The Jewish Satan Mastema and the Cosmic War Against God
The earliest Jewish accounts did not have a clear Satan figure, but one of the earliest to be named was Mastema. Mastema is portrayed as the adversary of God. Mastema has his origin in the Jewish apocryphal work, the Book of Jubilees, in which he plays a role in many traditional stories in the Old Testament narrative. In addition to representing a dualistic tendency within early Jewish thought, Mastema may also represent the in-group-out-group dynamics of the Jewish community.
Rembrandt’s depiction of Abraham about to kill his son Isaac, as ordered by Mastema the adversary of the Jewish god Yahweh. (Rembrandt / Public domain)
Mastema in the Book of Jubilees
In the Book of Jubilees, Mastema is depicted as a powerful angel who acts as the main adversary of God or Yahweh. Mastema appears to have originally been an angel who rebelled against Yahweh. After the flood, nine tenths of Mastema’s angelic followers were imprisoned in the abyss. One tenth of them, however, were allowed by Yahweh to carry out Mastema’s will on humanity.
After the flood, Mastema plays an important role in the rise of Israel. He appears to have been used as a correction by the author of the Book of Jubilees to stories in the Biblical text that have been considered theologically troubling by Jewish and Christian readers alike. For example, it is Mastema who tells Abraham that he needs to sacrifice his son, Isaac, rather than Yahweh. Mastema tells Yahweh that Abraham will not sacrifice his own son out of loyalty. Yahweh allows Mastema to try to prove his point.
When Abraham actually follows through, God intervenes, putting Mastema to shame. Mastema also plays a larger role in the Exodus. For example, it is Mastema, not Yahweh, who seeks to kill Moses on his return to Egypt. Throughout the Book of Jubilees, Mastema appears to act as a trickster and troublemaker for the people of Israel and followers of Yahweh.
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Mastema is also considered to be the ruler of uncircumcised mankind. It is said in the Book of Jubilees that all nations are ruled by spirits and the chief of these spirits is Mastema. Mastema is essentially the ruler of all the idolatrous nations and the accompanying evil spirits. Israel, on the other hand, is a nation that is ruled directly by Yahweh.
Although Mastema’s main role is as a direct rival to God, he also appears to be used by God to punish mankind and act as a sort of jailor of idolatrous nations. It is also said in the Book of Jubilees that circumcision transfers men from the rule of Mastema to the rule of Yahweh. At the end of the age, it is implied that all humanity will be liberated from the rule of Mastema and handed over to the domain of Yahweh.
John Hyrcanus is known for having expanded the domain of the Judean nation but also angering many and it is said the Book of Jubilees was written in part to correct this. (Guillaume Rouille / Public domain)
Sources That Tell Us More About Mastema
The main source on Mastema is the Book of Jubilees which is a Jewish apocryphal book, most likely written during the 2nd century BC during the reign of John Hyrcanus. John Hyrcanus was a high priest of the Hasmonean dynasty, established after the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC. The Maccabean revolt happened when the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to forcibly Hellenize the Jews and desecrated the Jewish temple. In response, the Jews of Palestine revolted and established a short-lived independent theocracy. John Hyrcanus took his office in 134 BC and ruled until 104 BC.
John Hyrcanus is known for having expanded the domain of the Judean nation by conquering territory in northern Palestine and destroying the rival Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. He also subjugated the Edomites in the south and forced them to adopt Judaism. Despite John Hyrcanus using Judaism as a way to consolidate his rule by uniting his domain under a common religion, he also had sympathies for Hellenistic culture. This angered some Jewish sects, namely the Pharisees, who questioned his right to rule as high priest.
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It was in this context that the Book of Jubilees was most likely written. The themes of the Book of Jubilees include commitment to a strict version of the Jewish Law as well as a cosmic war between God and the forces of darkness, namely Mastema. What is interesting is that this devil figure appeared during a time of Jewish ultra-nationalism, when the Jewish people were very concerned about differentiating themselves from non-Jewish, or Gentile groups as well as differentiating loyal Jews from apostate Jews.
This has led some scholars to suggest that the rise of Mastema represented a Jewish attempt to differentiate themselves from the other nations and from other Jews who were not seen as loyal to the Jewish nation and religion. The faithful Jews were the chosen people of God on the side of good, whereas the other nations, as well as Jewish apostates, were under the rule of Mastema on the side of darkness in the cosmic war against God.
Essene Morning Prayers painted in circa 1936 by Otto Pliny. The Essenes were thought to have had specific prayers related to the sunrise and may have been part of the rise of Mastema in Jewish religious life. (Public domain)
Sects Behind The Jubilees: Maybe the Pharisees or Essenes?
There appears to be some debate over which Jewish sect was responsible for the Book of Jubilees and therefore, the figure of Mastema. Three main hypotheses, identify the origins of the book and Mastema with the Pharisees, the Essenes, and an early Jewish opponent to Christianity, respectively.
The Pharisees were an important sect that arose in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt in Judean Judaism. The Pharisees are important to Jewish history in that they were the forerunners of the rabbis and of what is recognizable as the roots of modern Judaism. The Pharisees were mostly commoners who took it upon themselves to learn the Jewish Law and history. They believed that in addition to the Torah, there was also an oral tradition dating back to Moses which guided their interpretation of the Torah.
