Lilith, Demons, & Evil Spirits in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)
Updated: 6 days ago
Demons and evil spirits like Lilith and Belial have played a small but important role in The Chosen, just as they do in the Bible. With Halloween just around the corner, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on how the depiction of dark spiritual forces in The Chosen is influenced not only by the Bible but also by later religious traditions and popular horror movies like The Exorcist.
Demons & Evil Spirits in the Bible
Although Christians often use "demon," "evil spirit," and "fallen angel" as interchangeable synonyms, to understand how these concepts are used in the Bible we need to consider the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the biblical writers lived. As Dr. Michael Heiser has detailed at length, the best way to understand the Old Testament depiction of the sons of God, demons, and the giants/nephilim is as a subversive response to the mythology of the ancient Babylonians.
The Sons of God & Demons in the Bible
Ancient people believed that the fortunes of kingdoms like Babylon or Egypt were closely tied to what was happening to their patron deities in the spiritual realm. Ancient chronicles describing the battles between kingdoms rarely provide us with a completely objective description of battlefield tactics, logistics, or military strategy. Instead, we are typically given poetic depictions of cosmic warfare between deities in the spiritual realm. When a human kingdom triumphs in battle, it's not primarily because that kingdom had a better strategy; rather it's because that kingdom's god supernaturally triumphed over the god of the opposing kingdom.
Like the chronicles of Israel's pagan neighbors, the Bible often gives a theological/supernatural explanation for why a kingdom triumphs or is defeated. In some cases, the idea of spiritual warfare is preserved. When Yahweh brings the Israelites out of Egypt, for example, it's an act of war on not just the human Kingdom of Egypt but also the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12). However, the Bible also makes it quite clear that when the Israelites are defeated, it's not because the gods of the nations have triumphed over Yahweh. If Israel is defeated, it's because they've been disobedient and Yahweh has temporarily handed them over to the power of other kingdoms and their gods as a punishment. Ultimately though, these hostile kingdoms get what's coming to them. Yahweh may use enemy nations to punish his people for a time, but he inevitably ends up bringing destruction down upon them and their gods (think for example of what Yahweh does to the Philistines and their god Dagan in 1 Samuel 4-6).
Clearly the Bible is not adopting the worldview of its pagan neighbors wholesale. The biblical claim that Yahweh is sovereign both in Israel's victories and in her defeats subverts the triumphalist theology of Babylon. And yet the Bible still has far more in common with the ancient world's supernatural understanding of warfare and human kingdoms than it does with a secular perspective. Although the gods of the nations are qualitatively inferior to Yahweh - the completely unique and supreme sovereign of the cosmos - the Bible doesn't deny that they exist. Instead, we are told that Yahweh in his sovereignty placed the nations under the authority of these lesser spiritual patrons, while taking Israel as his own special people (Deuteronomy 32:8-9). Like ancient chronicles, the Bible seems to suggest that events in the human realm are sometimes affected by spiritual forces engaging in cosmic warfare (e.g. 2 Kings 6:8-23, Daniel 10). However, lest we give too much credit to the gods of the nations, we are reminded that they are, in truth, deceptive demons that Yahweh will one day judge for leading the nations astray (Psalm 82). All of this Old Testament context serves as the proper backdrop for understanding what Paul is referring to when he talks about "rulers" and "authorities" in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12).
Fallen Angels, The Nephilim, & Evil Spirits in the Bible
The Babylonians believed that their civilization was founded by a race of superhuman Sage-Kings, the Apkallu, who were offspring of the gods and humans and were responsible for enlightening humanity with secret knowledge from the heavens. In Genesis 6, the biblical writers take the basic outline of this myth and turn it on its head. Genesis seems to agree that some Sons of God (i.e. fallen angels) interbred with human women and produced superhuman offspring, which it refers to as the Nephilim. But instead of depicting these demigod Nephilim as a source of wisdom, order, and civilization, the biblical account depicts them as a source of the violence and chaos that eventually brought about the total collapse of creation in the Flood. Thus, far from being the beneficent guardian of civilization and enlightenment that it claimed to be, Babylon (and its imitators) was carrying on a demonic legacy of disorder and destruction.
