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"Lucifer" in Isaiah 14:12-17
Translation and Ideology

Dennis Bratcher

The name Lucifer has often been understood to be another name for the devil or the satan. This identification has a long history in the church, going back to at least the fourth century. Its origin is actually from a passage in the Old Testament from the book of Isaiah that, to some, speaks of a being cast out of heaven because of pride. Since some people see a reference to the devil being cast out of heaven in the New Testament (Rev 12:9-12; cf. Lk 10:18), they assumed that the Isaiah passage referred to the same thing.

The passage (NRSV): 14:12

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13 You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’ 15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. 16 Those who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, 17 who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who did not let his prisoners go home?’

In the King James translation, verse 12 reads:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

Here is where we find the name Lucifer. The term Lucifer was popularized in English from this King James translation.  However, the name does not come from the Hebrew or even from the Greek translation (Septuagint), but from the fourth century AD Latin translation of this verse:

quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes.

But this is not quite as obvious as it sounds even in Latin. The term Lucifer in fourth century Latin was a name for Venus, especially as the morning star. The Latin word Lucifer is composed of two words:  lux, or in the genitive form used lucis, (meaning "light") and ferre, which means "to bear" or "to bring."  So, the word Lucifer means bearer of light. The same word is used in other places in the Latin Vulgate to translate Hebrew terms that mean "bright," especially associated with the sky:

Job 11:17:  And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning.

2 Peter 1:19:  You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

This reflects how the Latin word Lucifer was used in classic Roman poetry, such as this passage from Virgil (Georgics, III, 324-325):

Luciferi primo cum sidere frigida rura
carpamus, dum mane novum, dum gramina canent

Let us hasten, when first the Morning Star appears,
To the cool pastures, while the day is new, while the grass is dewy.

The term also occurs in the plural (luciferum) in Job 38:32 to refer to an astral constellation. Other forms of the word are used in similar ways to refer to light or the stars. This reflects the Greek (Septuagint) translation’s use of heosphoros, "morning star" to translate the Hebrew of Isaiah 14:12.

There is some debate about the exact origin of the original Hebrew word  in Isaiah 14:12 (helel). The strongest possibility is that it comes from a verbal root that means "to shine brightly," as well as "to offer praise" (where we get the phrase hallelu yah). In any case, the noun form is the Hebrew term for the morning star, in most cases the planet Venus. Both the second century BC Greek translation in the Septuagint, and the fourth century AD Latin translation in the Latin Vulgate understand this to be the meaning of the Hebrew word helel.

So, how did we get from Venus, the morning star, to Lucifer being associated with the devil, especially since that term is used in positive ways even in the New Testament? Well, if we begin with some New Testament passages and incorrectly assume that using the New Testament along with a lot of accumulated tradition is the best way to interpret the Old Testament, then add some of our assumptions, it is not a long trip at all.

In 2 Corinthians 11:14, Paul writes about false apostles:

And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

And in Luke 10:18-19, at the return of the 70 as they comment on their success, Jesus says:

And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.   Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you."

So, without ever stopping to examine either of those passages to see what was being said in them, and what was meant by the references, we could conclude that the devil/the satan is somehow associated with light and the sky.

If we then add the passage from Revelation 12 about the devil/satan/red dragon/serpent the symbols begin to run together, again before we have done any real study on any of these passages separately to see what each of them is saying. In Revelation 12 the red dragon with seven heads appears in the sky, and his tail sweeps down a third of the stars to earth, and is then later cast down to the earth along with his angels. Of course, at this point, a great many assumptions are introduced into the reading even of the Revelation passage, even though this is obviously extremely figurative language; we just assume what it means.

By adding these three passages together without regard to context, and read them as if they were all speaking in the same way about the same thing to make the same point, we can conclude that we have here a jigsaw picture of a long ago historical event described in great detail (but of course we have to put the pieces together from various bits scattered through literature written 800 years apart!).

