5.3) The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of Jude:
Devil as the Angel of Death–who deserves respect
In our discussion of the Temptation-in-the-Desert tableau in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (chap. 4.2-3 above), we noted that the role of Tester in the Great Midrash was taken by the Angel of Death, and in one account he is called the Kosmokrator, the Ruler of the World (we have just seen the Principalities and Powers in Ephesians called the Kosmokratores of Darkness).
I brought up the Angel of Death in conjunction with Devil’s claim in Luke that he has been given control of all of the Kingdoms of
the world. The point I was making is that the “person” who has been put in charge of death could well be called the Ruler of the World, since every single “mortal” in the world must, by definition, die. Ergo, at least in that sense, the Dealer of Death is in charge of everybody.
In the New Testament, Devil is associated with the role of “Prince of Death” only in the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of Jude.
First, the Epistle to the Hebrews. It was eventually thought of as written by St. Paul, but it does not claim to be, and its style and content are very different from Paul’s. The author does not identify himself—or herself—but is deliberately anonymous. (The “herself” is not a matter of being politically correct on my part, for one of the suggested authors of the letter is Paul’s missionary colleague, Prisca or Priscilla, a fellow tent-maker. See Acts 18.2-3.)
Hebrews begins by affirming the doctrine of Colossians that Jesus has been placed higher than all other spiritual entities:
Having purged sins away, he has taken his seat at the right of the Majesty on high. So he is now higher than the Angels, just as his inherited title is higher than their name. (Hebr. 1.3-4).
The author considers Angels to be Spirits whose purpose it is to serve God and human beings, that is, those who are going to inherit salvation (Hebr. 1.14). But if Jesus is now higher than the Angels, he was clearly higher than the Angels to begin with:
For a little while having been made lower than the Angels, he is now crowned with glory and honor because of experiencing Death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebr. 2.9)
Jesus’s mission was specifically to neutralize Devil’s hold upon humankind through his control of Death. He shared in our flesh and blood:
So that through Death he might destroy the one having control of Death, that is, Devil, and free those who in every aspect of life were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebr. 2.14-15)
I have capitalized “Death” where it has the definite article: ho Thanatos. But it is not clear whether Death is thought to be a personified servant of Devil. Literally, the text says that Devil has “the might” (to kratos) of Death. What is certain is that Devil is in charge of inflicting death. But what does it mean that Jesus came to “destroy” Devil as the controller of Death? The author presents him as having succeeded in his mission. In other words, Jesus freed all those who were afraid of Death.
But where does that leave Devil? People still die, even if they need no longer be afraid of dying. So does Devil still act as “homicide” or “psychopomp”? That is, does he have a hand in taking away life, even though in the case of believers (those who no longer fear death) life will be restored after death? There is no clear answer for these questions.
But there may be a reference to Devil’s traditional role of testing in what is said immediately after the above passage: Jesus “did not come to help Angels but the children of Abraham,” and to do so he had to be like them in every respect, so that he could become a faithful High Priest and make atonement for their sins. For, “because he himself was put to the test (peirasmos) by what he suffered, he is able to help others when they are being put to the test (peirasmos) (Hebr. 2.16-18).
So it looks as if Devil is still around to fulfill his testing functions. But since Jesus has gone before us and is still with us, things are better:
For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, apart from sin. (Hebr. 4.15)
The last phrase, “apart from sin,” means that Jesus did not fail any of his tests and so did not commit sin.
A bit further on, we get an example of the harsh tests that Jesus endured:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who had the force (dunamis) to save him from death. (Hebr. 5.7)
The result was that Jesus was constituted a High Priest, able to save those who believe in him (Hebr. 5.9-10). Now this High Priest of ours “is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary and the tabernacle which the Lord has set up” (Hebr. 8.1-2).