The Pharisees believed that Jews needed to separate themselves from non-Jews by following the Jewish law and not intermarrying with Gentiles. They also believed in the resurrection of the dead and the coming of a Messiah. In many ways, the Pharisaic sect led to the rise of both modern Judaism and early Christianity. The Pharisees struck a middle ground between groups like the Zealots and the Essenes who wanted to completely cut themselves off from the Hellenistic world and the Sadducees who were very comfortable with embracing aspects of Hellenistic culture that suited them.
Of the Jewish sects that arose after the Maccabean revolt, the Pharisees are one of the more well understood factions. The Pharisees believed in many ideas that are held by the Abrahamic religions today. The Pharisees probably believed that different nations were ruled by rebel angels and that these angels would be defeated in a final battle. The Pharisees also emphasized devotion to the Jewish Law and being separate from the other nations.
The Pharisees also believed in the coming of a Messiah and the coming of an age of world peace in which evil forces ruling the world would no longer have any power. Many of these ideas are prominent in the Book of Jubilees. Although the Book of Jubilees may not reflect an “orthodox” Pharisaic view, it is possible that the original writer of the Book of Jubilees was influenced by the emerging Pharisaic tradition since it covers some of the same themes that were emphasized by the Pharisees. These themes include the importance of the Jewish Law and the triumph of good over evil. The idea of Mastema also fits well into Pharisaic theology which embraced traditional Jewish beliefs about angels.
One of the few older images of Mastema, showing a ghoulish man with unearthly wings. (Ancient Origins)
The Essenes believed that other Jewish sects, including the Pharisees, had become corrupt. The Essenes lived in proto-monastic communities in the Judaean desert, had dietary restrictions, and were not allowed to marry. Not much is known about the Essene worldview. The Essenes, however, are associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls since the community of Qumran, near where the scrolls were found, is believed to have been a community with beliefs similar to the those of the Essenes.
It has been suggested by some scholars that the Book of Jubilees was produced by the Essenes. This would make Mastema a figure that originated from Essene theology. An Essene origin for the Book of Jubilees is not out of character with what is known of the Essenes. It reflects a strict interpretation of the Jewish Law and a grim outlook on the non-Jewish world as being mostly under the control of the evil Mastema. Nonetheless, it is likely that not enough is known about the Essenes to establish whether they were the originators of either the book or the figure of Mastema.
It has also been suggested that stories about Mastema may have their origin among opponents of early Christianity. The idea of Satan is more developed in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. The concept of a prince of darkness ruling of the world is very clear in the letters of Paul and in the Gospel. It is possible that Mastema could have developed as a Jewish response to the New Testament interpretation of Satan.
The main problem with this hypothesis is that, if it were true, it would mean that the Book of Jubilees would need to have been written before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and it is implied that the temple is still the center of Jewish worship and practice in the present time of the Book of Jubilees.
Another problem with such a late date for the work is that the overall themes of the Book of Jubilees fit the social context of the late 2nd century BC, when Judea was independent and the Jews were unhindered in their ability to enforce Jewish religious laws, better than the 1st century AD context, when Judea was under Roman occupation.
On the other hand, the concept of Mastema, a prince of darkness opposing God, is probably not out of alignment with the perspective of many Jews and Christians in the first century AD. Based on the evidence, the most likely source of the concept of Mastema appears to be the Pharisees of the 2nd century BC.
The symbol of Zoroastrianism, which has two opposing universal forces, on the roof of the Museum of Zoroastrian History in Yazd, Iran. (Alexeiy / Adobe Stock)
Significance of Mastema in religious history
The first millennium BC saw the popularization of the concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil across southwestern Asia. An early example of this would be the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism teaches that there are two opposing forces or spirits ruling the universe, one good and the other evil. Zoroastrianism was the major religion of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BC), and it is possible that Zoroastrian dualism influenced Jewish thinkers living in the Persian Empire after the Babylonian Exile. Mastema may represent an example of this moral dualism being expressed in Judaism.
Regardless of the source of the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil, it was through Judaism that this idea was transmitted to Christianity and eventually to Islam. The idea of a cosmic enemy ruling an evil empire is, however, only one side of the belief in Mastema.
Although Mastema ruled over the nations, one day, the nations under his rule would be transferred to the reign of Yahweh. The ancient Jews, like ancient Christians, believed that one day the world would be restored to its original perfection. This belief in the ultimate renewal of the world was carried on in the Judeo-Christian tradition and appears to live on today in the modern Secular West.
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The West no longer lives in anticipation of the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ, although many western Christians still do, but there is still the belief that certain evils will one day be defeated, and the world will be become better than it is now. The ancient Jewish and Christian concept of the apocalypse has arguably given way to the modern notion of social progress.
Just as Jews and Christians have always believed that the devil and his evil empire will be defeated by God and the world will be restored to its original perfection, many modern secular activists believe that one day evils, like oppression, war, and poverty, will be overcome through natural means, such as social activism and technological innovation.
The cosmic war between good and evil continues in the minds of religious and secular people alike, whether the names of the good and evil forces involved are Yahweh and Mastema, God and Satan, or justice and oppression.
Top image: Balaam and the Angel, who is said to be the evil angel or Jewish Satan Mastema, by the painter Gustav Jaeger. Source: Gustav Jäger/ Public domain
By Caleb Strom
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