4-4 The Language Of The Day
So we see that in the New Testament it was the language of the day to
describe someone as being possessed with demons if they were mentally
ill or had a disease which no one understood(1). The contemporary
Roman and Greek cultural belief was that demons possessed people, thereby
creating mental disease. Those Christians who believe in the existence
of demons are effectively saying that the contemporary pagan beliefs in
this area were perfectly accurate(2). The first century Jews
definitely thought that ‘demons’ were ‘immortal souls’(3).
But the Bible knows nothing of ‘immortal souls’. Therefore we must conclude
that the Bible speaks of contemporary ideas which are doctrinally wrong
without highlighting the fact that they are wrong.
Error Not Explicitly Corrected
The miracles of Jesus exposed the error of local views,
e.g. of demons, without correcting them in so many words. Thus in Lk.
5:21 the Jews made two false statements: that Jesus was a blasphemer,
and that God alone could forgive sins. Jesus did not verbally correct
them; instead he did a miracle which proved the falsity of those statements.
It was clearly the belief of Jesus that
actions speak louder than words. He rarely denounced false ideas directly,
thus he did not denounce the Mosaic law as being unable to offer salvation,
but He showed by His actions, e.g. healing on the Sabbath, what the truth
was. When He was wrongly accused of being a Samaritan, Jesus did not deny
it (Jn. 8:48,49 cp. 4:7-9) even though his Jewishness, as the seed of
Abraham, was vital within God’s plan of salvation (Jn. 4:22). Even when the Jews drew the wrong conclusion
(wilfully!) that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18),
Jesus did not explicitly deny it; instead He powerfully argued that His
miracles showed Him to be a man acting on God’s behalf, and therefore
he was not equal with God. The miracles of Jesus likewise showed the error
of believing in demons. Christ’s miracle of healing the lame man at the
pool was to show the folly of the Jewish myth that at Passover time an
angel touched the water of the Bethesda pool, imparting healing properties
to it. This myth is recorded without direct denial of its truth; the record
of Christ’s miracle is the exposure of its falsehood (Jn. 5:4).
Another example would be the Jewish myth that the High Priest's
Passover address was a direct speaking forth of God's words; this wrong
idea isn't specifically corrected, but it is worked through by God- in
that Caiaphas' Passover words just before the crucifixion came
strangely true, thus condemning Caiaphas and justifying the Lord Jesus
as Israel's Saviour (Jn. 11:51).
Thus the way that Christ did not explicitly correct error regarding demons
is in harmony with other cases of blatant error which are also not explicitly
corrected. The false thinking of the Jews about “Abraham’s bosom” was
subtly mocked by the Lord Jesus rather than explicitly corrected (Lk.
16:19-31). The idiom of Jacob being “gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33)
is used, despite the fact that many Bible readers will misunderstand this
as meaning that he therefore joined them in some disembodied existence.
The idiom is used but not corrected. God is not so primitive as to keep
on as it were tripping over Himself to defend and define what He has said
and the way He has chosen to say it. He speaks to us in our language,
and at various times over history has dealt with men in terms they can
cope with. And so the faithful too say things like ‘May the King live
for ever’, using a social form which they knew had no real truth or intention
in it (Neh. 2:3; Dan. 2:4; 3:9). We read of men being able to sling stones
and not miss “a hair’s breadth” (Jud. 20:16)- another idiom which of course
isn’t literally true.
When the people shouted Hosannas and “Blessed be the King that comes
in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38), they thought the Messianic Kingdom
had come. And the Lord didn’t turn round and correct them for their misapplication
of Scripture. Neither did He reject them or call fire down from Heaven
upon them because of their misunderstanding. He said nothing, and let
the crowd live on in their misunderstanding and see His death- in order
to teach them something about what was needed in order to enable the Kingdom.
