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Satan, serpents and the dreadful forces of political change

This is a further—and final—response to some productive comments made by Paul K. regarding my argument about the narrative-historical method and its implications for our understanding of the kingdom of God. He argues that the gospel deals with spiritual powers as well as “socio-political forces”—he has in mind the serpent in the garden “who usurped Mankind’s rule, and the kingdom of God through his people, becoming the god of this age and enslaving humanity and keeping them in bondage”. So whereas I am proposing that it is the story of Israel and the nations that dominates scripture, he thinks that a much bigger story about God and humanity provides the interpretive framework.

I question, in the first place, whether we can make such a firm distinction between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” in scripture. It seems to me that once we get to Babel and the call of Abraham out of empire and as an alternative to empire, the whole story through to Revelation 20:10 is worked out in political-religious terms. The focus may oscillate between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” aspects of this two-sided construct, but at no point does the narrative break away from the political context, like a bird breaking out of its cage, to fly free in the open skies of an a-historical spirituality. This point was made in an earlier post, but it can be further illustrated by looking at the particular question of the role of Satan in the story.

The serpent, Satan and the story of Israel….

The serpent of Genesis 3 is not identified with Satan or the devil in the Old Testament. It is one of the beasts of the field, described merely as “crafty” (ʿārûm), which more often means “prudent” in the Old Testament (eg. Prov. 12:16, 23; 14:8) than crafty in a malevolent sense (Job 5:12; 15:5). Its action does not lead to the loss of humanity’s sovereignty—at least, God’s instruction to Noah to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth and the affirmation that every creature will be delivered into his hands (Gen. 9:1-2) sound to me like a restatement of the original creation mandate of Genesis 1:28. Nor does it gain anything except the curse of going on its belly and of unending conflict between its offspring and the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:14-15). Peter Enns has written a helpful piece on the matter: Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: A Crafty Serpent. Moreover, I do not think this passage can be read as a proto-gospel.

When Satan does make an appearance, it is as a minor supernatural force in the story of Israel, associated especially with crisis and judgment—see my account of the rise and fall of Satan. He incites David, he impugns the righteousness of God’s servant Job, he accuses Joshua. He endeavours to subvert Jesus’ messianic calling, offering him rule over “all the kingdoms of the world” if he will worship him (Matt. 4:8-9). In response Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13—the command to worship the God who brought them out of Egypt, not the “gods of the peoples who are around you… lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:15).

Satan accuses and makes war against the churches. He is the “god of this age”, deceiving both Israel and the nations, but his power during this period of eschatological crisis has been curbed for the sake of the emerging churches, and at the end of the age, when Babylon the great is finally overthrown, he will be confined to the abyss. In other words, the contest with Satan is a struggle over the integrity of Israel in relation to more powerful and more glorious nations.

In an excellent paper given at the British New Testament conference a few weeks back Jesse Nickel argued that it was as the chosen and anointed servant of YHWH that Jesus waged the eschatological battle against Satan (cf. Matt. 12:18). He highlighted the link between Jesus’ saying about binding the strong man (tou ischurou), entering his house and plundering his goods with the description of YHWH’s restoration of Israel in Isaiah 49:24-25 LXX

Will anyone take spoils from a mighty one? And if one should take a captive unjustly, shall he be saved? Thus says the Lord: If one should take a mighty one captive, he will take spoils, and by taking them from a strong one (ischuontos), he will be saved. And I will judge your cause, and I will rescue your sons.

The passage continues: “And those who afflicted you shall eat their own flesh, and they shall drink their own blood like new wine and be drunk.” The language is perhaps echoed in Revelation 14:20 and 16:6, but in any case, the basic narrative relevance seems clear enough: the binding of Satan in order to rescue the people of YHWH from its captivity anticipates an eventual judgment on the empire which afflicted it. So Satan is cast into the abyss immediately after the overthrow of the idolatrous oppressor Rome (Rev. 20:1-2). The outcome will be that “all flesh shall perceive that I am the Lord who rescued you, who assists the strength of Jacob” (Is. 49:26 LXX). This is how YHWH justifies himself in the eyes of the nations.

