Why do we believe…such wonky things about Satan? (Part 2)

In this post I suggest the traditional understanding of Satan is wrong and not in the Bible.  I discuss how the Bible actually describes Satan and how one can see this description actually changes over time.

Traditionally, Satan/The Devil is described as the irredeemable enemy of God and humans, who is Lord of the demons, and is out to “steal, kill, and destroy.”  The Devil is blamed for tempting humans to sin and directly causing varying degrees of suffering in this world, depending on your worldview.  Some simplistically suggest all evil and suffering is caused by the Devil, others have a more limited approach. The Devil is explained as a fallen angel who pridefully attempted to overthrow God and led a rebellion against the LORD.  Having lost, he and those that followed him, became demons.  The Devil and demons will ultimately be throw into the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation and be destroyed completely.  I will call this the traditional view and refer to this understanding of Satan as “The Devil.”

While I once uncritically accepted this view, and would shame anyone who proposed another view, this understanding of Satan fell apart when I actually read the Bible.  Most of the traditional view is actually not in scripture.  The Devil, as described above, is not explicitly laid out in the Bible. What is presented in the Bible is an understanding of Satan that develops over time, which I would suggest can be roughly divided up into three phases.

  1. Satan does not exist: Throughout the vast majority of the Protestant Bible, the part we refer to as the Old Testament, Satan simply does not exist.  There is no reference to a spiritual being that in any way resembles the Devil.   The Patriarchs, the Hebrews, and the Israelites were completely uninformed or uninterested in the Devil. If you asked Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, Jacob/Israel, Job, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, any of the judges, Ruth, Naomi, King David, Solomon other Israelites kings and most if not all of the prophets who Satan was their response would be most likely, “Satan who?” In all fairness they may have believed that some sort of evil spirit(s) existed but the Bible does not record the nature of these beliefs. While some of the later prophets and writings do bring up a celestial satan, these figures act and function nothing like Devil.  There are two challenges to this statement I already anticipate so I’ll deal with them here.  First, some might suggest the Devil is the tempting serpent in Genesis.  It is later church tradition that has identified the serpent with the Devil. This passage describes a crafty serpent, not the prince of demons or some supernatural spiritual being. Like most of the stories in Genesis 1-12, the story of the Fall isan etiological story.  Etiological stories explained why things are the way they are.  Why are women dominated by men (in the patriarchal Ancient Near East)?  Why do women have pain in childbirth? Why is work hard? Why are poisonous snakes dangerous and why do they slither on the ground and cause so much fear?  This story provides answers to those questions, not a theology regarding a spiritual being opposed to God.  Second, some very astute readers of the Bible may also bring up the traditional understanding of the Devil as a fallen angel is based in the Old Testament. Isaiah 14 refers to a creature of light that pridefully tries to ascend to the heavens and then suffers a dramatic fall all the way down to Sheol.  Regardless of the fact that this passage has to do with a figure of light, and the Hebrew understanding of Sheol is not the same as our concept of Hell, it is connected with the Devil and this is where we get the name Lucifer and the idea that the Devil is an angel who was punished for pride or some sort of rebellion.  Again, this connection is made in later Church tradition.  This passage is actually about presumptuous earthly monarchs who over-extend their reach and then experience dramatic falls.  The ANE saw many of these monarchs and tribal leaders, conquerors who were in turn conquered (and often killed), and this passage is most likely directed at those of the Babylonian variety.
  2. Satan is a servant of God: In a sort of middle period a variety of celestial satan’s (it is not clear that the same satan is being referenced) appear in the Bible and act as servants of God doing the LORD’s will. I covered this more thoroughly in my previous post. Satan is the transliteration (an English equivalent) of a Hebrew noun.  It is a common noun, not a proper name, that refers to “an adversary” or “an accuser.”  In the Bible this word was used to describe very human and mundane satans that you could touch (such as military or legal adversaries) though this noun also began to be used to refer to spiritual figures.  In my last post I presented Tur-Sinai’s argument regarding the origin of “the satan” in Job, and touched upon the celestial satans in Zechariah, Numbers and Chronicles. In Job we see “the satan” a member of the divine council acting as the LORD’s suspicious one who is given permission and power to test Job, in Zechariah the satan makes an accurate accusation against Joshua, and in Numbers we see the LORD sending an angel to act as a satan against Balaam.  Nowhere do these celestial or spiritual satan figures act against God’s will, command demons, possess people, or lie.  Some might suggest that the satan figure in Chronicles, the only place it appears “satan” is used as  a proper name is an exception. In the Chronicles passage we find Satan inciting David to take a census of Israel.  This causes God to judge David and a plague kills 70,000 Israelites for this sin.  Before people celebrate this clearly evil action on the hand of Satan I want to point out two things.  First, this is one verse in the Old Testament that has almost absolutely no context or further explanation about the figure of Satan here. We do not know if Satan was sent by God or did this to cause evil and mischief in the world. Second, and far more importantly, this same story is told in Samuel and it is God who incites David to take a census…and then judges Israel for taking this census. I will come back to this important point in a later post.
  3. Satan is an enemy of God and humans: In the New Testament a jarring and dramatic change occurs that goes often unnoticed and unmentioned. Suddenly there is a great spiritual adversary to God and Christians that previously went unmentioned.  The New Testament mentions, the Devil, Satan, Beelzebub, The Wicked One, Prince of This World, the Tempter, a celestial being who is a liar, Belial, the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air, your adversary, The Dragon, and The Ancient Serpent. These figures have been identified as referring to one supernatural being, namely Satan. Still, much of the traditional understanding concerning the Devil is not explicitly laid out, but relies rather heavily upon traditional interpretation of these passages.  The passages about some evil spiritual being in the New Testament brings up several questions. First, where in the hell did this dramatic change come from? (pun intended – and I’ll return to this later in my next post.)  Second, some of these passages are quite ambiguous, our use of them is selective, and our interpretation of them relies heavily upon tradition.  What does it mean that Satan is the god of this world?  Does he control things down here while God plays the diestic clockmaker and locked up in Heaven as it were?  Does Satan have more control down here than God?  What does it mean that he is the “prince of the air?”  Are we to hold our breath or avoid airplane travel, least we venture into the realm of the Devil? While some of these might seem whimsically literal, why do we take some passages to just as literally with no concern? I do not know how many times I have heard statements like, “that’s just the lie the Devil wants you to believe, you the Devil is the father of lies….” but no one ever talks about, “well you know that’s clearly because the Devil is the prince of the air.” There also seems to be a fair amount to which our reading of these passages is tainted by what we have already been taught about the Devil.  We don’t really interpret the text or ask questions because we have already been fed the answers.  In this we swallow whole a lot of assumptions about Satan that are nowhere in the text.
In short the traditional view of the Devil is highly problematic and I think is read back more into the Bible than read and understood from the Bible and I’m calling it into question. But what are we to make of this? If the common understanding of The Devil is off what are contemporary Christians to believe about the evil spiritual being that is present in the New Testament and how is this belief to impact our faith? I believe much can be clarified on these question by understanding the origins and development of Satan. To make use of my three phases in the development of the Satan, to understand the Devil today correctly we must first understand how Jewish and Christian thought went from #2 to #3.  This will be the subject of my next post.
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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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