And the same ‘long term’ approach of the Lord is found in His dealing
with the demons issue. The elder son in the parable falsely claims to
God that he has never broken one of His commands; but although this is
evidently untrue, the father (representing God) does not correct him in
so many words (Lk. 15:29-31). Naaman the Syrian accepted the faith of
the God of Israel; after his ‘conversion’ he asked for some Israeli soil
to be given to him to take back to Syria (2 Kings 5:17). This shows that
Naaman was influenced by the surrounding superstition that one could only
worship a god of another nation whilst on their soil. But this is not
explicitly corrected by Elisha; he simply but powerfully comments: “Go
in peace”. In other words, Elisha was saying that the peace experienced
by Naaman in his daily life was so wondrous that it
obviated the need for worshipping on Israeli soil. Gen. 29:31 speaks of
closed and open wombs, not fallopian tubes. There was no need
for inspiration to produce a document that was so scientifically correct
that the generation contemporary with it couldn’t cope with it. Indeed, the whole beauty
of God’s revelation is that He takes people from where they are as they
are, and leads them on to higher truth without having head on confrontation
with them regarding their incorrect scientific understandings. Thus we
read of “the sweet influences of Pleiades” even though we know that the
stars do not have influence upon our lives today (Job 38:31).
Think through the following examples of error nor being corrected explicitly:
- Hananiah, a false prophet, is called a prophet (Jer. 28:5,10)
- The woman thought that Angels know everything and therefore David was
like an Angel (2 Sam. 14:20). Angels don’t know everything. Yet
the woman’s immature concept isn’t corrected.
- False gods are spoken of as if they really are alive and capable of
‘eating’ sacrifices: God says He will starve (Heb.) the idols
of the Gentiles (Zeph. 2:11). So, seeing 'demons' refer in the Old Testament
to false gods, it's not so unusual to find the Bible speaking of demons
as if they are real, when, just like the false gods, they actually
The Bible Uses The Language Of The Day
If the reasoning presented so far is correct, then we must demonstrate
that the Bible does use (at times) the language of the day, contemporary
with the time when it was first inspired. Jn. 10:23 speaks of “Solomon’s
colonnade”, but as the NIV Study Bible correctly points out, this was
“commonly but erroneously thought to date back to Solomon’s time”. But
the error isn’t corrected. The language of the day is used. Prov. 8:28
speaks of God establishing “the clouds above”, and the surrounding
context seems to describe God as forming the sky around the earth and
then putting a horizon in place- just the sort of geo-centric view held
by people at the time. And Job 26:11; 1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam. 22:8 speak as
if Heaven / the sky rests on the mountains, from where earth seems to
touch the heavens (Is. 13:5), with the stars stretched out in the north
(Job 26:7). The point surely was that however people understood
creation to have happened, God had done it, and in wisdom.
the Bible uses the language of the day does not mean that the God who
inspired it wishes us to believe in demons. Modern English has many
terms which are reflective of untrue understandings. We describe a
certain disorder as “St. Vitus’ Dance” which is not caused by “St.
Vitus” nor do most users of the term know anything about Vitus. It's
evident that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th; yet many still use
the term ‘Christmas day’ when speaking of that day.
The names of the days of the week are based upon pagan idol worship –
e.g. ‘Sunday’ means ‘the day devoted to worshipping the sun’; ‘Saturday’
was the day upon which the planet Saturn was to be worshipped, ‘Monday’
for the moon, etc. To use these names does not mean that we share the
pagan beliefs of those who coined them. ‘Influenza’
is likewise a term in common use today; it strictly means ‘influenced
by demons’. When Daniel was renamed ‘Belteshazzar’, a name referencing
a pagan god, the inspired record in Daniel 4:19 calls him ‘Belteshazzar’
without pointing out that this word reflected false thinking. I speak
about ‘the Pope’ as a means of identifying someone, even though I think
it wrong to actually believe that he is a ‘pope’ or spiritual father (Mt. 23:9).
English has the word “lunatic” to describe someone who is mentally ill.
Literally it means one who is “moon struck”. It was once believed that
if a person went out walking at night when there was a clear moon, they
could get struck by the moon and become mentally ill (cp. Mt. 17:15).
We use that word “lunatic” today to describe someone who is ill, but it
does not mean that we believe mental illness is caused by the moon. If
our words were written down and re-read in 2,000 years’ time, people
might think we believed that the moon caused illness; but they'd be
wrong because we are just using the language of our day, as the Lord
Jesus did 2,000 years ago. The New Testament likewise reflects this
association between the moon and mental illness. "They brought to Him
all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments,
and those who were demon-possessed, and those which were lunatick, and
paralytics; and He healed them" (Mt. 4:24 A.V.). The repetition of the
word "and..." gives the impression that every kind of illness- physical
and mental, understood and not understood- was healed by the Lord
Jesus. "Lunatick" translates the Greek selēniazomai- "to be moon struck", derived from the noun selēnē,
the moon. It's not true that some mental illnesses come from being
moon-struck. But the idea is used, without correction- just as the idea
of 'demon possession' is in the preceding phrase.