In the first chapter above (1.4), we observed the parallel created in the Epistle to the Hebrews with the vision of Zechariah in which Jesus the High Priest stands before the Angel of the Lord, accused by Devil, only to be vindicated by the Lord (LXX Zech. 3.1-2). The way that the Lord vindicated Jesus (the High Priest Joshua) in Zechariah was to invoke Himself against Devil: “The Lord rebuke you, Devil!” That scene is a good way of segueing to the Epistle of Jude.
The author, “Jude,” is warning against false teachers. Among the faults of these teachers is that “they defile flesh, they despise Dominion[s], and they blaspheme Glories (Doxai)” (Jude 8). “Glories” seems to be another name or title of the ruling Heavenly Powers. Jude then brings up an example from “Scripture,” telling about how the Archangel Michael refrained from blaspheming Devil when contesting with him over the body of Moses:
But when Michael the Archangel contended with Devil and disputed about the corpse of Moses, he did not dare to bring a blasphemous denunciation against him. Instead, he said, “The Lord rebuke you.” (Jude 9)
In contrast, Jude goes on to say, the false teachers blaspheme what they do not understand (Jude 10).
In other words, the behavior of Michael should stand as a condemnation the false teachers and a lesson for good Christians, since he refrained from “blaspheming” Devil, that is, using insulting or inappropriate words against him. Instead, Michael used the formula supplied by the Lord (or the Angel of Yahweh) in opposing the action of Devil in the Book of Zechariah, appealing to God Himself to intervene and decide their dispute over Jesus the High Priest.
We are told by Clement of Alexandria and by Origen of Alexandria that Jude is here drawing on a work called the Assumption of Moses, which is now lost. We are not able to say what the dispute was about; but it clearly had something to do with the fact that no one knows what became of Moses’s body after he died (see Deut. 34.5-6). We can infer that the body of Moses will be better off if the Lord awards the victory to Michael, thereby giving him the privilege of disposing of the body. And since there is a reference to the situation depicted in Zechariah, we can also infer that Devil is combining his job as Angel of Death with that of Prosecuting Attorney, and that he is trying to argue for his right to the body because of some offense that Moses has committed, which would disqualify him from having his remains disposed of by Michael.
Let’s infer further. There must be two Angels of Death, Devil and Michael. Devil takes custody of the failures, while Michael is in charge of the virtuous dead. In Greek tradition, the escorters of souls after death are called “psychopomps.” But in Jude’s set-up, they are “somatopomps,” that is, undertakers, body-snatchers. For Moses is clearly already dead. We recall that in the Great Midrash on Deuteronomy, the Angel of Death’s role was to confront the subject while still alive and tell him that it is time to die.
It is interesting to see that Jude goes on to say that the false teachers “go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11).
Two of these three biblical figures, namely, Cain and Balaam, have known Satanic or Diabolical connections.
We must not lose track of the reason that Jude brings up the episode of the contest over the body of Moses. It is that even Devil received and deserved respect in the fulfillment of his duties. A corollary is that the proper way of dealing with him is through prayer and leaving his fate to God, not through tirades against him.
We are fortunate to have a reader’s reaction to what Jude says about Michael and Devil. The reader in question is the author of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. Second Peter is a thorough-going pseudepigraph, in that it is not by Peter but written in his name, as his “last will and testament,” and there is no evidence that the author had any connection with Peter.
As we will see in the next chapter, the author takes over Jude’s attack against false teachers. When he comes to Jude 8-10, he says:
They indulge their flesh in depraved lust, they despise Dominion, and, bold and willful, they are not afraid to blaspheme Glories. But Angels, though greater in strength and force, do not bring a blasphemous denunciation before the Lord against them [the Glories]. These people, however, are like irrational animals. . . and blaspheme what they do not understand. (2 Peter 2.10-11)
What the author of 2 Peter has done is to eliminate the specifics of Jude’s example, making no reference to the dispute of Devil and Michael. Instead, he has simply identified Michael as one of the Angels and, astounding as it might seem to modern readers, he has identified Devil as one of the Glories!
All the Glories, then, including Devil, deserve our respect, according to Second Peter, especially since the Glories get respect from the other Angels.