Why Satan is not Lucifer in Isaiah 14

The Archangel Michael Vanquishing the Devil, about 1530,

In Isaiah 14:12-27, one finds a a long taunt against Lucifer, the one who challenges God. The language is harsh and dismissive. The pride of this “Lucifer,” a king, was writ large, and the terrible results of Lucifer’s hubris seem to be a biblical version of the English adage, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Yet it is from the immediately preceding verses of Isaiah 14: 9-11, the scene takes its context. There the dead are described as ‘being stirred up.’ Normally in the biblical world view this is  something 1 Samuel 28:15 describes as something the dead are loath to do. They want to stay in their moldy slumber.

In this case, however, the royal dead in the underworld are more than happy to wake up and great this king. A king who’s empire had in-fact put many of them into their own graves.[1] Among the taunts of the other denizens of hell, this king is promised that he will know no grave, and only the trampling foot will grind him his maggoty flesh into its final resting place.

What follows is an examination of the mythical, sociological, and historical context of Isaiah. The aim of which being to completely remove the interpretation that Lucifer is a Satanic reference and instead restate the most likely thrust of Isaiah’s intentions in describing the “Fall of Lucifer” in Chapter 14. This is done with the intention that Isaiah has a timely message that far exceeds what it is “shoe-horned” into, and to recapture the full breadth of Isaiah’s intent for the church catholic.

Very Mythical, and Not Quite Hebrew

Satan and Death with Sin Intervening
Satan and Death with Sin Intervening
John Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Fussli) (Switzerland, Zurich, active England, 1741-1825), Courtesy of LACMA, https://collections.lacma.org/node/233050

The language in these passages is strange to modern ears, and even to one familiar with scripture it has an odd “mythos” about it.

Isaiah speaks of a mythical Morning Star (Lucifer means “morning star) being cast down from heaven.

The language of dead spirits laughing in an equivalent to a pagan Hades makes rendering easy “systematic” interpretations of the text very difficult. Isaiah seems to be using foreign religious elements.

In fact, the reaction of many throughout history has been to just relegate Isaiah 14, into the category of an unintelligible prophecy. Many have taken this as license to wrap strange interpretations around these text. And some of these have become so popular for so long, these erroneous readings have become matters of not just Christian faith, but other religions dogmas.

This is unfortunate, as the language of the passage is in fact aimed, sculpted, and piercing. It does indeed fit a Hebrew world view once fully understood without any of the “sacred myths” attached.

Isaiah’s taunt is too smart to read dumb

Our task is to delve into these mythological elements that makes this passage seem so very strange, because the sense that something Pagan and mythical is going on is important to understanding the intention of the text. Isaiah is in a dialogue with it, not intending we believe it.

In fact, once the mythical aspects are understood the historical contexts and wider biblical position of the narrative shines through. And with that in hand the text, finally free of literally a couple thousand years of bad exegesis, can finally speak to us today in a way that lets us see it as more than just strange and can be responsibly applied to the Christian life today.

Lucifer, “The morning star”

Fall of lucifer
The Fall of Lucifer, image courtesy of Getty open Project

Isaiah 14, verse 12 was translated by the King James Version:

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Lucifer has become a wellspring of theological speculation and bad T.V. shows. But delving into the translation immediately clarifies many of the proposed esoteric excesses

We know that the identification of “Lucifer,” a  Latin translation of Hebrew, renders “Morning Star,” in English

The thing everyone takes the word to mean, the identification of Lucifer with Satan can first be concretely traced in Christian theology to Origen.[2] However, he was not a pioneer in this respect. Earlier glimmers of this theory appear in the apocryphal books of 2 Enoch and Adam and Eve. Still, these cannot be dated for certain before AD 100.[3] It is therefore a late “tradition.”

The case for the “Satan as Lucifer” claim being late is strengthened by a look at rabbinic testimony from c. AD 80 and even other earlier apocryphal books. These show that the earlier popular understanding before the first century was more that “Lucifer” referred to Nebuchadnezzar or an archetype for evil kings.[4]

The Satan theory, nevertheless, became popular enough to be repeated still today. In fact, it even seems to have inspired Mohamed’s story of “the fall of Satan” in sura 7 of the Quran. Perhaps this is because, as Robert P. Gordon puts it, “versus 12-14 strongly suggest there is some sort of astral myth in the background.”[5]

Regaining the older tradition

It is my position that the decode the mythological context of the verse lends credit to the older position. Even simply translating the Hebrew in full seems to make the later tradition more difficult to render:

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! (Isaiah 14:12 NRSV)

I am not alone in this position, as the ISBE, which often represents a majority of scholarly opinion, contextualizes Isaiah 14 verses 4-23 as referring to the king of Assyria.[6] However, simply stating that “I think this, and others do to” does nothing to convince people that such a position is correct. Therefore, I have put together an exploration of “how this position is come to.”

