Who is Samael?
According to the Talmudic and post-Talmudic lore, Samael is thought to have a multitude of services including the collection of lost souls, tempting man, and destroying sinners. Also in the Talmudic lore, Samael is an archangel, a figure who is the accuser (Ha-Satan), seducer, and destroyer (Mashhit).
In Judaism and the Talmudic texts, the entity known as Samael maintains a very interesting role as a member of the heavenly host, otherwise known as the army of the angels. Whilst his membership with the heavenly host makes him a servant of God, it doesn’t necessarily make him a pleasant figure to come across.
You see, Samael is often thought in Jewish law to be the main angel of death and you only need to look at some of his nicknames to see this; some of which include ‘the venom of God’, ‘the poison of God’, ‘the blindness of God’, or ‘the left hand of God.’
Others, however, see Samael as an equivalent of Satan, though, quite unlike Satan, he does not appear to be evil given his functions directly serve God such as destroying sinners. Others may have this notion because he is often seen as a tempter of man, a seducer, and one who encourages and condones men to sin. In a sense, you might see him as a test employed by God.
In some Jewish law, from the Second Temple period, Samael has a significant role in the story of the Garden of Eden, in that he engineers the fall of Adam and Eve by utilizing the serpent attempt Eve. Unlike traditional tales and ideas about Satan being the snake, this telling explains that Samael rode the serpent as his mount and that the serpent doesn’t appear to be an evil figure in disguise, but more so an extension of Samael or creature he had directly manipulated.
Other ideas from this era paint Samael as the true father of Cain, implying at he was able to tempt Eve into a sexual encounter.
Samael in the Book of Baruch
Samael appears to first crop up during the Second Temple period, where he is incriminated as a major force of evil in the (Greek) Apocalypse of Baruch (Or Baruch 3), a non-canonical biblical book thought to be written by the scribe of Jeremiah, Baruch ben Neriah.
The book describes itself as a narrative by Baruch, as he receives a revelation from God concerning ineffable things that have always been pondered on by man.
In this account, Baruch praises God daily, asking why he has allowed Jerusalem to suffer capture and Dominion under King Nebuchadnezzar, but he does not receive a response. Instead, God sends one of his angels to show Baruch the mysteries of the heavens, and that in doing so, he hopes that Baruch will stop praying to him on this matter.
Baruch agrees to this and is taken through the layers of heaven by the angel, each of which Baruch describes in great detail. By the time they reached the third layer, Baruch asks the angel to show him the tree had led Adam astray, and the angel tells him,
‘It is the vine, which the angel Samael planted, whereat the Lord was angry, and he cursed him and his plant, while also on this account he did not permit Adam to touch it, and therefore, the devil being envious deceived him through this vine.’—3 Baruch 4: 8-9
From this, we don’t get to understand why God was angry with Samael, as well as to what capacity he was serving God. What we do get though is a glimpse of the relationship between Samael and God, and that whatever it was that he did must have been bad because God not only curses his plant but also somehow himself.
We see the rebellious and spiteful side of Samael too, that instead of accepting God’s punishment, he turns against him and is shown to deceive Adam into touching the vine, knowing full well that Adam would be punished. In doing this, Samael is shown to not only be a cunning figure but a jealous one too. He lost God’s favour and seeks to take Adam down with him, but in doing so, he is also hurting God as he causes his favourite creation to defy him.
Furthermore, Samael in 4: 9 of this passage, is referred to as the devil, showing us that he becomes the embodiment of evil after having been cursed by God. He is again mentioned later in 9: 7, where the angel tells Baruch,
‘…at the transgression of the first man Adam, it was near to Samael when he took the serpent as a garment.’
By this, Baruch again confirmed the downfall of Adam to be an association of Samael but also that Samael took the serpent as a garment, or that he took the form of the serpent, and through this, was able to tempt Adam into disobeying God.
Samael in the Pseudepigrapha Jewish Christian Texts— The Ascension of Isaiah
Samael also appears in the pseudepigrapha Jewish Christian texts known as The Ascension of Isaiah which sees Isaiah warn the dying king of Judah, Hezekiah, that his son Manasseh will not follow the righteous path that has been set for him.
In chapter 1: 8, Isaiah reveals to Hezekiah that he has foreseen Samael come to serve Manasseh and that the entity would come to execute all of Manasseh’s evil desires.
Hearing this, Hezekiah breaks down into tears, to which Isaiah makes it clear in chapter 1:11 that ‘The Council of Samael against Manasseh is consummated: nought will avail thee’, and what he means by this, is that there’s nothing that can prevent Samael from turning my Manasseh down a path of darkness as he will become corrupted.
