July 28, 2013 0

Voicemail Supplement – “Fallen Angels”

By in Blog, Podcast


Hello, I’m Josh Way and this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. Welcome to another voicemail supplement. Here’s today’s question:

“Hi Josh, this is Andre Jackson from Memphis. I just finished going through the Genesis one, about the… I think the topic was about ‘Breathe, Eat and Love’? Episode 3. I was wondering if you could touch on the pre-creation, you know when God banned the angels out of heaven, or the war happened or that type of thing that happened before the creation or when it happened. Because sometimes, I get kinda lost when I’m looking at it because the Bible does a little bit of a back-and-forth on that, a little. And I just want to know, because of your knowledge about the Jewish background, if you could touch on that a little bit. Thanks, man. Be blessed!”

Thanks for the call, Andre! I really appreciate it, and thanks for listening.

Andre brings up an EXTREMELY sticky subject, especially when we restrict ourselves to the realms of history and literature. Andre is asking about so-called “Fallen Angels.” This refers to the legend about a group of angels, led by a proud and wicked angel named Lucifer, who rebelled against God and were banished from heaven to hell, where they await judgment and wreak havoc all over the earth. Andre’s asking about a timeframe for this rebellion, but there are many things to say before we get to that.

The first thing to say about Lucifer’s rebellion is that – apart from a few cryptic references which we’ll examine in a moment – it is NOT a story that is told anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the name Lucifer does not appear in the text of the Hebrew or Greek Bibles. So where does the story come from, and what connection – if any – does it have to the Bible? Excellent question! It’s like you’re IN MY HEAD. The answer is somewhat convoluted, as a number of traditions, texts, and myths have mingled together to create… well, confusion.

The story appears to have been born as a Jewish legend sometime around or shortly after the first century C.E., around the same time as the New Testament was being formulated. The most complete expression of the story is found in a Jewish text called The Book of Enoch, which is not in Protestant or Catholic Bibles, but is found in the Eastern Orthodox canon. That book tells the story of angels who fall to earth and interbreed with human women and then are banished to Sheol, the realm of the dead. It does not, however, feature the Lucifer character, and the whole idea of “the satan” as a fallen angel seems to be have been popularized by early Christians.

Since BOOK is primarily concerned with the text of the canonical bible, perhaps the most fruitful thing for us to do would be to look at the key passages that have been used – perhaps abused – in the service of the “Fallen Angels” legend.

Genesis 6

This might be the passage that started the whole thing. We dealt with this one back on our Noah podcast, I think. This is the chapter that says “the sons of god” married “the daughters of man.” And that’s it – that’s all we get. I suggested on that earlier podcast that this might be a way of describing how the two genealogies of the previous chapter – the kings of Cain’s line and the working Joes of Seth’s – had intermarried in the days before the flood. But there’s no doubt that this brief and cryptic statement is the apparent basis for the whole genre of “fallen angels” stories. The section of The Book of Enoch which tells of the “Watchers” who came to earth to fornicate with human women is an attempt to flesh out and comment on Genesis 6. Even if “sons of god” in the text does refer to angels – and it may very well – it is still a vague reference and the rebellion story is hardly explicit.

Ezekiel 28

There are many passages from the Hebrew prophets which have been understood and perhaps misunderstood in a variety of ways through the years. One such passage is from Ezekiel chapter 28, which says things like this:

12 “You were the signet of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God;

…14 You were an anointed guardian cherub.
I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God;
in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.

…17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings,
to feast their eyes on you.”

Somehow, church tradition came to read this as a description of the satan’s rebellion and his banishment from heaven, despite the fact that it comes in the middle of a long litany of oracles against the kings of the ancient world, and verse 11 tells us plainly that this is an oracle for the king of Tyre, one of Israel’s enemies. It’s true that the language employed by Ezekiel is a bit over the top, and he does describe the king as an “anointed guardian cherub,” but this isn’t saying that he’s an angel, it’s a way of mocking his lofty view of himself and his power. Remember that “cherubs” are not angels, they’re Akkadian mythical creatures which represented royal authority. Saying that the King of Tyre is an “anointed cherub” placed on top of God’s “holy mountain” is a way of saying that he was the most powerful and divinely appointed king around, which is surely what the king thought of himself. When he is cast on the ground and “exposed before kings,” we see Ezekiel’s purpose: to humiliate and expose the king of Tyre as a sham.