The Bible is written in terms which the surrounding people would have
understood; therefore it sometimes speaks of how things appear to be as
if this really is the case. God warns against dabbling with “them
familiar spirits” (Lev. 19:31); not ‘those who think they’ve got access
to the supposed spirit world which, of course, doesn’t exist’. Thus
Genesis 18:2 speaks of “three men” visiting Abraham; actually they were
Angels (Gen. 19:1 RV), but they are described as they appeared.
Likewise we read that Jesus “entered in to a ship, and sat in the sea”
(Mk. 4:1). Of course He didn’t literally sit in the sea. But this is
how it would have appeared to a spectator sitting on the grassy
hillside, hearing Jesus’ voice clearly from a great distance because of
the natural amphitheater provided by the topography. In this case, the
Spirit adopts this perspective in order to invite us to take our place
on that same hillside, as it were, beholding the Lord Jesus in the
middle distance, looking as if He were sitting in the sea. Perhaps the
record is implying that listeners were so transfixed by the words and
person of Jesus that they stopped seeing the boat and only saw Jesus,
giving the picture of a magnetic man with gripping words sitting in the
sea teaching a spellbound audience. There’s another example of this
kind of thing in Jud. 4:5: “The mountains melted [‘flowed’, AVmg.]”- to
a distant onlooker, the water flowing down the mountains gave the
impression that they themselves were melting; not, of course, that they
“The God that is above”
In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible often speaks of the sun
‘rising’, ‘going down’ and travelling across the sky; this is a human
way of putting it, as it appears to an earthbound observer, but it is
not scientifically correct. We read of “the God that is above” (Job 3:4;
31:28); seeing that the earth revolves upon its own axis, this is not
strictly correct. God’s dwelling place is revealed as a fixed location;
the fact that the earth revolves as it does would mean that God cannot
literally be “the God that is above” for a believer in Australia and one
in England at the same time. Yet God is spoken of as being “above” physically
(Ez. 1:22,26; 10: 9); indeed, Christ used “above” as an idiom for God
(Jn. 8:23; 19:11). The point we are making is that God reveals Himself
in terms earthbound mortals can comprehend. The majority of His children
down through the centuries probably believed in a flat earth, with God
living up in the sky (hence the same Hebrew word is used for “Heaven”
in the sense of God’s dwelling place, and “heaven” in terms of the sky).
And God went along with that in the language He used in the Bible. The
sun is spoken of in Genesis 1 as the greatest planet of light in the whole
of creation; yet there are millions of suns, our sun only appears the
greatest light from our human viewpoint. And God went along with this
in the linguistic style of the Genesis record. And so let’s drive the
point home: God was doing exactly the same with the language of demons
in the New Testament.
The Primary Readership
It should be noted from all this that the Bible which we have bears the marks
of the fact that it was written for a primary readership (as well as for
us), and the language used is proof of that. Take a read through 1 Corinthians
7 to see what I mean. It is clear that Paul is answering some highly specific
questions which the Corinthian believers had written to him. He begins his paragraphs: “Now concerning the things whereof
ye wrote unto me… now concerning virgins… now as touching
things offered unto idols…” (1 Cor. 7:1,25; 8:1). We can almost imagine
him sitting there with their letter in front of him, answering the questions
point by point. But we don’t know what their questions were, and this
fact makes the interpretation of Paul’s words here difficult; although
of course the study of them is beneficial to us. The fact is, some parts
of the Bible which we have were written for its primary readership, and
the language used reflects this (Dt. 3:9,11).
The early church possessed the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, which
have now been withdrawn; yet the New Testament records commands concerning
them which were relevant only to the New Testament church. We can learn
general principles from these accounts, but their existence is no proof
that we can possess the gifts today.
