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The Devil and Demons in Judaism

This article examines the development of demons and the devil in scripture.
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If the belief in a supernatural devil and Satan did not derive from the Old Testament, then where did it originate? Did someone make it up and somehow find its way into Christianity? Did Christians just misread their own Scriptures and thus think the idea was taught there?

Part of the struggle in understanding the development of this doctrine is the need for more historical knowledge regarding the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Numerous centuries passed between the completion of the former and the beginning of the latter, and yet, this period and the doctrines that developed within it are rarely considered.

Thus, in attempting to understand the belief in a supernatural devil, this article will first consider the changes in the time between the testaments, then examine the development of demons and the devil, and finally suggest some sources for that development.

The Time Between the Testaments

After the exiles returned to Judah, the curtain closed on the Old Testament. Malachi or Nehemiah, books about that period of the exile, were likely the last books written. From that point, the community of exiles in Judah underwent a major change.

Though Persian society was relatively stable, aside from the episode with Haman and the Samaritans who sought to stop Jerusalem’s restoration, it appears to have been relatively hands-off with the exiles. Eventually, in the late 300s, Alexander the Great came through the area, conquering Jerusalem and bringing the Jewish community into his empire. At that point, Hellenization began.

After Alexander’s death, his empire split. Jerusalem and Judah found themselves between two warring kings, the Ptolemys and the Seleucids. In the middle of the second century, Antiochus IV, the king of the Seleucid empire, sought to invade Egypt and conquer the Ptolemaic empire––yet while in Egypt, he was repulsed by a new, rising empire: Rome.

Frustrated with his defeat, Antiochus (also known as Antiochus Epiphanes) stopped by Jerusalem, defiling the altar of the Second Temple by sacrificing a pig and then declaring circumcision illegal. He sought to destroy Judaism and to Hellenize everyone. What followed was the story of Hanukkah and the subsequent Talmudic tale of the jar of oil that lasted eight days.

Throughout this time, Judaism underwent significant changes. Though the original language of the Jewish community was Hebrew, it eventually transitioned during this period from Hebrew to Aramaic and Greek (Aramaic for those who lived in Judea and Greek for those in the diaspora).

This transition meant translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were necessary, resulting in the Septuagint (Greek) and the Targums (Aramaic). These translations greatly impacted the community because rather than reading and hearing the Scriptures in their original language, they could form their own opinion about the meaning of the words and listened to a translation’s interpretation. These translations were somewhat fluid and, thus, sought to capture the meaning of the text rather than an equivalence of words.

Not only did the Jewish community approach their religion with a new language of Scripture, but they also split into various ideological groups. The Pharisees and the Sadducees developed during this period, with the Pharisees placing a significant emphasis on their traditions (what they called the Oral Torah) while the Sadducees following solely the written Torah. A third group, the Essenes, lived in the wilderness of Judea by the Dead Sea and spurned the organized worship in the Temple. All of these sects were considered Jewish groups; thus, the Judaism that developed between the two testaments was varied and in a state of flux.

This flux was further indicated by the writings these Jewish groups created. Many are familiar with the Biblical documents within the Dead Sea Scrolls. These, such as the great Isaiah scroll, have affirmed our trust in the reliability of Scripture’s transmission, showing very few differences between the ancient manuscripts and the manuscripts we have today. But, outside of these Biblical manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scroll collection also contained numerous documents from the Essene community. These give an insight into how the Essenes understood the world and their religion.

Further, during this time, the Jewish community produced the books of the Apocrypha. Some Christian groups, such as the Catholic Church, read the Apocrypha as though it is sacred Scripture (even though Jews do not), and most Protestant groups do not, and thus, many of us are unfamiliar with its contents.

the time between the Testaments was a significant era of change for Judaism

In addition to the Apocrypha, two other Jewish books, The Book of Enoch and The Book of Jubilees, were written during this period. These books are not considered canonical by anyone. Nevertheless, they provide an insight into the world of intertestamental Judaism. 