Assyrian-Babylonian Mythology is not concrete

Genie with poppy plant
Genie with poppy plant, image courtesy of Wiki-commons, No Known Restrictions

Babylonian Mythology (I am using Babylonian as a Catch all) is a real pain in the neck for a historian. It is not codified, and different Kings felt free to make wild edits. A leading contemporary expert on the subject of Mesopotamian mythology Edward Wright even states, “a systematic presentation of Mesopotamian religion cannot and should not be written.”[7]

Babylonians and Assyrians are even more difficult for biblical scholars, because both were Semitic peoples who borrowed and adapted their religions from the non-Semitic and archetypal Mesopotamians, the Sumerians.[8]

Therefore, we need to be leery of overly concrete statements such as Gordon’s that, ‘the textual evidence for [an astral myth in the background of Isaiah 14] is lacking.’[9] The proponent of the older tradition has to do so with sensitivity to fact that the unsystematic field of Assyriology must use looser standards of evidence than systematic biblical studies. Proponents of the Lucifer as Satan and Lucifer as a human need to both adjust our expectations accordingly.

Identifying the “Day Star” in a “loose definition” context.

Immediately, this looser standard comes into play as we address Isaiah’s antagonist having the mythological identity of “the Day Star.”

R.E. Clements is correct when he claims that the term “Day Star” is most likely an astrological reference to the planet Venus which is visible in the early morning. Yet, getting deeper than that causes problems.

Initial V: Zephaniah with the Israelites before the Idol of Baal, about 1270,
Initial V: Zephaniah with the Israelites before the Idol of Baal, about 1270, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

The Canaanite Hypothesis

Clements opts for an odd interpretation when assigning the planet to the Canaanite God Attar who attempts to overthrow Baal-Hadad.[10] While this interpretation fits the wider context of Isaiah 14, where a challenge to God is thwarted with a reference to Zaphon, the mountain of the God Baal and Canaanite counterpart to Zion,[11] it places Isaiah’s mythology in a Canaanite context.

Academic opinion  in the ISBE and elsewhere, has that Isaiah is really directing his taunt towards Assyria in the context of the book as a whole.

The Assyrian Hypothesis

If we want to be true to Isaiah’s anti-Assyrian context, it is likely that the term references the Assyrian name for Venus, Dilbat (Ishtar).[12]

For all this, the identification of the planet Venus with the Babylonian goddess of war Ishtar does not really get us anywhere, because as Gordon points out there is no known case where a major Babylonian God is subject to an ordeal or humiliation.[13] Moreover, Ishtar is a feminine figure where the Hebrew is using male terms. Is Isaiah creating his narrative from scratch a bit? He certainly could be.

The Tammuz Hypothesis

Ishtar
Ishtar, in “Queen of the Night” mode, image courtesy of Wiki-commons, No known Restrictions

The first two positions have their own merits; in my inspection of the issues regarding Isaiah’s taunt I have come to support a third option.

There is a minor deity, closely related to Ishtar, that after deep inspection arises as a good candidate for a contextualized identity of the “Day Star.” The god Tammuz[14]

Tammuz is traditionally referenced in Assyrian mythology as the brother-spouse (Or male principle) of the Day Star, Ishtar.[15]

We must allow for a bit of slack in academic rigor to make this assumption, but there are several justifications for doing so:

  1. First of all, Ishtar and Tammuz are connected in worship during the most important Babylonian worship ceremony, the New Year festival.[16]
  2. Second, the tales of mortals who attempt and attain to immortality according to Babylonian and Assyrian mythology, similar to the context of Isaiah 14, are Adapa, Etana, and Gilgamesh and these are all commonly linked to Tammuz.[17]
  3. This link comes from the fact that they are all kings, and the role of the king during the previously mentioned New Year festival was to infact portray Tammuz. There is evidence in the archeological relics of Isin of many Babylonian and Assyrian kings being depicted as Tammuz.[18]

The reason why kings were portrayed Tammuz was also functional. Tammuz played a role similar to the Egyptian Osiris, the Phoenician and Greek Adonis, and the Phrygian Attis.[19] These were the “Dying gods.” Tammuz’s right of spring was that he would die and after Ishtar’s along with the peoples’ wailing be resurrected to represent the cyclical nature of the change of seasons.[20] This myth was always reenacted with the king playing the role of Tammuz, so that he could portray himself as dying for the good of the people.[21]

Israel’s Prophets historically fought syncretism against the cult of Tammuz

The Three Jews Cast into the Fiery Furnace Series
The Three Jews Cast into the Fiery Furnace
Series: The Story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, pl. 3, Courtesy LACMA, link to source in image

