captive. Simple enough.
But note that once again the political life of God’s people and exorcism are unexpectedly joined together by the Gospel. Jesus conscripts Isaiah’s riddle of Babylon’s ruin and Israel’s redemption—both of which are political-historical outcomes—to tell the story of Satan’s wrangling. So for those attuned to this scripture, Jesus’ mastery over the demons heralds the arrest of Satan and the plundering of all he possesses upon the earth—and not merely his spiritual holdings.
In conjunction with the allegorical anti-Roman reading of Legion’s exorcism that I put forward last time, Jesus’ refashioning of Isaiah 49:24-25 into the parable of the Strong Man conveys the same basic message: the exorcisms performed by Jesus prefigure the exorcism of the new Babylon, the demonic Roman empire. God in Christ will bind Satan in the abyss and plunder his earthly kingdom for the sake of God’s people (Revelation 20:1-6). In other words, God will cast out the “ruler of the world” and in so doing obtain “the obedience of the nations” (Romans 1:5, 15:12). The pagan cult and all its imperial structures will be replaced with the worship and kingship of Israel’s God. God’s long struggle with rebellious and idolatrous nations will come to a dramatic close (cf. Psalm 2).
Jesus against the Giants
Jews influenced by Enochic literature may have recognized in the parable of the Strong Man yet another message. At the very least, depiction of the strong man as a γίγας (giant) in Isaiah 49:34-35 would have taken on new resonances for such Jews. These strong and violent γίγαντες, known to Jews as the sons of angels and women, are briefly mentioned in Genesis 6. Later on their mythos was decisively expanded by 1 Enoch’s tale of the Watchers (fallen angels). According to the legend, the Giants carried on the Watcher’s perversion of the earth until they were drowned in the Flood. The residue of the Giants remains despite their watery destruction. For now they exist as “evil spirits” upon the earth (1 Enoch 15:9).
This story became very popular among Jews and even among early Christians (cf. Mark 12:25 [1 Enoch 15:6-7], Matthew 5:5 [5:7], Matthew 22:13 [10:4-5], Jude 1:14-15/2 Peter 2:4 [1:9-2:1], John 5:22 [69:27]). So those able to discern the presence of Isaiah’s giant in the parable may have equated Jesus’ strong man with the giants of Biblical lore.
While such a claim appears only speculative, a few scholars have unearthed firmer evidence for a connection between Jesus’ exorcisms and 1 Enoch in Mark’s account of the Gerasene Demoniac. Hans Moscicke, for instance, builds on the work of two scholars in his paper here. Moscicke summarizes a few of the more promising connections that have been found between Mark 5:1-20 and the Book of the Watchers.
- Mark’s description of the demon as an “unclean” (ἀκάθαρτος) spirit can be linked to the “uncleaness” (ἀκαθαρσία) promulgated by the Watchers and their offspring (1 Enoch 10:11; 22).
- The binding (δέω) of the Demoniac by hand and foot recalls the binding of the Watchers by hand and foot at the final judgement (1 Enoch 10:4; 12, 54:3-5).
- Both the Demoniac and the ringleader of the Watchers, Azazel, are tormented by sharp stones (λίθος). Azazel will be bound and laid upon “sharp and jagged” stones (1 Enoch 10:5).
- Legion’s fear of torment (βασανίζω) betrays knowledge of the torment awaiting the Watchers and their offspring (1 Enoch 10:13, 16:1, 23:11).
- The switch between singular and plural in Legion’s speech (I am Legion for we are many) suggests the ringleader of a demonic army (Azazel) is speaking (1 Enoch 13:1-3).
- Both Legion and the Watchers plead for divine mercy (1 Enoch 13:1-7).
- Legion is drowned in the sea just as the Giants were drowned in the Flood (1 Enoch 15:8-16:1). Both Legion and the Watchers are thrown into the abyss (1 Enoch 10:4, cf. Luke 8:31).
I add five more intertextual links of my own below.
- The strength and violence of the Demoniac is intelligible if the demon is the spirit of a Giant. These spirits “wrestle,” “hurl,” and “smite” upon the earth (1 Enoch 15:11).
- Legion, the Giants, and the spirits of the Giants all seek to destroy human flesh and blood (1 Enoch 7:3-5, 15:11). Legion acts out this tendency by cutting the man with stones.
- Legion, the Watchers, and the spirits of the Giants desolate the earth (ἐρημόω) (1 Enoch 6:1, 10:8, 23:11). Legion drives the Demoniac out of community and into the hills and tombs, desolate places.
- Just as Legion causes the Demoniac to howl night and day, the victims of the Watcher’s and the Giant’s cry and groan for heaven’s help (1 Enoch 8:4, 9:10).
- The Giants “sin against the birds and the beasts and the creeping things and the fish” (1 Enoch 7:5). Legion’s crazed violence destroys a herd of pigs.
All said and done then, nearly every element in Mark’s telling of the story bears some relation to the Watcher cycle. Coincidence can surely be ruled out. But what the relationship means can be difficult to decipher.
In my view, the whole of Mark’s demonology is loosely influenced by the Book of the Watchers. This is clear at least in Mark 5 wherein Jesus casts out the polluting spirits of the Giants only to drown them (once again) in the sea. Jesus may have known that the thrashing and murderous spirits of the Giants would be unable to live long in the bodies of pigs. A human might hold off the destructive impulses of these spirits for a while, but not dumb swine.
Further, by performing this exorcism, Jesus demonstrates the nearness of the kingdom and its eschatological judgement (cf. Matthew 12:28). The Watchers and the unclean spirits they have begotten are about to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the abyss where they will tormented. Although the townsfolk of Gerasa were unable to accomplish this themselves, Jesus does so with ease, surgically extracting the demons from their victim and disposing of them in the eschatological pit.
If Mark 5:1-20 is any indication then, Jesus’ principal explanation of his exorcistic ministry, the parable of the Strong Man, plays on the resonances between Isaiah 49:24-25 and 1 Enoch. Jesus ties up the demonic strong men, even the spirits of Giants, and plunders their property. The spirits of those Giants who are “devouring the labor of all the sons of men… killing men and devouring them… sinning against the birds and beasts and creeping things and the fish, devouring one another’s flesh and drinking the blood” (1 Enoch 7:3-5) will now face the judgement God once reserved for Babylon: “Those who afflicted you will eat their own flesh, and they will drink their own blood like new wine and be drunk, then all flesh will know that I am the Lord who rescued you, who assists the strength of Jacob” (LXX Isaiah 49:26). The demons, now hosted by the pigs, will destroy themselves. Wanton demonic violence, whether spiritual or imperial, will meet the wrath of the Lord.