Belial is a Hebrew word “used to characterize the wicked or worthless”. The etymology of the word is often understood as “lacking worth”, from two common words: beli- (בְּלִי “without-“) and ya’al (יָעַל “to be of value”).
Some scholars translate it from Hebrew as “worthless” (Beli yo’il), while others translate it as “yokeless” (Beli ol), “may he have no rising” or “never to rise” (Beli ya’al). Only a few etymologists have believed it to be an invented name from the start.
The word occurs twenty-seven times in the Masoretic Text, in verses such as the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 6:12), where the King James Version (KJV) translates the Hebrew phrase adam beli-yaal as “a naughty person”.
In the Hebrew text, the phrase is either “sons of Belial” or simply “sons of worthlessness”. Phrases beginning with “sons of” are a common Semitic idiom, such as “sons of destruction” or “sons of lawlessness”.
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. The Geneva Bible (1560) uses “wicked”, and at the Book of Judges 19:22 has the marginal note “Ebr [Hebrew] men of Belial: that is, given to all wickednes.” In the KJV these occurrences are rendered with “Belial” capitalised:
“the sons of Eli were sons of Belial” (KJV)
In modern versions these are usually read as a phrase:
“the sons of Eli were worthless men” (1 Samuel 2:12, NRSV and NIV)
“the wicked men of the city” (Judges 19:22, NIV)
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