Angels and Demons

Philadelphia's estimable Jewish Publication Society has returned one of its classic works to its backlist this season. Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan's Realm was first issued in the early 1950s, and has now been reincarnated in a paperback edition. Long recognized as a definitive piece of scholarship on the belief in fallen angels in three of the world's great religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it remains particularly relevant in our troubled times, and is still one of the most readable of texts of its type. The general reader, with only minimal knowledge of the subject, will have no trouble following Bernard J. Bamberger's clear argument and illuminating erudition.

The new edition of the book contains no biographical information about Bamberger. But a quick check of the JPS Web site discloses that he was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and earned his Doctorate of Divinity from the Hebrew Union College in 1929. He occupied pulpits in Lafayette, Indiana; Albany, New York; and New York City; and served as president of the Synagogue Council of America in 1950 and 1951.

As Bamberger notes, his book traces the evolution of a mythological idea — "the belief in angels, and in sinful angels at that" — and this notion's effect upon individuals and literature throughout the centuries. Prometheus and Faust are but two of the characters that took flight through a creative reworking of the rebel angel idea.

But Bamberger argues in the early pages of his work that the myth's effect on history is far more pervasive, since it is much more than simply a fantastic tale that's been utilized by poets and playwrights. "[A]s we trace its development, we shall find ourselves standing at some critical points in the history of the human spirit. Most of those who have previously investigated this subject have dealt chiefly with its folkloristic aspect. The present study is more properly theological … . Following the fortunes of the belief in fallen angels, we shall gain a deeper insight into the character of Judaism and the character of Christianity, and into their divergences. Before we finish, we shall have to confront contemporary issues of major importance."

Pagans Had an Explanation

According to the author, human beings always had to contend with "physical and moral evil, with wickedness and pain." But the existence of evil did not present a theoretical problem to the primitive mind. Everyone knew there were kind gods and equally cruel ones; it was the latter that caused all human woes. "The purpose of religion," writes Bamberger, "was to conciliate (and strengthen) the powers of good and to placate or defeat the spirit of evil. … The general division of the supernatural beings into kind and cruel powers was familiar to all the pagan peoples."

The religion of Israel, however, made it clear that the entire world was the creation and domain of a single God, who is all good. No doubt this was a liberating and sublime idea, states Bamberger, but it also posed a number of new problems. "If God is unique, and if He is perfectly good, how are we to account for the evil in the world? This question still gnaws at our hearts, and was soon perceived by Israel's more profound spirits.

"Originally, this difficulty was put thus: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? The prophet Jeremiah raised the question in these terms, and his perplexity is echoed in many of the Psalms. The Book of Job states the problem with unequalled power and passion, and attempts a noble and dignified solution. But the answer which Judaism later adopted, and even made official, was that all apparent inequities we encounter in this life are adjusted by reward and punishment in the life beyond the grave."

Still, Bamberger notes, the matter had not actually been settled. Even if you accepted that the wicked would be punished and the righteous rewarded after they died, why were individuals wicked at all? Why wasn't the world that God created completely good? Since so many hardships befell the Jews before the Christian era began, they were bound to contemplate such questions. And some who had no philosophical training, according to Bamberger, sought a mythological answer: "God, they said, created everything good. But certain angels whom He made for His service were faithless to their high calling."

The mythological story came in two versions, says the scholar. One version tells of how a group of angels "became enamored of mortal women, succumbed to lust and defiled their heavenly holiness with earthly love. Their human consorts bore them giant offspring, violent and cruel. Having sinned first in weakness, the fallen angels went on to deliberate rebellion. A terrible punishment overtook them and their violent children; but the corruption they had wrought continued to taint all mankind.

"The other form of the story concerns one of the mightiest of the angel host, who rebelled against God at the time of Creation, or, according to some, even before. His sin was pride, and he even dreamed of usurping the place of the Almighty. Cast down from heaven, he became Satan, the adversary; and out of his hatred of God and his jealousy of man, he led Adam to sin."

According to Bamberger, both stories appear in Jewish writings dating from the last centuries before the Christian era, and within them, two related ideas are expressed. One talks about a demonic power, called Satan, who is in opposition to God and an enemy of man (and especially an enemy of Israel), but whose origin is unclear.

The other concept is a bit different. Writes Bamberger: "It holds that each nation on earth has a guardian angel above, a sar or prince. The nations that have oppressed and persecuted Israel have done so at the instigation and under the leadership of their heavenly patrons. The redemption of Israel must therefore be preceded, not only by the overthrow of the earthly enemies, but also by the downfall and punishment of their guardian angels."

These ideas, says the scholar, were completely new and drew upon a storehouse of mythological notions that had been passed from one people to another. Different scholars have traced the story's origins to Babylonia, Persia or Greece; there is yet no way to tell definitively, for there must have been constant interchange of such myths among the various nations.

"But in recent years," writes Bamberger, "a great deal of Canaanite literature has come to light — the literature of a people who were the nearest neighbors of Israel and spoke almost the same language; and we shall not greatly err if we suppose that the Jewish mythographers drew largely on Canaanite-Phoenician materials. But they did not just borrow and retail an old myth. They created something new and different: They tried to graft pagan branches on the monotheistic trunk of Judaism."

Bamberger then spends the bulk of his book following the fortunes of this myth as it played itself out in Judaism and the religions that sprang from it. He considers much of the apocryphal literature in both Judaism and Christianity, as well as the Hellenistic writings; how both the early Christian church and Islam dealt with the story; how medieval Judaism and Jewish mysticism handled it; how the idea played out in Christian theology; and what form the devil takes even in our supposedly more enlightened modern times.


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