The Satan of Western Christianity is the ruler of an evil cosmic empire in a constant struggle against the power and will of the Christian god. In the imagination of many Christians, this divine struggle between good and evil expresses nothing more than the struggles of their belief. On one side is the Christian god and those who side with him (the Christian). On the other, Satan, representing everyone else. Often times Satan will even be attached to certain sects of Christianity by competing or alternate sects, each claiming to be representing the will of the Christian god. The Christian preacher and cult-leader, Harold Camping, today regularly repeats that everyone who attends any Christian church is under the influence of Satan. (This claim will become null and void on May 21, 2011)
The image of Satan in the minds of those who have learned of this mythical figure from Christian sources comes from Hellenistic era and New Testament writings but primarily from later Christian doctrine and literature such as Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. This image of an adversarial enemy of YHWH certainly does not originate with the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, because even today in Judaism, Satan or ‘the satan’ is an obedient servant of God, doing God’s will.
“The Hebrew word “Satan” means “Hinderer.” To hinder someone means to hold him back, to try to prevent him from doing something. G-d created the Hinderer to give us work to do in this world. Satan is here to make things difficult for us, so we can overcome our evil temptations, and PASS the test. That is the purpose of Satan. Satan is an angel whose purpose has been determined by G-d.”
“Judaism does not view the word “Satan” with the same connotation as other religions. Satan in Judaism is not a physical being, ruling the underworld or hell. Rather, in the Torah, the word Satan indicates “accuser,”“hinderer,” or “tempter.” Satan is more an obstacle in one’s way, such as temptation and evil doings, keeping them from completing the responsibilities of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Satan is our evil inclination to veer off the path of righteousness and faithfulness in God.”
In the majority of Hebrew biblical sources, the term ‘the satan’ describes an adversarial role, not the name of a mythical being. In the Post-Exilic world of the sixth century BCE, Jewish writers began introducing this character whom they called ‘the satan’. The Hebrew word satan, as shown above means ‘hinderer’ or ‘one who opposes or acts as an adversary’. ‘The satan’ is sent by YHWH to challenge the Hebrews to do the right thing, to overcome their own evil desires.
Early Hebrew biblical writers adhered to the Classical or Prophetic belief and attributed prosperity to obedience, and evil, oppression and misfortune to disobedience or sin, after all YHWH was in charge of everything.
I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
“And it came to pass on the morrow, that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul” (1 Samuel 18:10)
“And there came forth the spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said: I will entice him. And the LORD said unto him: Wherewith? And he said: I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And He said: Thou shalt entice him, and shalt prevail also; go forth, and do so”. (1 Kings 22:21-22)
“He sent forth upon them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.” (Psalms 78:49)
The author of Numbers 22, writes that the angel of the Lord stood as an obstruction in the road blocking Balaam’s path.
“…and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for >an adversary< (satan) against him” (v. 22)
The Deuteronomistic Historian, thought to be responsible for Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings uses the word “satan” a number of times.
“and the princes of the Philistines said unto him: ‘Make the man return, that he may go back to his place where thou hast appointed him, and let him not go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become >an adversary< (satan) to us” (1 Samuel 29:4)
“And David said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah, that ye should this day be >adversaries< (satan) unto me?” (2 Samuel 19:22)
“But now the LORD my God hath given me rest on every side; there is neither >adversary< (satan), nor evil occurrence.” (1 Kings 5:4)
“And the LORD raised up >an adversary< (satan) unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (1 Kings 11:14)
Later writers did, on occasion, invoke the satan, who acted only on YHWH’s orders, with his permission. In the biblical game of fate known as the Story of Job, the human hero, Job, is nothing but a pawn in a much larger cosmic game. It should be noted that in the Book of Job, the satan, one of the ben ‘elohyim or sons of God, does not bring up the first mention of Job. YHWH is the first to mention Job’s name with pride. Here Satan fulfills his role as one of the divine council, the adversary, with the intention of testing Job, for Job’s ultimate benefit, at least according to the story. The character is mentioned 14 times in 11 verses between Job 1:6 and 2:7 and is not mentioned again in the book of Job. He simply provides a set-up for the story and then disappears.
The Chronicler attempts to condemn King David’s actions of taking a census for the purpose of instituting taxation, without condemning this great mythical king of the past directly. He attributes the actions of David to falling prey to the satan. “And the satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.” (1 Chronicles 21:1) It is interesting to note that the earlier Deuteronomistic Historian, in 2 Samuel 24:1-17, attributes these same actions to YHWH himself, “the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Judah” (v. 1).
Zechariah depicts the satan inciting division among the people. “And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and the satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.” (3.1)
Wealthy and educated Jews coming home from exile during the Persian period sought to re-establish their dominant place in society. Those left behind were not anxious to welcome back that authority. It is here where the satan appears to begin making a slow transition from a loyal servant of God to a more shady character as he is associated with the less influential remnant of the populous, those suspicious of the group returning from exile.
In 168 BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, suspecting resistance from the Jews, became determined to wipe out their tribal culture. He outlawed circumcision along with the study and observance of Torah, under the penalty of death. He desecrated the Jewish Temple by offering pigs on the altar and rededicated the temple to Zeus.