Then, if we take that assumption about the meaning of all these texts, and the assumption that adding texts together is the way to understand them (a drastic perversion of the "Scripture interprets Scripture" principle!), and bring that back to the Isaiah text, then it is very easy to reach the conclusion that Isaiah is also describing the same event. There are similar metaphors of light, stars, conflict, and being cast down. Earlier translations (KJV) mistakenly took the Hebrew term sheol in verse 15 as "hell" (in Hebrew it is simply the place where the dead go, a metaphor for death, specifically burial; see Sheol, Hell, and the Dead), which is another piece of the puzzle. So of course, since there is no mention of the "devil" or the "satan" in Isaiah, "Lucifer" must be the name Isaiah uses for him! So, Isaiah is talking about the devil being cast out of heaven!

This is the position that prevailed throughout much of the history of the church until the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, when we began asking more direct questions of the biblical text. We also gained more information in new archaeological discoveries of ancient civilizations, including thousands of tablets from Mesopotamia giving us a great deal of information about ancient Mesopotamian and Babylonian religion.

We learned that Babylonian religion was an astral religion, closely related to Canaanite practices, although more focused on the sun, moon, and stars and their motion than on the immediate cycles of nature as it was in Canaan. The Babylonians worshipped as gods the manifestations of celestial bodies. It is from Babylon that we get the signs of the Zodiac representing the constellations. We now know that the two terms used in the Hebrew text of Isaiah, Helel, morning star, and Shahar, dawn, were Babylonian astral deities (which is reflected in most modern translations).

Now, if we look at the text of Isaiah 14 in context, and without the assumptions we brought to it from the New Testament, the meaning of the passage becomes more obvious and goes a radically different direction. The book of Isaiah has spent the first chapters denouncing the sins of Israel and its failure to be God’s people. There have also been expectations that God will work in new ways in the life of the nation to help them recover their mission as God’s people. One of those ways would be through a new king to replace the corrupt Ahaz. Because of his pro-Assyrian policies, the nation was teetering upon the brink of catastrophe as Assyria expanded to the West (see Assyrian Dominance).

Isaiah 13 begins a long section of the book known as "Oracles Against Foreign Nations." This is a standardized format in the prophets for universalizing responsibility to God. Not only Israel, but all nations, were accountable to God and would fall under the same judgment Israel would. As is typical in other prophetic books (Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) not all of these oracles come from the same time period as Isaiah of Jerusalem, but they do follow a similar pattern and serve the same function in the book.

Isaiah 13 is part of the oracle directed against Babylon, probably from a time after the Exile. In very flowery, poetic, and highly figurative language, Babylon is denounced for her arrogance and lack of concern for other nations as she built her empire. It is interesting that in 13:10, specific mention is made of the failure of the Babylonian gods (constellations, sun, moon) to help them when God calls then to accountability.

Chapter 14 then begins with the promise of Israel’s return from Babylonian exile, a theme that dominates the middle section of Isaiah (40-55). Part of that return would involve the downfall of the tyrant king of Babylon (v. 4; probably Nebuchadrezzer; for the same language used of a later Babylonian ruler, Belshazzar, see Dan 5:20). In that context, verses 12-21 are a poetic picture of that downfall. Helel, morning star, and Shahar, dawn, then, are references to the Babylonian gods who could not save the king, and are themselves to be cast down. In fact, there is probably a reference here to the habit of ancient Near Eastern kings proclaiming themselves incarnations of the gods; with the fall of the kings, the gods also fell, often physically as the images that represented them were pulled down and destroyed (recall the symbolism of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad).

So, the Isaiah passage does not connect, either historically or theologically, with the New Testament passages about the devil or the satan. By listening to the Old Testament passage on its own terms within its own context, we discover that Lucifer is not an Old Testament name for the devil or the satan. The passage in Isaiah 14:12-17 is directed at the downfall of the arrogant Babylonian rulers who took Israel into exile. By beginning with the New Testament, by making assumptions not supported by a closer examination of Scripture itself, and by using external theological categories as a lens through which to read Scripture, we may end up badly misreading Isaiah.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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