The Angels Who Left Their Former Estate

In a previous post, the giants of the Old Testament, who came into being through demonic sexual immorality, were discussed.  Only brief comments were made at that time about their angelic “parents”.  These angelic beings, however, play an important role in the unfolding of the Old Testament and in New Testament theology.  In another post, the three events of Genesis 1-11 which might be termed a ‘fall’ of humanity were discussed.  It was commonplace in the Fathers and other early Christian writers to speak about the sinful state of humanity remedied by Christ in terms of one of these three events, with the other two subordinated, but which event varied.  St. Irenaeus sees all three in terms of the sinful corruption of humanity begun by these angelic beings.  Eusebius of Caesarea sees all three in terms of the Babel event and the consignment of the nations to angelic beings who came to be worshipped as gods.  St. Augustine saw all three in terms of the curse of Genesis 3.  St. Augustine’s understanding, coupled with his rejection of the traditional understanding of Genesis 4-6, became paradigmatic for Western theology from the late antique period until the present day.  In scripture and the Fathers, however, mortality (Gen 3) and sinful corruption (Gen 4-6) are seen to have different, though related origins.  Sinful corruption enters into humanity, weakened and mortal, through the efforts of these angelic beings resulting in their own fall and imprisonment.

The story which unfolds from Genesis 4-6 is a deliberate parallel to a Mesopotamian story, both of which are told primarily through genealogical material.  The Mesopotamian story, as exemplified in the Sumerian Kings List, describes the greatness of Babylonian civilization and its divine origins.  Each of the kings before the great flood is paired with a divine being called an ‘apkallu’ which the Mesopotamians worshipped as gods.  These beings are also sometimes referred to as the ‘seven sages’.  These beings were believed to serve at the behest of the high god and assist in his governance and maintenance of the universe.  They are said to have taught the kings with whom they are paired various wisdom regarding metallurgy, astrology and other forms of ancient wisdom.  These secrets made them powerful and great.  After the flood, the kings are described as being part man and part apkallu, and the reason for Babylon’s greatness is that it has preserved this divine knowledge from before the flood centered around the person of its king.  In later Mesopotamian material, these apkallu were portrayed as having given these secrets over to human beings without permission.  For this misdeed, they were imprisoned by the high god in the depths of the river, the abyss.  In the third century BC, a certain Berossus who was a priest of Bel (Baal) serving in the court of the Seleucid king in Syria presented the basic mythology of his religion in Greek.  In addition to recounting the information above, and including a story parallel to that of the tower of Babel, he parallels these stories to the Greek story of the defeat of the titans and their imprisonment by Zeus in Tartarus.

Genesis 4-6 tell the same story, but rather than a story of the greatness of the world’s kingdoms culminating in the establishment of the city of Babylon, it is a story of the corruption, sin, and wickedness of humanity under the influence of rebellious angelic powers.  The telling begins with Cain becoming a murderer under the influence of the power of sin, portrayed as a creature who has come to master him (4:7).  Cain then goes and builds the first city, naming it after his son (4:17).  The line of Cain’s descendants then produces the great innovations of culture and technology, culminating in the kingly figure of Lamech.  Lamech sings a song about his own greatness, and superiority to God himself, to his two wives (4:23-24).  Seth’s genealogy in Genesis 5 then contains none of the great achievements of his brother Cain, merely reiterating over and over again that as long as their lives may have been, other than Enoch, each one of them died through the mortality inherited from their father Adam.  Likewise, the giants, the great men of renown, the great kings and heroes of Mesopotamian religion, are here cast not as the preservers of ancient wisdom but as the illegitimate and unclean offspring of rebellious angelic beings and their interactions with humans (6:1-4).  By the end of the story, God looks upon the world and sees that mankind has become so corrupt that every thought of his heart is always evil all the time (6:5).  He therefore determines to save his creation through Noah, by using the waters of the flood to cleanse the taint of humanity’s sin from the earth (5:29).

