Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament: Moses and Satan

At Faith-Promoting Rumor, we are inagurating a new series entitled “Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament.” In this series, our goal is to make the insights of secular scholarship regarding the Old Testament available to the you, our loyal readers. There is some discussion within church society regarding the relative worth of secular training; we are not seeking to replace revealed truth, but rather we are trying to provide a summary of current scholarly thought regarding the Bible and its history (both the history of the text and the history depicted within). As we are reading the Old Testament in Sunday School this year, we decided to relate these posts to the weekly readings from the Old Testament and the Pearl of Great Price that the church will be encountering this year. We’re calling it “Secular Sam’s Guide” because it sounded better than anything else we could come up with. We hope that you will find this helpful.

As modern scholarship has yet to seriously address Moses 1 from a literary-historical standpoint, I have decided to focus my discussion on some of the figures involved, rather than on the text itself.

The current historical status of Moses is mixed. Very few people are convinced that the Pentateuch, or the five books of Moses, represents history as it actually happened; at the same time, the majority of scholars feel that it would be unwise to consider Moses and all the stories around him entirely fictional. There have been some vocal proponents of these two extremes and, as a result of their extremity, they tend to get all of the press but most scholarship works under the assumption that there is a kernel of truth that can be uncovered through careful study.

Most of the argument revolves around what elements of Pentateuchal narrative are critical to understanding the formation of Israel. M. Noth famously suggested that references to Moses occurs “with striking infrequency” outside of the Pentateuch, ultimately theorizing that Moses himself was an editorial invention used to bracket together the various traditions about the foundation of Israel. This represents an extreme explanation of Moses’s role.

The reason that this position is considered an extremity is that there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to posit Moses’s non-existence. For instance, Moses’s name carries a meaning that is unknown to the Biblical author, leading him posit a definition based upon the Hebrew root masa, meaning “to draw forth”. However, it appears that Moses’s name implies a good Egyptian root, msy, meaning “to give birth”. It is the same root that is found in Rameses and Thotmosis. So, it appears to be a perfectly good Egyptian name, lending credence to the narrative of Moses’s origin. Furthermore, it remains mysterious why an ancestor would have to be invented to explain the formation of Israel when there would have been any number of actual ancestors to choose from.

Further arguments against the historicity of Moses tend to focus on the literary sources that have been wound together into the Pentateuchal narrative. Some scholars believe that the fact that certain sources have slightly differing depictions of Moses (as deliverer, cultic leader, or lawgiver, for instance) than this indicates that Moses was a figure whose history (assuming that there is some) is completely obscured by the ways in which his history has been narrativized. However, it appears again that the more reasonable approach is to assume that there is an actual historical figure behind these depictions. Since we are dealing with the reality of the foundation of a new, powerful religious movement, it behooves us to posit someone driving the religious movement. One must ask, as does G. W. Coats in his 1988 monograph Moses, Heroic Man, Man of God,

“whether a standing office has influenced the shape of the Moses traditions. Is the cultic office of covenant mediator the proper Sitz im Leben for this facet of the Moses tradition? Or was the tradition shaped basically by a popular literary process as a narrative convention for depicting the leader with at best only tangential contacts with the cult?” (138).

Since we know that other religious traditions are founded in the acts of charismatic leaders, it is not at all unreasonable to assume the same here. The story of Moses makes sense.

Now regarding Satan, let’s set aside all that we know for a moment and focus on what we can discern from the text. The primary meaning of the root stn is, as far as we can tell, “to accuse”, “to slander”, or “to be an adversary”. It is used 6 times as a verb in the Old Testament, mostly in the Psalms (38:21/Eng 38:20; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29) and once in Zechariah (3:1). There is no clear way to judge between these meanings in these contexts and there is a great deal of overlap in the meanings in any case. Although its usage as a verb might suggest that “to accuse” or “to slander” is a better primary meaning, when used as a noun, the picture becomes more ambiguous. For instance, David’s Philistine allies worry that he will become their adversary (satan) in 1st Samuel 29:4. Abishai, a member of David’s court, pushes for the execution of a man who has been disloyal and Abishai is branded an adversary for so doing. Perhaps most compelling is the case of the angel sent to stop the prophet Balaam from pronouncing prophecy regarding Israel in Numbers 22: 22,32. Here the angel, sent by God, is a satan. He isn’t sent to accuse or slander, but rather to obstruct.

