Why do we believe…such wonky things about Satan? (Part 1)

During my exegesis of Job I studied in detail the nature, power and figure of Satan.  This led me to make the statement that, “Satan is a loyal servant, serving at the pleasure of God and doing his job by accusing Job.” This pissed some people off and I’m sure many found the concept abhorrent if not borderline heretical.  In this post I will present an excerpt from my paper on Job 1:6-12 and in my next post I post additional thoughts on the satan, the demonic, spiritual warfare and its place in contemporary Christianity. I will leave in my references and if anyone wants to read these sources themselves I will provide you with the full titles of the texts I used.

There is much confusion surrounding the Hebrew words הַשָּׂטָ֖ן  here in Job.  Literally translated this phrase means  “the satan” and it deserves more study.

It is incredibly tempting for modern readers to anachronistically read later theological developments regarding the Devil back into this passage.  Many texts regrettably capitalize the word here and drop out the definite article; we read “Satan” when what is really written is “the satan.”  This creates connections that the text itself never supports. (Balentine 53, Tur-Sinai 33 and 38, Gordis, 14)  The author(s) of Job could not have used this phrase to represent a concept that would only develop centuries later but this phrase originally must have meant something to them. What concept or idea is the text describing here by its use of the satan? What is a satan, what is the role of a satan, and what is a satan doing in Heaven talking to the LORD?

As a noun, a “satan” is, “a common noun that designates an adversary or opponent and is used both of an enemy in a military context and of a legal opponent in a judicial context.” A “satan” is a generic noun and not a personal name. (Page, 449)  Additionally, Dr. Habel points out that, “The verbal root  שָׂטָן  does not refer to an action which is necessarily evil but to the behavior of one who opposes or challenges another party.” This is an important nuance not to miss if we are to understand the satan here in context. (Habel, 89) While this word clearly has an adversarial sense one should not automatically assume an evil or malicious sense. Just as a District Attorney may be “against” the defendant and bring an accusation, this does not mean a District Attorney is evil, unethical, or unjust. In fact, a District Attorney may in fact be a very loyal, just and trustworthy public servant, and acting as an adversary against a person they are convinced is guilty might be an expression of these very qualities.

In terms of this word’s usage in the Bible, Balentine provides this exhaustive account of its uses in both noun and verb forms:

  • Within the Bible the verb “satan” occurs six times in the Hebrew Bible (Pss 38:20 [MT Ps 38:21]; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29; Zech 3:1). Five of the six occurrences are in lament psalms, which refer to human opponents of the righteous, who “accuse” or act adversarially to defame character or bring duress. Only in Zech 3:1 is the verb used with reference to the activity of “the satan.” The noun “satan”, “accuser, adversary,” occurs twenty-six times in the Hebrew Bible. Of these, seven refer to earthly satans (1 Sam 29:4 (David); 2 Sam 19:22 [MT 19:23] (Abishai); 1 Kgs 5:4 [MT 5:18] (an anonymous military adversary of Solomon); 11:14 (Hadad); 11:23, 25 (Rezon); Ps 109:6 (an anonymous accuser of the psalmist). Nineteen of the twenty-six occurrences refer to celestial satans. Sixteen of the nineteen, including all of the references in Job 1–2, use the noun with the definite article, that is, “the satan.” The three exceptions are Num 22:22, 32 and 1 Chr 21:1. (Balentine, 53)

The word satan is used in the Bible to refer to both human and spiritual beings that act as an enemy or adversary. Here in Job it appears we are dealing with a spiritual or celestial satan so it is important to examine the other examples of celestial satans more in-depth. First, I will examine the verses where satan is used without the definite article before turning to the ones where satanis connected with a definite article.

In Numbers 22:22 we find the story of Balaam and his donkey.  En route to curse Israel Balaam is interrupted when God sends an angel, “and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary (לְשָׂטָ֣ן ) against him.” (Num 22:22 NAS)  This passage does not refer to the angel as the Devil or Satan, nor does it even suggest the angel is a satan, but describes an event where an angel was sent to fulfill the role of a satan.

In 1 Chronicles 21:1 we find a passage where the celestial satan appears to tempt or incite a human to evil.  “Then Satan (שָׂטָ֖ן ) stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” (1Ch 21:1 NAS) This numbering of Israel, a census of some sort, angers God, who subsequently allows David to pick the punishment Israel is about to receive for this sin.  Here what is literally described is “A satan stood up against Israel…” but many translations take this as a proper name.  From its immediate context, the nature of this satan is unclear.  It is not even clear this is a celestial satan at first glance.  Could this have been a human enemy or agent with nefarious motives who tempted David to do something the LORD would not like?  Only by examining its parallel passage can this be made clear.  In 2 Samuel 24:1 the same story is recounted but it is the LORD who incites David to take an action that would result in Israel’s punishment.  It appears that in this story something divine tempted or incited King David to an act that was deserving of punishment.  Most commentators assume this is referring to a celestial satan.

