This past month, my daughter read Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. I had encouraged her to read it, since I had read it many years ago when I was younger. Yet after she finished it, I read it again in order to refresh my memory. Not only did it do that, but it inspired me to share a few thoughts with you.
To begin, the story centers upon a group of young school boys who are stranded on an uninhabited tropical island after their plane crashes and kills all of the adults. While the boys initially work together to build shelters, maintain a signal fire, and find food, everything quickly starts to fall apart.
The leader of the boys, named Ralph, focuses primarily on keeping the signal fire going in order to increase their chances of getting rescued. Jack, who initially submits to Ralph’s leadership, prefers to explore the island and hunt pigs. Eventually, two groups of boys are formed, one under Ralph’s leadership and the other under Jack’s.
Jack is able to earn the admiration and respect of most of the younger boys when his hunting party succeeds in killing an adult pig. Out of a growing fear of some unknown beast on the island, Jack places the head of the pig on a pike as a type of peace offering for the beast. When they depart, another boy named Simon remains behind, staring at the pig’s head.
This scene, perhaps, is the eeriest part of the story, and the first place where the phrase “Lord of the Flies” is mentioned:
The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned.
As Simon continues to stare at the head, he begins to have what can only be described as a strange spiritual experience. The pig’s head, the Lord of the Flies, speaks to him.
“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”
As Simon considers going back to join the group — which was now beginning to fall into chaos — the head mocks him:
“This is ridiculous. You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there — so don’t try to escape!”
As Simon begins to lose consciousness (presumably due to a seizure that he was having), the Lord of the Flies speaks to him one more time:
“I’m warning you. I’m going to get angry. D’you see? You’re not wanted. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island! So don’t try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else — .”
Ultimately, things on the island only continue to get worse, until there is nothing but war and killing between the two groups of boys. In a way, as the Lord of the Flies predicted, he and the boys had a lot of fun.
Yet as I finished reading, I considered the phrase “Lord of the Flies.” Where did it come from and what did it refer to? To answer that question, I actually had to go back to Old Testament Israel.
In the Old Testament, Baal or Ba’al (a Hebrew word meaning “Lord”) was a god worshiped by the Canaanites and other peoples living in the promised land when Israel invaded. While it is likely that there was only one Ba’al among the Canaanites (although they did have other gods), it is possible that there existed multiple Ba’als. An example of this is seen when the people of Israel are found guilty of worshiping “Ba’al of Peor” (the Lord of Peor) in Numbers 25:3.
Whether there was one Ba’al or multiple Ba’als, the Canaanites certainly recognized the existence of an overarching Ba’al named Ba’al Zebul. This name in the Hebrew is generally understood to mean “Lord of the heights” or “Lord of the high places.” Yet some scholars argue that it could even be rendered as “Lord who dwells on high.”
Now, when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they were commanded by God not to worship other gods, including the Ba’als. This led to conflict between the two groups, although some Israelites began adopting Canaanite religious practices (leading to even more internal conflict).
Interestingly, the Hebrew word Zebul (“heights” or “dwelling”) sounded quite similar to the word Zebub (“flies”). It appears therefore that the Israelites, in an effort to mock the Canaanite god, pronounced his name as Ba’al Zebub (“Lord of the Flies”). This mockery was only made stronger by the fact that, in the ancient Near East, flies were often associated with dung or manure. So, in a way, when the Israelites referred to Ba’al Zebub they were denouncing the Canaanite god as the “Lord of the dung heap.”
Evidence for this can be seen in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18. There, the Israelite prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al. Both sides are given a bull and are required to pray to their respective god for the sacrificial bull to be consumed by fire from heaven. When the prophets of Ba’al called for him to send down fire, they danced around hysterically, cutting themselves with knives in order to get Ba’al to hear them.
Elijah mocks them by saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
Elijah’s reference to Ba’al “relieving himself” would certainly have been understood as a demeaning jab at the Canaanite god. And it probably was not the first time that an Israelite made a connection between Ba’al and dung.
By the time Jesus several hundred years later, the name Ba’al Zebub morphed into the name Beelzebub. The reason for this is that Aramaic came to be used as the common language rather than Hebrew (although Hebrew was still used among the Jewish people). In Aramaic, the word Ba’al was rendered as Be’el or Beel.
Additionally, Beelzebub was no longer used as a reference to a Canaanite god. It had become a reference to Satan, or “the prince of demons.” This is seen in multiple interactions that Jesus had with the Pharisees, particularly when they accused him of using the power of Satan to cast out demons:
22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw.
23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”
24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”
25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.
26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?
27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.
28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
So, when we get to the New Testament era, the name Beelzebub (“Lord of the Flies”) refers to none other than Satan himself, the prince of demons.
As we consider the history of this name, it should help us to better understand what William Golding was trying to portray in his book. For instance, when Simon talks to the pig’s head he is actually speaking to the “Lord of the Flies.” Yet this name, since the time of Jesus, has only referred to Satan. Of course, given what the Lord of the Flies says to Simon, this makes perfect sense. Satan tells Simon that he was “close” in thinking that the Lord of the Flies was part of him. Instead, Satan reminds Simon that if he left to join the other boys he would meet him down there with them.
This statement becomes quite prophetic, for as soon as Simon arrives at the beach the other boys attack and murder him. While this is mostly done by accident, it is an unmistakable turning point in the story (the first time that human blood is shed by humans). In a way, Satan was quite correct in what he said to Simon. Down with the boys, where sinful hearts were unrestrained by either law or civilization, Satan would meet them. And when he did it would turn to blood and murder, or what Satan called “fun.”
In conclusion, as we reflect on the sinfulness of humanity we see the effects of Satan’s work. When he tempted Adam and Eve in the garden, our world became broken and full of evil. We ourselves became sinful and selfish, seeking to become our own little gods. And while Satan himself is not part of us, he is nonetheless present in this world. But where is he? I think the answer is simple:
He is where people live unrestrained from their evil desires. He is where people live in sin and lawlessness. He is where people engage in wickedness and call it “fun.”