The Prophets were no strangers to Tammuz. As a passage in the book of Ezekiel highlights this cults strong influence, “Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord; women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz.” (Ezekiel 8:14 NRSV)

Additionally, this kind of god was not new in and of itself. The ideal of a dying and reviving fertility god hearkens back to the tales of Baal, who himself  follows a death and resurrection cycle similar cycle and caused famous trouble for Elijah.[22]

In fact, historical evidences show that this strain of myth was of such deep and remaining popularity in the region that Muslim historians centuries later relate that even during the High Middle Ages women still wept for Tammuz and ate no grains to honor the cereal God.[23]

Does the text back this hypothesis?

There is some inter-textual evidence to support this identification as well. When the actual liturgies of Tammuz are compared to the content of Isaiah, a connection seems to arise, albeit not the strongest parallelism.

Assyrian god
Assyrian god, image courtesy pixabay, no known restrictions

Compare:

All the kings of the nations lie in state,
each in his own tomb.
But you are cast out of your tomb
like a rejected branch;
you are covered with the slain,
with those pierced by the sword,
those who descend to the stones of the pit.
Like a corpse trampled underfoot,
you will not join them in burial,

(Isaiah 14:19-20 NRSV)

With:

A tamarisk which in the garden has no water to drink,

Whose foliage on the plain sends forth no twig.

A plant which the water no more in the pot,

Whose roots are torn away.

An herb which in the garden has no water to drink.

Among the garden flowers he is cast away

(Excerpt from a Liturgical Psalm about Tammuz)[24]

 

The language of the king being rejected and cast out without a grave, meshes with the language of Tammuz being cast out as “a plant without a pot.” There is also some semblance in the Tammuz hymn to Isaiah’s agricultural metaphorical vocabulary choices, such as covered, pit, and branch.

Some lessor connections exist too, a further example

Compare a second excerpt from Isaiah:

But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.
(Isaiah 14:15 NRSV)

With:

 

Where have they taken; where have they taken?

Where have they taken? The desolate land is taken.

The flood has taken Tammuz.

Ama-usugal-ana it has taken.

The shining ocean to they perdition(??) has taken thee.

The shinning ocean to thy destiny has taken thee.

It has transported, the flood transported, the flood transported, the flood seized thee into hades[25]

 

Here Isaiah’s language that the evil “Day Star” is taken to the pit and the realm of the dead meshes somewhat with the context of the Tammuz myth were he is “flooded” (A mesopotamian reference to chaos) into the pit.

Final reflections on Tammuz

The Tammuz myth is incredibly old, in fact it is pre-Abrahamic and dates to about 3000 B.C.[26] It was able to influence the area around Israel before and after both Temples.

The connection of the Day Star to Ishtar is rather direct, and the connection of the Babylonian Kings both real and “mythical divinity seeking” to Tammuz is also attested.

The only area where the connection cannot be concretely made is that a reference to Ishtar always directly implies a reference to Tammuz. And Tammuz represents such a ubiquitous “god archetype” that knowing for certain which particular embodyment of the archetype is being referenced is difficult.

Yet, comparing the language of Isaiah to the liturgical writings of the Babylonians and studying their similarities does not exclude the identification.

Given that Mesopotamian religion is a science of “weak connections” I feel I can safely concluded that either a better mythological candidate must be found to replace Tammuz or he should be accepted as the most likely mythical reference intended by Isaiah when he names the “Day Star.” When the historical background is later investigated, a more concrete face can be placed on Tammuz’s allegory (my money is on Sennacherib) but the mythological context of the versus should not stand solely off of the person the prophecy is aimed at.

At the very least, he represents a far more compelling candidate than the Hebraic construct of Satan. Who’s appearances in Job and other books is minor, and who’s rendering as Lucifer forces an entire apocryphal construction of an Angelic rebellion that does not mesh with the ideal of God’s sovereignty in heaven and is not plainly read from scripture (Such rest very heavily on a minor verse in Genesis).


The Satan identification is really problematic because it obscures the prophets message

Perhaps it is part of the Scottish Protestant in me; I also think it is worth counting against the Satan hypothesis that comes into popularity very late. The Canaanite theory, the Assyrian theory, and the Tammuz theory all at the very least try to take the realities of Isaiah’s world, and his over arching message, the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks with the eventual restoration of Israel and coming of the Messiah seriously.

To focus a message as regarding Satan, when indeed the book looks to Christ is a problematic hermeneutic. It is not for nothing that a later religions that deny the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ would focus on such and expand it (Islam and Mormonism). Seeing where it has gone after Origen leaves us with the need to “test the spirits.”

