Partly based on the association of “Satan” with accusation in Revelation 12:10, commentators have widely taken the Hebrew word to mean “accuser” or “prosecuting attorney” throughout the Hebrew Bible. In a recent essay in JBL, Ryan Stokes questions that conclusion. 

Instead, he claims that the word means “adversary” and specifically refers to adversaries that physically attack and harm. Rather than accuser, Satan is “YHWH’s Executioner.”

Stokes’s argument is strongest in his survey of the narrative uses of satan. The Philistines who want to send David home to Ziklag aren’t worried about accusations; they think David and his men will become a fifth column within the Philistine army, that he will become a “satan” in the course of the battle (1 Samuel 29:4). There is a similar usage of the word in 1 Kings 5:18 and 2 Samuel 19:22-24. The angel of Yahweh doesn’t accuse Balaam, but stands in his path as an adversary (Numbers 22:22).

The noun then “does not refer to an adversary generically but to an ‘attacker’ who intends to harm physically or kill another person,” sometimes in military contents (255). When used in a more technical legal sense, “executioner” is a better translation (Abishai wants to “execute” Shimei in 2 Samuel 19, not bring charges).

While still plausible, Stokes’s point is weaker when he comes to the Psalms. David complains that “in return for my love [my enemies] satan me, even while I make prayer for them” (Psalm 109:4). Stokes is correct that though the term refers to verbal attacks, it doesn’t necessarily imply accusation: “False and malicious speech can take a variety of forms” (258). He reads Psalm 109 in the light of Psalm 71, where the malicious speech takes the form of a plot to assault David physically. Perhaps. But there is no reason why Psalm 109 couldn’t be talking about slander and libel, an “assault” on David’s life because it is an assault on David’s reputation. In short, translating the verb as “accuse” makes as much sense of the context as Stokes’s interpretation.

The same, I think, goes for the use of the noun and verb in Zechariah 3. Stokes again takes the satan’s sataning as a physical assault on a defiled high priest, Joshua. Satan plays the role of executioner (264-5). But the element of accusation is not eliminated, even on Stokes’s interpretation. He refer to Exodus 28’s warning that the high priest will “bring guilt” if he comes near to minister without his robes of glory (v. 43), and comments: “According to Exodus 28, were a priest to approach YHWH clothed inappropriately, he would incur guilt and invite death. Zechariath seems to envision a scenario similar to the one warned against in Exodus, as he describes the priest Joshua standing guilty (‘avon) before the angel of YHWH and wearing filthy garments. . . . Joshua’s life is at stake, and the satan in this passage is the one who would take Joshua’s life were it not for the angel of YHWH’s intervention” (265). Let’s say that’s right; yet even if the satan is mounting a physical assault, his assault implies a claim about Joshua’s guilt. 

Several larger questions throw some doubt on Stokes’s proposal. First, linguistic: The fact that satan implies physical assault in some contexts (military ones, for instance) doesn’t mean that the word carries that same nuance elsewhere (in legal contexts). The word can have a lexical sense of “adversary,” while taking the sense of “adversary in battle” or “attacker” or “adversary at law” in different contexts.

Second, contextual: In the Psalms, David often imagines his struggles with his opponents as a legal and military conflict. The two zones of discourse overlap so that it’s not always easy to discover what form the actual attack is taking. 

Finally, theological: “Life” in the Bible, after all, is social as much as biological, and an attack on a person’s name is an assault on his person. If we start with that, then to satan is a lethal attack on a man’s “life,” whether it takes the form of a physical assault or a verbal accusation.

Stokes makes a convincing case that satan doesn’t simply mean “accuser.” His positive case for translating the word as “executioner” is not persuasive.

(Ryan Stokes, “Satan, YHWH’s Executioner,” JBL 133:2 (2015) 251-70.)

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