From these two examples not much can be said.  In the first example some divine figure is sent to act as a satan to Balaam and is invisible to this prophet-for-hire before the LORD opens his eyes.  In the second example a satan takes an action that is elsewhere ascribed to the LORD.  Who really incited David to take a census?  Was it God?  Was it God via an angel or emissary known as a satan?  Was it Satan, the eternal enemy of God, who tempted David without God’s permission or knowledge and God punishes David for falling into temptation?  Was the record in Samuel mistaken?

More is needed and I will now examine the instances where satan is connected with the definite article.

When this word appears with a definite article it appears that this phrase denotes a role or title, not the proper name of a celestial being. (Habel, 89, Tate, 462)  One would not say “the Jesus,” but one would say “the Messiah.” Most commentators, arguing from the verbal use of satan, understand this title to be given to one whose job description involved accusing or acting adversarially to someone else. Balentine  states that “the satan” is, “the heavenly being whose designated role in the divine council is to serve as a kind of prosecuting attorney who brings charges against another in the court,” and many commentators agree with this description. (Balentine 52, Habel 89) However, some have noted that depicting the satan in Job as a sort of divine district attorney or prosecutor breaks down in the narrative.  Prosecutors usually do not accuse people who appear innocent nor do prosecutors test such persons through heinous assaults on their person and property as the satan in Job does. (Page, 450)

To fully understand what concept is being called to mind by the writer(s) of Job, some begun to look to the Persian influence on the writer(s) of Job. Dr. N.H. Tur-Sinai suggests that the role of a satan found here in Job and elsewhere, notably in Zechariah, was modeled after an office within the Persian empire. (Tur-Sinai, 38-45) In the culture of the day the monarchs often employed agents who acted as secret police or special emissaries who would canvass their own nations to clandestinely observe and eventually report back to the monarch on the behaviors and loyalties of the nations own citizens. They were not external spies, used against other nations, but internal spies keeping an eye on their own subjects.

The Persians where apparently especially famous for this and were even to the point where their efficacy of their intelligence network was noted by Herodotus, a Greek historian. This is not surprising as the Persians had to be good at this. Many conquering nations had stretched themselves too thin in the Ancient Near East and after conquering many people groups did not have enough loyal troops to maintain and enforce their rule and ward off external attack and internal rebellion. The Persians allowed for some a level of local autonomy and self-governance almost like vassal states that were run under satraps or local governors.  In this situation, it was extremely important to make sure vassals were not secretly planning a rebellion and dissent was not fermenting unchecked. These secret emissaries, who were aptly referred to as the “eyes and ears of the king,” roamed the expansive Persian empire as a safeguard against inner turmoil.

Tur-Sinai suggests that the eyes in Zechariah 4 the satan here in Job, are modeled after this office. The Hebrew authors were connecting the eyes in Zechariah and the satan  with the “eyes and ears” of the Persian King by their shared behavior of roaming.  Where “the eyes and ears” of the King roamed the Persian empire for the Persian king,  the LORD’s eyes and the heavenly satan roam the world for the LORD. There are a number of reasons I am apt to agree with this suggestion.

First, Tur-Sinai furthermore argues from the fact that שׂ and שׁ  (two Hebrew letters) could and were used interchangeably in the Hebrew language. From this he suggests that what was originally intended here was not satan (lit: the one who accuses or the one who acts as an adversary) but actually shatan (lit: the one who roams).  The Hebrew authors did write that “the adversary” or “the accuser” was in heaven, but “the roamer.” It should be noted that while this might sound foreign to Western ears the Arabic word for Satan or spiritual evil is shaitan.

  • (Side note: Hebrew naming conventions should be explained a bit here. Titles or the names of roles were derived from the verbal action people in that role performed. For example, the Hebrew word for “a guard” is literally “the one who guards” and the Hebrew word for “king” is “the one who reigns.” If a spy roamed the realm to investigate the loyalties of the subjects of the king, such a spy could very well have been referred to as “the one who roams” or “the roamer.”)

Second, this entire scene uses the imagery and concept of a divine council.  Many Ancient Near Eastern cultures assumed that like earthly kings who held court, where they received reports from their servants, gave orders, and deliberated with their advisors, the divine beings must do something similar. The gods were often portrayed as convening in divine councils, especially on the New Years day, to set the agenda for the coming year.  Later Jewish tradition identifies the date of the conversation between God and the satan as happening on the Jewish New Year, apparently reinforcing the fact that this was how the passage was understood.. Such divine councils were to be found in other Ancient Near Eastern literature and appear elsewhere in the Bible, notably in the Zechariah passage we have already mentioned but also in the Psalms and other visions of God.  One major difference between the Jewish understanding of the divine council compared to other cultures is that  in the Bible the other members of the court are not other gods but angels, God’s servants.