But, if even all discussed so far will not convince, we have taken a singular verse as our focus. There is the entire context of the passage left to consider.

Prophet versus the “Heavenly Council”

The discussion on the mythological identity of “the Day Star” or “Lucifer” as Tammuz does not close the discussion on the mythological nexus in which Isaiah 14 operates.

Isaiah 14 as a whole describes a story of God judging a challenger to his authority as a sovereign deity. We do not even need to look for an outside inspiration, as that prophetic narrative has a rich precedence within the cannon.

If we approach Isaiah with a mind to interpret “scripture with scripture,” the “novelty” many ascribe to the passage fades. Isaiah 14 throughout uses familiar language of God judging the “heavenly council,” such as found in Psalm 19 and elsewhere. And as such it falls into a scriptural trope.

Many have tried to render this “theme” as God being challenged by his angels; I feel that such is a late reading of what is indeed a more basic understanding that God challenges Astrology, which is the idea that heavenly bodies (often called gods) order the peoples lives.

Isaiah’s use of Assyrian astrological mythology (a heavenly “council” that orders things) viewed against the tradition of the cannon, I contend fits the multi-book theme of the Hebrew prophet challenging the “Heavenly Council.”

Isaiah ‘s place in Ancient-Near-Eastern Sociological  understandings

It becomes necessary to step outside of Isaiah and enter the wider thought-world of the Biblical texts and into Hebrew history to verify this claim.

kkadian Seal depicting Inanna
Akkadian Seal depicting Inanna, image courtesy of theosophical society that gave it Public Domain on wikipedia)

Here, admitting one must pick somewhat arbitrarily to begin our survey, I have decided to start by examining Psalm 82 (a close relative to the aforementioned Psalm 19 in order to handle both at once). Psalm 82 relates how God calls together his heavenly council, using terms again familiar from multiple texts such as 1 Kings 22:19 (The inter-textual parallels here are multiple) and judging the lesser gods. The Psalm ends in their condemnation.

As mentioned, Psalm 19 relates a very similar tale. In fact, in the religious nexus of Abram’s birth area, Ur of the Chaldeans the idea of a greater god judging a lesser one is well attested in multiple religions of that region.[28] Even more interesting, is the fact the proto-Assyrian Sumerian culture was common in the area.[27] It is likely that Sumerian ideals would be well known among Hebrews.

A well known example of cultural dialogue is found in the famous Babylonian creation story the Enuma Elish, which Gordon sums up: “They [The high Gods] imposed on him [the lower God] his guilt and severed his blood (vessels).Out of his blood They fashioned mankind” (VI:32-33). [29]

It can be said first, then, that Psalm 82 (and by relation Isaiah’s critique) flows from a common cultural religious awareness akin to what we see in the Genesis tale.

This “common core” has multiple examples

The biblical form of this “Sumarian-ness” seems to be utilized by many different biblical authors Deuteronomic strand of the cannons development.

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 relates: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.” (NRSV).

From this core early in the cannon there seems to flow a strain of passages that reference this idea. And it continues even into the latest books of the old testament.

In Daniel 10 Michael is set up as the angel who defends Israel against the heavenly “princes” of the other nations. Ezekiel in chapter 28:2-20 uses language very similar to the entire context to condemn a king he likens to a Cherub.

These “late” occurrences of the ideal, when combined with the manifold occurrences in Kings, multiple psalms, and its “late” persistence beyond even into the apocryphal Sirach (Sr. 17:17) show that “God judging a heavenly council” is an important part of Jewish religious thought; moreover, the argument could be easily stretched ad nausea if the genre of apocryphal literature is included in the conversation.

Solomon's Idolatry
The Idolatry of Solomon, 1622, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

 

Though the religious trope is shared with Sumerians it is different in key ways.

The fact that the idea of God or gods sitting in a council and judging others, and its capturing of the Semitic imagination is hopefully by such a concise survey well established.

It is a baseline similarity of all the Ancient Near-East religions. However, underscoring that in turn highlights the key differences.

The Jewish religion being sharply iconoclast, instead of using soothsayers, etc., developed this ideal into a prophetic circuit. In ancient Israel, the office of the prophet came to represent the only official relay for the earthly conveyance of the council’s (God’s) rulings regarding future events, etc.[30]

For the other Sumerian related cultures like the Babylonians, who favored “images” the heavens themselves and physical reality became “the seat of the heavenly council.” In turn, they felt that the movements of the stars, and other tangible signs could be read to gather information and became the conduit for divine instruction. Astrologist and portent-reading magi were the ways they developed to know the gods’ councils.[31]

Isaiah then, in offering prophecy against the Babylonian king, issues a tacit challenge to astrology. Something he directly states elsewhere such as in Isaiah 47:13.