But the biblical writers suggest that the ongoing destructive influence of the Nephilim extended beyond evil empires like Babylon. Dr. Heiser points out how in the Old Testament, the word "Nephilim" is used synonymously with the word "Rephaim" - a word for underworld spirits. Based on this connection and in response to the Babylonian reverence for the spirits of the Apkallu, intertestamental Jews came to believe that the phenomenon of spiritual affliction was being caused by the undead spirits of the Nephilim giants. For example, in the Book of Enoch, a very popular intertestamental Jewish Pseudepigrapha, we are told:
And now, the giants, who are produced from the spirits and flesh, shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on the earth shall be their dwelling. Evil spirits have proceeded from their bodies; because they are born from men and from the holy Watchers is their beginning and primal origin; they shall be evil spirits on earth, and evil spirits shall they be called. And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offences. And these spirits shall rise up against the children of men and against the women, because they have proceeded from them. (1 Enoch 15:8-12)
This early Jewish understanding of evil and impure spirits helps make sense of why exorcism was considered essential function of the Messiah in Jesus' day. Giant-killing had been an important part of the job description of ancient Israelite kings. Joshua, the proto-king of ancient Israel, began the process of casting the giants clans out of ancient Palestine (Joshua 11:21) and his work was finally completed by King David, the head of the Messianic dynasty (eg., 2 Samuel 21). By the time Jesus came on the scene, a new form of giant-killing was needed. Instead of killing the bodies of giants like his ancestors Joshua and David, Jesus cast the impure spirits of the giants out of the Israelites that they were vengefully afflicting. With this context in mind, the ministry of Jesus as its depicted in the Gospels looks a lot like a second conquest of the Promised Land, following in the pattern set by Joshua. The Gospels even describe a battle between Jesus and an evil spirit who identifies himself using an explicitly militaristic title:
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him.And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. (Mark 5:1-13 ESV)
Lilith in the Bible
Viewers of The Chosen who search their Bible app for "Lilith" (the name of the demon that inhabits Mary Magdalene in Episode 1 of Season 1) will find themselves frustrated. The name does not appear in most English versions of Scripture - but that doesn't mean that it isn't biblical. Lilith is a rare Hebrew word found only in the Book of Isaiah:
And wild animals shall meet with hyenas; the wild goat shall cry to his fellow; indeed, there the night bird ["lilit"] settles and finds for herself a resting place. (Isaiah 34:14, ESV)
While many modern translations render "lilit" in a manner that suggests a merely natural animal, some biblical scholars have argued that "wind demoness" is a better translation. "Lilit" appears to be a Hebrew transliteration of a well-established demon-goddess in Mesopotamian mythology. In the context of the passage, Isaiah seems to be describing how God's judgment will turn Edom into a place no longer fit for anything other than unclean night-dwellers, both natural and supernatural.
Belial in the Bible
In addition to Lilith, The Chosen gives us the name of another evil spirit, "Belial," the being that possesses a man and confronts the disciples in Episode 5 of Season 2. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word "Belial" literally means "wickedness" or "worthlessness." During the period between the Old and New Testament, however, Belial came to be used as a proper name for the chief of the forces of darkness (i.e. the figure we usually refer to as "Satan"). In the New Testament, Paul briefly uses "Belial" as a term for the evil antithesis to Jesus in his second letter to Corinth:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? (2 Corinthians 6:14-15, ESV)
Demons & Evil Spirits in Western Culture and Religion
As I've often argued, Bible Art and biblical adaptations are influenced by a variety of factors. No film or show is ever based purely on Scripture; there are always secondary sources that shape the interpretation, theology, and iconography of a show, both consciously and unconsciously. The Chosen is no different. To understand how it depicts demons and evil spirits like Lilith and Belial, we need to think about how the understanding of such beings has been influenced by both religious tradition and the storytelling tradition of Western culture.
Demons & Evil Spirits in Later Christian Tradition
Early Christians, many of whom were Jews or Gentile who wanted to be Jews, were still keenly aware of the cultural context of the Old Testament and the distinction between demonic sons of God and the undead spirits of the giants. As the Christian movement grew more distant from its Jewish origins and Christian writers became less aware of the context of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, the original distinctions between these different types of spiritual evil came to be blurred. Demons and evil/impure spirits were lumped together in a single undifferentiated category and came to be understood in ways that were foreign to the worldview of the original biblical writers. Indeed, to this day the average Christian will see no distinction between the evil spirits that Jesus cast out and the principalities and powers that Paul was referring to, a fact that causes a lot of confusion among contemporary Christians.
