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The term belial (בְלִיַּעַל bĕli-yaal) is a Hebrew adjective meaning "worthless" from two common words beli- (בְּלִי "without-") and ya'al ( יָעַל "value"). It occurs twenty-seven times in the Masoretic Text, in verses such as the following:
Of these 27 occurrences, the idiom "sons of Belial" (בְּנֵֽי־בְלִיַּעַל beni beliyaal) appears 15 times to indicate worthless people, including idolaters (Deuteronomy 13:13), the men of Gibeah (Judges 19:22, 20:13), the sons of Eli (1 Samuel 2:12), Nabal, and Shimei. In the King James Version of the Christian Bible, these occurrences are rendered with "Belial" capitalised:
In modern versions these are usually read as a phrase:
In the Hebrew text the phrase is either "sons of Belial" or simply "sons of worthlessness." However "sons of" phrases are a common semitic idiom such as "sons of destruction" "sons of lawlessness".
The etymology of the word is traditionally understood as "lacking worth". Some scholars translate it from Hebrew as "worthless" (Beli yo'il), while others translate it as "yokeless" (Beli ol), "may have no rising" (Belial) or "never to rise" (Beli ya'al). Only a few etymologists have assumed it to be an invented name from the start. (Be′li·al) [from Heb., meaning "lacking benefit"; a compound of beli′, "not, lacking," and ya·‛al′, "be of benefit; be beneficial"]. The quality or state of being useless, base, lacking benefit. The Hebrew term beli·ya′‛al is applied to ideas, words, and counsel, to calamitous circumstances, and most frequently, to worthless men of the lowest sort—for example, men who would induce worship of other gods; those of Benjamin who committed the sex crime at Gibeah; the wicked sons of Eli; insolent Nabal; opposers of God’s anointed, David; Rehoboam's unsteady associates; Jezebel's conspirators against Naboth; and men in general who stir up contention. Indicating that the enemy power would no longer interfere with the carrying out of true worship by his people in their land, YHWH declared through his prophet: "No more will any worthless person pass again through you. In his entirety he will certainly be cut off."
The term belial appears frequently in Jewish texts of the Second Temple period (texts classified by Christians as the Old Testament pseudepigrapha and apocrypha. Also a large number of references to Belial are evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran from 1948.
In The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, one of the Dead Sea scrolls, Belial is the leader of the Sons of Darkness:
But for corruption thou hast made Belial, an angel of hostility. All his dominions are in darkness, and his purpose is to bring about wickedness and guilt. All the spirits that are associated with him are but angels of destruction.
In the Rules of the Community, God is found making a very prolific statement: "I shall not comfort the oppressed until their path is perfect. I shall not retain Belial within my heart."
The War Scroll and the Thanksgiving hymns both delve into the idea that Belial is accursed by God and his people, and shows how the existence of Belial in this world can be attributed to the mysteries of God since we can not know why he permits the dealings of Belial to persist.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, Belial is further contrasted with God. These are the Angel of Light and the Angel of Darkness. The Manual of Discipline identifies the Angel of Light as God himself. The Angel of Darkness is identified in the same scroll as Belial.
Also in The Dead Sea Scrolls is a recounting of a dream of Amram, the father of Moses, who finds two 'watchers' contesting over him. One is Belial who is described as the King of Evil and Prince of Darkness. Belial is also mentioned in the Fragments of a Zadokite Work (which is also known as The Damascus Document (CD)), which states that during the eschatological age, "Belial shall be let loose against Israel, as God spoke through Isaiah the prophet." The Fragments also speak of "three nets of Belial" which are said to be fornication, wealth, and pollution of the sanctuary. In this work, Belial is sometimes presented as an agent of divine punishment and sometimes as a rebel, as Mastema is. It was Belial who inspired the Egyptian sorcerers, Jochaneh and his brother, to oppose Moses and Aaron. The Fragments also say that anyone who is ruled by the spirits of Belial and speaks of rebellion should be condemned as a necromancer and wizard.
