Return of an Unclean Spirit

Matt.12:43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

The context is that Jesus has just been accused in Matt.12:22-32 of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul. And this story can be considered part of Jesus’ defence. As a parable, it does not have to be literal.

In the Old Testament sickness was caused by God (see also Why do OT and NT teachings on demons appear to differ? ), but (as we can see from the Gospel records) by the time of Jesus the Jews had come to believe that literal spirits caused sickness, and the Pharisees accusation is part of this. Part of the accusation was possibly that Jesus (unlike other people casting out demons) did not invoke any special name in order to exorcise the demons. For example, Josephus records how an exorcist named Elazar used the name of Solomon when casting out demons, and apocryphal Jewish texts such as Testament of Solomon contain many legends about how Solomon cast out demons.  This would explain why Jesus mentions Solomon.

…and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.  43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person..

The unclean spirit parable is directly connected to the mention of Solomon. We will see in a minute that the point of the parable is not that when Jesus casts out a demon the demon may return, but that the Pharisees, and (as in their stories about) Solomon, did not achieve anything when they attempted to cast out demons — firstly, since the mad person’s illness generally returned, secondly because Jesus is talking about the sickness of the whole nation.

Zechariah’s “spirit of uncleanliness”

There is normally no substantial difference between the terms “unclean spirit” and “demons” (see also What is the difference between “unclean spirit” and “demon”? ). However in this case the use of “unclean spirit” may be a reference to the only Old Testament (OT) use of the phrase “unclean spirit”  (וְאֶת־רוּחַ הַטֻּמְאָה), which occurs in a prophecy in Zechariah:

Zech.13:1 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. 2 “And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.

This text in Zechariah’s original context clearly is about idol worship.

The following text records a dialogue between rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai (the rabbi who snuck out of the siege of Jerusalem in a coffin and correctly predicted to Vespasian, the Roman general, that he would become emperor) and a Gentile.

A Gentile said to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: Certain things you (Jews) do resemble some kind of sorcery. A heifer is brought, it is killed and burned. It is pounded into ashes which are collected. If then one of you is defiled through contact with a corpse, he is sprinkled twice or three times and is told: You are clean. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai replied: Has a spirit of madness ever entered you? No, replied the other, Have you seen a person into whom such a spirit has entered? Yes. What does one do to him? he asked. The Gentile answered: Roots are brought and made to smoke under him, and water is splashed on him and the spirit flees. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: Do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying? This spirit (of madness) is also a spirit of uncleanness; as Scripture says, ‘I will cause the (mad) prophets of the spirit of uncleanness to pass out of the land’ (Zech. 13:2 (AT)). (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 4:7, translation per Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 1981 p.64)

or “The man defiled [by contact with a corpse] is also possessed of a spirit, the spirit of uncleanness, as Scripture says (translation per Philip S. Alexander, Textual sources for the study of Judaism p.80)

The first point here is that rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai cites Zech.13:2 as his starting point for what is an unclean spirit, which shows the importance of this unique OT passage for Jewish understanding of the phrase “unclean spirit”  ( וְאֶת־רוּחַ הַטֻּמְאָה  ). The second point is that when the Gentile had gone, Jochanan ben Zakkai indicates to his students that despite appearances, cleanness and uncleanness are only in the eyes of God:

When the gentile had gone, Rabban Yohanan’s students said: ‘Master you knocked him over with a straw, but how are you going to answer us? Rabban Yohanan replied: ‘By your lives! the corpse of itself does not have power to defile, nor does the mixture of ash and water of itself have power to cleanse, but it is a decree of the Holy One blessed be he. Num.19:2 (Philip S. AlexanderTextual sources for the study of Judaism  p.80)

Returning to Zechariah, we see that the uncleanness that will be permanently removed by the Messiah (i.e., by Christ) is the unclean spirit of false prophecy and idolatry.

Zech.13:1 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. 2 “And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.

This text in Zechariah’s original context clearly is about the Messiah cleansing Israel of false belief. Yet how does that apply to the parable of the return of the unclean spirit?

Matt.12:43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

The key problem with the cleansing of this house is that having evicted the unclean spirit, the house was “empty”. That was the experience of Jesus with his ministry – he could clean the house for a time, heal people, cure spirits of madness and epilepsy and so on, but unless the house was filled with something new, the house was just waiting to be broken into again.

And this is what the parable is about. It isn’t designed to teach that literal demons go looking for well swept empty souls to possess; it means that anyone who casts off old teachings, false teachings and superstitions has to fill their house with new teachings, fill themselves with Christ:

Eph. 3:19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Phil. 1:11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

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