Isaiah 14 - The Fall of Lucifer

An Examination of Authorial Intent

by William J Tsamis

12 How you are fallen from heaven
O Lucifer (Day Star), son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!

13 For you have said in your own heart:
'I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;

14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.' (Isaiah 14:12-14) NKJV

For nearly two thousand years, this Isaian text has provided Christendom with the fertile idea that, at one time in the primeval past, before the dawn of human history, Satan led a rebellion against God in an attempt to overthrow the Most High. Yet, like any attempt to usurp the Mighty One, Satan and his demonic legions were cast out of Heaven into the farthest reaches of the infernal abyss, indeed into the habitation of Pandaemonium, the capital city of a domain called Hell. Drawing from, and contributing to, the concepts elucidated by early Christian theologians in their efforts to develop a systematic diabology, great artistic minds such as Jan van Eyck, John Martin, Gustav Dore, and others brilliantly captured the magnific theme through their ominous paintings and horrifically detailed drawings. In addition, gifted poets such as Dante Alighieri and John Milton would immortalize this motif in their respective works, "The Inferno" and "Paradise Lost." Indeed, with respect to the latter, the religious imagination runs wild, transforming the essential Isaian motif into an epic myth of Homeric proportions.

Now, in this paper, I would like to suspend this conventional systematic mythos in order to explore the context and authorial intent of the Isaian text. Although it would be impossible within the confines of this paper to address all of the questions which are relevant to a systematic biblical diabology, we will thus concern ourselves with a specific examination of the Isaian text above, and primarily address the principle question, "Did the great prophet intend to convey to his readers the idea that Satan, 'the adversary' of God, at one point in the primeval past, incite a heavenly rebellion in an attempt to usurp the Holy One, and was, for this reason, cast out of heaven?" Indeed, this is the primary issue with regard to the Isaian oracle, and scholars have vigorously debated this question for over a century.

Important to our discussion, then, will be the legitimacy of the term Lucifer as a proper name in the translated text, and the relevance of the excavations at Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) in 1929, which revealed to archaeologists and scholars a massive deposit of Canaanite civilization and mythology. In the end, we will hopefully gain a greater and more proper understanding of the Isaian text, the conventional systematic mythos notwithstanding.

Now with regard to the study of diabology, as it is with other areas of biblical studies, it is always interesting to consult the works of higher critical scholars, although it is predictable that the conclusions of these academics will simply be a reflection of their initial presuppositions. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the hypotheses of the higher critics have, for the most part, defined the modern concept of "The Devil," which concurs with the naturalistic worldview, and thus sees the biblical portrayals as mythic or, at best, symbolic. So, while there is room for the idea of a Supreme Being within this paradigm (not necessarily the God of the Bible), such ideas as "The Devil" or "Hell" are considered primitive and indicative of a medieval mindset.

According to the naturalistic worldview, in which the higher critical establishment serves as an interpreter of religion, the societal evolution of peoples, in an anthropological sense, strongly assumes that the introduction and evolution of religious ideas has been ongoing since the dawn of man. Although there appear to be great differences in the religions of ancient peoples (and I am speaking primarily of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Canaanite, and Israelite cultures), most anthropologists recognize the numerous similarities which exist (e.g. cosmogonies, diluvial cataclysms, temple and sacrificial cults, feasts and festivals, linguistic similarities in religious terms, and so on); thus, to the anthropologist or higher critic, the similarities suggest a common origin, while the differences imply an evolutive principle which helped define the religious particulars within each respective culture. With the passing of time, each tribal group or culture became more concrete in a nationalistic sense, and certain religious ideas began to evolve according to the particular cultural construct, many of the ideas shaped by the influence of oppressors or neighboring nations, or the experiences of the people.

