Sacred Texts  Evil  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

History of the Devil, by Paul Carus, [1900], at

p. 65


Azazel, the God of the Desert.

THE PRIMITIVE STAGES of the Hebrew civilisation are not sufficiently known to describe the changes and phases which the Israelitic idea of the Godhead had to undergo before it reached the purity of the Yahveh conception. Yet the Israelites also must have had a demon not unlike the Egyptian Typhon, for the custom of sacrificing a goat to Azazel, the demon of the desert, suggests that the Israelites had just emerged from a dualism in which both principles were regarded as equal.

We read in Leviticus xvi.:

"And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one for the Lord, and the other for Azazel. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement with him and to let him go to Azazel in the desert."

The name Azazel is derived from aziz, which means strength, and El, God. The god of war at Edessa is called Asisos (Ἄϩιϩος) the strong one. Bal-aziz was the

p. 66

strong god, and Rosh-aziz, the head of the strong one, is the name of a promontory on the Phœnician coast. Azazel, accordingly, means the Strength of God.

The mention of Azazel must be regarded as a last remnant of a prior dualism. Azazel, the god of the desert, ceased to be the strong god, and became a mere shadow of his former power, for the scapegoat is no longer a sacrifice. Yahveh's goat alone is offered for a sin-offering, while the scapegoat carries out into the desert the curse of the people's sin, and thus the worship of Azazel changed into a mere recognition of his existence.

These sacrificial ceremonies, however, which, on account of their being parts of religious performances, were only reluctantly discarded, are the lingering vestiges in Hebrew literature of an older dualism in which the power of evil received an equal share of worship with the power of good.


The Old Testament contains many noble ideas and great truths; indeed it is a most remarkable collection of religious books, than which there is none more venerable in the literature of the world. Yet there are tares among the wheat, and many lamentable errors were, even by some of the leaders of the old Israelites, regarded as essential parts of their religion. The writers of the Bible not only made God responsible for, and accessory to, the crimes which their own people committed, e. g., theft (Exodus xi.), and murder and rape (Numbers xxxi. 17-18); but they cherished also the same superstitions that were commonly in vogue among savages. Thus the

p. 67

custom of burying people alive under foundation stones is mentioned as having been sanctioned by the God of Israel. When Jericho was destroyed at the special command of God, all its inhabitants were slain, "both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and ass," with the sole exception of Rahab, a disreputable woman who had betrayed the city into the hands of the enemies of her countrymen. And Joshua adjured the people, saying:

"Cursed be the man before the Lord, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his first born and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it."

Jericho, however, was sure to be rebuilt sooner or later, for, being the key to Palestine, and commanding the entrance into the country from the desert routes, it was too important both for commercial and strategic purposes to be left in ruins; and the man who undertook the work was still superstitious and savage enough to heed Joshua's curse: We read in the first Book of Kings, with reference to the reign of Ahab (Chap. xvi. 34):

"In his days, Hiel the Bethelite built Jericho; he laid the foundation stones thereof in Abiram, his first born, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son, Segub, according to the word of the Lord which he spake by Joshua, the son of Nun."

The terrible witch-prosecutions which in the Middle Ages harassed Christianity have their root in passages of the Old Testament.

The laws of Exodus (xxii. 18) provide capital punishment for witchcraft, and the same command is repeated in Leviticus, where we read:

p. 68

"The soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people." (Lev. xx. 6.)

"A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them." (Lev. xx. 27.)

In spite of the severity of the law against wizards and witches, the Israelites were always inclined to resort

SAUL AND THE WITCH OF ENDOR. (After Schnorr von Carolsfeld.)
Click to view

SAUL AND THE WITCH OF ENDOR. (After Schnorr von Carolsfeld.)

to their help. Saul, who had done his best to exterminate soothsayers (I Sam. xxviii. 9), when in greatest anxiety, called on the witch of Endor.

It is evident from various passages that the Israelites believed in evil spirits dwelling in darkness and waste places. (See Lev. xvii. 7; Deut. xxx. 17,; ib. xxxii. 17;

p. 69

[paragraph continues] 2 Chron. xi. 15; Isaiah xiii. 21; ib. xxxiv. 14; Jer. 1. 39; Psalms cvi. 37.) Their names are Seirim (chimeras or goat-spirits), Lilith (the nightly one), Shedim (demons). The Seirim remind us of Assyrian pictures which represent evil spirits in the shape of goats. It is difficult to say whether these various demons of the Hebrews

ASSYRIAN GOAT DEMONS. (Carvings on a boulder. After Lenormant.)
Click to view

ASSYRIAN GOAT DEMONS. (Carvings on a boulder. After Lenormant.)

are to be regarded as the residuum of a lower religious stage preceding the period of the monotheistic Yahveh cult, or as witnesses to the existence of superstitions which certainly haunted the imagination of the uncultured not less in those days than they do now in this age of advanced civilisation.

Apparently the rise of a purer religion was slow and

p. 70

the habits of a savage age were long-lingering. The vestiges of devil-worship with several of its most bestial rites and even human sacrifices 1 continued to exist even when a more radiant light began to shine in the world.


When Azazel began to be neglected, Satan rose into existence. The belief in a God of Evil was replaced by the belief in all evil demon. And Satan, the tempter and originator of all evil, was naturally identified with the serpent that "was more subtil than ally beast of the field" (Genesis iii. 1).