A religion of prophets versus a religion of astrologers

This observation is important, not only because it points out the theological impetus of Isaiah often underplayed by the various theories, but more-so because it describes the mechanism that the taunt of Isaiah 14 is utilizing.

Isaiah, in using an astrological term “Day-Star” as his target, grabs the mythical nexus surrounding it. This is proper to his sociological role in Israel. Isaiah, as a prophet, by his office stands in condemnation of the Assyro-Babylonian understanding of their shared “heavenly-council” ideal and particularly the way that culture claims to know its will and character.

It is hard then, to say that Isaiah’s intent is to describe “new” information relating to Satan. For, the sociological context of his role is that he must deny that the Babylonian approach to religion has any validity. Isaiah is in fact claiming that “Lucifer” has not shown them anything about the reality of the situation on earth or in heaven.

Indeed, the king thinks he is rising to glory, when the truth reveled to the prophet is that it is actually ruin that lay before him. And Isaiah, the true-prophet is arguing that the people heed this message which if they relied on Babylonian methods (Astrology) they would not and could not grasp such a reality and would miss it.


Turning to The Historical Context of Isaiah 14

The sociological role of Isaiah, and an understanding of his own and the Assyrian-Babylonian mythical context he is referencing, already do a lot to dispel the “Satan” hypothesis. However, those alone  still do not grant a full understanding of the Isaiah 14 text, which I must be made very concrete if we hope to over turn all references to that thesis and re-establish the prophets full original intent and message for the Church.

In order to do that, the text must be placed also into the wider narrative of Israelite history.

According to the ISBE, the majority opinion is that the events of Isaiah before chapter 14 fall within the historical context of the Syro-Ephraimatic war described in 2 Kings chapters 15-16 and 2 Chronicles 28.[32] This is a very defensible reading given existing order within the book of Isaiah itself, as this war is introduced in Isaiah’s narrative in chapter 7.

2 Kings 15 relates that the first stage of the war ended the kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.; moreover, the sourthern kingdom of Judah’s king Ahaz, agreed to submit to Assyria and adopt Assyria-Babylonian religious practices.[33] Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, however, later decides to retain his YHWH-ism and fight.

It is a lopsided conflict militarily. And the Assyrians prove an overwhelming enemy and fortress after fortress falls. Isaiah serves multiple times as important moral support for the king whose courage and faith in the face of such insurmountable odds often vacillated and failed him as the armies of darkness close in on his capital.[34]

Isaiah before the Sick King Hezekiah, about 1400 – 1410
Isaiah before the Sick King Hezekiah, about 1400 – 1410, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Isaiah’s background history relates to the discussion so far

This historical background ties back neatly into the impetus for the mythical content of Isaiah and relates to the prophet’s sociological role.

As a court prophet, Isaiah would be stressed to resist the infusion of Assyria-Babylonian religion introduced by Ahaz and which most likely found support within certain segments of the population who favored submission to the Babylonians. This intimate contact can also do much to explain Isaiah’s at least cursory familiarity with the Tammuz mythology.

Beyond just passively resisting the infusion, Isaiah was most likely stressed to remove this foreign religious strain. It was a politicized party that thought the “practical” thing to do was submit. Isaiah as the prophet must utilize his role to counter the claim that “the portents were true.” He has to strike the validity of their arguments by insistence that the prophetic office indeed saw the reality that resistance must continue. It is as if Isaiah must say, “Ignore the Astrologers who say we will lose, God has spoken to the prophets that we will survive.”

Therefore, the use of the mythologies shared by both parties to impeach the pro-Assyrian contingent seems like a natural move for Isaiah to take.

Isaiah 14 comes as the war reaches a climax

Isaiah 13:17 and references  the Northern Israelites already being in exile. Because of that, the intended chronological point of reference for Isaiah 14 may well be the final siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib.[35]

There are different accounts of what happened during this siege,[36] but it ended in disgrace for Sennacherib whose reputation never recovers. Sennacherib is is eventually assassinated and the southern Kingdom survives another century until the later conquest by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II.

Investigating the Bible’s account of these events, which is a rare opportunity to compare with outside resources like Sennacherib’s own record.

While Isaiah 14 relates the story of a king who directly challenges God, and 2 Kings 19, Isaiah 37, and 2 Chronicles 32 all depict Sennacherib as directly challenging the gods of the countries he conquers.[37]

Assyrian siege
Assyrian siege, image courtesy of Wikicommons, no known restrictions

Sennacherib as an embodied “Lucifer”

For example the chronicler has him state, “Do you not know what I and my ancestors have done to all the peoples of other lands? Were the gods of the nations of those lands at all able to save their lands out of my hand? (2 Chronicles 32:13 NRSV emphasis mine).