Now with regard to the people of Israel, it is commonly asserted by the higher critical community that the idea of Satan, as an adversarial foe of God, was grafted into Israelite religion well after the Babylonian exile during the apex of the Persian Empire. The Zoroastrian dualistic concept of a good spirit (Ahura Mazda = Wise Lord) and an opposing force (Angra Mainyu = Hostile Spirit)1 served to provide the post-exilic Israelites with a working theodicy in the wake of the horrific conquests of Israel and Judah in the eighth and sixth centuries BC. It is further asserted that, prior to the era of Persian ascendancy, the canonical writers of the Hebrew Scriptures knew nothing of the idea of fallen angels or demonic beings.2 Indeed, higher critics contend that prior to this period, Satan remains a part of the heavenly court, obedient to the dictates of God, even though his role is adversarial.3 For instance, Satan performs no willful action apart from the permission of God, and this is indicated in the story of Job where the faith of Job is tested (cf. 1:6-2:8). Similarly, in the Book of Zechariah, which was probably written during the early Persian era around 520 BC (although higher critics would contend that chapters 9-14 were written in the fourth century BC),4 we discover Satan as an accuser of sorts, levelling accusations against Joshua the high priest, the mediator between YHWH and the covenant people. And in 1 Chronicles (21:1), probably one of the last books written in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, we find Satan once again standing against the people of Israel, although in the earlier book of 1 Samuel (24:1), where the same event is recorded, we discover that it is YHWH, not Satan, who is moving against the people of Israel. The apparent discrepancy is ususally explained by conservative scholars in terms of God's permissive will, i.e. that Satan acted against Israel only by God's permission, while the higher critical community will emphasize the evolutive element in the role of Satan from the time of of 1 Sam to the time of 1 Chr. Thus, according to higher critical conclusions, during the time of early Israelite culture (pre-exilic), YHWH was perceived as a dualistic being in a sense, exercising grace and mercy on the one hand, yet on the other, exercising calamity and woe. Perhaps the Isaian text, "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity, I, YHWH, do all these things" (45:7) is most indicative of this mindset. Sometimes, higher critics will refer to "the right hand of YHWH" to denote His saving power and goodness, yet at the same time they will refer to "the left hand of YHWH" to denote His capacity for allowing calamity and evil. In sum, then, the higher critic asserts that YHWH was the source for both good and evil in early Israelite culture, and as the evolution of Israelite religion took place, and the need for a theodicy became apparent especially after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, the Zoroastrian concept of dualism (good/evil distinction) found its way into Israelite religion. Thus, the character of Satan was the result of a long evolutive process, and the idea of Satan as a personified autonomous adversarial foe didn't attain prominence until the post-exilic era,5 and especially during the Hasmonean era when many apocryphal writings achieved great importance in Israelite culture.

Now although we reject the presuppositions of the higher critical community - presuppositions which are steeped in post-Enlightenment naturalism - it is nevertheless true that we begin to see the rise of the idea of a cosmic dualistic struggle during the Hasmonean era, and especially in the New Testament and early patristic literature. As Satan became increasingly personified, speculations regarding his origin began to proliferate. Apocryphal books such as The Life of Adam and Eve, the First Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees explored the question of "How did one of God's angels become an evil entity"?6 (It was the First Book of Enoch that took the idea of "the sons of God" from Gen 6 and expanded it into a full-blown mythological account of demonic intercourse with human women, thus producing a race of nephilim). At any rate, some scholars have observed that the idea of Satan's defection from the heavenly court was simply a reflection of the sectarian struggle which was ongoing during the Hasmonean period. Thus, the key idea is that the enemy arises from within - as the author of Jubilees (ca. 160 BC) concerns himself with the issue of Jewish divisions and the problem of assimilation into Gentile ways. So, according to the author of Jubilees, the socio-religious conscience of the day essentially asked the question, "How could one of 'us' become one of 'them'"?7 Since the idea of defection was believed to have first originated in the heavenly court, the author of Jubilees attributes the dissensions within Israelite culture to the evil one, whom he refers to as Mastema ("hatred"), Satan, or Belial.8 Thus, the personification of Satan as an autonomous adversarial foe became even more integrated into Jewish thought, especially in the drama of dualistic apocalyptic cosmic struggle as emphasized by the Qumran community (e.g. the War Scroll) and the New Testament church and its emphasis on the eschaton.

So, let us now turn our attention to another question, essentially the question of how Satan became identified with the proper name Lucifer in Christian thought; and further, let us explore the relevance of the archaeological excavations at Ugarit, excavations which unearthed the civilization of the Canaanites, and brought to light, among many things, the particulars of their mythological belief system.

By the end of the first century, Christianity had formulated a concrete diabology which was based on the teachings of Christ in the Gospels, and on the teachings of the apostles in the epistolary writings, not to mention the Apocalypse of John. During the early years of the second century AD (ca. 107), Ignatius of Antioch would echo the received tradition that it was Satan who was the architect of the great persecutions which descended upon the followers of Christ.9 Later in the second century, the Epistle of Polycarp would attribute gnostic heresies to the wiles of the Devil, thus echoing 1 John; and the Shepherd of Hermas would emphasize the conflict between good and evil within the human heart.10 With regard to our primary concern about the fall of Satan, other theologians such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, et al. would emphasize the great dualistic cosmic struggle between God and Satan which would continue until the Parousia. And although these theologians followed the Scriptures closely with regard to the Devil and his demons, they didn't hesitate to allow their creative imaginations to run free, thus fortifying the Christian theodicy to a point in which it became virtually impenetrable. So, by the time of the Alexandrian Fathers in the third and fourth centuries, and then, by the time of Ambrose and Augustine, the Christian theodicy and diabology was so complete and magnified that it bordered on a type of systematic mythos. The only weak link in the system was the delay of the Parousia.11

Now, of all of the early theologians who commented extensively on the Devil, it was Origen who was "the most inventive diabologist" of all.12 Although a discussion of Origen's theology is tempting here, suffice it to say that it was Origen who first made the connection between Lucifer and Satan.13 Why the term "Lucifer"? Because the term derives from the Latin lucem ferre ("bringer of light"), which like the LXX rendering phosphoros ("bearer of light"), is the best translation of the Isaian helel ("bright one").14 Anyway, the term Lucifer was integrated into Christian thought after Origen, and became chiseled in stone by Jerome when he put together the Latin Vulgate during the years 382 to 404. Although many scholars today negate the legitimacy of the term Lucifer as a proper name, especially as a name for Satan, it has nevertheless become so ingrained in the Christian tradition that it has become part of the conventional systematic mythos, indeed something that is simply presupposed by Christians.

