Mythic Study: Lessons from the Lightbringer

 

dore_paradise_lost_12

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.

                                                                     Isaiah 12:12-15 (NIV)

It’s probably safe to assume that most people have heard these verses equated with Satan’s rebellion at one time or another. You might even have a King James Version open right now and can clearly see verse 12 referring to Lucifer. For the moment let’s just imagine we’ve never heard of any such tradition. Instead, let’s try and understand what these verses meant to the prophet Isaiah and the ancient Israelites.

Isaiah didn’t just speak these verses into being out of nowhere. They are in the middle of a “taunt” against the king of Babylon, which itself is within a greater oracle given to the prophet concerning the city of Babylon and its future destruction at the hands of the Medes. The taunt is actually a song that the remnant of Israel was supposed to sing once they were freed from their oppressors. It is very common in OT Prophecy to find God poetically calling out the nations that surrounded Israel and their rulers. Usually it has something to do with their pride and hubris. These divine brow beatings can be in the form of oracles, lamentations, taunts, etc., and use a variety of metaphors and allusions to history, nature, or the literature and current events of the times. This passage is no different. Think of it as God using ancient political propaganda. Nowadays when someone doesn’t like whoever is president they usually call him Hitler or the Antichrist. There is also usually an irreverent meme to circulate around the Internet to accompany the accusation. It’s the same basic idea; Isaiah just had to use poetic metaphors to paint his picture because he didn’t have Photoshop.

 

The Shining One

With the context established, who exactly is this rebellious celestial being to which the king of Babylon is being compared?  The text itself provides the initial clues.

The Hebrew name of the being is Haelael ben-Shahar (pronounced “Hale-Ale”) which means “Shining One, son of Dawn.” Shahar is the Canaanite goddess of the dawn—known from ancient literature contemporary with the Bible—much like her Greek and Roman equivalents Eos and Aurora. What we have in Isaiah’s “taunt” is actually a poetic allusion to an episode from Canaanite mythology. Other phrases from the passage are evidence of this as well, but the most telling is the divine throne being on “the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north.” What is this mount of assembly? Is it in heaven or on earth? The text of the NIV (see above) actually preserves its Hebrew name—Mount Zaphon. This mountain is another well-known feature of Canaanite myth and is the mount of assembly for their pantheon, where the powerful storm-god Baal had his throne, much like the storm-god of the Greeks, Zeus, had his on Mount Olympus. (The God of Israel’s throne was considered to be on Mount Zion—a poetic name for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) To drive the point home, the phrase “above the stars of God” also points to Canaanite mythology rather than biblical theology. The typical Hebrew names used for God in the OT are Elohim (“God,” a plural word used in the singular sense) and YHWH (The divine name given to Moses; usually translated as “LORD” in English Bibles). The name used in the Isaiah taunt is El, who was the “All-Father” of the Canaanite gods and lived in the heavenly realms above the stars. The OT writers typically only used the word El (“god”) to create compound names like El-Shaddai (God Almighty) and El-Elyon (God Most High) because Elohim can’t make compounds.

So basically, Isaiah was using the common mythic language of his day to get his point across—something he and many other biblical authors did often. (see Psalm 89 and Job 26. God did not literally fight a cosmic sea serpent at the dawn of time) Before anyone cries “blasphemy!” remember that this is absolutely no different than modern preachers using Star Wars references in their sermons to make them relevant to the audience.

With that said, let’s dive deeper into the story Isaiah is referencing so we can understand the impact he wanted to make on those who heard it.

 

Stars and Stories

The great mythic tales from around the world usually came about in an attempt to explain events in nature. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the Sun set every night because the sun-god, Ra, fought the forces of chaos in the Underworld. The Morning and Evening Star, the planet Venus, had similar myths. Sometimes it’s hard to tell in our modern cities full of lights but the planet Venus is the brightest star in the sky in the morning, before the Sun rises, and at evening, after the Sun sets. Even in D.C., Venus is the first star to shine and I can usually see it at sunset as I walk home from the Metro station. Once it’s dark, and all of the other stars are out, it becomes hard to find.  Like the Egyptians with the solar disk, most cultures had a tale to explain why the Morning Star is the brightest light in the sky and then appears to be cast out by the Sun.

Some more astronomically-savvy ancient cultures, like the Egyptians and Babylonians, knew that the Morning and Evening Stars were actually the same star and represented them as one deity, such as the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, while others personified them as two siblings. In most cases the deity was the child of the Dawn. The Babylonian Inanna/Ishtar’s most famous tale is about her descent into the Underworld, where she is captured by her sister the death-goddess. The Canaanite version of the Morning Star myth involved an upstart “Shining One” who attempted to become king of the gods and failed horribly.