Sennacherib himself in his own version of events always pays tribute to his tributary god Ashur after the common fashion of Assyrian leaders.[38]

The biblical writers therefore, seem to have modified Sennacherib’s character by omitting this reference, and Gordon feels the writers were taking pains to show Sennacherib as someone he really was not. Gordon feels the Hebrews made Sennacherib into someone who wanted to be a God when he was not, king when he was not (perhaps explaining the Tammuz metaphor’s use).

This critique of a human leader, Gordon continues, can still be referenced back to the use of Tammuz mythology.

In Assyria-Babylon the king ritually portrays this god who dies for his people, something Gordon points out relates to the historical reality, “As a self-appointed deity, Sennacherib must fulfill the theme requirement and die.”[39] Again, the mythological has poured over into the historical with Sennacherib’s death. It is my feeling that this is part and parcel with an ancient outlook that does not separate the two realms of religion and history.

Applying Isaiah 14 to today’s Christian Life

In this investigation, we have explored the mythology being used, the sociological role of Israel’s prophets, and delved into the history of events enough to point Isaiah’s critique at a particular god, way of religious portent telling, and maybe even a particular historical figure.

But what does it all mean?

The Fall of Babylon, about 1255 - 1260,
The Fall of Babylon, about 1255 – 1260, image courtesy of Getty Open project

Object lesson

The simplest of the options for application of Isaiah 14 is to use a simple reading as an object lesson.

The “hypothetical” or real “king” represents an archetypical hubris that on the surface seems successful. Seems to be approved by “the heavens.” The king is called the “man who made the earth tremble” (v.16), and this hubristic king is not without many successes. At first it seems that the king who made “the world like a dessert” (v.17) was gaining everything. The church is tempted to leave its righteous path and join him. This king even gets all the way to “the mountain of the gods,” comes to the top of Zion.

Yet, it is in this very achievement that he is overturned. For, in approaching God’s throne and attempting to spar with him he meets an opponent who crushes him instantly, casting him down to the very depths of the pit (v.15). Isaiah’s observation stands, “All human flesh is like grass” and the reality is that heaven never smiled on his wickedness.

The writers of the apocryphal texts that borrowed from Isaiah 14 were somewhat correct then to apply this verse to the evil rulers of their day. But in an increasingly economics-dominated world the application of this object lesson became much more widespread and lead to many identification of multiple people that fit the mold.

Isaiah 14, when it is freed from being read as a story about the “just the devil” can become a story about anyone and any form of hubris that impinges on God’s sovereignty be it economical, ideological, religious, military, etc.

It can lead to ethical reflection and the question, “what do we really worship?”

Yet, a proper understanding of the mythological context of Isaiah 14 the deeper meanings people long to find in the text can still be brought up from Isaiah’s deep well of wisdom.

The Tammuz legends have much in common with the Jesus story.

Tammuz even means “faithful son”[40] and the elements of a virgin mother, death and resurrection, and sacrifice for provision for the people are all present in the Tammuz mythology.[41] At the same time, there are strong differences.

Tammuz dies and resurrects because of the created order and the passing seasons, so that his myth function is like that of Persephone.[42] This focus on celestial repetitions in the sky and on the planet forms the basis of the Babylonian magic and astrology. The focus when used by kings, was to lend legitimacy to earthly violence and power

This is in sharp juxtaposition with the Jewish position that sees a forward momentum and change beyond the repetitions, God provides to a deeper truth. And God critiques human power.

It contrast false messiahs (KEEP IT PLURAL) from the true

In some ways, we can also judge these messiah figures by their fruit.

Tammuz was a death that was acted out by a King who really gave up nothing, and it did nothing but maintain the imperial status quo. Jesus’ death was by a King who really gave up everything and shattered the status quo of ritual exclusion, regional religions, and outward differences.

It bears mention that Isaiah, who later introduces his suffering servant, had to be aware that the Tammuz ideals were somewhat similar to the message he had been. We in the Church would do well delve deeply into how Isaiah points out what is counterfeit in Tammuz.

The Defeat of the Beast, about 1255 – 1260
The Defeat of the Beast, about 1255 – 1260, image courtesy of Getty Open project

Not a fall of a singular Devil, Lucifer, or Antichrist character, but of all the multiple antichrists

Correct application of the verse indeed can take on the strange characteristic of almost paralleling the traditional “Lucifer” reading.

This is because the Church needs to see an anti-Christs (remember the term is PLURAL), or an presentation of a christ other than the one which it preaches, in the person of the Morning Star. Any Jesus drawn up to defend a status qou and evil power structure needs to be overturned.