By chapter 2, everything Isaiah has predicted comes to pass for when we see Hezekiah die, Manasseh proceeds to fall onto an unrighteous path and seems to forget all of his father’s teachings. We are told in 2: 1,
‘And it came to pass after that Hezekiah died and Manasseh became king, that he did not remember the commands of Hezekiah his father, but forgot them, and Samael abode in Manasseh and clung fast to him.’
We are also told that through this influence of Samael, Manasseh begins to serve a demon known as Beliar or Belial, otherwise described as the angel of lawlessness. Through the combination of Samael’s influence over Manasseh and his choosing to serve Belial, the land of Jerusalem over which he rules became a state of chaos.
By chapter 2: 13, we see Isaiah leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem, for he’s unable to stand the sight of that which he sees under Manasseh’s rule. But Isaiah is quite vocal in his denouncement of the King and people begin to listen, which angers the demon Belial. Chapter 2:13 tells us that,
‘Beliar was in great wrath against Isaiah because of the vision and because of the exposure wherewith he had exposed Samael.’ —The Ascension of Isaiah 2: 13
It’s unclear as to how the hierarchy worked between Beliar and Samael at this point but given that Beliar is angered that Samael had been exposed, you might say that Beliar is serving Samael and that it would justify his loathing for Isaiah in this passage because his master has been revealed for all to see, thus, potentially limiting his influence.
It also fits him with the idea from the Apocalypse of Baruch, that Samael does what he does out of revenge against God for having caused him out, that he would ally himself with a demon-like Beliar to corrupt yet another of God’s creations.
By chapter 5, we get more of an idea that Beliar does serve Samael, for he takes control of a false prophet named Belchira who accuses Isaiah of treason, and we are told that Isaiah is to be sawn under by a wooden saw. 5: 15 – 16 tells us,
‘This Beliar did Isaiah through Belchira and Manasseh; for Samael was very wrathful against Isaiah in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, on account of the things which he had seen regarding the beloved and unaccounted the destruction of Samael which he had seen through the Lord while Hezekiah his father was still King. And he did according to the will of Satan.’
These passages revealed to us the anger that Samael holds for Isaiah, that he sees him as a thorn and an obstacle in his quest to do evil. Isaiah not only provides resistance against Samael’s plan, but he also foresees Samael’s destruction by God which makes him even more vengeful that man can perceive as an eventual downfall.
Therefore, Samael appears to utilize Beliar to make use of Belchira, who condemns Isaiah to the wooden saw. While he is perceived to be an unseen entity in this story, some believe that Samael is in fact present, in that Beliar is not a separate demon, but instead the embodiment of Samael’s wicked ways.
Samael in the Ascension of Moses
Isaiah, though, isn’t the only biblical figure to encounter Samael. According to the Ascension of Moses, Moses is accompanied through the levels of heaven with the Archangel Metatron, and then at the last level of heaven, Moses encounters an angel there appears to be different from all the others he had seen—one that put the fear of God in him.
He was described as being so tall that it would take 500 years to cover a distance equal to his height, and that from head to toe, he was marked with glaring eyes. Metatron informs Moses that this was Samael, that he takes the souls away from men.
When Samael begins to move off, Moses inquires as to where he’s going, to which Metatron tells him that Samael is going to claim the soul of Joe, the pious. Immediately, Moses sinks into prayer and begs God not to allow creatures like Samael to ever claim his soul for he is truly terrified by the creature.
Samael in Jewish Midrash
Samael also appears across several Jewish Midrash, though his importance appears to differ quite dramatically in various texts. Whilst he maintains the principal role of being a tempter of man to sin, he’s also seen to be an accuser of the heavenly Court and he who brings about the wrath to those who deserve it. He’s also commonly linked or referred to as Satan himself.
As we delve deeper into the Zohar and Jewish mythology and law, we see that Samael is quite a busy character in that he said to mate with the angels of sacred prostitution, though the nature of these encounters appeared to be shrouded in mystery.
These entities that Samael is thought to have mated with include a princess of evil (Eisheth Zenunim), a demon who seduced Adam (Na’amah) and a demon who haunts the air itself (Agrat bat Mahlat).
Samael in the Kabbalah—His Consort, Lilith
The Kabbalah in Jewish law also sees Samael described as an archangel and that he eventually becomes the consort of the demon known as Lilith, also the supposed first wife of Adam, according to early Jewish texts and ideas, who rebelled against both Adam and God and fled from the Garden of Eden before the creation of Eve.