Many of the upper class of the Jews was interested in the Hellenistic society of Antiochus. By foregoing their tribal ways and becoming a Greek city, they had the potential to be self-governing, to strike their own coins and to take advantage of Greek commerce and connections.
The less influential Jewish tradesmen, artisans and farmers saw those entrepreneurial Jews as traitors both to YHWH and to Israel. Thus began the Maccabean Revolt which eventually led to the ousting of the Seleucids and the first, but short-lived, period of Jewish self-rule. The subsequent re-dedication of the Temple is still celebrated by Jews today as Hanukkah.
The Hasmonean family took control of the priesthood. Within a few generations, the Pharisees, backed by the tradesmen and farmers challenged the Hasmoneans who had in their eyes, once again abandoned Israel’s traditional ways. With at least two diametrically opposed sects of Judaism, both of these groups could not possibly be obedient to YHWH. These dissidents began visualizing their opponents not as enemies from afar, but from within. They denounced their opponents and accused them of being seduced by the satan, or Satan and claimed that they had become an obstruction to doing YHWH’s will.
During this time of Hellenistic influence, the ‘Book of the Watchers”, later included in the “First Book of Enoch” begins, for the first time, to tell Jewish stories of fallen angels and their leader Semihazah. An alternate writing tells of Azazel who brought about violence, greed and lust. These stories reflected the socio-political climate of the era more than they did any true cosmic rebellion. It should be noted that there is no fall of Satan or angels in the Hebrew Bible. This is a syncretic dualistic perspective influenced by both Persian and Greek world-views.
Christians will often claim that the fall of Satan is found within the Old Testament, but this is simply an intentional Christian misinterpretation of Hebrew texts. The context of that passage makes it clear that this is wrong. It was first inserted by Jerome in his Latin Vulgate of the 5th century and is the only reference to the word “Lucifer”, which he added to the text and which then carried over into Textus Receptus and the English King James Version.
“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12 KJV)
However, in context, a few verses earlier makes it clear that this statement is meant to describe a Babylonian king.
“That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!” (Isaiah 14:4)
Isaiah 14:12 then describes the decline of this king as follows:
“How art thou fallen from heaven, O day-star, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, that didst cast lots over the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12 JPS)
The Christian version of the fall of Satan comes from 1 Enoch, not from the Hebrew bible.
The “Book of Jubilees”, written around 160 BCE, urged Jews to separate themselves from gentile ways, and goes on to associate their own intimate enemies with Mastema, Satan or Belial. It employs the fall of the angels from The Book of the Watchers as a cipher for those who have abandoned the ways of YHWH.
The more radical apocalyptic separatists, the Essenes, relayed the strife between themselves and those who opposed them as a divine struggle. They claimed that dark forces had taken over YHWH’s community. In their apocalyptic writings, they would side with YHWH while those who had been taken over by these unseen evil forces would wage war against them, and lose. This would usher in a new era where they would be given the responsibility of priesthood and control of the Temple. One of the writings found at Qumran is the “Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness” or “The War Scroll”. They considered themselves to be the Sons of Light, of course. They were apparently wiped out by the Romans around 68 CE.
This “Intertestamental Period”, so called by Christians, is a very important and interesting era in Jewish history. With various sectarian beliefs, it was no longer simply enough just to be Jewish; one also had to be a member of the right sect. This ‘demonization’ of one’s most intimate enemies, one’s fellow Jew, was carried right through into the first century CE but with the Roman defeat of the Saducees and the Essenes, it was ultimately rejected by Rabbinic Judaism. It was picked up by early Christians and has been used ever since as a tool to separate the self-proclaimed “chosen”, or “elect”, from everyone else.
This demonization continued through the Christian Gospels against the scribes, the Pharisees, the elders, even against Jesus himself, and ultimately Judas and “the Jews” as a people in the Gospel of John. Satan was then attached by early Christians to the pagans and then later to various other Christians deemed ‘heretics’ in the Common Era.
At some time around the end of the first millennium BCE, the satan or Satan, went from being an imagined obedient servant of YHWH, a member of the divine council faithfully performing his difficult but necessary function of pushing Jews to be better people, and was transformed into Satan, the Prince of Darkness, the arch-nemesis of God himself. In reality, the satan, or Satan, is simply a struggle of theodicy; an attempt to rationalize the existence of a loving, benevolent deity in a world filled with ugliness, suffering and corruption.
Once again, in Judaism even today, the satan or Satan is an obedient servant of God, no different than the angel of death, a divine being with an intended purpose. It is a dirty job for sure, one that Mike Rowe would certainly include in his television show, but a job that was created and required by God to facilitate the conquest of one’s own evil inclination. We live, we grow. We fail, we grow. We succeed, we grow.
Just as Satan was attached to those who opposed early sects of Judaism and then those who opposed Christianity, and later still against those who opposed Islam, he continues to be, and will continue to be used to personify an imagined enemy for those who claim to speak for God.
Yet he is nothing more than a fignewton of the imagination.
Ain’t that a kick in the head?