Isaiah 14 is important as a wake-up call because it shows that the battle of Elijah against the Antichrist of Baal, who is also shown as dying and resurrecting,[43] is far from new and far from finished in the hearts of the Church’s people. Every generation must chose.

Gospel in Isaiah

Yet, lest we dwell on the negative aspects of the passage, the best application for Isaiah is as always, pure gospel.

The good news is that the oppressor is crushed, he has failed, and God mocks him even when he has climbed the mountain of God far above where we mere mortals could ever hope to stop him.

In addition, I believe this was the meaning of Isaiah’s original message. As foreign flags flapped on the plans below the city walls. God shall save his faithful. When the portents tell against the hope of Isreal, when the exile comes… when the stone is laid over the tomb, and maybe even when Satan lord’s over the earth, the astrologist have lied. The truth must win.

Conclusions

The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings
The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings, image courtesy Getty open Project

The immediate conclusion that can be drawn from our research is that the theory that Lucifer’s identity as Satan is highly improbable.

Luckily, there is also little evidence that such a reading had much of an effect on canonical scripture.

For example, Jan Fekkes points out that although Revelation 12 is often given as across-reference for this reading, there is far too much dissonance in the accounts for this to be justified.[44].

In Revelation Satan falls to the earth and does so in response to the presence of the messiah on earth challenging him in heaven.[45] In Isaiah, the Morning Star ascends to heaven, an aspect totally missing in Revelation, and the Morning Star has already by Isaiah’s day fallen past earth into hell with no implication of a return or anything similar.[46]

It seems best to claim the two references are totally separate and the idea of a primordial half-solved angel war is not congruent with the New Testament and Revelation which see Christ as the impetus for the king of this worlds fall.

Moreover, the prophet stands to claim that the vision of Satan in any power is a magicians illusion.

Dealing with the “Sacred Cow” tradition

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1715 - 1725,
The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1715 – 1725, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

That being said, there is a strong tradition built up around the Satan interpretation, perhaps because some of the texts used to build it do in fact seem to have an inter-textual relationship to Isaiah 14.

In Ezekiel 28, one finds an extremely similar taunt of a king who claimed divinity. Ezekiel even goes so far as to call this king a cherub in the Garden of Eden; and as one might expect, a similar controversy to Isaiah 14 revolves around Ezekiel 28. Those that look to refute the case that Ezekiel is in anyway referencing Satan do so because the text clearly states its intended “tauntee” twice (v2, 12) and we have in that case too archaeological evidence that there were kings portrayed themselves as cherubs.[47]

The case in support of a deeper reference – to Satan – relies on the reference in Ezekiel to the “prince” (v.12) of Tyre.

Prince language is often used to indirectly discuss angels such as in Daniel 10 and in the already stated connection of Isaiah 14 by way of Psalms 29 and Psalm 82. These Psalms speak of God judging heavenly beings and striking them with mortality in punishment for their bad administration (Psalm 58:10-11).

We have already investigated the connections of all these verses and found them to inform the context in a way apart and different from the “Satan” understanding. Those that promote a Satan theory tend to intermingle all these referenced scriptures and move to produce a mythology where Satan is judged for a past rebellion in heaven and is cast down to Earth before Adam.

Sola Scriptora as Judge

There is no direct reference to this anywhere in the cannon, and we can state clearly that Isaiah is referencing a very different myth. Revelation is speaking of a fall only to earth after Christ. And I do not believe that Ezekiel 28 or the Psalms alone give enough evidence to make such assumptive theories credible.

Origen’s reading, as well as Mohammed’s appocraphal tale of Satan refusing to bow to Adam or wanting to be God and being cast down from heaven, cannot be justified by a thorough investigation of the mythical world Isaiah references and likewise if we were to repeat this paper on other passages the same conclusions would arise.

Sadly, these are exactly what is being taught. My wife learned of the Quran tale from a Catholic priest!

Isaiah’s message is recovered

That being said, we have in no way sinned against Isaiah by attempting to demythologize him. By correcting the identification of Lucifer as relating it to the Ishtar/Tammuz mythology, we place Isaiah’s comments within the historical conflict of the Syro-Ephraimatic war.

This occasioned the prophecy and should be the center of our interpretation.

Moreover, by using the correct mythology to decode Isaiah we can find multiple new points where Isaiah is challenging the socio-religious ideology of the Babylonians. Isaiah places a false messianic metaphor against God’s truth, he sets his oracular position as a prophet against the divination beliefs of the Assyrian magicians, and he gives an object lesson that holds more truth than a simple “moral of the story.”

Isaiah does so by reaching into the wider mythological world of the biblical Hebrew, and plays within the areas of congruence and divergence between these two Semitic peoples’ belief systems and in so doing, expands our understanding of both.