The noun satan occurs 26 times in the OT. Seven times it refers to humans in this manner; the remainder refer to supernatural beings. Of those 19, all but three make use of a definite article (“the satan”). The one case where it appears to be used as a proper name is in 1st Chronicles 21:1, where Satan is said to inspire David to take a census. This is a repetition of a story found in 2nd Kings 24, where the inspiration for the census comes from Yahweh himself. The shift is interesting. Perhaps earlier there was a belief in Yahweh as the prime cause behind everything, good and bad, but later theological shifts resulted in the need for a secondary cause for evil. In the Job passages, the satan is present in the assembly of the sons of God and engages in a conversation regarding the relative worth of Job’s piety. There is no internal implication of God’s disfavor toward the satan here, merely an acknowledgement of the satan’s role as an accuser and tester of men. In Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan stands by the right hand of the high priest, Joshua in order to accuse him. However, he is rebuked by Yahweh, with a reminder that God has chosen Jerusalem and its people. The satan in these cases is clearly associated with sin, in tempting people with sin or in accusing others of sinning. Finally, it is interesting to note that the association of the serpent in the Garden of Eden with Satan appears to be a rabbinic innovation. There is nothing in the Old Testament that makes this connection directly.

I should also say that in writing the above, I have been paraphrasing, quoting, and probably plagiarizing the Anchor Bible Dictionary entries on Moses and Satan. Please feel free to assume that anything you find useful or interesting comes from that source, as that is likely the case.

  • Mogget

    Hm. You know, the idea that God is responsible for everything, good or evil, shows up as late as the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…” Translations in the romance languages usually deliberately obscure the point by use of the passive voice.

    But getting back to the real topic. Is it your thought, then, that a contest between Moses and the/a Satan is not all that farfetched, at least in general terms? I’m not seeing “Satan” as early as Moses, but then some of those stories undoubtedly pre-date the larger narrative in which they are embedded.

    And do we know anything about those two terms “grace” and “truth” as they’re used in Moses? Could they be hesed and ‘emet from the OT?

  • FaithHopeLove

    Token Layperson’s Interpretation:

    Are you suggesting in your penultimate paragraph that the serpent in the GoE is not Satan? (As in Lucifer.) Who would it be, then? An actual, talking snake?

    In your analysis of Moses, you say that “very few people” think that events happened as shown in Moses’s books. Are LDS people among those few? I’ve personally never encountered this concept – that it all might be figurative. I have, on the other hand, heard some odd stuff about the Garden and the events that transpired therein.

  • Mogget

    Pretty good, FHL. I like the “token layperson” line. I laughed out loud and scared Mogget, Jr. out of her nap.

  • John C.

    Regarding the status of a tradition of Moses encountering Satan, I think that if it existed, it seems to have existed primarily in the oral tradition. We do have the evidence from Jude, which indicates that there was a narrative concerning Michael and Satan disputing over the body of Moses, but we are uncertain about the source of the narrative, its scriptural authority, and its relevance to the material found in Moses (which, clearly, doesn’t directly involve Michael (yet).

    Attempts to see Satan as only a late phenomenon hinge on see the influence of Zoroastrianism as the catalyst that creates and fills the need for a devil. There is clear evidence for demons and such earlier (in Israel and cognate societies), but not necessarily for a lord thereof in balance with a good lord. That idea, according to scholars, comes from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persian empire (of which Ezra-era Judah is part), which features two eternally competing forces of good and evil. As the notation of the shift from 2 Sam 24 to 1 Chronicles 21 indicates, there was some debate as to who gets to influence events in the universe (you also find this in Exodus, where God keeps hardening Pharaoh’s heart). Everyone seems to say that God sets boundaries on the powers of Satan (see Job for instance), but there is some question as to whether that makes God ultimately responsible for whatever Satan does. That is a topic for another day, I am sure, but you see it reflected in the shift. With the arrival of Zoroastrianism, the dilemma is resolved by making Satan a permanent Lord of the Demons. I tend to think that the LDS position more closely reflects the ambiguity of the earlier position than the clear moral dualism of later Judaism.

