N.R.M De Lange, Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 170.
E.g. Mekilta on Exodus xv.1 (Lauterbach ii.20): ‘and so you find that God will not eventually punish the kingdoms until he has first punished their ministering angels…’
I read my online Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (fourth century C.E., perhaps), and the context of the passage is as follows:
The Mekhilta is offering various interpretations of Exodus 15:1: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: ‘I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea'” (NRSV). One interpretation of “horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” is that God cast down the guardian angel of Egypt, who presumably was riding on a horse; then, God defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. The Mekhilta then cites biblical passages to argue that God will not punish the nations of the earth until after he’s punished their guardian angels:
Isaiah 24:21: “On that day the LORD will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth.” God first punishes the hosts of heaven, then he turns his wrath on the kings of the earth.
Isaiah 14:12: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” For the Mekhilta, this means that God casts down two beings. First, he casts a being out of heaven. Then, he punishes an earthly tyrant who laid the nations low.
Isaiah 34:5: “When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens, lo, it will descend upon Edom, upon the people I have doomed to judgment.” God will slaughter heavenly beings, then he will judge the nation of Edom.
When I was at DePauw, my New Testament professor described apocalypticism as a belief that earthly battles reflect battles in heaven. I didn’t really understand this at the time, but it makes some sense to me now because heavenly beings have an impact on earthly events. I’ve been watching Jimmy Swaggart’s series on biblical eschatology, and he states that Alexander the Great got his military ideas from a demonic power, who helped Alexander conquer much of the world. Based on Daniel 10’s references to the “prince” of the kingdom of Persia and the “prince” of Grecia whom the angel Michael had to fight (vv 13, 20), Swaggart concludes that the nations of the world have demonic entities supporting them.
At the first and only (so far) Society of Biblical Literature meeting that I attended, someone discussed the interpretation of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 in apocalyptic thought. The passage states: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.” Scholars of the Hebrew Bible refer to this passage to show that the existence of other gods was acknowledged in ancient Israelite religion: other nations belong to other deities, but Israel worships the LORD alone. But, in apocalypticism, the gods of the nations were interpreted as demons, meaning that, technically speaking, there’s only one God: the LORD, the God of Israel.
Within the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there’s a belief that spiritual powers influence what happens on earth. Whatever you call them–“gods,” “the host of heaven,” “demons”–they support and bless their nations’ imperialism and influence them to do evil. That’s why God sees fit to bind and punish forces in heaven before he goes after nations on earth.