Beli’al also comes into other Biblical passages; at a time of distress, the Psalmist says, “the floods of Beli’al assailed me” (Psalm 18:5).
But who was Beli’al?
Some post-Biblical works, like the Book of Jubilees, think the name is the personification of an accuser like Satan, but rabbinic commentary usually takes it as a combination of b’li and ya’al – “without value, worthless”. The phrase “son of Beli’al” then means “scoundrels”; some versions translate it “base fellows”.
The Talmud, however, suggests that the name is from b’li and ol – “without a yoke” (Sanh. 111b), and this is the view of Rashi (on Deut. 13:13). He explains b’nei beli’al as shepar’ku ullo shel Makom – “people who have thrown off the yoke of the Almighty”.
His logic says: if you throw off religious restraints, you will not be morally reliable. Not only will your own deeds be morally questionable, but you will lead others into iniquity.
The Psalmist says, “The scoundrel says in his heart, ‘There is no God’; (hence) they are corrupt, they have done abominable deeds” (Psalm 14:1). The sages say, “No man deals falsely with his neighbour unless he first denies God” (Tosefta Sh’vuot 3:6).
My teacher, Isidore Epstein, was asked how he could argue that ethics needed religion. He replied that a world which had been fructified by religion will still have a sense of ethics for some generations, but eventually the breakdown of religion will lead to a breakdown of ethics too, like a steam train which still continues to run for a time after the steam has been turned off. And he added, “without the driving force of religion, stoppage is inevitable” (The Faith of Judaism, 1954 ch.2).