Satan, the serpent, and the myth of the rebellious angels

Before moving on from the topic of Satan I think it is important to consider other depictions of the figure in the New Testament. While I argued last time that the Leviathan myth better explains the portrait of Satan as a many-headed dragon in the Apocalypse and various other early Christian texts having to do with snakes (cf. Luke 10:18-19, Romans 16:20) than does the narrative found in Genesis 3, there are still other New Testament depictions of Satan that share no resemblance with the sea-serpent of ancient Near Eastern lore. Perhaps it is in these other texts that we gleam an association between Satan and Eden’s serpent. Let’s investigate.

The myth of rebellious angels

Outside the book of Revelation, early Christians almost always portrayed Satan as an angelic being, as the commander of fallen angels and evil spirits (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:14, Matthew 25:41, Mark 3:22, Luke 13:10-17, Revelation 12:7-9, 16:13, Jude 6, 2 Peter 2:4, etc.). On its face, this suggests that Satan’s Christian form was primarily derived from the popular Jewish legend of the rebellious angels, not from speculation concerning Eden’s serpent.

Furthermore, I would argue that this legend of the rebellious angels—and not Adam’s mythic fall from Eden through the serpent’s deceit—can explain virtually all of the New Testament data concerning Satan.

To demonstrate this, let’s take Jesus’ words in John 8:44 as our foundation of the Christian understanding of Satan.

Azazyel: a murderer from the beginning

You are from your father the Devil… He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44

The assumption that Satan is the trickster serpent of Eden has had a decisive influence upon the interpretation of this text—and not without good reason. It is clear that the serpent in some sense lied to Eve about what her disobedience would mean—and in so doing brought death upon humanity.

Yet Jesus’ description of Satan as a “man-killer” (ἀνθρωποκτόνος) should alert us to the fragility of such a reading. The serpent did not murder Adam and Eve in any usual sense of the word. Nor did he orchestrate their murder in some indirect way. Simply put, neither Adam nor Eve were victims of murder.

Instead, the serpent seems to have provoked God’s wrath. It was God, not the serpent, who issued curses upon man, woman, and snake, and it was therefore by God’s decree that man’s life was limited.

Who watches the watchers?

fall angelsFor these reasons I think a better literary background for Jesus’ accusations against Satan can be found in 1 Enoch’s Book of Watchers (300-200 BCE).

Perhaps dissatisfied with Genesis 3 as an origin story for human wickedness, the writer of this book worked to explain how the violent and corrupt world he inhabited had come into being. For him, it was neither Adam and Eve’s sin, nor even Cain’s murder, that truly initiated the spiral of human debauchery; it was rather the nefarious activity of rebellious angels known as watchers.

The writer of 1 Enoch begins his etiological tale by appropriating an enigmatic passage in Genesis 6. In Genesis 6:1-8 the seemingly heavenly “sons of God” mate with human women and produce the Nephilim, the great warriors of old. In response, God restricts human life to 120 years (6:3), and, immediately following, determines that all living beings beings must be annihilated because of humanity’s exceeding wickedness and violence (6:5-13).

According to the Book of Watchers, these “sons of God” are in fact fallen angels who lustfully transgress the boundary between angel and human instituted by God. Moreover, these wicked watchers, led by a figure called Azazyel, become humanity’s source for dark wisdom and depraved technologies.

Azazyel taught men to make swords, knives, shields, breastplates, the fabrication of mirrors, and the workmanship of bracelets and ornaments, the use of paint, the beautifying of the eyebrows, the use of stones of every valuable and select kind, and of all sorts of dyes, And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways… And men, being destroyed, cried out; and their voice reached to heaven. (1 Enoch 8:1-3, 9)

Then [the angels loyal to God], looked down from heaven, and saw the quantity of blood which was shed on earth, and all the iniquity which was done upon it… They said: ‘You [God] have seen what Azazyel has done, how he as taught every kind of iniquity upon earth, and has disclosed to the world all the secret things which are done in the heavens. Samyaza also has taught sorcery… [Watchers] have mated with the daughters of men; have lain with them; have become polluted; And have revealed lawlessness to them. The women likewise have given birth to giants. Because of this the whole earth been filled with blood and with iniquity. And now behold the souls of those who are dead, cry out.’ (9:1, 5-10)

All the earth has been corrupted by the effects of the teaching of Azazyel. To him therefore ascribe the whole crime. (10:12)

Genesis’ implicit causal link between the mingling of the sons of God with women and the proliferation of the human wickedness that led to the Deluge is thus made explicit in the Book of Watchers. Rebellious angels gave humans the means and the will to rampantly shed blood. So while Azazyel is not a murderer in a strict sense, he does introduce slaughter (along with seduction and sorcery) to humanity on a systematic scale. As far as the writer of 1 Enoch was concerned then, Azazyel established murder as a human institution. He was a murderer from the beginning.

cropped descent

Mastema: the father of lies

The myth of the rebellious angels also represents a more compelling literary background for the second part of Jesus’ accusation (“he is a liar and the father of lies”) than does Genesis 3.

The demonic instruction disseminated by the rebellious watchers in 1 Enoch was no doubt deceptive in nature. Azazyel attempted to destroy and pollute God’s world by teaching men and women what they ought not know; and in so doing led people astray from the truth (cf. 8:3, 19:1-3). By offering them the power and control they craved, Azazyel insidiously unleashed upon human beings unforeseen turmoil, ceaseless violent conflict. Hoping to overcome their weaknesses through their newfound wisdom, humans became even more vulnerable.