A parable about monsters and Scottish independence

While we are on the subject of serpents and in view of the chaos that may be unleashed by today’s referendum, a story told in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (c. 700) may encourage Scotland’s churches as they take on the monster-subduing task of fostering reconciliation after the vote, whichever way it goes.

Travelling through Scotland, St Columba had cause to cross Loch Ness. A group of Picts was burying a man who had been killed by a water monster while swimming in the loch. Columba nevertheless ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat so that he could cross over. The man, Lugne Mocumin, dived in and began to swim, but the monster appeared and pursued him, jaws gaping. Those who stood on the bank were horrified, but Columba raised his hand and made the sign of the cross. Calling on the name of God, he commanded the creature, “You will go no further, and will not touch the man; go back at once.” The chaos monster fled as though in terror.

Comments

Thanks, Andrew. This resonates with Egypt’s portrayal as a Satanic-serpent power, and this also helps draw a clear parallel between Jesus casting out demons and calming stormy seas - command and victory over the chaos-serpent and his domain.

But to that point, what’s your take on the demonic possession and exorcism accounts in the NT? It at least -appears- that the afflicted people are enduring something more personal and internal than the oppression of the nations, although obviously there’s a parallel (the demon named Legion, for example).

Phil,

You may find the article interesting and informative on the subject of demons in the NT.

Can be read here

Hi Rich,

Thanks for the article. The point about the geographic distribution of the narratives is quite good and is hard to ignore, but I’m also not satisfied with the author’s contention that demon posessions as recorded in the NT were just regionally-dictated descriptions of various ailments and psychological problems.

First of all, a gospel author is unlikely to change their own understanding of phenomena to suit the region, as if an event occuring in the North would cause an author to attribute that to demonic activity, but not if it happened in the South, although I guess it could be argued that, as they worked with source material, they kept regional distinctives and left their own views out of it.

But the episode of the Gadarene demoniac seems difficult to explain phenomenologically. Jesus speaks with the demon who calls itself Legion, commands it to enter pigs, and the pigs kill themselves. It’s hard to explain this just by saying “demon” was a regional way to understand various ailments. I suppose you could say Jesus cured the man of the insanity that was causing him to speak and act as if demon-possessed, but then what’s with the pigs? Why would the gospel authors include that? What are they trying to say?

Phil, I agree. The questions of whether demons are real and of how their presence and activity are understood in the New Testament should be kept apart. 

I lean towards the view that demons in the New Testament are closely associated with—symptomatic of?—Israel’s oppression by Satan, accepting that Satan, real or unreal, personal or impersonal, is a dimension to political oppression. By casting out demons Jesus anticipates or prefigures the eventual liberation of God’s people from the hand of their pagan enemies.

Hi Andrew,

I had also wanted to ask the same question as to you view of demons in relation to Satan.

Two questions on that:

1) I don’t really understand how the demons Jesus dealt with (causing sickness and harmful behaviours) can be symptomatic of the oppression Israel suffered under Rome. Can you clarify?

2) If demons are linked in the way I think I understand you, then if Satan is bound and inactive since the fall of Rome (as per your post on “the rise and fall of Satan”, then are demons also inactive and therefore irrelevant today?

1. The argument would be, roughly, that in Jewish apocalyptic Satan is closely associated with the forces of political oppression, perhaps beginning with Daniel’s characterization of the Greek empire as a destructive beast from the sea; and then that Satan is the prince of demons, suggesting that demons, associated also with pagan idolatry (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20), are tangible symptoms of Israel’s subjection to a pagan power. It’s probably not a complete or watertight argument, but it has some force.

Perhaps the point is rather that the expulsion of demons is a sign of the coming victory over Satan rather than that demons per se are the product of Roman oppression.

2. I take the imprisonment of Satan after the defeat of pagan Rome to mean that the very existence of church will not again be threatened in the way that it was in those early centuries. Perhaps that suggests that Satan is no longer an issue for the church. What the implications would be for demons, I don’t know.

