One Subordinate Clause or Two?
The offered phrase suggests the last five Greek words of Lk.10:18 form one subordinate clause, that Jesus said Satan is like ‘lightning falling from heaven’ (i.e. Satan falls from heaven like lighting falls from heaven). Some English translations allow or may suggest this reading (e.g. NASB, NIV).
But what would that phrase mean, exactly? If it's just a poetic way of saying Satan is like ‘lightning flashing in the sky’, the simile is natural and simple, but ambiguous. Alternatively, if Jesus is drawing on the rich symbolism of these words (as commentators since antiquity are universally agreed), then the suggested phrase, as a single subordinate clause, is still extremely problematic.
Here's the problem: The singular image – lightning falling out of heaven (whether literally or figuratively) – has no biblical precedent. Lightning is never described in the Bible as ‘falling’ at all, and if it did, it wouldn’t ‘fall from heaven’. To 1st century minds the image combines two ancient symbols: 1.) lightning, a sign of divine presence and purity, and 2.) the ‘fall from heaven’ motif, in mythology the expulsion of a god or pretender from the divine realm, and then in literature a metaphor for the demise of arrogant rulers. Luke’s original readers would have found the unexplained coupling of lightning and ‘fall from heaven’ contradictory, an oxymoron more enigmatic than the simple simile. Again, the single clause reading is possible but full of confusion.
“I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (KJV)
This potential confusion is completely avoided by other English translations that point to Jesus’ more likely meaning. In the KJV, for example, the last five words of Lk.10:18 compose TWO subordinate clauses, not one: Jesus saw Satan ‘as lightning’ AND Satan ‘falling from heaven’. Those steeped in the culture of Jesus’ day would recognize the historical resonances of both ideas, individually:
In ancient Mediterranean mythologies, lightning symbolized the presence, power and judgment of the gods, just as it did in 30+ occurrences in the Hebrew Bible. The mountain and palace of Baal and of Yahweh were described as composed of ‘stones of lightning’,
1 and ‘lightning-bright’ (Heb. בָּרָק, baraq; Grk. ἀστραπή, astrapē) was descriptive in the Jewish and Christian scriptures of heaven, God, angels, other heavenly beings, Jesus, and the coming Son of Man (e.g. Ez.1:14; Dn.10:6; Mt.24:27, 28:3; Lk.17:24). Even when used poetically, lightning carried divine meaning; it was never just flashing lightning.
Equally ancient mythology (and its related astrology) provided the motif of the expulsion or ‘fall from heaven’ of a divine being (e.g. the god or goddess symbolized by the sun, moon, Venus, etc.). This storyline and much of its related symbolism were borrowed by Hebrew and Jewish writers;
2 e.g. Yahweh’s rebuke of the Council of El (Psalm 82), Isaiah’s reference to Helel ben Shahar (Is.14:12-15), and Ezekiel’s sarcastic laments adapting the legends of Athtar, Aqhat, and possibly El (Ez.28:1-19).
3 Referents are sometimes vague or inexact, but the shared mythic themes and vocabulary are clear. These continued to be leveraged centuries later in fantastic stories about the ‘fall’ and final end of rebellious angels (and their variously-named archangel leaders) in the demonology that developed within some streams of Second Temple Judaism (e.g. Watchers of 1 Enoch 10:4-6; War Scroll 1QM 1:10-15; Life of Adam and Eve 15:3-16:2; 2 Enoch 18). Even the latest of these recall imagery dating back to Bronze Age Canaan.
These stories, images, and symbols percolated through the culture and imagination, especially in apocalyptic literature. An example particularly relevant to our purpose was recently dated (in its original short form) to no later than 70 CE,
4 likely a few decades before the Gospel of Luke. The Second Book of Enoch drew on the prophetic and Watcher traditions cited above and presented, perhaps for the first time, an account that connected the ‘fall from heaven’ motif with both lightning and Satan (a name that does not appear in the LXX). The narrator described a tour of the levels of heaven during which God privately recounted to him the story of the creation and fall of Satan (18:3, 31:4) on the second day of Creation:
And from the rock [of lightning] I cut off a great fire, and from the
fire I created the orders of the incorporeal ten troops of angels, and
their weapons are fiery and their raiment a burning flame, and I
commanded that each one should stand in his order.
And one from out the order of angels, having turned away with the order that was under
him, conceived an impossible thought, to place his throne higher than
the clouds above the earth, that he might become equal in rank to my
power. And I threw him out from the height with his angels, and he
was flying in the air continuously above the bottomless. (2Enoch
According to Enoch, Satan and his rebel hosts were made from lightning and after rebelling were expelled from heaven. If this is the story (or tradition) informing Lk.10:18, the meaning of both parts of Jesus’ statement becomes clearer: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (KJV). In this reading, Satan didn’t just fall quickly or brightly or in some other way ‘like’ atmospheric lightning. He was, instead, expelled from heaven ‘as’ lightning. Once created and clothed by God in the heavenly substance (as humans were made of earth), Satan was now cast ‘out of heaven’ for his hubris, like all the other displaced gods and arrogant kings who also ‘fell from heaven’ in mythology and prophetic literature.
While we can’t know for certain whether Jesus or Luke knew 2 Enoch directly, of the at least four markers in Lk.10:17-18 that might indicate a literary precedent or influence – demons, Satan, lightning, and ‘fall from heaven’ – 2 Enoch 29 sounds all four (the often suggested inspiration Is.14:12 sounds only the last one).
5 Regardless, many apocalyptic teachers and writers of the period moved in this same circle of ideas, a cultural milieu in which the heavens declare the glory of God and the fall of Satan as lightning.
1 Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961), p.80.
2 W. Boyd Barric, BMH as Body Language (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), pp.84-86.
3 Note on Is.14:12-15 in The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation (Oxford University Press, 2004), p.813; also notes the likely mythic origins of the ‘sons of God’ and their ‘fall’ in Gen.6:1-4 (see link to 1 Enoch above).
4 Regarding the original, short recension (not the later, expanded Slavic form) Andrei Orlov states in his essay for Brill (2012): “none of the arguments against the early dating of the pseudepigraphon stands up to criticism” and “no convincing alternative to the early date has so far been offered” (p.106). He concludes, “2 Enoch can be placed inside the chronological boundaries of the second temple period, which allows us to safely assume a date ... before 70 C.E.” (p.116).
5 In Beale & Carson’s commentary, Pao and Schnabel (p.318) suggest the similarity of the passages in Greek is evidence Luke ‘echoes’ Isaiah. But the phrase ‘ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ’ (out of the heaven) that LXX Isaiah and Luke share also appears in 78 other verses in the LXX and NT not said to ‘echo’ Isaiah. That the ‘falling’ verbs of the two passages come from the same root strengthens the claim, but as demonstrated, the ‘fall from heaven’ motif is not unique to these two verses either. It remains that Isaiah lacks mention of lightning or Satan and is therefore unlikely to have been Luke’s primary referent.