Belial is also mentioned in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The author of the work seems to be a dualist because he presents Belial as God's opponent, not as a servant, but does not mention how or why this came to be. Simeon 5:3 says that fornication separates man from God and brings him near to Belial. Levi tells his children to choose between the Law of God and the works of Belial It also states that when the soul is constantly disturbed, the Lord departs from it and Belial rules over it. Naphtali contrasts the Law and will of God with the purposes of Belial. Also, in 20:2, Joseph prophesies that when Israel leaves Egypt, they will be with God in light while Belial will remain in darkness with the Egyptians. Finally, the Testament describes that when the Messiah comes, the angels will punish the spirits of deceit and Belial and that the Messiah will bind Belial and give to his children the power to trample the evil spirits.
In summation, though a man be young or old, noble or poor, fornication bringeth upon men reproach from Belial, making themselves a laughing stock amongst the Sons of Men and derision with Belial.
And Manasseh turned aside his heart to serve Belial; for the angel of lawlessness, who is the ruler of this world, is Belial, whose name is Matanbuchus.—(Ascension of Isaiah 2:4)
The spelling found in most manuscripts of 2 Corinthians is actually Beliar (Βελιάρ) not Belial (Βελίαλ). This is the reading preferred by textual scholars and the change of -l to -r is attributed to a common change in Aramaic pronunciation.
The Jewish Greek Septuagint, later the Old Testament of the early Christian church, generally renders the "sons of Belial" verses in the Hebrew Bible either as "lawless men", by idioms "sons of the pest", rather than a personal name "sons of Belial.":
The Septuagint also avoids Belial in the singular so Shimei (2 Samuel 16:7) when he cursed David, "Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial" is rendered "you lawless man" (paranomos), and Hannah to Eli "Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial" is rendered "don't count your maidservant as a daughter of the pest" The Latin Vulgate and Syriac Peshitta Old Testaments in some cases follow the Greek, in other literalize as Hebrew. The single New Testament use is preserved "Belial" in Latin and Syriac.
The Talmud and rabbinical interpretation generally follow a non-supernatural view, an allegorical personification of evil, as with rabbinical interpretations of evil. The phrase "sons of Belial" from the Torah continued to retain currency.
BELIAL came last, than whom a Spirit more lewd
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak'd; yet who more oft then hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did ELY'S Sons, who fill'd
With lust and violence the house of God.
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of BELIAL, flown with insolence and wine.
Witness the Streets of SODOM, and that night
In GIBEAH, when hospitable Dores
Yielded thir Matrons to prevent worse rape.
... On th' other side up rose
BELIAL, in act more graceful and humane;
A fairer person lost not Heav'n; he seemd
For dignity compos'd and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas'd the eare...
Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type !
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in BELIAL's gripe:
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in't?
The 17th-Century German grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon mentions Belial, as does Aleister Crowley's Goetia (1904) and Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible (1969). In The Satanic Bible (The Book of Belial), Belial means "without a master", and symbolizes independence, self-sufficiency, and personal accomplishment.
In 1937, Edgar Cayce used the term "sons of belial" and "sons of the law of one" for the first time in one of his deep trance readings given between 1923 and 1945. Cayce was often referred to as the "sleeping prophet" who gave over 2,500 readings to individuals while in a deep trance state. While his definition of the sons of belial was consistent with the Hebrew meaning of "worthless" individuals focused on self-gratification, Cayce went on to use the term frequently to compare opposing human forces at work in pre-historical times related to the early development of Atlantis.
Popular culture contains many references to Belial; notably in the 1922 film Nosferatu, Philip K. Dick's novel The Divine Invasion, Graham Masterton's novel Master of Lies, Aldous Huxley's novel Ape and Essence, contemporary horror The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Dean Koontz's novel Phantoms.
In the role playing game Vampire: the Requiem, Belial's Brood is a covenant of vampires that serve Vice and evil forces, consorting with infernal spirits for power. Blizzard Entertainment's video game Diablo 3 has Belial in its storyline as the second boss in Act 2. There are definite Arabic tones for the art direction and setting. Belial in the Diablo 3 universe is known as the "Lord of Lies".