    Regarding the semantic mapping of emet and hesed, it is hard to say. I think that the range covered by emet is broad enough to cover what seems to be intended in Moses 1. In other words, the semantic range of “truth” in 21st century American English everyday usage seems to involve primarily a judgment regarding the factual accuracy of some event or statement. This was also one of the primary semantic uses in ancient Hebrew, but there was more to it. As Jim F. pointed out, quoting ???, something wasn’t true in Biblical Hebrew; it was being true (much as the girl left behind remains true to her missionary). The root )mn (the ‘)’ indicates a glottal stop) from which emet comes can mean to be faithful or to support. “Amen” comes from the same root. This seems to indicate that truth, in the Biblical Hebrew sense, has as much to do with covenantal promise keeping as it has to do with accurate reporting of events.

    Hesed generally is translated (in the KJV) as ‘kindness’ or ‘mercy’. In that manner it maps well with modern ideas about grace (as produced in a non-monarchic system), but it is not for nothing that a different term is often translated ‘grace’ in the KJV (the product of a monarchy). That term is hen, which is also often translated ‘favor’. The difference between the two seems to be that hen is always given as a result of entreaty or with an implication of debt, whereas hesed appears to be given freely. One or the other of these probably becomes the basis for Paul’s approach to grace, which then becomes the catalyst for all modern discussion.

    Regarding the snake, I am not suggesting one way or the other regarding the status of the snake in the garden. Snakes, in and of themselves, appear to be neither good nor evil in the overall understanding of the Bible as they can cause problems (as in the garden) or they can solve problems (as in the desert, on the stick). In the Psalms, snakes are connected with the sea, which is a traditional source of chaos (a concept that Orson Scott Card borrows into his Alvin Maker series).

    What I should say, regarding the very few, is that most scholars believe that there is some history, some embellishment, and some interference by later editors and historians in the five books of Moses. Whatever it is in there that accurately reflects history, it has to be worked out carefully and thoughtfully. To some scholars it is a bit like trying to work out the history of Rome by watching Spartacus; to others it is like trying to work it out by reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire; and to others it is like reading the works of Roman historians. That said, all scholars know that people have a tendency to write about whatever interests them, to the detriment of other subjects. Meaning that we never get a full picture and, therefore, never know if we are getting a truly accurate one. Regarding what most LDS people think, I don’t know. In my experience, I think people tend to read the Bible literally until they get to something that they disagree with, at which point it “isn’t translated correctly”. Do with that what you will.

  • David J

    Michael and Satan disputing over the body of Moses, but we are uncertain about the source of the narrative


    I pulled out Steve Delamarter’s A Scripture Index to Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha to verify if there was anything on Jude 9, which mentions the struggle referenced here. I did a paper on Jude 14-15 and the pseudepigraphic “borrowing” (and canonical implications) a few years ago, so I remembered something about verse 9 coming out of the OTP. Sadly, I got two references from Delamarter, but neither of them line up well with Jude 9 (as far as I can tell). Here they read:

    OTP 1:962 (TSol 1:7): “He said to me, ‘Solomon, Son of David, take the gift which the Lord God, the highest Sabaoth, has sent you; (with it) you shall imprison all the demons, both male and female, and with their help you shall build Jerusalem when you bear this seal of God.’”

    OTP 2:262 (or, LAE 15:3): “And I said, ‘If he be wrathful with me, I will set my throne above the stars of heaven and will be like the Most High.’”

    So, the translators of these two books saw some form of parallel with Jude 9 from these two quotations, but I can’t see what they’re seeing. Does anybody see the connection?

  • David J

    One more thing: LAE oozes with Adam worship… so, was Adam a god??? ha ha ha…

  • John C.

    Perhaps just the idea that Satan (or his minions) is interacting with people is the connection?

    LAE = life of Adam and Eve?

    Also, ABD (the Anchor Bible Dictionary) associates Jude 9 with a possible ending for the Testament of Moses, which may or may not coincidentally be the Assumption of Moses. Unfortunately, the relevant sections of the story are missing from both stories and have to be reconstructed (an attempt is made in Bauckmann’s WBC commentary). He seems to believe that the story is an attempt to explain the ambiguity regarding the burial of Moses.

  • David J

    LAE = Life of Adam & Eve?

    Indeed. Sometimes it reads “VAE” when they stick with the Latin name: Vita Adam et Eva. Is that even Latin? Looks like Italian… Never had Latin. Too papist.

  • Ben S.

    “Never had Latin. Too papist.”


  • Mogget

    Comes of goin’ to a protestant school, dontcha know… Heretic.