Lilith in Later Jewish Tradition
Christians sometimes err by failing to distinguish early Jewish writings, which were typically aware of the original context for the Old Testament and themselves functions as context for the New Testament, from Jewish writing written many centuries later. Just like their Christian counterparts, these later Jewish writings often introduce stories and ideas that are only loosely tied to the Bible and its original context.
The character "Lilith" takes a variety of forms in later Jewish writings. In some cases, in an attempt to smooth over the discrepancy between Genesis 1 (where the man and woman are created simultaneously from the dust) and Genesis 2 (where Eve is created after Adam, from his rib), Lilith is said to be Adam's original wife, rejected because of her unwillingness to submit to her husband. In other cases, Lilith is said to be a primordial being or the consort of the demonic figure Samael. In either case, she is typically viewed as a mother of demonic beings, a succubus, and a cause of infant mortality. While the association of Lilith with the demonic is true to the original biblical context, these later Jewish ideas about her are inventions with no basis in Scripture. Nevertheless, Jewish traditions about Lilith caught the attention of later Christian writers and seeped into the broader cultural consciousness of early modern Christendom.
Demons and Belial in Later Christian Tradition
Outside of Scripture, no work has had a more significant influence on Western notions of demons and evil spirits than John Milton's Paradise Lost. Although there's little biblical basis to how Milton depicts the fallen angels rebelling against God, getting defeated, and then attempting to get even, many people in the West - Christian and non-Christian - assume that this is the biblical understanding of demons. I could probably write an entire piece comparing Milton's demonology to the Bible, but that'll be a project for another day.
In Paradise Lost, Milton depicts Satan as the chief of an entire council of demons. Milton names most of these demonic princes after the gods of the nations surrounding Israel like Moloch and Baal, but he also appropriates Jewish tradition and names one of the chief demons Belial. Belial is a powerful demon, but he is distinct from and subordinate to Lucifer/Satan. Milton makes Belial responsible for the actions of various despicable Old Testament figures like the sons of Eli who are referred to as "sons of Belial." In the original context "sons of belial" would have meant "sons of wickedness" or "wicked men," but Milton construes the Hebrew metaphor in a more literal sense. The lasting influence of Paradise Lost in the Western Cannon has ensured the association of the name "Belial" with demons for the foreseeable future.
Demons and Evil Spirits in the Exorcist and Modern Horror
Although modern films eschew most aspects of the Bible's supernatural worldview, demonic possession has been a standard trope in horror films as a result of the immense success and influence of The Exorcist. While the depiction of evil spirits in The Chosen isn't nearly as disturbing as The Exorcist or its later imitators, the tropes and trends of modern horror do seem to have influenced the portrayal of Lilith. From a filmmaking perspective, there are many aspects of how the scenes with Lilith are shot - the lighting, the way Lilith/Mary moves, her voice and expressions - that reflect the aesthetics of modern horror. The influence of The Exorcist can also be seen in the actual narrative outline of the Lilith storyline in The Chosen:
A young woman is possessed by a demon and engages in acts of violence against herself and others
Law enforcement (which is Rome in The Chosen) is alerted to the violence and doesn't know what to make of it
A spiritually struggling/doubting clergyman is reluctantly convinced to examine the situation
The possessed woman displays disturbing behaviors and threatens the clergyman
The clergyman attempts to perform "standard" exorcism rituals
Ultimately, the ritual fails; the demon is too strong
The clergyman is left in a place of frustration and despair
I would even argue that The Exorcist influences The Chosen theologically. As I've pointed out, in the Bible there is a clear distinction between fallen spirits like Satan and the evil spirits that possess people. The Exorcist doesn't recognize that distinction; the demon that possesses the young girl in the film claims to be Satan himself. The Exorcist's depiction of Satan possessing a girl has left a mark on our cultural imagination and I suspect the identity of the spirits we've seen possessing people in The Chosen is a consequence of that. In the modern Western cultural imagination (through the influence of Jewish and Christian traditions, as I've noted above), the names Lilith and Belial are associated with high-level demons like Satan. Indeed, I suspect that's why The Chosen uses these names. Even though most viewers don't know who Lilith or Belial are or how they're connected to the Bible, they know enough through cultural osmosis to fear these names and associate them with powerful evil spirits - the kind that we expect to encounter in a scene of demonic possession because of the influence of The Exorcist.