These chapters of Genesis interact polemically with Mesopotamian religious belief, but they do not themselves preserve the traditions upon which Genesis comments.  These traditions were, however, preserved in a multitude of Second Temple Jewish texts, most famously in 1 Enoch, but also in a multitude of other texts such as the Book of Giants from among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  These connect the two opposing traditions in a way that makes the original context and interpretation plain.  Cain’s descendants produce these cultural and technological innovations because they are receiving these secrets from angelic beings who are giving them over not in order to assist mankind, but in order to aggrandize themselves and be worshipped by humanity and to ultimately destroy humanity by giving over secrets for which humanity are not ready.  Their sin is therefore directly parallel to the sin of the Dragon in Genesis 3.  They follow after his example.  And so it is that God punishes these angelic beings by imprisoning them in the abyss, in the underworld beneath the earth until the last day when they will find their judgment in the lake of fire (cf. 1 Enoch 21:6-7).

This understanding of the identity of these beings is referenced repeatedly in the text of the New Testament.  2 Peter 2:4 reads, “For if God did not pardon angels when they sinned, but rather threw them into Tartarus and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…”  Here St. Peter makes plain the connection between these wicked angels and the titans of Greco-Roman religion through reference to Tartarus in addition to paralleling the language of 1 Enoch and other related literature.  In his list of examples, St. Peter places this example immediately before the flood.  St. Jude, likewise, refers to the angels who did not remain in their original estate and are now kept in eternal chains beneath gloomy darkness until the day of judgment (v. 6).  St. Jude parallels this with those of Soddom who chased after ‘strange flesh’ (v. 7).  Revelation 9 presents part of the final judgment as the abyss is opened, with smoke rising from it as from a furnace, and demonic beings emerge therefrom (9:1-3).  They are ultimately all thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10), which Christ himself says was prepared for “the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).

It is these rebellious angels who are responsible for the spread of sin and corruption in the world and this is brought out in Second Temple Jewish literature through the identification of their leader.  Texts such as 1 Enoch and the Apocalypse of Abraham identify the leader of these rebellious angels as Azazel.  Azazel functions as a devil figure in this literature and is sometimes blamed for the whole of the evil of these fallen and imprisoned angels.  1 Enoch 9:6 states that Azazel had taken the secrets reserved in heaven and taught them to men and women who were striving to learn them.  As a result, 1 Enoch 10:8 says, “The whole earth has been corrupted through the works taught by Azazel, to him credit all sin” (compare 1 John 3:8; 5:19).  This is not merely a made up, demonic sounding name.  Rather, Azazel is a figure who appears in the book of Leviticus in relationship to the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:6-10).  In that ritual, two goats were selected, one for Yahweh the God of Israel and the other for Azazel.  The latter goat, for Azazel, had the sins of the people placed upon it and then was sent out into the wilderness to the place of Azazel.  The goat for Yahweh was offered as a sacrifice to him and its blood was used to purify and purge the contamination of sin from the tabernacle and the camp as a whole.  It is unclear whether Azazel was seen as a personal being at the time of the writing of Leviticus as Azazel can simply refer to a goat who is sent away, however the reference to pagan sacrifices to goat demons in the wilderness (Lev 17:7) might serve to indicate otherwise.  Second Temple Judaism, however, very clearly saw Azazel as a demonic power that held sway in the world outside the camp, in particular the desert wilderness, and this identification was maintained in Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

The understanding of sin described by finding its origin in the corruption of angelic beings and solution in atonement differs from the common modern notion in terms of physicality.  Sin and corruption are here seen to leave a physical taint which must be purified and restored, it is not an issue of a legal infraction for which restitution is made.  Despite the repeated sin and guilt offerings held in Israel throughout the year, once a year the sins of the people had to be removed and then the stain left by them on the physical objects in the tabernacle and in the camp had to be purified.  When the whole world became utterly corrupt, God sent the flood the purify it all and cleans away the stain of blood and violence.  St. Peter moves from a reference to the imprisoned angels (1 Pet 3:19) to a reference of the cleansing power of the flood (v. 20), to a reference to our baptism (v. 21).  Baptism not only removes sin, but washes away the taint, the residue, the physical effects of sin in soul and body.  Objects, likewise, are taken out of the world where they lie under the power of the evil one (1 Jn 5:19) and blessed with holy water to purify them and devote them to their original purpose in the Kingdom of God.