Old Testament Language Of The Day
Some of the Bible’s language refers to pagan superstitions which are
evidently untrue; thus stones listen (Josh. 24:27), trees talk (Jud. 9:8-15),
corpses speak (Is. 14:9-11). These ideas are clearly nonsense. And yet
they are picked up and used by the Spirit in order to express God’s word
to people in contemporary terms. Thus Isaiah 34:1 invites the nations
around Israel to come near and hear the judgment God was pronouncing against
Idumea. Not surprisingly, what follows is a description of utter desolation
using language which those people could relate to. In contemporary thought,
the demon Lilitu was believed to be a night demon who prowled among the
ruins and lurked in desolate places (4). Isaiah 34:14 describes the desolation
of Idumea in these terms: “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet
with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr (a demon allusion) shall
cry to his fellow; Lilith (the Hebrew form of the Akkadian Lilitu; “the
screech owl”, AV) also shall rest there”. Now there is no way that the
Bible is teaching the real existence of Lilitu. Yet there is no caveat
or warning to the effect that Lilitu does not exist. We are evidently
expected to realize from the copious demonstrations and statements that
Yahweh is the only true God that Lilitu does not exist. If we insist that
demons exist because of the way the New Testament is written, then we
must also accept that Lilitu also exists and haunts every derelict building
site after dark. R.K. Harrison has the following comment: “As a general observation it
should be noted that such references to pagan mythology as do occur in
the OT have themselves been thoroughly stripped of their pagan associations,
and appear largely as figures of popular thought or speech rather than
as serious metaphysical concepts” (5) – i.e. ‘Don’t take the fact that
the language of demons is used in the Bible to prove that demons do really
Bible is quite clear that death is unconsciousness, and that the human
soul is mortal and not immortal. And yet there are allusions to wrong
ideas about these things throughout the language of the Old Testament-
in order to get a point over to Israel in terms which they understood.
Thus Jer. 31:15 speaks of Rachel at Ramah weeping for her children.
Rachel was buried near Ramah (1 Sam. 10:2), and Jeremiah paints a
picture of the spirit of Rachel haunting her tomb and weeping for the
Jews being killed by the Assyrians, now centuries later. Jeremiah is
describing how God empathizes with Judah's pain, and in order to do so,
He speaks to them in terms they can understand- but the thrust of the
passage is very much 'So dry your eyes, God will reverse all this'. Yet
to make that point, an allusion is made to false ideas about the spirit
of Rachel in her tomb.
There was a myth in Ezekiel’s time that the physical land of
Israel was responsible for the misfortunes of those in it. This was not
true and yet God reasons with Israel, using the idea that was then popular:
“Thus says the Lord God: ‘Because they say to you, “You (the land) devour
men, and bereave your nation of children,” therefore you shall devour
men no more... says the Lord God’” (Ez. 36:13,14). We commented in chapter 1 that there was a common pagan
notion that the sea was a great monster desiring to engulf the earth.
Whilst this is evidently untrue, the Bible often uses this figure in order
to help its initial readership to grasp the idea being presented: see
Job 7:12 (Moffat’s Translation); Am. 9:3 (Moffat); Jer. 5:22; Ps.
89:9; Hab. 3:10; Mt. 14:24 (Greek text); Mk. 4:37. Assyrian mythology
called this rebellious sea monster ‘Rahab’; and this is exactly the name
given to the sea monster of Egypt in Is. 51:9.
Another example is in the description of lightning and
storm clouds as a “fleeing or twisted serpent” (Job 26:13; Is. 27:1).
This was evidently alluding to the contemporary pagan belief that lightning
and frightening cloud formations were actually visions of a massive snake.
These passages do not expose the folly of such an idea, or attempt scientific
explanation. Instead they make the point that God controls these
things. Nahum 1:3 surely alludes to these ideas: “Yahweh has His
way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of
His feet”. The attitude of Christ to the prevailing belief in
demons is identical in this regard; His miracles clearly demonstrated
that the power of God was absolute and complete, unbounded by the superstitions
of men concerning so-called ‘demons’. Those who believe that the New Testament
records of ‘demons’ prove that such beings do actually exist are logically
bound to accept that the sea is really a monster, and that lightning is
actually a huge serpent. This is surely a powerful point; there must
be a recognition that the Bible uses the language of the day in which
it is written, without necessarily supporting the beliefs which form the
basis of that language. We have shown our own use of language to be similar.
The Bible does this in order to confirm the kind of basic truths which
we considered in Chapter 2- that God is all powerful; He is responsible
for our trials; sin comes from within us. All these things can be made
sense of by appreciating the greatness of God’s power to save.