Important to our understanding of the satan is the fact that the divine council is an anthropomorphic projection. Because of our limited knowledge about God we often have to use we use terminology and imagery from our human experience to describe God and the heavenly realm. A simple example of this is when we talk about God having an arm.  WE do not really think God has an anatomy similar to human beings and a physical arm in a literal sense, but we use this language to describe and talk about God because we have to. In this instance, the writer(s) of Job were describing the workings of heaven through imagery derived from institutions that existed, namely the earthly court of monarchs. It stands to reason that whatever the role of a satan was, it was not made up.  The heavenly satan most likely had an earthly counterpart and template that this role or office was based upon.  Just as an earthly council suggested a heavenly council, so it is presumed an earthly satan suggested that there might be a heavenly satan. If the post-exilic authors of Job would be familiar with the “eyes and ears of the King” used by the Persian empire to keep their leaders informed, (maybe because they had first hand experience with such “eyes”?) they may have assumed that God would “eyes and ears” as well.  In short, suggesting that God employed spies, “roamers” or shatans as well was a contextual way to describe how the LORD was kept informed of all things and managed the world.

Third, this understanding of satan brings clarity to a number of questions we modern readers, unfamiliar with the concept of these secret police, encounter when we read the text. Here are some of the questions raised from reading this passage:

  • Was satan an unwelcome guest?
  • Was the satan a son of God and/or part of the heavenly council?
  • If satan was unwelcome why didn’t God just boot him out of heaven?
  • How are we to understand God’s question to the satan about where he came from and satan’s reply that he had been walking and roaming about?
  • Why does God bring up Job?  If God had not, would Job’s children, wealth and health never been so thoroughly destroyed?
  • If satan is only an accuser, why does God give satan the power and authority to test Job?
  • Shouldn’t God just have looked inside Job’s heart and seen what was true or not?

If Tur-Sinai is correct, and the satan was a title given to member of the heavenly council whose role it was to roam the earth and report on any suspicious concerning the activities and loyalties of the LORD’s subjects, then many of these questions are answered.

  • The satan was not an unexpected or unwelcome guest because…
  • …the satan was a son of God and a member of the heavenly council.
  • God does not kick the satan out of heaven (as one would expect of an unwelcome guest) but instead engages in conversation with satan because it was time for the satan to bring his report, just as reports were being given by other sons of God who were standing themselves before the LORD.
  • The LORD’s first question to the satan is essentially asking the satan for a report. “Where have you come from” is in a sense asking “What have you been up to?”
  • Because the satan may very well have been originally “the one who roams” the satan’s response is essentially “From doing my job (of roaming the earth and investigating your subjects).”
  • In the LORD’s second question, the LORD brings up Job because while He (God) clearly believes Job is loyal, faithful and righteous He (God) has a spy for a reason.  The LORD wants the satan’s input and asks for a report concerning Job. In other words God is asking here, “Job seems to me to be completely righteous and loyal.  But you are my spy upon the earth who has just returned from investigating humans.  Have you investigated Job? What do you think of Job?  Do you have any suspicions to report?”
  • The satan here does have a report.  His suspicion is that Job is not truly loyal to God but loyal to what Job gets out of the retributive system.

All of this seems exegetically sound, reasonable and a number of other commentators support this position.  Habel even creatively call’s the satan, “Yahweh’s suspicious one, [God’s] spy.” This is an apt label that connotes two aspects of the satan in Job that stand in stark contrast to modern notions regarding the Devil, namely the satan’s role as an accuser and secret spy of sorts and the satan’s subservience to Yahweh. (Habel, 89)

Conclusion: In light of this research it appears the satan in the book of Job was a servant of the LORD whose specific role it was to survey the LORD’s domain and report any concerns about the loyalties of the LORD’s subjects.  The satan‘s behavior (of roaming and later questioning Job’s motivation for being righteousness) does not come from an opposition to God or even an opposition to humanity, but out of fulfilling his divinely given role at the express permission and empowerment of God. One should be very careful not to project later understandings of the Devil onto the satan in this pericope and the book as a whole.  From this word study, I have chosen to follow Balentine’s example of translating  הַשָּׂטָ֖ן as “the satan” to avoid confusion between the satan here in Job and the Devil, and also reinforce the fact that this word refers to role that is now defunct (just as “satraps,” “hoplite” or “ceasar” refer to historical positions, titles and roles that no longer exist).

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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One Response to Why do we believe…such wonky things about Satan? (Part 1)

  1. Sarah says:

    Well, that helps to explain why “the satan” could enter God’s presence to speak with Him. I admit that I haven’t done a lot of study of the subject, but “the Devil”/”Satan” does not SEEM to ordinarily hang out with God (with the exception of Jesus, the incarnate God).

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