Now, with specific regard for Isaiah 14 as an ancient taunt song, the archaeological excavations at Ugarit, which began in 1929, have shed great light on the Isaian text with regard to authorial intent. Although many Christian theologians would sieze the text in order to complete their systematic diabology and theodicy, a majority of scholars today reject the idea that there are diabological implications in this passage. As we saw earlier, it is very questionable whether or not the prophet Isaiah, in the pre-exilic period, had Satan in mind when he drafted this particular taunt song; and if he did, it must have been on a sub-stratum level as part of the inspired word of God.

From the thousands of clay tablets which were unearthed at Ugarit, modern scholars have taken notice of the parallels which exist between the Isaian text and the myth of Baal, especially the fertility cycle of the dying and rising god. In the Ugaritic myth, Baal is a high god who resides on Mount Zaphon (modern Jebel Aqra); yet he must die and descend into the underworld by the decree of the god Mot ("death"). During this period of descent, another god, Athar the terrible (Athar = Venus), filled with pride, attempts to usurp Baal and ascend the throne at Mount Zaphon; however, he is unsuccessful in his attempt; thus, he is cast down.15 Athar, as the planet Venus, is the star which rises before dawn as the bringer of a new day, hence the term day star. In any case, the motif of a proud usurper is present in the Baal myth; therefore, many scholars believe that the authorial intent of Isaiah was to utilize a well-known myth in that day to proclaim an oracle of destruction against an oppressive earthly ruler (probably a Babylonian or Assyrian king).

Although there has been much scholarly discussion regarding the identity of the usurper here (the Bible refers to him as "the king of Babylon"), it is quite possible that Isaiah is referring to Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC. There is scholarly support for such a theory.16 Although Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, all of the Assyrian kings after Tiglath-Pileser (d. 727 BC) considered themselves kings of Babylon as well. And though Nineveh remained the capital of the Assyrian empire, Babylon became the cultural and religious center, as many aspects of the old-Babylonian empire (including the worship of Marduk) were assimilated into the Assyrian system.17 Because Isaiah deals extensively with Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem in chapters 36 and 37, I would lean toward the theory that the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 is Sennacherib. There are simply too many allusions to the rise and fall of Sennacherib to ignore this point. In the story of Sennacherib's siege, for instance, he does exalt himself above YHWH continuously according to the typical Assyrian royal boast. In one instance, his messenger relates his words to the citizens of Jerusalem, saying, "Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying 'YHWH will deliver us. 'Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria'"?(Isa 36:18). Thus, Sennacherib is the proud usurper - indeed, the embodimentof pride and defiance against the Living God. The prophet Isaiah mocks Sennacherib in this particular oracle, and draws upon the well-known myth of Baal to illustrate that although Sennacherib rose to great power as a mighty emperor, he would nevertheless be cast down by the power of YHWH, and he would be brought down "to the lowest depths of the Pit" (Isa 14:17).

In sum, then, when assessing the initial question posed at the beginning of this paper (i.e. "Did Isaiah have Satan in mind when he penned this oracle"?), I must admit that it is a difficult question to answer. Most scholars would say during the pre-exilic era, the Israelites had not yet developed any kind of systematic diabology, not to mention an elaborate description of the fall of Satan. At the same time, however, although the Hebrew Scriptures are relatively silent about the role of Satan compared to the New Testament, the fall of Satan seems to be implied, especially in Gen 3 and Ezek 28, and the New Testament writers draw heavily on the presupposition that Satan was, at one time in the primeval past, cast out of heaven. So, although I would interpret Isa 14 within it's immediate historical setting, I would go further and say that the Isaian text, on a sub-stratum level, does provide some insight into the fall of Satan. Thus, only "destruction" awaits that being who bears the "proud heart."

Works Cited

1. Jack Finegan, Myth and Mystery, p.87
2. Apocryphal literature and Gen 6
3. Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan, p. 39 - The literal Hebrew rendering of Satan is actually "the satan."
4. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, "Zechariah, Book of"
5. Pagels, p. 39
6. Ibid., p. 49
7. Ibid., p. 49
8. Ibid., p. 53
9. The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, Trallians 4:2; Romans 5:3
10. Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, p. 43
11. Ibid., p. 136
12. Ibid. p. 123
13. Ibid., p. 130
14. Finegan, p. 145
15. Ibid., pp. 144-145
16. Bible Knowledge Commentary, "Isaiah," John Martin, p. 1061
17. Ibid., p. 1061