Satan in the Old Testament

This is the second post in the guest series “Who is Satan?” by Arcamaede. An index for all posts in the series is here.

~ Steve

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Satan’s development in the Old Testament is very hard to harmonize due largely to uncertainty of the dating of the writings of the Old Testament. What we will attempt to do below is speculate using the boundaries we have.

Associations of the serpent in the Garden of Eden with Satan are problematic. Even if we were to view the Garden story as history (which I do not), we are faced with a contextual interpretation issue:  the text of Genesis does not make a connection between Satan and the serpent.  In fact, the story gives us a clear indication that the serpent is just a snake (albeit a talking one and apparently a walking one).

We have to go to a later period of the writing of the Bible to find the identification of the serpent of Genesis 3 with the Satan.  Which indicates that the original audience of Genesis probably did not put the serpent in the role of Cosmic source of all things Evil.

In the Old Testament the word that ends up being Satan in English is הַשָׂטָן (ha-satan, pronounced ha-sah-tahn) which literally means “the accuser”.  The word without its article gets translated adversary, accuser, or opponent: e.g. 1 Samuel 29:4 …

But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him.  And the commanders of the Philistines said to him, “Send the man back, that he may return to the place to which you have assigned him.  He shall not go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become an adversary to us. For how could this fellow reconcile himself to his lord?  Would it not be with the heads of the men here?

or 1 Kings 5:4 …

But now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune.

or Psalms 109:6 …

Appoint a wicked man against him;

let an accuser stand at his right hand.

Moving away from these incidental usages of the word, Numbers 22:22 has the Angel of the LORD that blocks Balaam on his journey to curse Israel identified using the same Hebrew word.  YHWH is an accuser (‘adversary’) in this passage.  It wouldn’t be fair to say YHWH is Satan (in our modern sense) because the word simply conveys opposition.  But, the question of how YHWH and ha-satan relate does seem an issue in the next passage.

In parallel stories of David’s ill-fated census …

Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”  (2 Samuel 24:1)

Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)

These two passages are a popular source of dispute and defense on the Internet.  Is YHWH angry with David, is Satan tempting David, or is Satan allowed by YHWH to tempt David? Or is it some combination of all of those?  I think a possible answer may reside in the Divine Council which we will discuss below.  (For those wanting to know more about the divine council, more resources are available here and here.)

Finally, let’s take a look at Zechariah 3:1-5 …

1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.  4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” 5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.

In this passage we have YHWH and Satan placed side-by-side in the prosecution of Joshua the high priest.  I don’t see this passage presenting YHWH in opposition to Satan so much as YHWH overriding the accusation against Joshua to show grace to the High Priest.
(Another nice tour of these passages above can be found here.)

I can easily see how someone could read the preceding passages and see God and Satan not necessarily being enemies and even, possibly, on the same team!

Satan in the Book of Job

The Book of Job is generally considered to have been composed late despite the setting being very early.  This is due primarily to the Wisdom genre of the book.  Additionally, the themes of struggling with suffering could possibly indicate issues pressing in post-Babylonian captivity — no one really can date the book specifically.  It is generally dated between 700 BC and 400 BC.

Oddly enough, reading Satan in Job through the eyes of an original audience, he is just serving God by accusing blameless Job to see if he’s really loyal.  Satan in the book of Job belonged to what is referred to as the “Divine Council.”

This Council is tied tightly to the Ancient Near Eastern conception of God as king.  Just as God is depicted with his own throne, chariot, and bow, he also has his royal court to attend to the governance of his kingdom.  Therefore, Satan was doing his work for God — accusing Job to see if he was the real deal that God understood him to be.

Is God really that capricious and cold-hearted?  Remember:  it’s a depiction of God in the ancient sense and no more reflects the ultimate reality of God than the throne, chariot, bow, or the Council itself!

We can see that the Old Testament taken on its own terms and in its own contexts does not fully develop Satan into what we would recognize as a cosmic opponent of God.  On the contrary, it presents him as an attending agent with easy access even to God’s throne room.

In our next article, we will attempt to wade our way through the bewildering world of the extra-biblical Jewish writers and their presentation of the accuser — a.k.a. Satan.

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