We understand that Lilith would become to be known as something of a mother of demons, and it is thought that these spawns come about through sexual encounters with Samael. He’s also seen as Lilith spouse in some cases, and the pair are thought to be the evil parallel of Adam and Eve.
Samael in Gnostic Traditions
Gnostic traditions see Samael painted as one of the three names of the Demiurge—which is a creator of the universe, along with the names Yaldabaoth and Saklas—in the Gnostic texts of the Apocryphon of John.
Meanwhile, in ‘On the Origin of the World’, —another Gnostic text that details the conception of the world—the entity Yaldabaoth which appears to be miraculously conceived into the universe from the shadows, claims sole divinity for himself and begins to consider himself to be the god of all things.
However, an entity known as Sophia who was in existence before Yaldabaoth and who had been instrumental in giving him life, told him that he was ignorant of how things worked, and if he was a god, then he was a blind god—or Samael as some translations suggest.
It would imply that Samael sees himself above everyone else, including God, similarly to how Lucifer did in Revelations, but as ignorance or arrogance blinds him to the truth that ultimately costs him in the end.
Interestingly, this same event is also referenced in the Gnostic exegesis titled the ‘Hypostasis of the Archons’, which reads,
‘Their chief is blind because of his power and his ignorance and his arrogance he said, with his power “It is I who am God; there is none apart from me.”
When he said this, he sinned against the entirety and this speech caught up to incorruptibility; then there was a voice that came forth from the incorruptibility; saying, ‘You are mistaken, Samael’ —which is, God of the blind.’
Whilst the voice here is not dedicated to being that of the entity known as Sophia, it can be said that this voice belongs to God himself.
These Gnostic accounts also paint Samael as being the very first sinner and that he is the first being that appears to hurt God by declaring himself as the ultimate being in the universe.
In these gnostic accounts, Samael appears to take on the form of a serpent with the head of a lion. Samael also appears in the testament of Solomon, a text that describes how Solomon was able to build his temple and how he was able to command a league of demons utilizing a magical ring, supposedly given to him by the Archangel Michael.
In this text, we see Solomon aimed to appease Samael as he unloads a lengthy paragraph of praise upon the being as he seeks to conjure and invoke him.
Involvement with Jacob and Esau
Another interesting take on Samael is the idea that he was involved in the brotherhood between Jacob and Esau then he served as Esau’s guardian angel.
Esau being the elder brother, received the blessing of being the firstborn, but this would cause strife between himself and Jacob who had been born moments afterwards, clutching onto the heel of Esau—no less as if to pull him back into the womb so that he might be born first.
Conspiring with his mother, Jacob was able to trick his father Isaac into giving him these very blessings of being the firstborn—an act that sorely angered Esau.
Jacob was sent away for many years but upon his return, Esau raised an army to meet him. Realizing the danger, Jacob began to pray to God, but instead, was met by an angel who was described as wrestling against him; even going on to hurt him enough to give him a limp.
French medieval rabbi known as Rashi believed this angel who fought against Jacob was Esau’s guardian angel and concluded that this was, in fact, Samael, thus fitting in with the idea that Samael brings about God’s justice on those who deserve it.
In Jewish mystical works, this idea is furthermore reinforced as we are told that after he tempted Eve in his serpent form, Samael was punished and that his punishment was to serve as Esau’s guardian angel. By this, you might say that his physical confrontation with Jacob isn’t out of any real care for Esau, but more so because he’s been forced to fulfil this role and his hatred for man run so deep that he’ll take any opportunity to fight one.
Other Midrash tells us about how some al is the most unique of angels, in that he possesses 12 wings, where other angels possess six. He’s also detailed as commanding armies of demons, most of which are his children with his spouse Lilith, as well as being a commander of angels or fallen angels.
The Zohar also gives us a glimpse as to how mortal men may have perceived the power of Samael, and in some cases, may have chosen to worship him. It stems from an idea within the Zohar that Samael and Lilith were once angels whose popularity grew so intense that they began to be worshipped as deities themselves in the days before the flood.
However, it’s also understood that the people recognized their power and only worship them so that they could do their bidding, finding them to be more morally flexible than God.
Today, those who believe in Samael and see his nature as evil seek to keep him away by not pronouncing his name. It is thought that by even mentioning him, one is attracting him.
Images Sources: Wikipedia, Jose Sebastian Murillo Diaz