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Goat Demons and She-Devils in Edom (Isaiah 34:14)

Isaiah 34, talking about the desolation of Edom, contains this fascinating strophe:

And thorns will grow up over her citadels,
A thistle and a brier in her fortresses.
And she will be a dwelling for jackals,
A haunt for the daughters of desolation.
And the desert criers will meet with the howlers,
And the goat demon will cry out to his companion.
Indeed, Lilith is at repose there
And finds rest for herself.
There the arrow snake nests
And lays [her eggs] and hatches [her young] and gathers them in her shadow.
Indeed, there the vultures gather,
Each one with her companion.

(Isa 34:13-15)

Things that are noteworthy:

  • “Daughters of desolation” (line 4) are ostriches, whose cries sound like wailing among the ruins. Together with “jackals” (line 3), “desert criers” (line 5), “howlers” (line 5), and “the goat demon [crying] out to his companion” (line 6), the image is that of a region, completely desolate, filled with ceaseless, mournful howling.
  • “Desert criers” (line 5) are some sort of wild animal, but it is not certain what animal they are exactly. The typical translation of “wild animals” (ESV, NET), “desert creatures” (NIV), etc., just doesn’t really capture the image of vicious animals wailing in the wilderness. It’s the same with “the howlers”: they could be hyenas, they could be owls (no one seems to know for sure), but the point is not their actual identity so much as the sound they make.
  • Edom, having been completely laid to waste, is filled not only with wild animals, but also with¬†demons. These demons howl to each other, as in the case of the “goat demon” (line 6), or they lie down in quiet, waiting for a chance to attack, like with “Lilith … at repose there” (line 7). The constant, mournful howling from the desert creatures thus takes on a sinister edge, which intensifies the image of desolation.
  • When Isaiah mentions demons, it makes a pretty clear point: for the ancient Israelites, demons were quite real and quite powerful. Some even had cultic practices devoted to them, both acceptable (like sacrificing goats to Azazel in Lev 16:8-10) and unacceptable¬†(like the cult of the goat demons in Lev 17:7 and 2 Chron 11:15).

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