As with the descriptions of the sun rising and going down, illness is
spoken of in the technically ‘incorrect’ language of ‘demons’. There are many Biblical examples of language being
used which was comprehensible at the time it was written, but is now unfamiliar
or irrelevant to us, for example, “skin for skin” (Job 2:4) alluded to
the ancient practice of trading skins of equivalent value; a male prostitute
is called a “dog” in Deuteronomy 23:18. And Ezekiel’s description of the
latter day invasion of Israel around the time of Christ’s second coming
speaks of the invaders coming with horses, swords and other ancient military
hardware (Ez. 38: 4; 39:3,9,10). Their swords, bows and arrows, we are
told, will be burnt in the land of Israel for the first seven years of
the coming Kingdom of God. Literally speaking, this is most unlikely to
come true. We must take the mention of swords, bows and arrows as language
of the day for what we now understand as missile launchers, tanks etc.
The language of demons is another example. We read of demon possession,
and in today’s language we can interpret this as epilepsy and certain
Frequently the Old Testament speaks of males as being "gathered
to their fathers" (e.g. Jud. 2:9). This is referring to the common
idea that after death, a man went to be with his father, grandfather and
other male ancestors (6). Yet the Bible is crystal clear that all human
beings are mortal, death is not the gateway to new life, it is unconsciousness.
I've more than laboured this point throughout chapter 4 of Bible Basics.
And yet this idiom of death being a gathering to ones' fathers is used
repeatedly- even though it refers to a theology that is grossly incorrect
and simply mythical. But the language of the day is used to describe death-
just as the language of demons is used in the New Testament to refer to
mental or inexplicable illnesses. The Hebrew word for "cemetery" is used in Jer. 31:40- shede-mot.
Literally this means 'the field of Mot'- and Mot was the Canaanite god
of death (7). False ideas about death had entered into the very fabric
of the Hebrew language; and yet God still uses that term when inspiring
Jeremiah to write His word to Israel. God doesn't offer any footnote,
as it were, to the effect that 'Now of course we know that Mot doesn't
exist'. God is too great to have to cover Himself or anticipate
criticism in this way. He simply uses human words and terms.
New Testament Language Of The Day
With this in mind, it is surprising how many examples can be found in
the New Testament of the language of the day being used without that language
being corrected. Here are some examples:
The Pharisees accused Jesus of doing miracles by the power of a false
god called Beelzebub. Jesus said, “If I by Beelzebub cast out demons,
by whom do your children cast them out?” (Mt. 12:27). 2 Kings 1:2
clearly tells us that Beelzebub was a false god of the Philistines.
Jesus did not say, ‘Now look, 2 Kings 1:2 says Beelzebub was a false
god, so your accusation cannot be true’. No, He spoke as if Beelzebub
existed, because He was interested in getting His message through to
His audience. So in the same way Jesus talked about casting out demons
– He did not keep saying, ‘actually, they do not exist’, He just
preached the Gospel in the language of the day.
- The Lord spoke of ‘mammon’; the Syrian god of riches, with no footnote
to the effect that this god didn’t exist- His more essential point was
that we should serve the one true God.
- Paul speaks of the Galatians as being “bewitched” (Gal. 3:1)- an idiom
that employed false ideas, without any clarification from Paul.
- Likewise Paul at times quotes from or alludes to popular Jewish ideas
with which he may not have necessarily agreed. The lack of quotation marks
in New Testament Greek means that it's hard for us at this distance to
discern when he does this- but it seems to me that it's going on a lot
in his writings. Thus he uses the phrase "your whole spirit, soul
and body" (1 Thess. 5:23), a popular Jewish expression for 'the whole
person'- but it's clear from the rest of Paul's writings that he didn't
see the body and soul as so separate. Likewise he uses the term "thrones,
dominions, principalities and powers" in Col. 1:16- a Jewish rabbinic
term which expressed their idea of "the various gradations of angelic
spirits" (8). But it's doubtful he believed in this himself.