I think we agree on Satan being the animus behind the political oppression of God’s people - sort of the “soul” to the Roman empire “body.” We also agree that there’s a close connection or analogy between demonic activity and political oppression - the demon calling itself Legion for example, which is a name for the Roman army, and the demons’ fear that Jesus has come to torment them “before the time.”

But like Paul, above, it looks like the NT incidents of demonic possession are rather more individualized and take the form of physical/mental afflictions which are healed when the demons are gone. Certainly, Jesus’ ability to do this has political ramifications, and I think the analogy is clear (get rid of the Satanic agents, and the people of God return to a normal, healthy life), but I also see a dimension of new heavens/new earth, here.

I don’t -think- that would be foreign to the 1st century Jewish mind, as more than one eschatological prophecy in the OT mentions an idealized creation order as part of the package of the vindication of Israel.

I guess that’s a long way of saying that I see the issues of demonic oppression and political oppression as strongly intertwined in the NT, but not exhaustively identified with each other.

Phil, I would agree with this line of thought, more or less. I think that the political story about the restoration of Israel has priority in the New Testament, but it is told on the assumption of new creation, not to its exclusion. What I want to stress, though, is that the political narrative does not disappear from view as new creation themes come into play. It remains central. The renewal of creation themes serve the political narrative. Not the other way round.

Totally agree. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that because, as a concept, a new creation is broader in scope than Israel’s political fortunes, but in the biblical narrative, it’s a small sliver of the content.

Also, as a Gentile, I think we find it easier to identify with a new creation than a restored Israel, but that’s exactly what Paul seems to want us to identify with - find our eschatological fortunes in Israel’s story.

Phil,

I suppose you could say Jesus cured the man of the insanity that was causing him to speak and act as if demon-possessed, but then what’s with the pigs? Why would the gospel authors include that? What are they trying to say?

The question about the pigs is a good one. I would suggest this. If the man was insane - based upon how he was acting as recorded in the record - and Jesus merely transported that insanity into the pigs why wouldn’t they run off the cliff? I would ask if it were demons why would they run off the cliff? Why wouldn’t they just leave the pigs? If they can freely enter a man and leave at will, why not pigs too? If you ask me it seems much more plausible to be a reference to a mental illness than demon possession.

Why would the authors include it? Because it was part of the account they were recording. The pigs did what they did so he recorded it. Why would the author purposely leave out such a detail of what transpired?

Something else to consider. Most of the Apostles were from the north. As such they probably also did believed in evil spirits. Of course one would then ask why didn’t Jesus correct them and tell them they were mere physical illnesses. First, I would then ask why didn’t Jesus correct everyone in the south? If there everything was attributed to a physical illness - and probably didn’t believe in evil spirits - why didn’t he correct them and explain it was in reality an evil spirit? Second, I would suggest this. For the same reason God didn’t care to correct the ancients’ understanding of the physical universe - worlds are balls floating in space, the world wasn’t flat, references to the four corners of the earth, pillars of the earth - but chose to express his truth using their cosmological understanding, Jesus chose to use their current belief system to communicate what he wanted to communicate.

I think something else to throw into the discussion is why didn’t the Sadducees believe in spirits (Acts 23:8)? Here is one of the predominant branches of Judaism and yet they didn’t believe they existed. How is that possible if they are so clearly on display?

Hi Rich,

Thanks for the great response.

I never thought I’d write a sentence like this, but I’m still curious about the pigs - or the deviled hams, if you will.

This is the only account I can think of where Jesus actually transferred the affliction from one being to another. In the other instances of healings (and demon possession, for that matter), this doesn’t happen.

So, I’m reluctant to say that this is just a detail of the event. Jesus doesn’t need to transfer insanity or demons over to pigs, but he does so, here.

Playing devil’s advocate (ha!), your objections could be answered in the following ways:

1) Not all illnesses were a result of demonic possession.

2) The demons could not leave the pigs because they were commanded to go there by Jesus. The demons actually ask Jesus if he has come to “torment [them] before the time,” referring I suppose to some eschatological reality where Jesus is going to reckon with the demons in some way. Going into the pigs and running into the sea obeys Jesus’ command and also escapes torment. Perhaps there is also something here about returning to primordial chaos as it relates to demonic-political powers (cf. the Beast from the Sea in Revelation). Just taking wild guesses at this point.