In sum, the time between the Testaments was a significant era of change for Judaism. Not only were external changes putting pressure on Judaism, and not only were Jews accessing the Bible via translations, but the religion itself fragmented into various sects. Non-Scriptural books also appeared, influencing the community’s worldview and pushing it further away from the foundation of the Old Testament.

Demons and the Devil

With that background, we’re ready to see how the doctrine of a supernatural devil developed within Judaism. However, considering the development of the supernatural devil also requires another study; we must consider the origin of demons, as the devil is the supposed leader of this supernatural group.

Demons are almost entirely nonexistent in the Old Testament. They appear three times, all of which demonstrate them to be inanimate idols (Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 106:37). Though there are occasionally evil spirits, these spirits are clearly under God’s control (Judges 9:23; 1 Samuel 16:14; 1 Kings 22:23). Yet, this changes when one comes to the Septuagint.

Demons are almost entirely nonexistent in the Old Testament.

The Septuagint has six extra references to demons not in the Hebrew Old Testament. Some still refer to inanimate idols (Psalm 95:5; Isaiah 65:3, 11). Yet, the other three are clearly about supernatural beings:

  • From the deed carried out in darkness, from mishap and demon at midday. (Psalm 90:6 LXX).
  • And wild animals will rest there, and the houses will be filled with sound; and Sirens will rest there, and divine beings will dance there. (Isaiah 13:21 LXX).1
  • And demons will meet donkey-centaurs, and one will cry out to the other. There donkey-centaurs will rest, since they have found a rest for themselves. (Isaiah 34:14 LXX).

The Hebrew here doesn’t convey any sense of something supernatural. The reference in Psalm 90 is about pestilence, while the latter two are about desert animals. Nevertheless, this idea of demons has crept into this inter-testamental Bible translation––why? Perhaps because the idea of demons has entered into the community’s consciousness.

Indeed, extra-biblical sources also demonstrate this newfound focus on demons. The Book of Enoch describes the flood story. Yet, instead of beginning with the sons of God seeing that the daughters of men were beautiful, it creates an elaborate story about a fallen angel who persuades many of his angel colleagues to sin: 

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: “Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.”

And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them:” I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin. And they all answered him and said: Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing. Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it.2

This angel, Semjâzâ, is essentially a supernatural devil. He leads his group of demon angels until God’s angels catch them. Eventually, the angel Michael binds him and his followers and condemns them to fire and torment in the middle of the earth.3 The Book of Jubilees is similar. It, too, tells the stories of Genesis but with a twist. In one instance, it describes the sufferings of Noah’s family: 

“And in the third week of this jubilee the unclean demons began to lead astray the children of the sons of Noah; and to make to err and destroy them. And the sons of Noah came to Noah, their father, and they told him concerning the demons, which were leading astray and blinding and slaying his sons’ sons.”4 

As a result, Noah prays to God for help from the demons; God answers his prayer, and the demons are bound. Then, however, the lead demon approaches God and pleads for the ability to continue to afflict humanity (but just to a lesser extent): 

And the chief of the spirits, Mastêmâ, came and said: “Lord, Creator, let some of them remain before me, and let them hearken to my voice, and do all that I shall say unto 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 are for corruption and leading astray before my judgment, for great is the wickedness of the sons of men.”5 

His plea convinces God, who gives him the ability to continue to deceive. Yet, the way that Jubilees describes this event is key: 

“And we did according to all His words: all the malignant evil ones we bound in the place of condemnation, and a tenth part of them we left that they might be subject before Satan on the earth.”6

Do you see the key idea there? This demon is Satan! We have here a precise instance of Satan as a supernatural being—yet not in the Bible. Instead, it is in an extra-biblical book written after Israel returned from the Babylonian exile and while it was experiencing a profound time of change. The idea of a supernatural devil (as well as demons) seems to originate from this period.

