We continue now into our investigation of a claim made by an atheist who charges that the Bible is full of what he considers unbelievable natural and supernatural characters and creatures:
“He follows a holy book with a jealous & genocidal god, ghosts, zombies, seers, devils, demons, witches, satyrs, unicorns, talking animals, a man who lived in a fish and a 7 headed dragon.”
In my previous article I dealt with unicorns and his misunderstanding of God as a “jealous & genocidal god.” Now we move onto satyrs – and as it turns out devils and demons fit in here too, so we’ll cover them instead of Jonah as I indicated in the previous article.
Previously I stated that between overcoming the language barrier, and reading the words in context, we will be able to resolve most if not all the modern questions around these often questioned biblical words. There is one more item that must be taken into consideration when investigating the true meaning of what is trying to be conveyed: worldviews.
Just as in the origins debate, in this matter of interpretation of difficult Biblical passages, your worldview becomes key in what you will, or will not accept or as a possible solution. If you are an atheist who does not believe a supernatural God exists, you cannot accept the first verse in the Bible which says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – or anything after it. Therefore any suggestion that God created anything – whether heavens and earth, all life, the universe, etc. is rejected out hand without further consideration. Does that mean the Bible has no explanation for these things? Not at all. It simply means such a person rejects the Biblical explanation.
We will see the same dynamic here concerning Satyrs, devils and demons. If you reject anything supernatural exists, you will reject the Biblical explanation for these. That does not mean the Bible has no explanation, nor does it mean the Bible is making false claims about whether or not such creatures exist. Rather a person’s refusal to accept the Biblical explanation simply means such a person rejects the Biblical worldview. No surprise there since such people reject the author of the Bible: God. And not only God, but also the works of God: all of creation. So why should we be surprised when God points to various pieces of his creation, states what will happen to them, and an atheist refuses to believe? Why should anyone be surprised at an atheist disbelieving the claims of God? I’m certainly not. But again, I write this not to convince atheists, but rather for the edification of believers so they may understand what the Bible truly says about these creatures. So let’s get to it.
The word “satyr” appears – in English – in two verses in the Bible, both in similar contexts. To understand either reference you must understand the context, the literary genre and the world view into which the word is spoken. Since the contexts are similar, we’ll limit our examination to the more difficult of the two. Let’s start with the worldview.
A simplified Biblical Worldview
Everyone has a worldview and every worldview has assumptions. The secular worldview is a materialistic one. It assumes that everything must exist within the confines of space, time and matter. Thus it is difficult for secularists to conceive of anything existing outside of these bounds. That is why the biblical worldview is nonsensical to them. Because the Biblical worldview declares that before space, time and matter existed, there existed and exists a non-material, timeless, all-knowing, eternal being. What do you call a being that is non-material? The Bible calls it “spirit.” (John 4.24) And this non-material being inhabits the non-material world that existed before the material one. This being – God – created all things – both material and immaterial. That includes created immaterial beings – called “messengers”, which are known in English as “angels.”
This is the worldview into which the Bible speaks. If you refuse to acknowledge this worldview, then what the Bible speaks of will be considered, as it says it another place, “foolishness to him.” (1 Cor 2.14) Let me point out once again that a refusal to believe what the Bible says does not make it untrue.
I will limit this to a brief history of the people to which this section addresses. That would be the Edomites (Is 34.5), the sons of Esau (Gen 36.19) who apparently never forgave Jacob (and his sons) for the blessing Jacob stole from Esau. (Gen 27.1-42) By the time of the Exodus, the Edomites have settled in a land just south of the promised land, and the children of Israel need to pass through the land to get to the promised land. The Edomites refuse the Israelites passage (Num 20.18) making the Israelites go around Edom – a much longer journey. It’s down hill from there. As time progresses we see Edom in rebellion against Judah, the southern Kingdom from whom will come the messiah (2 Chr 21.10), they wrongfully took revenge against Judah (Eze 25.12), rejoiced in Israel’s punishment (Eze 35.15), and shed innocent blood in Judah (Joel 3.19, Amos 1.11). For these reasons, God pronounces judgment against Edom. The fact that Edom will be punished is set. The only remaining question is how harsh will the punishment be? This section of scripture (Isaiah 34) contains both the answer and our word of interest (satyr) as it describes the devastation that the punishment of Edom will bring.
The literary type this verse occurs in is one of the most difficult for modern readers to understand: apocalyptic. Yes – that’s the same type of literature as the Revelation. Apocalyptic literature is difficult to understand because unlike the prose we’re used to, truths are not expressed in simple statements. Or even parables or proverbs. Rather apocalyptic literature uses images, symbols and associations (sometimes expressed in poetry) – some which are defined, some or which are not. The reader is called to understand (Matt 24.15) so it’s upon the reader to become familiar enough to understand. So before we look at the verse where satyr appears, let’s look at another apocalyptic verse with similar imagery to get a feel for the genre: Rev 13.1. There’s a lot there, so we’ll only look at the first half of the verse:
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. …
The dragon is clearly identified as Satan. (Rev 12.9, 20.2) A malevolent being.
