Wait, that’s (not) in the Bible?! Satan and Evil

Wait, that’s (not) in the Bible?! Satan and Evil April 26, 2009

In much of the modern Judeo-Christian tradition, including LDS Christianity, Satan is seen as the personification of evil, a being who purposely defies God and attempts to thwart his plans for the world.[1] Because Satan is such a prominent figure in especially the Christian tradition, it is quite shocking that the notion of this archenemy to God is not really found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, and doesn’t clearly appear until the intertestamental period (i.e., the period between the writing of the Old and New Testaments).

The semantic range of the Hebrew word śāţān is broad, but the best equivalent in modern English seems to be “accuser,” with “slanderer, (one who acts as an) adversary” as a secondary (and often complementary) meaning. The word śāţān appears in the Hebrew Bible to refer to both humans and heavenly beings. For instance, David is referred to as a śāţān, in this case meaning an “adversary,” to the Philistines in 1 Sam. 29.4, since the Philistine rulers worried that David and his mercenaries would switch allegiances when they fought in company with him against Saul and Israel. Other references to human “satans” include Abishai, a member of King David’s royal court, in 2 Sam. 19.23, and to military enemies (or better, lack of military enemies) of Solomon in 1 Kgs. 5.18. Additionally, Yahweh himself raises up two human “satans”—again referring to military adversaries—against Solomon in the persons of Hadad of Edom (1 Kgs. 11.14) and Rezon from Syria (1 Kgs. 11.23, 25). Finally, in Ps. 109.6 the author of the Psalm makes reference to a human śāţān who acts as a prosecutor in the context of legal imagery.

There are, however, references to heavenly “satans” in the Hebrew Bible. There are 19 occurrences of the noun śāţān in the Hebrew Bible in reference to heavenly “satans.” In 16 of these 19 occurrences, the word śāţān is used with the definite article, meaning “the śāţān” (Hebrew haśśāţān). The word śāţān in these instances is thus not a proper name of a specific person, but rather refers to a being who acts in a certain role. The most prominent example of this is, of course, found in the book of Job. Here haśśāţān is a full-fledged member of the heavenly court who presents himself before God in his heavenly abode with the other members of the divine council, i.e., the “sons of God.” Here haśśāţān dialogues with the God of Israel (and it is God who initiates the conversation) in his council and God grants him permission to test Job by killing his children, inflicting Job with boils, and killing his livestock. In this story haśāţān is not an antigod or the personification of evil, but rather is a member of God’s court and performs his labors under his direction. The other instance of haśśāţān is found in Zech. 3.1-2, where “the accuser” stands by the Angel of Yahweh while he accuses Joshua the high priest.

There are thus three instances left in the Hebrew Bible where śāţān is used without the definite article. However, in two of these instances the being referred to as a śāţān is the Angel (better: Messenger) of Yahweh himself. In the story of Balaam and his talking donkey, the Angel of Yahweh acts as a śāţān (Numbers 22.22, 32), or “adversary/accuser,” to Balaam, and rebukes him for his actions. Obviously in this instance, the heavenly śāţān, the Angel of the Lord, is not an enemy to God at all. The only other instance of a heavenly śāţān who is described without the use of the definite article is in 1 Chr. 21.1. This, then, would be the only instance in the Hebrew Bible where śāţān might be used as a proper name for a heavenly being. This passage reads in the NRSV as follows: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.” Here “Satan” incites David to conduct a census for Israel. However, there are two complications concerning this passage. The first is that the passage might just as easily be translated without the definite article as “a satan stood up against Israel…” [emphasis mine]. The second complication is that in the parallel account of this story in 2 Sam. 24.1, it is Yahweh who incites David to take the census, and not Satan/a satan at all! 2 Sam. 24.1 reads: “Again the anger of the LORD [Yaweh] was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.’” If these passages are to be harmonized (rather than simply to stand in contradiction with each other), does this mean that it is Yahweh himself who is (a) śāţān?

Thus, in all of these references to a śāţān figure in the Hebrew Bible (whether with or without the definite article), the sense seems to clearly be that śāţān is a certain role, title, or function, and does not refer to any specific being who is the personification of evil as later developed in some segments of Judaism and Christianity. The earliest historical evidence for śāţān as a personal name does not appear until the intertestamental period in the books of Jubilees (23.29) and the Assumption of Moses (10.1), both of which date to around the beginning of the second century B.C.E. (i.e., ca. 170) (however, the name śāţān appears less frequently than do the names of other evil chief demons, such as Mastema or Asmodeus). Moreover, at Qumran śāţān never appears as a proper name; instead the name of the chief demon is Belial/r (a name also found in the New Testament). It is also interesting to note that it is not until this period that the serpent of the Garden of Eden story is identified with Satan (e.g., 2 En. 31.3). It seems, then, that the proper name Satan only became popular at a later period. The New Testament, for instance, uses the proper name Satan in reference to God’s evil archenemy some 35 times, and it is likely because of the pervasive influence of the New Testament that Satan is the word now in common use in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition to refer to God’s archenemy (although the New Testament also refers to Satan as Beelzebul, Beliar, and Apollyon, among other epithets; Lucifer didn’t become a popular name for Satan until the Middle Ages when the originally two separate traditions of Luke 10.18 and Is. 14.12 began to be read together).

For the ancient Israelites there was thus no well defined concept of an Evil One who stood in complete opposition to God, who was the source and personification of evil in the world, and who enticed persons to sin. Rather, in the Hebrew Bible, although evil was seen as existing primordially as represented by the darkness and chaotic waters in the account of creation in Genesis 1, God himself could be seen as the author of “evil,” calamity, and illness (see, for instance, Is. 45.7; Jer. 4.6; Amos 3.6; Mic. 2.3; Eccles. 1.13; and Job 2.10). It is often lamented that God has brought calamity upon humans when they suffer (e.g., 1 Kgs. 17.20; Job 9.17-18; 13.24; 16.7-14; 19.21-22; Ps. 39.10; 51.8; 60.1-3; Lam. 3.1-16). As was seen in our discussion of the book of Job just above, “God directs evil through the mediation of supernatural beings who afflict, deceive, bring harm, and do evil in general at God’s command” (see also 1 Sam. 16.14-16; 1 Kgs. 22.19-32; Ps. 78.49).[2] So while there are some slight indications that evil could be associated with a heavenly being in the Old Testament (e.g., Is. 14.12-15; Ez. 28.11-19), for the vast majority of the Hebrew Bible such a notion is almost entirely absent.


[1] For this post I have utilized throughout Victor P. Hamilton’s article “Satan” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), ed. David Noel Freedman, Vol. 5, pg. 985-989; Hector Ignacio Avalos’s article “Satan” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, pgs. 678-679; Jeffrey B. Gibson’s article “Satan” in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), ed. David Noel Freedman, pgs. 1169-1170; and Samuel A. Meier’s article “Evil” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, pgs. 208-209.

[2] For this quote see Samuel A. Meier’s article “Evil” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, pg. 208.

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