Isaiah 14

There’s a similar bit in Isaiah 14 which has been even more explicitly linked to the fall of the satan. Give a listen:

12 “How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.”

This passage alone became the basis of the Lucifer story, and we have Origen (a Christian thinker from the third century) to thank for that. He was the one who codified a reading of this text that was accepted by many in his day and has largely persisted. The only problem is that once again we’re ignoring an explicit context in the text itself. Isaiah is boldly and plainly speaking about the king of Babylon and predicting his inevitable defeat. Remember that Isaiah is confronting the earthly villains of his own time and place: Assyria and Babylon. There’s really nothing here about angels at all, except maybe that reference to “Day Star” in verse 12. “Stars” eventually did become a popular poetic way of referring to angels. Still, it’s a pretty hard sell with this passage.

Oh, but keep Isaiah in mind as we move on and check this out:

Luke 10

In Luke 10, Jesus has sent some disciples (72 of them) out to heal and minister to people on his behalf. When they return and tell him what a successful mission they had, he responds like this:

18 “I saw the satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Traditional interpreters, already convinced that the Isaiah 14 passage told of the satan, his rebellion, and his banishment from heaven, have seized upon this verse as a reference to Jesus’ eternal pre-existence as a divine being who must have witnessed the fall of angels before he came to earth to be a man. That seems like a bit of a stretch for such a short and simple verse, especially given what we’ve already observed about Isaiah 14.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers a different interpretation, suggesting that Jesus is alluding to Isaiah’s mockery of the king of Babylon, and applying it to his own defeat of the satan during the wilderness temptation (found in Luke 4 and Matthew 4). That makes more sense given the context of the verse and what Jesus goes on to say. There’s one more possibility: the Greek text of this verse could be translated “I was watching the satan fall like lightning…” Then it would just be Jesus’ way of saying, “you guys really kicked bottom, nice job.”

There are a couple more references in the New Testament we should look at quickly before we wrap this up:

Peter and Jude

Peter and Jude (or Judah) are two apostles who wrote letters to ancient churches which wound up in the New Testament. Both of them make rather flagrant passing references to the fallen angels. 2 Peter 2:4 says that God “did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.” Meanwhile Judah says “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, [God] has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” Judah goes on to actually invoke Enoch, making explicit references to the non-biblical book we mentioned earlier. (That actually causes huge problems for certain type of bible interpretations, as we have a canonical reference to a non-canonical text.)

Two things we should understand about these early church letters: 1) their intense and fiery language is a product of the persecution and danger of their times, and 2) they were clearly written after The Book of Enoch had been written and become very popular. In truth, these are the only two undeniable and explicit references to “fallen angels” in the whole bible. Draw your own conclusions.

And that’s our survey. Actually, there’s one more bit in Revelation 12:3 that people like to bring up, but I think it’s really a stretch, and I’d rather save up my thoughts on Revelation for our forthcoming and mind-bending podcast dedicated to that delicious and dense text.

Andre, your original question had to do with the timeline – when did the angel rebellion take place. I’m not really sure we have a tidy answer. I suppose if we accept the first century Book of Enoch interpretation of Genesis 6, then it happened right there, a generation after creation. But I think the history-and-literature answer may be that it grew and evolved in the imaginations of people throughout both Jewish and Christian history who took the bible very seriously and wanted to tie up a few perceived loose ends or connect some contemporary belief with scripture. We have to admit, looking at the evidence, that the idea is almost (but not quite) non-existent in the pages of the bible itself. Just how essential and formative traditions are on our reading of the bible is a whole other issue, one I’m very excited to say does not fall within the jurisdiction of this silly podcast.

This has been a BOOK voicemail supplement, and I have been Josh Way. Thanks so much for the call, Andre! You, my friends, can also leave me a voicemail at 801-760-3013, or drop me an email at book@joshway.com, and I’ll try my best to deal with it on a future installment. Thanks for listening, bible pals!

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