Demons and Evil Spirits in Pop Spirituality
There's one other influence on the depiction of demons and evil spirits in The Chosen that I think is less obvious. As I've noted before, The Chosen associates demons/spirits very closely with trauma. The Chosen ties Mary Magdalene's initial experience of demonic oppression to her experience of sexual assault at the hands of a Roman soldier (Mary has a flashback to the sexual assault while struggling under the demon's influence). When Jesus frees Mary from the demon, the show suggests that he's also setting her free from the shame she feels about her past. Later in The Chosen Season 2, Mary encounters another demon/spirit around the same time she has a triggering encounter with a Roman soldier; both encounters remind Mary of her past sexual trauma and send her into a spiritual spiral.
The association of demons and possession with trauma and other mental health problems has been common in modern Western Christianity. On the liberal side of things, some interpreters use mental illness as an explanation for demonic episodes, with some even going so far as to claim that demons aren't real and that biblical descriptions of demonic possession can all be reduced down to a purely naturalistic phenomenon. On the more conservative/charismatic side of things, some interpreters will take the biblical descriptions of demonic possession and apply them to everyday experiences of mental illness and trauma, with some going so far as to reject modern medicine and therapy in favor of exorcism.
Fortunately, The Chosen doesn't seem to fall into either of these extremes. Demons in The Chosen are clearly real and not merely a symptom of mental illness. But The Chosen also clearly seems to recognize that trauma is also real and not merely a symptom of demonic possession. Nevertheless, the show suggests that demons may cause and prey upon experiences of trauma, which seems like a quite reasonable conclusion.
Any other influences on the depiction of demons and evil spirits in The Chosen that I missed? Did any of these influences surprise you? Please feel free to leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below or to reach out by email or on Twitter!
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Lilith in The Chosen & in Scripture: FAQ
Is Lilith in the Christian Bible? Where is Lilith in Scripture?
The word "lilith" only appears once in the Bible in Isaiah 34:14. In most Bible translations, it is rendered as something like "night bird" but it may in fact refer to demonic beings. In post-biblical Jewish legends, Lilith was a demonic figure.
Was Mary Magdalene possessed by Lilith?
In the Bible, we are told that Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons, but we are not told their names. There is no indication that she was possessed by a demon named Lilith (Luke 8:1-3).
In The Chosen, at the beginning of Season 1, Episode 1, Mary Magdalene is possessed by a demon named Lilith. The Chosen assigned this name to the demon possessing Mary Magdalene because it is associated with a female demon.
Many of the insights in today's post were gleamed from Demons, Dr. Michael Heiser's in depth exploration of Satan, demons, and evil spirits. He provides much detailed explanation, helpful examples from the original context, and more substantial arguments. Definitely worth a read!
FYI: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Click here for my affiliation policy.
If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!
The Chosen Season 3
Reflecting on The Chosen Season 3 & Anticipating Season 4: What Worked & What to Fix
The Chosen Season 3 Episode 1 & Episode 2: Reaction and Analysis
The Chosen Season 3 Episodes 7 & 8: Recap, Review, & Analysis
The Chosen Season 3 Episodes 1 & 2: Questions to Discuss Before the Premiere
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
Thomas & Ramah in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Yussif, Jairus, & Shmuel in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Quintus, Gaius, Atticus, and the Romans in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Little James in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Pontius Pilate & his Wife in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Matthew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]
Episode 1 Guide: Homecoming
Episode 2 Guide: Two by Two
Episode 3 Guide: Physician, Heal Thyself
Episode 4 Guide: Clean Part 1
Episode 5 Guide: Clean Part 2
Episode 6 Guide: Intensity in Tent City
Episode 7 Guide: Ears to Hear
Episode 8 Guide: The Feeding of the 5,000
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?