Hebrew In Israel | Who Are You, Belial? – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | Who Are You, Belial? – Learn Torah

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The title of this article, Who are you, Belial?, is more of a sarcastic question.  The reason I say sarcastic is because my understanding is that most ideas regarding titles such as Belial have an historical background and have nothing to do with theological/mythological principles.  Shamai Glander suggested in his book on Genesis that the torah and the tanakh are anti-mythological and usually retell the stories known to other nations, such as the flood and creation narratives, by eliminating the mythological element and providing a more monotheistic principle without the demons and the monsters.  

Does The Bible Believe in Demons?

It has been a very long, ongoing argument if the bible really does believe in demons.  Due to the fact that the bible was written over an extended period of time, it is possible that the opinion on the subject changed from one generation to the other.  This is a theological principle that is also connected to the idea of monotheism and what it would look like during the early history of Israel.  Therefore, I would say it is healthier to accept the possibility that there IS some kind of belief in spirits, whether they be good or evil. 

At this stage, you might be asking yourself why I would be taking about demons.  The reason for this is that many people, Jewish or Christian (and everything in between), believe that Belial is some spiritual demonic creature.  This idea is not necessarily foreign to the bible and it is possible, at a latter stage, that this is what some people would have called any destructive force.  Such is the case in 2 Sam 22:5 and Ps 18:5.  In both cases, Belial is personified in a metaphoric manner of evil washing over a person and causing destruction. 

We find in Deut 32:23-24, powerful destructive forces.  However, specifically, we find רשף Resheph, and קטב מרירי Ketev Meriri.  Both words were actually considered to be demonic powers.  Specifically Resheph, who was a well known death god, god of plague in the Canaanite culture (Canaanite Mythology, N & G Darshan, Mapa Publishing, p.159).  Resheph is also mentioned in Habukuk 3:5 and Ps 78:48; 76:4.  It has been well argued by Glander himself, Umberto Cosuto and others, that the bible tends to borrow terminology but not necessarily give it the same mythological principles, and only give it the physical applications of such a thing.  Hence Resheph, Ketev Meriri & Belial, in the mind of the Israelite, would have only been an earthly principle, making them just a disease and not a demon.

Belial Etymology

It seems to be that Belial is a compound word, probably produces through “slang” in Hebrew.   It seems to be composed from two words; בלי Beli which means without, and the word על al, which as a preposition would mean on top or above.  Its metaphoric meaning would be authority.  Hence, Belial probably means one without an authority, or in other words, lawless.

Historical Background

As stated above, it seems to me that there is an historical background to the creation of this term.  The time frame of the first occurrence of Belial is just before Israel crossed into the land of Israel.  Moses uses the term in Deut 13:14 & 15:9 to indicate people who go out of their city and cause rebellion against torah.  It is very clear that these are actually people acting by their own accord and choice.  This term takes an even more solidified place during the period of the judges at time when there was no king in Israel—each man does as he pleases.  This is probably the most solid ground that we stand on.  The term appears once in Judges 19:22 and then 11 times in the book of Samuel, which is the highest frequency of this word anywhere in the tanakh.  This high frequency in close periods is probably the most important appearance of this word, which is probably linked to the difficulties of the time, based on what was occurring during the time of the Judges.  This probably becomes even more clear in the words of Naval (1 Sam 25:10) which demonstrate the fact that there were many people who were outside the social norms and were regarded as outlaws.

וַיַּעַן נָבָל אֶתעַבְדֵי דָוִד, וַיֹּאמֶר, מִי דָוִד, וּמִי בֶןיִשָׁי; הַיּוֹם, רַבּוּ עֲבָדִים, הַמִּתְפָּרְצִים, אִישׁ מִפְּנֵי אֲדֹנָיו

Naval answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Yishai? There are many servants nowadays running away from their masters.

Hence, the term Belial is actually a term for people who are lawless and disrespect authority.  An interesting example of this is in the words of Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  In 1 Samuel 1:16 she turns around to Eli the high priest and defends herself by saying do not place me as “daughter” of Belial.  The term “daughter” (and this also applies to the word son) is used in biblical Hebrew to indicate the belonging of a person to a group and has nothing to do with being the spiritual descendent of Belial.  Hannah is merely saying to Eli that she does not belong to lawless people who disrespect the laws of the temple and that she accepts the authority of the high priest.  During this period, there was an increase in lack of respect to the temple due to the activity of the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Pinchas, causing many to turn away and disrespect the temple and disrespect God. 

Belial In Latter Books

The term Belial, in its basic understanding as demonstrated above, continues to be used in books such as Proverbs and Kings.

Later on in history, Belial starts taking on an actual persona and we find him as an evil entity, together with שר משטמה Sar Mastema, which are both evil entities leading the Sons of Darkness in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Belial and Mastema also represent the cause of wickedness in man, creating a dualistic principle and a dichotomy of good and evil, light and darkness. (See “Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness” and “The Community Manifesto” in A New Translation Of the DS; M. Wise, M. Abigg & E. Cook)  The ideology in the DSS is that certain people were born in light, and therefore in their root are good, and others are born of darkness and are inherently evil. 

This, however, does not represent the theological principle of the Torah and the prophets.  Man can be tempted, but it is man’s choice that makes man wicked.  And man is only fooled into being wicked.  Even the snake in the garden only manipulated information, but did not actually have a holding on the mind or spirit of Adam and Eve.  The snake was also a creation of God, making all things, good or evil, under His control.  This negates the dualism, as represented in Second Temple Judaism, which was a result of the influence of Zoroastrianism.  Moshe says in Deut 30:15-20 that man has a choice and man should choose good, showing that the idea that people are inherently good or evil is an incorrect idea.


The term Belial is first and foremost a physical concept derived from social unrest and lawlessness.  The spiritual interpretation given to this term emerged due to the influence of Zoroastrianism on the world and the need to explain the source of evil and bad.  This is clearly a late theological development and should be only implemented in the latter use of the term in the DSS.  However, for the tanakh, only the earthly, physical principle should be applied.

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