Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 5, The Angels of the Nations

In the last post in this series we noted the close association between the demonic and the political. This may seem to have been an odd association. Demons, in our Hollywood imaginations, seem to have nothing to do with nations or political forms of power. Given that assumption in this post I want to continue to explore the association between the demonic and the political by discussing the angels of the nations in the biblical witness.

This story starts with a consideration of the varieties of Hebrew cosmology. We generally think the Old Testament writers were monotheists. It is true that there are Old Testament passages that seem to support a strict monotheistic cosmology, where one God and only this one God exists in the heavenly realm. But there are many more Old Testament passages that suggest that the Hebrews held a polytheistic cosmology. In this cosmology Yahweh was the patron god of Israel while other nations had their own patron deities. Consequently, wars between nations were also viewed as cosmic conflicts, as a fight between the two nation gods. And the war on "earth" was determined by the outcome of this war in "heaven," won by the nation with the stronger god. Take, as an example, the Exodus. Pharaoh wasn't just a king. Pharaoh, according to Egyptian cosmology, was a god. Thus, the conflict in the book of Exodus isn't between Moses and Pharaoh. The conflict is between Yahweh and Pharaoh, between two nation gods. This is why we have the ten plagues. The plagues show Yahweh to be the greater god.

Let's pause here to note the conflation of "nation gods" and the political, how the "spiritual warfare" in "the heavenly realm" is the mirror image of a political warfare on earth. The Exodus was both a political conflict--the emancipation of slaves--and a spiritual conflict (the war between two nation gods). This is the same conflation we noted in the biblical language of "the principalities and powers." The cosmic conflict is manifested in a political conflict.

Returning to Hebrew cosmology what we mostly find in the Old Testament is a blend of monotheism and polytheism. Yahweh isn't one among many gods. Yahweh is the High God, the Supreme One among the nation gods. This cosmology, a High God ruling over lesser deities, is sometimes called henotheism or monarchical polytheism. A good example of Hebrew henotheism comes from the image of the divine counsel in Psalm 82:

God presides in the great assembly;
he gives judgment among the "gods":

"How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

"They know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

"I said, 'You are "gods";
you are all sons of the Most High.'

But you will die like mere men;
you will fall like every other ruler."

Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.
In Psalm 82 we find Yahweh presiding over a counsel of nation gods. Yahweh goes on to judge and rebuke the nation gods because they are ruling unjustly. These nation gods don't defend the weak, poor and needy. Rather, they favor the wicked and powerful. The psalm ends with the psalmist encouraging God to "judge the earth" and the "nations." Once again we see the conflation of the spiritual and the political. In Psalm 82 we see the political machinery of a nation as governed by spiritual/cosmic forces. Consequently, standing up for the rights of the poor demands that Yahweh "rise up" against the nation gods. The spiritual combat is a political combat and vice versa.

(For more on the Hebrew notion of the Divine Counsel my good friend Chris Heard, Professor of Old Testament at Pepperdine, has some podcasts up about this subject. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)

Summarizing, what we find in Hebrew cosmology is Yahweh existing along with other nation gods. Early in the Old Testament we see Yahweh as the patron god of Israel, often coming into conflict with other nation gods in the support of Israel. As the Old Testament progresses Yahweh outgrows this role as a provincial deity and becomes the High God, the Supreme Ruler over the nation gods. And still within this henotheistic cosmology, as seen in Psalm 82, there is conflict between Yahweh and the nation gods. Like humans the nation gods can be rebellious and fail to conform to Yahweh's desires. And, also like humans, Yahweh can judge and punish the nation gods.

In both the Old and New Testaments we find God creating and establishing "the nations." In some versions of this in the Old Testament God appoints a "prince" or "son of God" to "rule" over each nation. This is one account for how the "nation gods" came into existence. Deuteronomy 32.8-9:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.

For the LORD's portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.
God, then, appoints a "prince"--an angel or god--over each nation. Eventually, this idea was used to explain the existence of human suffering. The nations--the angelic princes--rebel against God, bringing chaos and suffering to earth. This is the gist of Psalm 82.

Eventually, this heavenly rebellion becomes open conflict. Spiritual warfare. Consider the case of Daniel 10:
At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.

On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.

I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; the men with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground.

A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said, "Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you." And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling.