3) The Sadducees also did not believe in a resurrection, but we’d be hard pressed to say the gospels share this view.

Basically, I think the thesis that demon possession was just a way a particular region understood illness can explain virtually all the instances recorded in the Gospels and Acts except for this pig thing. This seems to record an intentionality and dynamic that is hard to explain just in terms of healing an illness under a different name.

Hi Phil,

Thank you for your great response. Questions such as yours are great for making me think through all the ramifications, which in turn only brings ease to my mind on any doubts I may have about my position, or make it feel troubled and motivate me to find answers.

About your question on why Jesus transferred it/them to the pigs. I didn’t mean to infer it was recorded only because it was part of the event, just one possible reason. I also share your intrigue for why Jesus did such a thing, because as you stated, whether it was insanity or demons, he didn’t do that any other time.

I personally think there is more going on here than more realize. In the Matthew account it states the demons asked (verse 8:31) Jesus to send them into the pigs. Why would they ask him to do that? I also think you are on to something concerning the fact that they ran into the sea, which was viewed as a place of chaos or “outside”. I think this reference to the “sea” is directly related to Gen. 1:9 which has to do with the separating of the “land” with the “sea” (the separation of God’s people – Adam- from the rest of mankind), and Rev. 21:1 where the new creation consist only of “land” – the “sea” was no more. My understanding relates the “land” with God’s people and the “sea” with the rest of mankind (Gentile if you will). This is why in Revelation the “sea” Beast refers to Rome and the “land” Beast to OC Israel. But, that will take us way beyond where I’m willing to expound upon here on Andrew’s blog due to the enormous amount of time and exchanges it would take.

Concerning your comments to my objectives I’ve provided some short thoughts below.

1) I don’t see how this affects anything.

2) I, for sure, see this being related eschatologically (if that’s not a word it is now). But my eschatology ends in AD 70, so it would have to relate to the events of that time (which I think it does).

About the reference to “torment [them] before the time”. Maybe there is a connection to the fact that Jesus (and John the Baptist) had been preaching that God was about to judge Israel. Maybe this man’s utterance was prophetic of that impending judgment (AD 70) that was coming -and which the author knew about form Jesus’ teaching- so he recorded it because it was relevant. Just guessing here.

I don’t understand your comment “also escapes torment”. If they’re real demons than how is killing the pigs going to allow them to escape? All they’d be escaping from was the physical realm not judgment.

3) I agree. I didn’t mean to infer that passage proved demons didn’t exist. I was asking how was it possible for such a large group of leading Jews, who were very versed in the OT Scriptures (which by the way has no account of demons), to believe spirits didn’t exist. If demons were so evident around them why didn’t they believe in them? Maybe they were from and lived in the south, and thus were not descendents of Israel when it was dispersed among the Gentiles at the hands of the Babylonians via God’s judgment on them where they absorbed (followed foreign gods) their beliefs and practices.

Hi Rich,

What I find intriguing is… WHY JEWISH folk are keeping a herd of “pigs”?

I tend to think Jesus speaks in terms of the mentality of the times, which would have been his own framework anyway.

As for the Sadducees disbelief in THE resurrection… perhaps what they rejected or were disbelieving in was the prevailing idea/s as to WHAT resurrection actually meant/looked like etc?

Hey davo,

Gadara was actually a Greek town, and as such, would have been pretty heavily populated by Gentiles.

Yes of course, thanks Phil… I hadn’t given that one enough thought. *_*

Hey davo,

About your resurrection comment, I never really considered that before. Perhaps you’re right. After all, we do know Paul’s understanding didn’t agree with the Pharisee’s understanding at all, so maybe what you’re proposing makes some sense; although I’m not sure where to go to find hints of that. Do you have some reference in mind that you think might hint in that direction?

Concerning Jews herding pigs. I don’t think the text states if the herdsmen were Jewish or Gentile, or the people who witnessed it all for that matter, so I would lean towards Phil’s comments. But I may be wrong. I guess how we deal with the text would be dependent on that information though.