- Acts 16:16-18 are the words of Luke, under inspiration: “a certain
damsel possessed with a spirit of Python met us”. As explained in the
footnote in the Diaglott version, Python was the name of a false god believed
in during the first century, possibly the same as the god Apollo. It was
believed that the ‘spirit’ of Python took over the ‘immortal soul’ of
the person being possessed. Seeing that the Bible strongly opposes the
idea of an immortal soul, there is no way that a spirit of Python can
possess anyone. So Python definitely did not exist, but Luke does not
say the girl was ‘possessed with a spirit of Python, who by the way, is
a false god who does not really exist…’. In the same way the Gospels do
not say that Jesus ‘cast out demons which, by the way, do not really exist,
it is just the language of the day for illnesses’. The demons cast out
of Legion went “into the abyss” (Lk. 8:31 Gk.); the pagan concept of the
abyss is a nonsense, yet if we believe that the record of Legion’s cure
teaches the existence of demons, then we must logically believe in ‘the
- Luke 5:32 records Jesus saying to the wicked Jews: “I came not to
call the righteous…”. He was implying, ‘I came not to call those who believe
they are righteous’. But Jesus spoke to them on their own terms, even
though, technically, He was using language which was untrue. Luke 19:20-23
shows Jesus using the untrue words of the one-talent man in the parable
to reason with him, but He does not correct the wrong words the man used.
- The Jews of Christ’s day thought that they were righteous because they
were the descendants of Abraham. Jesus therefore addressed them as “the
righteous” (Mt. 9:12-13), and said “I know that you are Abraham’s seed”
(Jn. 8:37). But He did not believe that they were righteous, as He so
often made clear; and He plainly showed by His reasoning in John 8:39-44
that they were not Abraham’s seed. So Jesus took people’s beliefs
at face value, without immediately contradicting them, but demonstrated
the truth instead. We have shown that this was God’s approach in dealing
with the pagan beliefs which were common in the Old Testament times. Christ’s
attitude to demons in New Testament times was the same; His God-provided
miracles made it abundantly plain that illnesses were caused by God, not
any other force, seeing that it was God who had the mighty power to heal
- Paul quoted from Greek poets, famous for the amount of unbiblical nonsense
they churned out, in order to confound those who believed what the poets
taught (Tit. 1:12; Acts 17:28). What we are suggesting is epitomized by
Paul’s response to finding an altar dedicated to the worship of “The Unknown
God”, i.e. any pagan deity which might exist, but which the people of
Athens had overlooked. Instead of rebuking them for their folly in believing
in this, Paul took them from where they were to understand the one true
God, who they did not know (Acts 17:22-23).
- Ephesians 2:2 speaks of “the prince of the power of the air”. This
clearly alludes to the mythological concepts of Zoroaster – the kind of
thing which Paul’s readers once believed. Paul says that they once lived
under “the prince of the power of the air”. In the same verse, Paul defines
this as “the spirit (attitude of mind) that… works” in the natural man.
Previously they had believed in the pagan concept of a heavenly spirit-prince;
now Paul makes the point that actually the power which they were formally
subject to was that of their own evil mind. Thus the pagan idea is alluded
to and spoken of, without specifically rebuking it, whilst showing the
truth concerning sin.
- Acts 28:3-6 describes how a lethal snake attacked Paul, fastening onto
his arm. The surrounding people decided Paul was a murderer, whom “vengeance
suffers not to live”. Their reading of the situation was totally wrong.
But Paul did not explain this to them in detail; instead, he did a miracle
– he shook the snake off without it biting him.
- 2 Peter 2:4 talks of wicked people going to Tartarus (translated “hell”
in many versions). Tartarus was a mythical place in the underworld; yet
Peter does not correct that notion, but rather uses it as a symbol of
complete destruction and punishment for sin. Christ’s use of the word
Gehenna was similar.
N.T. Wright observed: "The Greek New Testament doesn't actually
have a word that means 'miracle'; when things happened which seemed to
give normal ideas of reality some sort of jolt, the gospel writers used
words like 'signs', 'powerful acts'..." (9). And I'd go further and
suggest that this has something to do with why they used the 'language
of the day' for 'miracles'- i.e. 'casting out demons'. Joachim Jeremias
puts it well: “Illnesses of all kinds were attributed to demons, especially
the different forms of mental illnesses…we shall understand the extent
of this fear of demons better if we note that the absence of enclosed
mental hospitals meant that illnesses of this kind came much more before
the public eye than they do in our world…There is therefore nothing surprising
in the fact that the gospels, too, portray mental illness as being possessed
by demons. They speak in the language and conceptuality of their time”
Why Does God Use The Language Of The Day?