Satan, the fiend, as a name in the sense of Devil, is rarely mentioned in the Old Testament. The word Satan, which means "enemy" is freely used, but, as a proper name, signifying the Devil, appears only five times. And it is noteworthy that the same event is, in two parallel passages, attributed, in the older one to Yahveh, and in the younger one, to Satan.

We read in 2 Samuel xxiv. 1:

"The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah."

The same fact is mentioned in 1 Chron. xxi. 1:

"Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number Israel."

In all the older books of Hebrew literature, especially in the Pentateuch, Satan is not mentioned at all. All acts of punishment, revenge, and temptation are performed by Yahveh himself, or by his angel at his direct

p. 71

command. So the temptation of Abraham, the slaughter of the first-born in Egypt, the brimstone and fire rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah, the evil spirit which came upon Saul, the pestilence to punish David-all these things are expressly said to have come from God. Even the perverse spirit which made the Egyptians err (Isaiah xix. 14), the lying spirit which was in the mouths of the prophets of Ahab (1 Kings xxii. 23; see also 2 Chron. xviii. 20-22), ignorance and indifference (Isaiah xxix. 10), are directly attributed to acts of God.

The prophet Zechariah speaks of Satan as an angel whose office it is to accuse and to demand the punishment of the wicked. In the Book of Job, where the most poetical and grandest picture of the Evil One is found, Satan appears as a malicious servant of God, who enjoys performing the functions of a tempter, torturer, and avenger. He accuses unjustly, like a State's attorney who prosecutes from a mere habit of prosecution, and delights in convicting even the innocent, while God's justice and goodness are not called in question.

It is noteworthy that Satan, in the canonical books of the Old Testament, is an adversary of man, but not of God; he is a subject of God and God's faithful servant.

The Jewish idea of Satan received some additional features from the attributes of the gods of surrounding nations. Nothing is more common in history than the change of the deities of hostile nations into demons of evil. In this way Beelzebub, the Phoenician god, became another name for Satan; and Hinnom (i. e. Gehenna), the place where Moloch had been worshipped, in the valley of Tophet, became the Hebrew name for hell in

p. 72

place of the word Sheol, the world of the dead under ground. The idol of Moloch was made of brass, and its stomach was a furnace. According to the prophets (Is. lvii. 5; Ez. xvi. 20; Jer. xix. 5), children were placed in the monster's arms to be consumed by the heat of the idol. The cries of the victims were drowned by drums, from which ("toph," meaning drum) the place was called "Tophet." Even the king, Manasseh, long after David, made his son pass through the fire of Moloch (2 Kings xxi.). 1 Josiah endeavored to make an end of this terrible practice by defiling Tophet, in the valley of the children of Hinnom (2 Kings xxxiii 10).

Thus the very name of this foreign deity naturally and justly became among the Israelites the symbol of abomination and fiendish superstition.

The historical connexion of Israel's religion with the mythologies of Assyria and Babylon, begins now to be better understood; since we have learned to decipher the ancient cuneiform records. There are many most significant reminiscences of Bel Merodach's combat with Tiamat left in the Old Testament, and Hemann Gunkel after having given a literal translation of the several passages with explanatory comments says (Schöpfung und Chaos, p. 88):

"Nowhere in extant literature is the myth of Yahveh's combat with the dragon actually narrated. Judaism, the distinctive work of which was the collection of the canon, did not admit myths that

p. 73

savored of heathendom. Nevertheless, the fact that in all the passages that speak of the dragon the myth is not portrayed but simply presupposed, proves that it was very well known and very popular with the people. The absence of the myth in the canon,--and this in the interest of the Christian reader need not be deplored,--is distinct and conclusive evidence that we possess in our Old Testament a fragment only of the old religious literature.

Click to view


"The myth was from the very beginning in Israel a hymn to Yahveh. The Yahveh-hymn therefore is the favorite place for making reference to the dragon-myth,--of which we have a beautiful instance in Psalm lxxxix. The poet that portrays Yahveh's oppression of humanity (Job xl. et seq.; ix. 13; xvi. 13; also Psalm civ.); the prophet that terrorises the sinning people with pictures of Yahveh's omnipotence (Am. ix.); he that arouses the people languishing under a foreign dominion (Isaiah li. 9 et seq.): all make direct reference to Yahveh's power even over the dragon." 1

It is noteworthy that the seven-armed candlestick of the arch of Titus contains on its base figures of dragons, which we may justly assume to be Leviathan, Behemoth, and Rahab, the mythological monsters of Israel.


70:1 See pp. 10-12 of this book.

72:1 There is no reason to doubt the Biblical reports concerning Moloch, for Diodorus (20, 14) describes the cult of the national god of Carthage, whom be identifies with the Greek "Kronos," in the same way; so that in consideration of the fact that Carthage is a Phoenician colony, we have good reasons to believe this Kronos to be the same deity as the Ammonite Moloch, who was satiated by the same horrible sacrifices.

73:1 It may be added that the references in the passages in question are absolutely unintelligible unless interpreted by some such light as that given by Gunkel. To the reader without a commentary they are sealed utterances, for the mere translation in our Bible offers no help to their understanding.

Next: Brahmanism and Hinduism