Hey Rich… nope I don’t have any particular reference in mind regarding my thoughts on the Sadducees’ understanding on ‘the resurrection’ etc, that’s just something I’ve pondered about for ages.

That said, I do think N.T. Wright makes an extremely valid point that is all too often overlooked… the Jewish expectation of resurrection in 2nd Temple Judaism was one of physical resurrection back into THIS life just like Jesus’ resurrection; as opposed to the now popular notion of resurrection into an other-worldly “heaven”.

Hey Rich,

Good stuff. My eschatology ends 90% in AD 70, so we’re probably in agreement about a lot of things.

My comment about the demons escaping torment was referring to their particular situation at that time. The demons are under the impression Jesus has come to torture them prior to their eschatological defeat. If I’m reading correctly (and I may not be), this is what motivates them to request being sent into the pigs as opposed to whatever they thought Jesus intended to do. But I don’t know. Really, the whole incident is puzzling to me.

I’m certainly hesitant of building a theology of demons in the NT from this one incident seeing as it has so many unique features to it, but it’s also those unique features that keep me from being able to fit the demon stories of the NT neatly into the thesis of that article. On the other hand, the regionality of those accounts is clear and that has to factor into our understanding as well.

As for the sea, it’s almost universally a symbol of chaos, if not evil, in ANE cultures, and the defeat of the sea by their god features heavily in most creation myths from the region, and typically the universe is created from the aftermath of that struggle. What makes the Genesis count somewhat unique is the absence of combat or struggle (something that was very much a feature of Israel’s experience with the nations).

Although these images are used later to describe Israel’s experience in the world, I’m not sure I’d read those back into Genesis so much as I’d see their original symbolic significance making them appropriate symbols in later prophetic language rather than make the later referents define the earlier ones. Like, we can easily see how the symbolic meanings of the Passover are taken up in the Lord’s Supper, but we probably wouldn’t say we should understand the Passover -as- the Lord’s Supper.

Hey Phil,

Yeah, I would say we probably do agree on most things. I was starting to pick that up from bits here and there as you commented.

I too share your puzzlement about this passage. I haven’t myself worked it all out. But, since I think I have worked out the other 99% to agree with that paper’s perspective, I feel free to assume the pigs account must fit within it somehow.

About your reference to combat or struggle. Funny you mention that. How you ever read Brian Godawa’s paper on that subject? Very good and interesting. I also love the way he sees Covenant in the mix too. I think that aspect is the most important to see. You will probably love it since you see the combat aspect too (which I agree with 100%). Brian also did a series called Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible, which is really really good too (link below). Both are written with strong ANE background in them.

Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant

Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible

As far as ANE goes, I too have done a lot of reading over the last few years and its relationship to the OT and NT. Have you read John Walton’s works? He has some fantastic stuff on Genesis 1 from an ANE perspective. His functional creation as a temple text is very compelling. My only problem is he still tries to tie back to the physical universe, whereas I see it, like him, as a functional creation and temple text but related to Israel and her covenantal Heaven and Earth - which does include the Gentile within. As such I think Genesis is directly tied to Revelation – Revelation 21 does refer to the “firth” H&E with is clearly Genesis 1. My eschatology has Israel’s first H&E (Genesis 1) ending in AD 70 with the creation of a new H&E (Rev. 21).

Walton’s two most relevant works include:

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

Hi Rich, Phil, Andrew,

Rich - thanks for the link to the Snobelen article on the “Geographical Distribution of Demon Possession” - really fascinating.

The author concludes from his thorough mapping exercise that since “the distribution instead shows marked clustering, [this] provides powerful Biblical testimony that confirms the non-existence of demons as personal spirit beings under the control of satan.”

This conclusion, however, is on the assumption that where there is non-uniformity, it is what is seen and experienced in certain locales that is psychosomatic, whereas what is not represents reality. That assumption, it seems to me, is not as neutral and objective as it may seem; it comes from a certain worldview - one that, I would suggest, does not necessarily match up with the Biblical worldview.

