Other predecessors of Satan in Israelite religion and the Hebrew Bible (Satan 3)

When reading the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. “Old Testament”) for historical purposes, it is important not to project back into its pages later developments in Judaism and Christianity, and this is particularly true in the case of “Satan”. Although there is no full-blown notion of personified evil in Israelite religion, there are indeed important messenger or angelic figures associated with Yahweh (“LORD”), God of the Israelites. Sometimes these figures could later on be associated with the notion of Satan as a thoroughly evil figure. (“Israelite religion” is the term scholars often use to refer to the religious life of the Hebrews before the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE, while “Judaism” is generally used in reference to developments following the return under Cyrus and foundation of the second temple in Judea, hence “Second Temple Judaism”). Here I want to briefly discuss three closely related, recurring figures associated with Yahweh’s (God’s) heavenly entourage or council: (1) “the adversary” (ha-satan), (2) the injurious, or evil, spirit (rucha ra’a) and (2) the “messenger” (mal’ak).

1) The Hebrew word for an opponent, prosecutor, adversary, or one who obstructs, satan, occurs in a number of places in the Bible, sometimes in reference to human opponents and sometimes in reference to a figure sent by God. In 2 Samuel 19:22 and in 1 Kings 11:14-25, for instance, the term satan is used of human adversaries of the protagonists (David and Solomon). In most other cases, it is a heavenly figure or messenger (mal’ak = Greek angelos) that God sends to act as an obstruction, adversary, or accuser (see, for instance the story of Balaam in Numbers 22, especially verse 22). The most well-known case of “satan” is the adversary among the “sons of God” (bene ha-elohim) in The Book of Job (chapters 1-2; seventh-fourth centuries BCE). This figure acts almost as a legal prosecutor in challenging Job’s piety and in letting loose severe treatment (e.g. killing all of Job’s 10 children) as a test, all with the active consent of God. The adversary is by no means an evil figure opposed to God in this story (online resources for Job here).

The closest we come to the notion of an angelic adversary (satan) going against the will of God and perhaps even needing to be stopped is in Zechariah (c. 520 BCE), where “the satan” is a prosecutorial figure against Joshua, and Yahweh “rebukes” the satan for accusing Joshua in this particular case (see Zechariah 3; also see 1 Chronicles 21:1, where a “satan” apparently opposes Israel, but with little clarification by the author). There is no indication that these angelic figures are inherently evil in an ongoing manner, however.

2) A recurring figure in the Hebrew Bible sent to do God’s work, either in opposition to or in support of humans, is the mal’ak, or messenger (translated in an ancient Greek translation of the Bible [LXX] as angelos and now often as “angel” in English). Thus, for instance, it is an angel of Yahweh that appears to Moses in a flame of fire (the burning bush) and an angel (as well as pillars of cloud or fire) that helps to guide the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery (Exodus 3:2 and 14:19-24). But we have already seen above that an angel can also serve God’s will in an oppositional manner, if necessary (as in Numbers). And there are passages which imply or state that an angel is involved as a “destroyer” on God’s behalf, as in the Passover incident (Exodus 12:23; cf. 2 Samuel 24:16).

3) Quite similar to the latter role of the messenger sent by God to cause injury is the “evil spirit” in the Hebrew Bible (especially in the so-called Deuteronomistic History, sixth century BCE and earlier). This figure, who is directly distinguished from the “spirit of Yahweh”, is sometimes sent by God to facilitate things happening in the way that God wants them to happen, sometimes inciting violence (see Judges 9:22-23; 1 Samuel 16:14-16; 18:10-11; 19:9-11; also see 1 Kings 22:19-22 for a “lying spirit”).

The most important distinction between these “satans” (including the one in Job), “messengers”, or “evil spirits” and the evil Satan figure of later apocalypticism is that the Hebrew Bible’s satans and angels are almost always acting in conjunction with the will of Yahweh, or God. They are almost always sent by God to be an obstruction or to act as an adversary or prosecutor against some person or persons.

However, even these same passages involving the Israelite God taking adversarial action against certain people could be interpreted differently by later Jews or Christians. This is the case with those in later centuries who did indeed hold a view of Satan as an evil figure opposed to God (such as Jubilees, where Mastema, Enmity personified, takes on some of these same roles, as we shall see later). With the full-blown, apocalyptic Satan, just about the only thing that is in accordance with God’s will is the existence of this figure, whose intentions are directly opposed to God but who unwittingly plays a crucial part in the unfolding of God’s plan (according to many ancient apocalyptic Jews and Christians).

I am indebted to Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy, pp. 107-123 (cited in full in the previous entry) for getting me going on analyzing the passages (I disagree somewhat with his take on Zechariah).

2 thoughts on “Other predecessors of Satan in Israelite religion and the Hebrew Bible (Satan 3)

  1. Ben Myers

    I’m delighted with this excellent series. And I’m glad you like Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy, which is a brilliant and vigorous historical study. Forsyth’s recent book about Milton, The Satanic Epic, also includes a condensed history of Satan in one chapter, which is a helpful summary.

  2. Pingback: Satan in the Old Testament at Undeception

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