God answers a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:5). Thus God resurrected
Samuel when Saul asked the witch to bring him to life (1 Sam. 28). Of
course witches have no power to contact the dead; yet God confirmed Saul
in his stupidity. If men choose to follow the vain philosophy of the flesh,
God will confirm them in their delusions (2 Thess. 2:11). In accord with
this, God punishes men with a recompense which is appropriate for the
kind of sin they commit (Rom. 1:27). We have
shown how God clearly appealed to Israel to stop believing in demons,
because they did not exist and He was the only true God (Deut. 32:15-24).
Sadly, Israel continued to believe in demons. God’s punishment of them
was therefore expressed in language which alluded to demons.
The language of the Bible often alludes to the false thinking of the
surrounding pagan world in such a way as to demonstrate the power of the
true God and His doctrine. One of the earliest examples is found in Genesis
4:7: “If you do not well, sin is couching at the door” (Heb.). This seems
to be saying that if Cain was willing to repent, a suitable sin offering
was lying down outside the door, which he could slay and offer as God
required. But there is a very clear allusion here to the Mesopotamian
demon Rabisu or “the croucher”, who was thought to lie in wait secretly
for his enemies. This idea was current at the time Moses was inspired
to write up the Genesis record. Through this allusion to the mythical
Rabisu, God is saying: “Don’t worry about Rabisu, he doesn’t exist; you
need to fear Me, not him. What you need to do is make a sin offering and
reconcile yourself to Me the only true God, rather than worry about myths
like Rabisu’. Notice that it is not God’s style to launch off into some
long direct justification of His greatness as opposed to Rabisu.
Demon worshipping Israel in the wilderness were annihilated by “the destruction
(LXX daimonion, or demon) that wastes at noonday” (Ps. 91:6).
This presumably referred to how some of the Israelites were killed by
sunstroke, and alludes to the common belief that dizziness at midday was
a result of demonic activity. It is as if God is saying: ‘Demons don’t
exist. But if you insist in believing in them, well, OK, demons will destroy
you’. In like manner Christ will condemn the wicked at the day of judgment
out of their own mouth (Lk. 19:22), i.e. He will punish them on their
own terms. Jesus isn’t a hard man- but in the parable, He doesn’t correct
the man for saying this, but rather reasons on the basis that if this
were true, then what had the man done about his belief
in Jesus, even if it was a wrong belief…
- “The terror of the night” (Ps. 91:5 Heb.) is also spoken of as destroying
Israel, and this may also be an allusion to a mythical demon supposed
to kill people at night. Despite these allusions, it is evident that God
through His Angels destroyed and punished Israel (Ps. 78:48-49), not the
sinful, independent demons which the surrounding cultures believed in.
There was a common theme in ancient demonology that there were seven senior
demons, who were responsible for plague and calamity. Christ alluded to
this, without correcting it, in his parable of the seven evil
spirits who re-entered the healed man (Mt. 12:45). Deuteronomy 28:22
may also allude to it when it describes the seven calamities
which would befall Israel if they turned away from Yahweh.
(1) This is also the interpretation suggested by G.B. Caird, The
Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980) pp. 238,239.
There is much in this book which is highly relevant to the issue of how
God uses language in relation to demons. The connection between demons,
idols and the language of the day is also developed by John Allfree, Demon
Possession (Mansfield: Bible Study Publications, 1986). F.G. Jannaway
quotes an account from Yates' History Of Egypt where the author
recounts how in the Middle East in the 19th century, he was asked "'to
cast out a devil', by which I merely understood that I was to cure the
bodily ailments of the individual". See F.G. Jannaway, Satan's
Biography (London: Maranatha, 1900) p. 54.
(2) The logic of this point is driven home hard by Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray (Birmingham: C.M.P.A., 1962 ed.)
(3) See Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews 7.156
(4) See R.C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia
(London: Kuzac & Co., 1904) and R.K. Harrison, The Interpreter’s
Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969) Vol. 1 pp.853,
(5) R.K. Harrison, “Demonology” in Merrill Tenney (ed.), The
Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible Vol. 2 p.97 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
(6) See Robert Boling, Judges (The Anchor Bible), (New
York: Doubleday, 1975) p. 72; Eric Meyers, The Biblical Archaeologist
Vol. 33 (1970) pp. 15-17.
(7) See John Bright, Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965) p. 283.
(8) See John Simpson, The Meaning Of Satan (Grammata: Brentwood
Bay, B.C., 1999 ed.) p. 76.
(9) N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993)
(10) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: S.C.M.,
1972) p. 93.