Then he continued, "Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come."
What we see in Daniel 10 is how the early Hebrew henotheism began to develop into the angelology and demonology familiar to the New Testament (and, incidentally, Frank Peretti novels). We see in Daniel 10 prayer affecting the movements of and conflict between angelic beings. Daniel's messenger is delayed from responding to Daniel by the "prince of the Persian kingdom." Only when Michael, the "chief prince", comes to his aid is the messenger able to escape the "king of Persia." All this sounds very much like the "spiritual warfare" language found in many churches, how many Christians envision Ephesians 6.12: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

But what is missing from these extrapolations is the regional descriptor of the messenger's angelic combatant. Daniel's messenger is held up by the angelic prince of Persia. This regional tag is in perfect keeping with what we have observed in Hebrew cosmology. The trouble comes when Christians drop the regional specification of the angel. That is, when the demonic gets stripped of its connection with the nations and how, in the words of Psalm 82, the nations refuse to defend the weak and show partiality to the powerful, then we end up with the Hollywood mistake: "Demons" floating in the air, disconnected from anything in reality. But as we have repeatedly seen, the angelic and the demonic are rooted in politics, in the ways the nations stand in rebellion against God. Again, the Exodus is the paradigmatic example: Justice (the emancipation of slaves) is a heavenly conflict (the God of Israel versus the god of Egypt).

Now to be fair, it is easy to see how Christians could miss the connection between "the nations" and the angelic/demonic. The angels of the nations are not specifically mentioned in the New Testament. But the angels of the nations do work in the background. For example, in the final temptation in the desert Satan makes this offer to Jesus:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."
This temptation only makes sense if we understand the "nations" to be under the rule of Satan, in rebellion against God. The rebellious princes of the nations--demons--are servants of Satan. And, once again, we see the conflation of the demonic with the political. Political power is the reward for Satan worship. Satan worship isn't about wearing black, drinking blood or drawing pentagrams, the stuff of Hollywood imagination. Satan worship, biblically understood, is joining the "the nations" (America included!) in their oppression of the poor and weak.

This conflation of the political and the demonic is also found in the book of Revelation where we see Babylon--a real political entity (probably the Roman Empire)--in cahoots with Satan and the Antichrist. Again, the demonic (the Antichrist) manifests itself in a political power structure (Babylon).

So, to conclude this post, let's re-approach Ephesians 6.12. How are we consider the claim that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." I think it very clear what Ephesians 6.12 is not talking about. Ephesians 6.12 isn't talking about spooky, malevolent, spiritual entities that fly about seeking to "attack" Christians. Rather, when we take in the whole vision of Scripture, from beginning to end, we see pretty clearly what Ephesians 6.12 is talking about. Specifically, the power structures of the world are in disarray, in rebellion against God. These power structures are not inherently evil. The "princes" and "kingdoms" were ordained and appointed by God. But like humans, these power structures rebel against God. They are fallen. And as fallen heavenly entities they go from being "angels" to being "demons." Our spiritual battle is against these power structures which, according to the biblical writers, originate from and are grounded in the heavenly realm. Our fight is not against "flesh and blood," the human beings caught up in these power structures, the people "possessed" by the demonic. The fight is against the fallen power structure.

Think of it this way. Slavery in America was a fallen power structure. It was a demonic power supported by church and state, written into our founding political documents. Thus the real fight against slavery was to be waged in this "heavenly realm," against the thing--slavery--that "possessed" us. The fight wasn't against the slave owner. We are not to demonize the human being caught up in evil. Rather, we are to liberate both slave and slave owner from the demonic possession. Our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the powers.

If this is so, why keep the language of angels and demons? Why not just use the language of power, justice and politics? I'll take up those questions in the next post.

On to Part 6

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2 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 5, The Angels of the Nations”

  1. Incurably reactionary, I picked up Martin Buber's I and Thou to read again over the holiday, as a counterpoint to this series. Buber described his overall project as a "hallowing of the everyday." Just wondering whether you've taken his view into account.

    "The world of IT is set in the context of space and time.
    The world of THOU is not set in the context of either of these
    Its context is the Centre, where the extended lines of relations meet--the eternal THOU.
    In the great privilege of pure relation the privileges of the world of IT are abolished." (Smith tr., 100)

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