A marriage of heaven and earth
When ancient peoples looked up into the heavens what they beheld was a reflection of themselves. They saw a mirror, a fantastical, otherworldly mirror, no doubt, but a mirror nonetheless. This mirror reflected the heavenly upon the earthly, the spiritual upon the physical, and the theological upon the historical. The affairs of Heaven and the affairs of earth were in this way indelibly bound.
Although no such hermeneutical mirror remains installed above our heads, the stories that ancient peoples preserved about the heavenly realm corresponded to life below. In the pre-modern world, myths about gods, angels, demons, and monsters helped to explain all kinds of earthly phenomena, whether natural, military, political, or historical.
It seems prudent, therefore, to keep this tight conceptual framework at hand as we read mythological-type tales in Biblical narrative and Biblical poetry; tales concerning YHWH, the gods, Satan, primordial monsters, rebel angels, etc. Like all ancient peoples, the Israelites who crafted and compiled the Biblical writings sometimes painted their hopes, fears, and histories onto the heavenly canvas.
The politics of myth: YHWH against the gods
As I pointed out in a previous post, this marriage between heaven and earth is particularly striking in Biblical expressions of early Israelite monolatry—passages in which YHWH is pitted against the gods of other nations. We examined Psalm 82 as a classic and early example of this struggle.
In that discussion I concluded that YHWH’s decision to execute the rebellious gods—those members of his divine council who ruled the idolatrous nations—represented the hope that YHWH would annex the hostile nations governed by pagan gods. According to the psalmist, after the national deities had died, all the peoples of the earth would come to serve YHWH and in so doing bless YHWH’s chosen people. In this way the defeat of unjust rulers in Heaven (verses 6-7) would spell the defeat of unjust rulers on earth (verse 8).
6 [YHWH] had said: “You are all gods, sons of the highest god…” 7 Yet [now] as mortals you will perish, and as any prince you too will sink [into Hades]. 8 Rise up, o God, be judge over the earth, for you will inherit all the nations [from the gods]. (LXX Psalm 82:6-8, cf. Deut. 4:19)
Similar examples of this correspondence between what happens in heaven and what results on earth abound throughout the Exodus folktale. In Exodus 12:12, for instance, YHWH determines to “execute judgement upon all the gods of Egypt” and in so doing kills all the firstborn of the Egyptian people. As Egypt’s gods are condemned, we find, Egypt’s people are broken and forced to release Israel (cf. 18:11, Num. 33:4, Jer. 46:25).
Later on, in bursting open the Red Sea for the sake of his people, YHWH is said to have crushed the primordial water monsters that held Israel captive in Egypt (Psalm 74:13-14, Isaiah 51:9-10, cf. Ex. 15:10-11, Ez. 29:3-4).
Later still, Joshua’s campaign in Canaan is revealed to be just one theater in a larger spiritual engagement (cf. Deuteronomy 32:43, Joshua 5:13-15).
The struggle between YHWH and the gods for the glory of the nations pervade the prophetic texts as well—though they are often missed due to our monotheistic blind-spots. A few examples:
Give glory to the God of Israel [you Philistines]; perhaps [YHWH] will lighten his hand on you and your gods and your land. (1 Samuel 6:5, cf. 5:7)
The Lord will be terrible against [the nations]; he will shrivel all the gods of the nations of the earth, and to him shall bow down, each in its place, all the coasts and islands of the nations. (LXX Zephaniah 2:11)
Take your stations and be ready, [o Egypt], for the sword shall devour those around you. Why has your god Apis fled? Why did your bull not stand?—because the Lord thrust him down. (Jeremiah 46:14-15)
Surely, because you [Moabites] trusted in your strongholds and your treasures, you also shall be taken; your god Chemosh shall go out into exile, with his priests and his attendants. (Jeremiah 48:7, cf. 49:3, Numbers 21:27-30, Isaiah 46:1-2)
Babylon is taken, the god Bel is put to shame, the god Merodach is dismayed. Babylon’s images are put to shame, her idols are dismayed. For a nation from the north will come against her… (Jeremiah 50:2-3)
How Babylon has become an object of horror among the nations!… I will punish Bel in Babylon, and make him disgorge what he has swallowed. The nations shall no longer stream to him; the wall of Babylon has fallen. (Jeremiah 51:41-44)
Here’s the point: In these and many other Biblical texts the fate of cosmic beings reflects the fate of their earthy constituents. YHWH is a man-of-war not merely because he crushes human armies and fortified cities, but also because he vanquishes the gods who empower them. Two sides of the same coin.
The total depravity of the gods
After the Babylonian exile, as Israel suffered under a multitude of oppressive pagan empires and blasphemous kings, the gods of the nations surrounding Israel became increasingly associated with rebellion, brutality, and wickedness—elements already latent in early Israelite religion (cf. Deut. 32:17, Ps. 106:37). Jews came to see the gods who authorized deified Greco-Roman emperors not just as corrupt and foolish, but as wholly renegade. Such gods did not merely lead the nations away from the truth, they incessantly sabotaged God’s plans and tormented his saints as a matter of policy.
Quite understandably then, during this time the gods of the divine council transformed into demonic heavenly beings, fallen angels and unclean spirits. Heaven was no longer inhabited by the lesser deities who ruled the pagan nations; instead, Satan and his demons now puppeteered the idolatrous empire from above. So while a strong sense of the symmetry between Heaven and earth remained intact, the forces that stood behind pagan power were now degraded and depraved.
In other words, as Israel’s perception of the nations shifted, so too did their perception of their idol-gods. By the 1st century AD, the heavenly gods that once patronized small-but-annoying ancient near eastern kingdoms became the heavenly devils that propped up Greco-Roman pagan imperialism in all its ferocity and pretension.
Satan’s fall in theo-political perspective
Moving forward into the early Christian tradition, and particularly into John’s Apocalypse, the theo-political force of Satan’s eschatological fall from Heaven is well-established (cf. War Scroll, 4Q402, Revelation 12-19). This is thanks in large part to a single remarkable Biblical text: Isaiah 14.
Isaiah 14 contains an oracle against the king of Babylon in the context of Persian conquest. Employing figurative language, the prophet condemns the Babylonian empire to death and destitution for the king’s wanton arrogance. Though this king was once the heavenly “Day Star,” or “Lucifer” in Latin, he rebelled against the Most High and was therefore cast down into Hades. The once seemingly-immortal conqueror of nations was condemned, along with his heirs, to die a violent, miserable death for his pretension (cf. Ezekiel 28, Psalm 82).
As later Jews and Christians contemplated Isaiah’s oracle against the king of Babylon, they were steeped in its theo-political assumptions. In contrast to our thoroughgoing naturalism, Jews and Christians of Antiquity saw earthly politics as an icon of heavenly politics. To them, the pagan king of the pagan empire was not merely a human being, he was an earthly agent of heavenly power. His identity was blurred with Satan’s such that the overthrow of the one meant the overthrow of the other.