“Behemoth and Leviathan,” 1825, from The Book of Job by William Blake, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. Licensed under CC0 1.0
Monsters are an ever-present feature of modern cinema, from Dracula to the Kraken. However, monsters are by no means a modern invention, and many of the same creatures that inhabit our modern horror movies have roots that stretch back thousands of years. So, with Halloween just around the corner, let us take a moment to appreciate some old-school ghosts and ghouls from the biblical world paired with stories from Bible History Daily and the BAS Library.
Demons: Demons are one of the first creatures we think about when discussing monsters in the Bible. These creatures, who show up many times in the New Testament and other ancient Near Eastern sources, are often portrayed as servants of divine beings. However, did you know that they are almost absent from the Hebrew Bible?
Nephilim: In Genesis, the Nephilim are described as the giant and mighty offspring of the sons of God and human women (Genesis 6:4), but could the biblical stories of these giants have been a response to the myths of demigods, such as Gilgamesh, from neighboring ancient cultures?
Lilith: The story of Lilith begins in Babylon, where she was portrayed as a winged serpent preying on pregnant women and children. She does make one appearance in the Bible, where she is listed as a demon in the wilderness (Isaiah 34:14). Lilith experiences a transformation in later sources where she was reimagined as the first wife of Adam, and today is seen by many as a feminist icon. So what is she? A heroine or murderer?
Ghosts: Except for the story of the witch of Endor and the ghost of Samuel (1 Samuel 28), ghosts are seldom discussed in detail in the Bible. Yet, the idea of dead relatives returning from the grave was very common in the ancient Near East, with the oldest image of a ghost dating back 3,500 years to Babylonia.
Sea Monsters: Although the biblical authors were not seafarers, the Bible still has several references to various sea monsters, most notably Jonah’s giant fish (Jonah 1:17) and the infamous Leviathan (Psalms 74:14). By contrast, famously seafaring Greeks had plenty of myths about monsters that swam up from the deeps to devour ships and sailors. However, could some of their myths have functioned to explain ancient fossils?
Gorgons: Speaking of seafaring Greeks, did you know that the Greeks were trading with the southern Levantine coastal city of Dor as early as the sixth century B.C.E.? Besides trading goods, however, the Greeks also traded myths about Gorgons, hideous monsters capable of turning people into stone with a single look. A mask depicting one of these gorgons has even been excavated at Tel Dor.
Beelzebul: We can’t end this list without mentioning the prince of demons himself, Beelzebul. Although frequently associated with Satan, this equivalence is never made explicit in the Bible. Indeed, Beelzebul is better understood as a play on the name of one of Yahweh’s chief rivals, the Canaanite god Baal. A similar play on Baal’s name can be found in 1 Kings 1:3, where Baal is mocked with the name Baalzebub or “the lord of flies.”
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