The sea is a bit harder, but it is often depicted as a place from where comes those spiritual beings opposed to God. This is hinted at in Rev 10.6, where we see 3 abodes: Heaven – the abode of God and the faithful Angels; Earth – the abode of man and God’s earth dwelling creatures; and the sea. Who’s left to populate the sea? That would be unfaithful angels who rebelled and were cast out of heaven. More on them later.
Beasts are typically represented as those opposed to God – often represented in apocalyptic literature as a mixture of various creatures. (see for ex. Dan 7.3-7) Hence it makes sense that the beast in Rev 13.1 would be described with the features of various creatures – which is how he’s described in verse 2: “The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. …” So clearly the beast comes from a place populated with those opposed to God.
Thus the beast of Rev 13.1 has a double identification as being opposed to God, actually a triple one: being named as a beast, and being one that comes from the sea. And with the dragon – Satan – standing nearby there’s an implied Satanic association. Clearly this “beast” is in absolute rebellion against God. That the beast is in rebellion is not only interesting, it’s a clue: this “beast” is not an animal – most understand it to be a human. So the description as a “beast” applies not the physical characteristics, but other traits that might characterize a beast that are applied to a person. For example a “horn” – a sign of strength in a beast is typically symbolic of someone with some type of power (typically political in Revelation.) The point being just because the creature is described as having a horn doesn’t mean it has a literal horn; and just because it’s described as a beast doesn’t mean it’s an animal. Likewise for other types of imagery associated with animals.
There are three things you should note from this mini-lesson on apocalyptic literature:
- The message is conveyed by imagery
- The imagery is intentionally fantastic and other worldly to increase the impact and make it memorable
- The imagery is typically not meant to be taken literally; it is usually intended to be understood symbolically
In passing this brings up another point about what it means to take the Bible “literally.” Properly understood, a “literal” interpretation of the Bible means interpreting the Bible according to its context in the historical-grammatical manner. This means history is taken as history, proverbs as proverbs, parables as parables, apocalyptic as apocalyptic, etc. Don’t get caught in the trap of, “Oh you believe in a “literal” interpretation of the Bible? That means you take everything exactly as written. (Which is the error the atheist I’m answering has fallen into.) That is not what the Bible intends, and it’s not what most people who believe in a “literal” interpretation believe.
These are important items to understand as we look at the Isaiah passage.
Translating Isaiah 34.14
The word satyr – in English – appears twice: in Isaiah 13.21 and 34.14 (KJV). Both describe the coming judgment of the Lord on a rebellious gentile nations. Since the verses are so similar, we will limit our examination to the Is 34.14 (KJV) passage – which communicates its truths in apocalyptic fashion. And thus the point is made almost exclusively through the use of imagery. And what is that point? The coming judgment of the Lord on all nations. (Is 34.2) But then the focus of the judgment turns to Edom (Is 34.5), and it’s clear the judgment will be great. We see both irony and Hebrew rhyme used to describe the great judgment on Edom in verse 6. As I describe here, Hebrew poetry is done typically through the repetition of ideas, not sounds. In the judgment we see the Lord’s sword will be “bathed in blood” (v6) after it has “drunk its fill.” (v5) And who is the sword directed against? We’re told using Hebrew rhyme that it’s Edom: the judgment is ironically described as a “sacrifice” in Bozrah – the capitol of Edom; and a “great slaughter in Edom.” Note the repetition of the ideas – sacrifice/slaughter; and Bozrah/Edom.
Let’s look specifically at verse 14 where the word appears. Once again we see the use of Hebrew poetry to further drive home a point. In this case the point is the desolation of Edom, and that desolation is described by showing the type of creatures that will inhabit Edom after the judgment of the Lord has fallen on it. In making the images, rhyme is used – so words not commonly used are employed and so are difficult to translate. Interestingly, in addition to seeing a repetition of ideas here, we also see a repetition of sounds with the repetition of “wild beasts”. The Hebrew is ציים (tziyyim) and איים (iyyim). So the “tziyyim” and “iyyim” (hard to name wild creatures) will meet in what’s left of Edom. Here is the KJV translation of the verse:
The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.
Is 34.14 KJV
Note that no one is sure what beasts these words refer to. But instead of guessing as many translations do, the King James opts to look at the root of the words to help identify them. Tziyyim could mean “desert-dweller” and thus conflates “beasts” and “desert” to translate it as “wild beast of the desert.” And iy – the root of iyyim – could mean either “jackal” or “isle, coast”. Again the KJV appears to conflate the two, translating “beasts of the island.” Note these animals (at least all the ones suggested for what they might be) are unclean to the Israelites.
And finally we come to our word of interest: שעיר (sa’yir). It could mean a male goat; or a “satyr” – referring to various depictions of a pagan goat idol – (from a root meaning “hairy” or “hairy goat”); or it could mean “demon.” Which one is it? Remember – Hebrew rhyme involves a repetition of ideas. And we’ve already seen the initial beasts mentioned are mentioned in rhyme. Is there a word that rhymes with this one? Yes, indeed there is. The word is לילית (Lilith). Who or what is Lilith? Lilith is a familiar name. She is a female night demon. Thus if Lilith is a demon, sa’yir is also a demon. The idea of a place of judgment becoming a haunt for demons is a familiar one. We see that also in Revelation regarding the judgment of Babylon:
With a mighty voice he shouted: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird.