In Mark 6 it says that Jesus was not able to do many miracles except heal a few sick because of their unbelief. Their lack of faith prevented them from seeing and experiencing miracles in the way and to the extent other places and people did.

Jesus said to his disciples that if they believed they would do greater things than he did.

Jesus in his resurrection was seen by his followers, by those who had believed in him. Was their experience less reflective of reality than those who could say, “Well, I’ve not seen him. Funny how he only appears to those who believe in him.”

Another way of interpreting the Biblical data, which might make more sense of the Gadarene demoniac, is that demons are real but a worldview that is blinded to them keeps them hidden and out of sight. Though they still have powerful detrimental affects on people’s lives, they are rationalised and so those people are greatly hindered in seeing and experiencing the freedom that deliverance from demons can bring. Just like Jesus did not force miracles on those in Nazareth, he did not force deliverance on those in Judea. And likewise he does not typically force miracles and deliverance on many in the West whose worldview does not allow for it.

Any thoughts?

PaulK

PaulK,

thanks for the thoughts. I guess the first thing that pops into my mind is this. Would demons really care what anybody thinks or believes? I think they wouldn’t and would just do as they pleased. Don’t think I would compare the thoughtfullness of Christ to a demon’s (if they existed).

Maybe Phil, Andrew or Davo have some other thoughts.

Hi Rich,

What the author maps is not the prevalence of demon possession but the incidences of deliverance from demons. He infers the former from the latter - and given that belief in demons differed markedly between North and South concludes that demons are not real but a ‘symptom’ of their beliefs.

But what might actually be going on is that the recognition that demons are real and the belief that it is possible to be delivered from them helps people to receive deliverance through the ministry of Jesus.

In other words, demons operated below people’s radar in the South because of their belief system (I.e. they might suffer from the same things as those in the North, but would not attribute it to demons). And their belief system hindered them from recognising and receiving help in the same way those in the North did.

So the point I’m making is not that people’s worldview in the NT influenced the prevalence of demons, but that their worldview would influenced the extent to which they recognised demons and therefore experienced deliverance through the ministry of Jesus. After all he healed all those that came to him (in response to the message he brought), but he did not seem to force it on to people irrespective of their faith and desires.

Hope that that makes sense.

Paul

This got me to thinking.

Maybe what we’re seeing is clashes of power and the victory of God demonstrated in ways where that would have been apparent to the observing culture.

Even in modern day, there’s something of a cultural distribution of dramatic supernatural stories. American missionaries have told me some crazy stories about things that they’ve seen on the mission field in some countries that are unheard of here in America, while other missionaries seem to have a somewhat less crazy experience. I’ve wondered for years how it was that these people would witness such blatantly “supernatural” things while Americans witness nothing of the sort*.

One explanation is just that they’re supernaturalizing their stories of perfectly normal phenomena. Another explanation is that the clash of the lordship of Christ with the animus of some cultures manifests itself differently than that clash in other cultures, specifically in a way that such a clash and victory would be apparent to them. In one culture, this may look like casting out demons. In other culture, it may look like the failure of a politician to convict an innocent man of wrongdoing.

Just kind of shooting from the hip, here, but I feel like I need to do justice to the regional clustering the article pointed out as well as the fact that, in at least some of the biblical narrative, the demons are basically the spiritual animus of oppression and at least twice are portrayed as intelligent and knowing “demon stuff.”

Ditto, Phil - I’ve heard of stories of missionaries carrying their Western taional worldview into missionary contexts and seeing things more akin to the biblical New Testament stories than their worldview and prior experience would have naturally allowed.

I think the clash of kingdoms idea has a lot going for it. And I think there have been some remarkable stories that have happened church history that perhaps accord with that; St Patrick and his clash with Druids being one of them, if I remember rightly.

I also think our worldview can blind us to realities that are out there. That rationalism can be as deceptive as superstition. In the case of demons, it’s not so much that a lack of belief in them keeps them from function. More likely, where they are believed in, they like to play on that to create fear and unhealthy behaviours and superstitions around that. And where they are not believed, they like to keep people ignorant of their role in causing problems in health or relationships etc. Just some thoughts for what it’s worth.