 

Works Cited

Clements, R.E. The New Century Bible Commentary: Isaiah 1-39. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Cook, Stephen L. Elijah in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV with Apocrypha Ed. IX. Oxford, New York: Oxford Press, 2010

Felks, Jan. Isaiah and Prophetic Traditions in the Book of Revelation: Visionary Antecedents and Their Development. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994.

Gordon, Robert P. “The Gods must Die: A theme in Isaiah and beyond”in Isaiah in context: studies in honour of Arie van der Kooij on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. Boston: Leiden, 2010.

Hatley, J.E. “Zaphon: Mount” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Hook, S.H. Babylonian and Assyrian Religion. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Jung, K.J. “Baal” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Langdon, Stephen. Tammuz and Ishtar: a monograph upon Babylonian religion and theology, containing extensive extracts from the Tammuz liturgies and all of the Arbela oracles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914.

Leclerc, Thomas. Introduction to the Prophets: Their Stories, Sayings, and Scrolls. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.

Robinson, G.L. and R.K. Harrison. “Isaiah” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Wright, Edward. Early History of Heaven. New York: Oxford Press, 2000.

 

End Notes

[1]Robert P Gordon. “The Gods must Die: A theme in Isaiah and beyond”in Isaiah in context: studies in honour of Arie van der Kooij on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Boston: Leiden, 2010). pg48.

[2] Jan Felks. Isaiah and Prophetic Traditions in the Book of Revelation: Visionary Antecedents and Their Development (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994). pg 187.

[3]Ibid. pg. 187-8.

[4]Ibid. Loc. Cit.

[5] Gordon. “God’s must Die.” Pg. 49.

[6] G.L. Robinson and R.K. Harrison. “Isaiah” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) pg. 888.

[7] Edward Wright, Early History of Heaven (Ney York: Oxford Press, 2000). Pg. 26.

[8] S.H. Hook. Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1963). Pg. preface xiii. – because of this reason the terms Babylonian and Assyrian are interchangeable as the mythology is commonly referred to as “Babylonian” even though it is every bit equally Assyrian.

[9] Gordon “God’s Must Die” Pg. 49.

[10] R.E. Clements. The New Century Bible Commentary: Isaiah 1-39. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980). Pg. 142.

[11] J.E. Hatley “Zaphon: Mount” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). Pg. 1173.

[12] Hook. Babylonian and Assyrian Religion. Pg. 22.

[13] Gordon “The God’s must Die.” Pg. 46. – There is a minor political story about Marduk, but it is the only exception.

[14] Hook. Babylonian and Assyrian Religion. Pg. 22.

[15] Ibid. Loc. Cit.

[16] Ibid. Pg. 23.

[17] Stephen Langdon. Tammuz and Ishtar: a monograph upon Babylonian religion and theology, containin extensive extracts from the Tammuz liturgies and all of the Arbela oracles. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914). Pg. 40.

[18] Ibid. Pg. 41.

[19] Ibid. Pg. 1.

[20] Ibid. Pg. 4.

[21] Ibid. Pg. 41.

[22] K.J. Jung “Baal” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). Pg. 378.

[23] Langdon. Tammuz and Ishtar. Pg.14.

[24] Ibid. Pg. 13.

[25] Ibid. Pg. 14.

[26] Ibid. Pg. 2-3.

[27] Edward Wright. Early History of Heaven. Pg. 26-7.

[28] Gordon “God’s must Die” Pg. 46.

[29] Ibid. Pg. 46.

[30]Thomas Leclerc Introduction to the Prophets: Their Stories, Sayings, and Scrolls. (New York: Paulist Press, 1993) Pg. 111-2.

[31] Hook Babylonian and Assyrian Religion cf. Pg. 91.

[32]G.L. Robinson and R.K. Harrison. “Isaiah” in ISBE. Pg. 886.

[33] Ibid. Pg. 886.

[34] Ibid. Pg. 887-8.

[35] Ibid. Pg. 887.

[36] Ibid. Loc. Cit.

[37] Gordon “God’s must Die” Pg. 50-51.

[38] Ibid. Pg. 50.

[39] Ibid. Pg. 52.

[40] Langdon. Tammuz and Ishtar. Pg. 2.

[41] Ibid. Pg. 3.

[42] Ibid. Pg. 4.

[43] Gordon. “God’s must Die” Pg. 45.

[44] Felks. Isaiah and Prophetic Traditions in the Book of Revelation. Pg. 188.

[45] Ibid. Loc. Cit.

[46] Ibid. Loc. Cit.

[47] Stephen L. Cook. Elijah in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV with Apocrypha Ed. IX (Oxford, New York: Oxford Press, 2010) Pg. 1199. – comment is found in the footnotes

 

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


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