In the great Baal epic that was unearthed at Ugarit (an ancient city on the coast of Syria), Baal is killed by the god of death, Mot, and the assembly of the gods is called to fill Baal’s empty throne on Mount Zaphon. Seeing a golden opportunity, Athtar the Awesome steps forward to take Baal’s power for himself. Once he sits upon the throne, however, he is found to be grossly inadequate because his legs can’t even reach Baal’s footstool. After his epic failure Athtar becomes ruler of the Underworld. We don’t really know for sure what motivated Athar because the text isn’t complete. In an earlier part of the story, in a badly damaged section, the sun god scolds Athtar for his aspirations to the throne. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Athar instigated the battle between Mot and Baal in order to get the mighty storm-god out of the way because he was too weak to do the job himself.  It’s also worth noting that the name Athtar is the Ugaritic version of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess mentioned above. In Canaanite myth the morning and evening aspects of the planet Venus were represented by Athtar and Astarte. The latter would evolve into the Aphrodite of the Greeks and the Venus of the Romans.

 

Mythic Application

Now that we have a greater understanding of the passage, what can we take away from it? What was Isaiah trying to say? Was he trying to say that Satan rebelled against God and tried to take over Heaven only to be cast down into Hell? Was this the lesson of pride and hubris that the king of Babylon was supposed to learn?

Probably not.

Isaiah was most likely comparing the king to Athar the Awesome, who had a name that seemed mighty and powerful but wasn’t even big enough to sit on the throne he so coveted. Athtar wasn’t cast out of heaven because he rebelled, he was laughed out of the assembly for being a puny opportunist. In the end he was only “awesome” enough to dwell in the Underworld, beneath everyone else in Creation.  In my opinion this imagery would have been a much harder slap to the face of the king of Babylon than the traditional “Lucifer” picture. It also leaves the modern reader with a much deeper wisdom as well. People can scheme for the power (and money) that they covet all they want, but in the end, like Athar and the king of Babylon, they will always lose out and remain an eternally mythic nobody. All of the power and money in the world can’t comfort you in the land of the dead. Only the hope and salvation of the Kingdom of God reigns eternal.

Can I get an Amen?

 

Appendix: Shinning Light on Lucifer

One of the more famous Greek versions of the Morning Star myth is the tale of Phaethon, whose name, coincidently, means “Shining One.” One day, the upstart Phaethon decides to steal Helios’ sun-chariot and go for a joy ride but quickly loses control, scorching the heavens and the earth in the process. To set things right, Zeus strikes the young god down and sends him crashing into the River Styx in the Underworld.

phaethon_rubens

The Fall of Phaeton, by Peter Paul Rubens

In other stories, the name Phaethon—“Shining One”— is an epitaph of the god of the Morning Star also known as Phosphorus (Lightbringer) and Eosphorus (Dawnbringer). Seeing the mythic similarities in the stories, the Rabbis who translated the Bible into Greek during the Hellenistic Period (the era after Alexander the Great’s conquests, circa 323-100 BC) used the name Eosphorus in place of Haelael. Following this, circa 400AD, the Latin translators of the Bible used the name for the Morning Star popular in the Roman period—Lucifer, which means “Lightbringer.” To show that the Latin translators had no intentions of equating the name Lucifer with Satan, here is a passage from the New Testament,

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star (Lucifer in the Latin) rises in your hearts.

(2 Peter 1:19, ESV)

In this context, “Lucifer” is referring to the illuminating light of Christ and obviously not Satan. No one in the first century—Christian, Jew, or otherwise—believed the name Lucifer had anything to do with Satan. In fact, to the first Christians the exact opposite was true—the Morning Star was associated with Christ. (See Revelation 2:28 and Revelation 22:16)

It’s hard to say precisely when the tradition of equating Isaiah 14 with Satan began, but by the time of King James, the common image of the war in heaven had been cemented in the minds of Christendom. So much so that the King’s translators kept the name Lucifer in their English translation of the Scriptures. This was not an across the board view at the time, though. Neither John Calvin nor Martin Luther believed Isaiah 14 referred to Satan. In his commentary on Isaiah (published around 1560) Calvin said,

The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it referred to Satan, has arisen from ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians. But when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise. Yet it was an instance of very gross ignorance, to imagine that Lucifer was the king of devils, and that the Prophet gave him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables.

Unlike Calvin and Luther, and even Augustine and Tertullian, we now have access to ancient writings that were still buried underneath the desert sands when the first Christian theologians wrote about the Scriptures. I know it sounds a bit egotistical, but it actually fills me with a fair amount of awe and wonder to know that we are now blessed with knowledge that was unavailable to even the greatest of the early Church Fathers. It’s what makes studying the Bible such a profound honor for me.

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