Six winged Ser­aph (after Alexan­der Pushk­in’s poem Prophet), Mikhail Vrubel, 1905

Muse­um of Alexan­der Pushkin, Saint-Petersburg

The ter­ri­fy­ing crea­ture sinks its fangs into human flesh, felling its prey. The cam­era pans out. Oh god, the hor­ror — it’s a whole pack, and they’re lay­ing waste to mul­ti­tudes. Peo­ple fall to the ground, some writhing in pain while cling­ing to life, but so many already dead. The crea­tures keep on coming. 

These crea­tures aren’t hor­ror-film favorites — but maybe they should be. Read­ers, meet the seraphim. In this scene (Num­bers 21:6 – 9), God sends these ven­omous seraphim-snakes” to attack the Israelites wan­der­ing in the desert. Seraphim show up in anoth­er form in heav­en, with six wings, human hands, and the pow­er of speech (Isa­iah 6:1 – 6).

The mon­sters of mod­ern lore, Greek mythol­o­gy, and every­thing in between con­tin­ue to scare and delight us with their strange forms and thrilling sto­ries. But they’ve got noth­ing on the mon­sters of the Bible.

I’ve always been drawn to the mys­te­ri­ous and eerie – to tales of mon­sters. Encoun­ter­ing bizarre crea­tures shifts me into a space of imag­in­ing more of what lies beyond my realm of knowl­edge. When vam­pire and zom­bie shows are scary, it’s a good kind of scary — they offer a con­trolled envi­ron­ment for safe explo­ration of fear.

The Bible does no such thing. This is because the most ter­ri­fy­ing mon­sters of the Bible aren’t the ones God con­quers, bash­ing sea mon­sters on the head and help­ing Israelites slay giants. The mon­sters in the Bible that attack, injure, and kill the most peo­ple aren’t God’s oppo­nents — they’re God’s entourage.

For exam­ple, cheru­bim aren’t the hap­py, fat baby angels of Renais­sance paint­ings and Hall­mark cards. They’re men­ac­ing, winged hybrid crea­tures that guard sacred spaces. When that space is vio­lat­ed, all hell breaks loose. The Bible also fea­tures mind-alter­ing spir­its which God deploys to gaslight peo­ple (e.g., 1 Kings 22, 2 Kings 19:6 – 7), and plague demons march­ing into bat­tle in God’s infantry (Habakkuk 3:5). God’s demons get masked in trans­la­tion as nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na, but in sev­er­al cas­es we know their names from the lit­er­a­ture of ancient Israel’s neigh­bors. And don’t get me start­ed on God’s entourage of killer angels.

It would be con­ve­nient if we could explain away this astound­ing divine vio­lence. Sure­ly we can tie it up with a shiny the­o­log­i­cal bow. Maybe we could blame the human beings each time, and jus­ti­fy God sic­c­ing an array of mon­sters on peo­ple as being divine­ly inscrutable? 

No dice. That’s what’s so uncom­fort­able about these texts — though if you bear with me, you’ll see it’s also where I end up find­ing unique val­ue in them — there’s no way to look square­ly at what’s hap­pen­ing in them and make it okay. 

The wan­der­ing Israelites in that first scene were, at worst, express­ing doubt. God kills them for it. They lament­ed that they were dying in the wilder­ness — and, to be fair, they were. But God says, essen­tial­ly, I’ll show you death in the wilder­ness,” and sends an army of seraphim-snakes to poi­son them. Many peo­ple die, and for any­one who’s only in the ago­niz­ing process of dying, if they want to sur­vive they have to look up at a bronze ser­aph on a pole, a fig­urine of the very crea­ture God had just deployed against them. It’s quite a divine flex.

When vam­pire and zom­bie shows are scary, it’s a good kind of scary — they offer a con­trolled envi­ron­ment for safe explo­ration of fear.