Rev 18.2 (NIV)
So this is how I translate the Isaiah verse:
They shall meet, the beasts of the desert and the beasts from the sea,
The goat-idol demon will cry out to his companion –
and surely there Lilith, the night demoness will come to reside and find for herself a resting place.
Is understanding שעיר (sa’yir) to be a goat idol demon a stretch when modern translations lean toward “wild goats”? Not at all. In two other places where the word is used the KJV translates the Hebrew word as “devils.” (Lev 17.7, 2 Chr 11.15). In those same verses the NIV translates the word “goat idols.” So the idea is clear: the reference is to the demons that are associated with the pagan goat idols. For scripture tells us that idols are not mere idols – they are the physical representations of the demons associated with the idols. (1 Cor 10.20)
And so my translation is close to the translation in the Tree of Life Bible, the main differences being that like the KJV, it opts not to try to identify the beasts – since we are not sure, but since we are sure of what the “night monster” is, she is named in my translation. And the satyr is identified as a demon – one associated with the goat idols. It also hints at the uncleanness of some of the beasts – since they come from the sea. (All the creatures mentioned – or suspected – in this chapter on judgment were ceremonially unclean for the Israelites.) Here is the Tree of Life translation for comparison:
Wildcats will meet with wolves,
the goat-demon will cry to its kind—
yes, the night monster will settle there
and find itself a resting place.
What does it Mean?
When you put it all together, this is the picture that emerges:
The Lord’s judgment will fall hard on the Land of Edom. So hard that no humans will live there anymore. The only creatures that will inhabit the place are unclean beasts and demons. The use of the word “satyr” is not because half goat half humans exist, but rather a reference to how the pagans depicted their idols. Thus the mention of a satyr here is a reference to a demon which is depicted as a satyr – as it is in other verses. Likewise the reference to its “companion” is not a reference to a screech owl, but to the female night demon known as Lilith. The readers in Isaiah’s day would likely have been left with a foreboding sense of horror – who wants to have anything to do with a place soon to be devoid of people, haunted by demons, and filled with unclean wild beasts?
Devils and Demons
We looked at demons above, but what are their origins? With this question we are faced once again with the question of world views. The Bible clearly explains where both the chief devil – Satan – comes from as well as his rebellious followers – the demons. But again, if you refuse the Biblical worldview, the whole thing will sound like foolishness. But the Bible is clear on their origins.
Satan – the chief accuser (Rev 12.9-10) was created perfect, a guardian angel (known as a cherub – Eze 28.14), who lived on the mount of God – until he sinned, and wickedness was found in him (Eze 28.15, the wickedness is described in Is 14.13-14) and so he was cast out of heaven (Eze 28.16 , Is 14.15)
Angels who were foolish enough follow Satan in his rebellion were likewise cast out of heaven and became demons. (Rev 12.4)
So it is clear that the fallen angels known as demons existed then and exist now. I point out one way they are active in the world today here. They foolishly followed Satan in his rebellion against God and were like him, cast out of heaven. The devil exists and is chief among the rebels of heaven, and will be chief of the “beasts” to come: the Anti-Christ and the False prophet. (Rev 13) The Bible does not claim that a physical creature that is half man half goat – like Narnia’s faun Mr. Tumnus – exists. Rather it uses the imagery of this pagan concept to identify one of the demon types that will haunt Edom and other places of judgment upon their destruction.
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 1: Jealous God and Unicorns?
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 3: Cockatrice
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 4: Witches and Ghosts
“During the 19th century scientist believed there were two fundamental entities – matter and energy. But as we enter the 21st century there’s a third fundamental entity that science has had to recognize and that is information.”
Stephen Meyer, ref. from Unlocking the Mystery of life, Illustra Media Documentary DVD, 2002
3. The Hebrew word translated as “satyr” שעיר (sa’yir) itself appears 59 times and is typically translated “goat” or “young goat” (kid), but as is common, the word has a range of meanings and must be interpreted according to context.
4. It’s not unusual for a Biblical text to use an ambiguous word – where either sense of the word could apply – and intend for both senses of the word to apply. Most commentators recognize this as a subtle tool to convey a deeper meaning for the student of scripture.
Example: John the Gospel writer is fond of this technique. Consider John 1.5:
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
The word for “understood” καταλαμαβανω (katalambano) could mean either “understood” or “overcome” and some commentators will tell you John means them both.
5. As I pointed out in my article on the Tower of Babylon (Babel) here, Babylon is the archetype of the sinful city, so by the time we get to Revelation, we see the judgment that falls on Babylon.
All images used by permission
Featured: Gallery of chimeras, Notre Dame de Paris © Mari79 | Fotolia used by permission