The Orthodox Church is clear that salvation embraces the whole human person in transformation into the likeness of God.  Through theosis, human persons participate in God’s work in creation and are transformed by him.  This is paralleled in a negative way by a proper understanding of sinfulness.  St. Dionysius the Areopagite makes it clear that the reason that angels differ from one another in glory (1 Cor 15:40-41) is that based on their offices, they participate to different degrees in the grace of God.  The loss of this participation and the subsequent diminution and corruption of their being is what it means for an angelic being to fall.  The same is true for human persons.  To be corrupted by sin means that the body and soul of a human person lose their connection with the life of God and they become subhuman and unliving.  Condemnation on the last day consists in the permanence of this state.  In our current age, salvation takes the form of repentance, and repentance is purification, healing, and transformation in being conformed to the likeness of Christ (Rom 8:29).

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Father De Young,

    As you know from my other comments, I congratulate you on these posts. Two major things led me to Orthodoxy – the content you have been going through and it’s obvious preservation in Orthodoxy liturgy, baptism, ascetical practice, etc. – and the works of Fr. John Romanides who seems to have been most persuaded that St. Dionysius who St. Gregory Palamas was extremely influenced by – were preserving the apostolic and patristic means of salvation through theosis contra St. Augustine. Once Augustine was removed from my soteriology – Calvinism – and the realization set in that virtually every major denomination in America, maybe most of the world, had modified Augustine’s soteriology either in agreement or disagreement – but had not found the Orthodox prescription preserved in the Fathers who embraced the things of which you have written, Orthodoxy was the only viable option, which later became not so much an option but something I must submit to.

    I have found that Fr. Romanide’s can be a controversial person – I really can’t figure out why excpet that some people are too ecumenical for him – but when you combine these two sources, the worldview of 2nd Temple Judaism and Fr. Romanide’s understanding of Augustine and how the method of salvation gets lost because of him (and other developments), the picture, the impetus for theosis is laid on the heart, at least it has been laid on mine.

    This stuff is not just interesting, it is intensely practical, crucial, to motivate us to theosis. As we pray, “that we may all attain unto the unity of the faith, and to the knowledge of thine unapproachable glory…”

  2. Thanks so much, Father Stephen.
    Been reading and rereading this post and the previous ones you linked to.
    Lots to absorb and think about. Good stuff…very helpful.
    Didn’t know Azazel was the Hebrew word for scapegoat! Found an article on it by Michael Heiser. Interesting.
    Thanks again….

  3. I continue to enjoy these posts. You often use the term “ 2nd Temple Judaism”. Could you give a couple of sentences on just what you mean by that please. Thanks

    P.S. I think if you just recorded your blog articles it would make a great podcast.

    1. Sure. Second Temple Judaism is sort of a shorthand way of describing the religion of the Judean people from the time the second temple was built after the return from Babylonian exile c. 500 BC and it’s destruction in 70 AD. It distinguishes that religion from the religion of Israel and Judah before the exile, and later Rabbinic Judaism from after the temple’s destruction. It’s also important because it is the religious world from which Christianity emerges.

  4. Great job! Father, thanks so much for these posts. Orthodoxy needs more voices in Biblical Studies and you are doing a great job.
    A handful of random thoughts:

    – It’s interesting to think about communion with the demonic leading to technological progress. Contrast this with St. Maximos the Confessor and his discussion of coming to know God through creation, through the logoi or inner essences of things. This path only happens through purification of the heart.

    -what does this say about modern science and technology. Much of modern science arose originally out of alchemy which had a weird spiritual component. Changes wrought in their experiments were affected by the alchemist’s inner life. The alchemist was also looking to be changed or enhanced spiritually by their work as well. Is technology ever neutral even today? Should the spiritual motivations or conditions of the creators be factored into what they create?

    -Is Jesus going into the wilderness after his Baptism also a signal that he is going to battle Azazel and take back the wilderness?

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