When Jesus performs exorcisms, he is accused of doing so with the help of “Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Matt 12:24; Lk 11:15; cf. Matt 10:25; 12:27; Mk 3:22; Lk 11:18-19). While Yeshua’s response associates this figure with “Satan” (Σατανᾶς; cf. Matt 12:26; Mk 3:24-26; Lk 11:18), Beelzebul’s identity is not limited to the Satan, or “the accuser” (השׂטן; ha’satan), that we encounter in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech 3:1-2; 1 Chron 21:1). According to Scripture, Beelzebul was a Philistine god with whom the Israelites came into contact through their neighbors in the land of Canaan.
“Beelzebul” (בעל זבול; Βεελζεβοὺλ) is made up of two Hebrew words that have equivalents in related languages: “Baal” (בעל) means “lord” or “master,” and “zebul” (זבול) means “high” or “exalted.” Thus, the name for this deity would mean something like, “Exalted Master,” or “Lord of the Heights.” Israel’s Scriptures contain an episode involving Ahaziah, a king of Israel, who becomes sick and asks his messengers, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub (בעל זבוב), the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this illness” (2 Kings 1:2). In response, the prophet Elijah asks Ahaziah, “Is it because there in not God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub (בעל זבוב) the god of Ekron?” (1:3). Elijah tells the king that because he has chosen the help of Baal-zebub over the God of Israel, the monarch shall not recover (1:4).
You may have noticed a slight difference between the names in the New Testament and the Tanakh: in the Gospels, the latter half of the name is “zebul,” but the Hebrew Bible has “zebub.” Whereas the New Testament Greek preserves this deity’s proper name, the Hebrew makes it into a derisive wordplay: by changing the final “l” (ל) to a “b” (ב), the Hebrew author makes Baalzebul (Exalted Lord) into Baalzebub: “Lord of the Flies.” One reason for this change may have been the tendency for flies to congregate on ancient sacrifices that were not properly consumed as burnt offerings. Israel was told to burn the uneaten parts of the offering so that the smoke would ascend to God as a “sweet-smelling savor” (ריח ניחח; reach nichoach; e.g., Lev 1-8), but the Israelites could mock the sacrifices of other nations when they saw flies covering the leftovers. In this way, the Hebrews highlight the superiority of their God over Baalzebul: with the switch of a single letter, the Israelites could say to their neighbors, “You think that your Baal is the ‘exalted lord,’ but we know that he’s really just the lord of the flies!”
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