Oth­er attacks by God’s mon­sters are just as hard to tie up with a pret­ty the­o­log­i­cal bow. A mas­sive angel extend­ing a super­nat­ur­al sword over all of Jerusalem threat­ens the entire pop­u­la­tion of the city with pesti­lence — even though its peo­ple are explic­it­ly named as inno­cent bystanders to King David’s wrong­do­ing. I’ve heard enough pious expla­na­tions of how God tells the angel to cease and desist at this point in the sto­ry. The sword-wield­ing, pesti­lence-shoot­ing angel has already tak­en out 70,000 inno­cent peo­ple at God’s com­mand (1 Chron­i­cles 21:11 – 16). Peo­ple tend to point to the book of Job as con­tain­ing prob­ing ques­tions of divine injus­tice (and we encounter a good num­ber of mon­sters there too). But there could be 70,000 such books stem­ming from this Chron­i­cles sto­ry alone. I imag­ine every one of those fam­i­lies feel­ing the pain, anger, betray­al, and shock that Job felt. 

Over sev­er­al years of writ­ing a book on bib­li­cal mon­sters, I spoke with count­less peo­ple who assumed this chal­leng­ing issue must be lim­it­ed to the Hebrew Bible. Far from it. Like replac­ing the drab under­world of the Hebrew Bible (She­ol) with eter­nal tor­ture in the flames of a new­ly con­ceived hell, the New Tes­ta­ment also ratch­ets up the vio­lence asso­ci­at­ed with most of God’s mon­sters. Take the cheru­bim, for instance. In the Hebrew Bible, they stand guard at the entrance to Eden, their stat­ues pro­tect gate­ways to sacred space in the taber­na­cle and tem­ple, and they ush­er God across the thresh­old of the tem­ple (Exo­dus 25:10 – 22; 1 Kings 6:23 – 35, 8:6 – 7; Ezekiel 10 – 11). In Rev­e­la­tion, they still guard cos­mic gate­ways, but now they use that posi­tion to ush­er the four horse­men through to rav­age the earth (Rev­e­la­tion 6:1 – 8). Soon after, they also hand plague-bowls over to angels to pour down on the earth and dec­i­mate mas­sive por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion (Rev­e­la­tion 15:7).

But as hor­ri­fy­ing as all of this is, it offers some­thing that the pret­ti­er, safer texts don’t. The Bible, as a rich anthol­o­gy reflect­ing diverse per­spec­tives, includes writ­ing that rejects any pos­si­bil­i­ty of a neat, pat world­view in which God will mag­i­cal­ly make every­thing fine. What’s more, they show a God respon­si­ble for mak­ing things very much not fine, even for the inno­cent. This, too, is part of bib­li­cal tradition.

It was dur­ing a peri­od of intense grief that I first began con­tem­plat­ing the mon­sters of the Bible. I had once looked for solace in the Bible’s more obvi­ous places — psalms of hope and reas­sur­ance, sto­ries of safe­ty and res­cue. I immersed myself in uplift­ing texts from my own Jew­ish tra­di­tion and from oth­er tra­di­tions. But reel­ing in bereaved shock, I found myself con­nect­ing more with a col­lec­tion of ancient voic­es rever­ber­at­ing with the acknowl­edg­ment that life is pre­car­i­ous, unjust, and at times monstrous. 

I love a good mon­ster movie or TV show, not just for that spooky flut­ter and cathar­sis, but for the recog­ni­tion that we live in a dis­turb­ing, incom­pre­hen­si­ble world. The Bible’s unset­tling mon­ster sto­ries express this too. The ancient writ­ers’ reflec­tions on what it is to live in a world of dan­ger, grief, and fear range from poignant to down­right hor­ri­fy­ing. These reflec­tions, even at their most imag­i­na­tive, val­i­date grim real­i­ties of the human expe­ri­ence. This Hal­loween, instead of tam­ing the Bible’s mon­sters and set­tling for a neater, flat­ter pic­ture, take a dip into the rich­ness of the ancient lit­er­a­ture and get up close and per­son­al with a mon­strous mem­ber of God’s entourage. 

Esther J. Hamori teach­es the pop­u­lar class Mon­ster Heav­en” at Union The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in New York, where she is a pro­fes­sor of Hebrew Bible. Spe­cial­iz­ing in bib­li­cal con­cepts of divine-human con­tact, and a life­long devo­tee of all that is eerie, she is the author of Wom­en’s Div­ina­tion in Bib­li­cal Lit­er­a­ture: Prophe­cy, Necro­man­cy, and Oth­er Arts of Knowl­edge, among oth­er works. She has a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East from New York Uni­ver­si­ty and an MDiv from Yale Divin­i­ty School.