Thus, considering some of the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls, we see the same thing. Not only is there a supernatural devil, but the devil has demon minions. One of these documents, known as The War Scroll, names the devil as Belial and discusses his angels of destruction: 

“You appointed [the Prince of light] to assist us, and in his hand are all the angels of justice, and all the spirits of truth are under his dominion…You made [Belial for the pit, angel of enmity; in darkness is his domain, his counsel is to bring about wickedness and guilt. All the spirits of his lot are] angels of des[truction, they walk in the laws of darkness…]”7 

Eventually, according to this document, God will defeat Belial and bring destruction upon his angels.8 Another document, called The Song of the Sage, provides an incantation that the leader of the community can recite to keep the demons and Lilith (one of the main Satanic characters) away:

Bless[ings to the Ki]ng of glory. Words of thanksgiving in psalms of [splendour] to the God of knowledge, the glory of the po[werful] ones, God of gods, Lord of all the holy ones. [His] rea[lm] is above the powerful mighty, and before the might of his powe[r] all are terrified and scatter; they flee before the radiance of his glorious majestic strong[hold].

Blank And I, a Sage, declare the splendor of his radiance in order to frighten and terry[ify] all the spirits of the ravaging angels and the bastard spirits, demons, Lilith, owls and [jackals …] and those who strike unexpectedly to lead astray the spirit of knowledge, to make their hearts forlorn.9

This same development of demonology and a supernatural devil appears in the Apocrypha. The whole Book of Tobit is about the problems caused by a demon named Asmodeus, the king of demons. The Book of Wisdom states that through the devil’s envy, death entered the world (Wisdom 2:23–24). The idea of a supernatural devil did not originate in the Old Testament. It developed during the time between the testaments, explaining why the New Testament stories are flooded with demons, whereas the stories are lacking in the Old.


Greek Hellenism led to this proliferation of demons and the supernatural devil. Nevertheless, even though demon is a Greek word, Greek demons are very different than the fallen angel kind seen in Jewish extra-Biblical texts. Even the underworld god, Hades, doesn’t resemble the devil. Instead, many of these ideas are similar to the dualism of Zoroastrianism. This Persian religion teaches there is one good god, Ahura Mazda, who created all things. In contrast to Ahura Mazda, Angra Mainyu is a destructive and evil spirit that attempts to undermine Ahura Mazda’s work. He does this with an army of demons called daevas and inhabits a place similar to a torturous hell.10

Perhaps, then, the reason these ideas developed when they did was because this was the time when Zoroastrianism most influenced Judaism. Though the Jewish community was to return to the land in Cyrus’s first year, many didn’t come. This time of dwelling amongst the Persians allowed them to imbibe some of these ideas about the evil deity and, in turn, create a devil or Satan character supported by his demonic followers.


The history recorded here confirms the previous Old Testament exposition. Satan is not a fallen angel. Nor is the devil. Demons do not exist. Instead, these ideas developed over time as Judaism changed and was influenced by other cultures and religions. Zoroastrianism left its mark––not only on Judaism but also on subsequent Christianity, which would continue to preach the concepts of a devil and demons, even though neither exists in the Jewish Scriptures.

Jason Hensley,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

  1. The word here for “divine beings” is demon in the Greek.
  2. 1 Enoch 6:1–5, trans. R.H. Charles, 1917.
  3. 1 Enoch 10:11–14, trans. R.H. Charles, 1917.
  4. Jubilees 10:1–2, trans. R.H. Charles, 1917.
  5. Jubilees 10:11–13, trans. R.H. Charles, 1917.
  6. Jubilees 10:16, trans. R.H. Charles, 1917.
  7. 4Q495 1–4, Martinez and Tigchelaar.
  8. 4Q496 4–9, Martinez and Tigchelaar.
  9. 4Q510 1–6, Martinez and Tigchelaar.
  10. The Srosh Yasht 12:30.
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