The Book of Jubilees (200-100 BCE), which also recapitulates the legend of the rebellious angels, confirms this point. In one scene, after the great Flood, Mastema, the chief of demons, pleads with God to enlist him a duty:

‘Lord, Creator, let some of [the unclean spirits] remain before me, and let them obey my voice, and do all that I command them; for if some of them are not left to me, I shall not be able to execute the power of my will on the sons of men; for these [unclean spirits] are for corruption and leading astray before my judgment, for great is the wickedness of the sons of men.’ And God said: ‘Let the tenth part of them remain before him, and let nine parts descend into the place of condemnation.’ (Jubilees 10:8-9) 

Likely inspired by the book of Job, the writer of Jubilees here argues that God permitted Mastema and his demons to work as deceivers and tempters of men following the Flood. As workers on God’s payroll (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-23, 2 Thess 2:11-12), these demons were to draw out the wickedness stored in human hearts through deception—and thus catalyze God’s just judgement. Mastema would lie to man about God.

The exorcism of Eden’s snake

In combination, the myths of the rebellious angels and their leaders, Azazyel/Mastema, preserved in 1 Enoch and Jubilees provide all the necessary building blocks for the early Christian portrait of Satan. As depicted in these works, the prince of demons was both a murderer and a liar. Leading people astray from the truth, he taught them iniquity, lawlessness, and violence. Motivated by his homicidal intentions, he unleashed bloodshed upon the earth.

Whereas Christians have traditionally turned to Genesis 3 in order to explain the origins of human (and spiritual) evil, many ancient Jews found the legend of the rebellious angels latent in Genesis 6 a more compelling starting point. It is at this point in primeval history, not Genesis 3, that the writers of both 1 Enoch and Jubilees chose to introduce their Satanic figure, the deceiver and corrupter of mankind. It is at this point in the story, not with Adam’s fall, that wickedness and violence abound.

For its part, the New Testament betrays a thorough knowledge of and interest in Satan as a fallen angel. Interest in Eden’s serpent, on the other hand, is non-existent. Perhaps it’s high time we exorcise the poor snake.

Appendix: How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!

Outside of Genesis 6, Second Temple Jews may have looked to Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 for information (and inspiration) concerning fallen angels (cf. 1 Enoch 87, 2 Enoch 29:3-4). In these texts too the figure understood to be Satan is powerfully violent. The fallen “Day Star” (“Lucifer” in the Vulgate) destroys (ἀποὀλλύω) God’s land and kills (ἀποκτείνω) God’s people in LXX Isaiah 14:20. The anointed cherub of Ezekiel 28 who is cast from the “mountain of God” was “filled with violence” (28:16). Christians who derived their image of Satan from these “fallen angel” texts (1 Enoch included), would have seen him as a murderous foe.

9 thoughts on “Satan, the serpent, and the myth of the rebellious angels

  1. 1 Enoch shows up in all kinds of interesting places, for sure.

    Interestingly, in the Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel tempts Abraham (who rejects the temptation), is shown to be the tempter of Adam and Eve (XXIII) and thus the serpent, strikingly worships Christ along with the heathen (XXIX), and punishes those who are sent to Hell (XXXI).

    Do we have any evidence that Second Temple Jews thought of Isa. 14 and Eze. 28 as references to fallen angels?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Looks like there is no evidence for a fallen angel interpretation of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 prior to Origen.

      There are some potential connections though: Jesus might allude to Isaiah 14:12 in Luke 10:18.

      In the Animal Visions of 1 Enoch (from the Maccabean Revolt) there seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 14:12 in reference to Satan. From chapter 87: “Then I looked at that one of the four white men, who came forth first. He seized the first star which fell down from heaven. And, binding it hand and foot, he cast it into a valley; a valley narrow, deep, stupendous, and gloomy. Then one of them drew his sword, and gave it to the elephants, camels, and asses, who began to strike each other. And the whole earth shook on account of them. And when I looked in the vision, behold, one of those four angels, who came forth, hurled from heaven, collected together, and took all the great stars, whose form partly resembled that of horses; and binding them all hand and foot, cast them into the cavities of the earth.”

      The dating on 2 Enoch is uncertain but there is another more clear connection between Satan and Isaiah 14:12 in 2 Enoch 29:3-4.

      Thanks for bringing the Apocalypse of Abraham to my attention. It’s clear that the serpent did become Satan in some segments of Jewish and Christian thinking. In my mind it’s just a question of when and to what degree. I’m doubtful that such a connection is relevant in the New Testament.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Right, and even with the Azazel stuff in AoA, it’s not really clear that the author is equating Azazel with Satan. It may be more along the lines of what you suggest that the Azazel associations begin to bleed into the concept of Satan over time.

        Thanks for the passages RE Isaiah and Ezekiel. It’s always tricky trying to determine if similarity in language or imagery means an actual connection or just similarity in concept. But that 2 Enoch passage is pretty blatant. To my eyes, it seems like a stronger connection to Ezekiel 28, especially the part about being carved from stones of fire.

        The idea that Origen makes a lot of hay out of these connections is not surprising. I think it takes an allegorical mind to make it work. I think one problem we’ve inherited from that is that the allegory is now a given, so much so that people seem to be unaware that those passages are, in the first place anyway, about actual kings.

        Liked by 1 person

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