Following the success of the “Biblical and Qur’anic History” tour of the British Museum, I’d like to present this blog post about the history of Satan.
Satan the Devil has been a feature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (known in those faiths as “ha-satan”, “Satan”, “Devil”, “al-Shaitan” or “Iblis”) for over 2000 years. He is most often portrayed as an irredeemably evil spirit creature bent on inducing humans to sin against God. He takes the form of an angel with bat-like, rather than bird-like wings, a horned goat-like creature with a trident and even a multi-headed dragon.
Due to this vivid imagery, Satan the Devil is a powerful archetype of evil in Western society, but not many people know that the present-day idea of Satan as an entity of pure evil is not how this character has always been seen.
This article is designed to get to the root of how Satan the Devil came to be seen in this way.
The two main words to describe the evil spirit in English are “Devil” and “Satan”, the latter being somewhat of a personal name and the former being a title or description. The word “devil” is a Greek word which comes from “diabolos” meaning “slanderer”. The word is further derived from the Greek verb “diaballo“, “ballo” meaning to throw, and “dia” meaning through/between/across. This acquired the meaning of causing division by throwing a ball or a rock into a melee, hense the meanings of “generating confusion”, “dividing”, “makingsomeone fall” or “tripping someone up”
“Devil” appears in the Bible 61 times, and all references are found in the Christian New Testament. Other words include Lucifer, Abaddon, Beelzebub and Belial, but we are only going to focus on the word “Satan” for this first article.
You may have noticed that the title of this article calls this character “the satan” rather than “Satan”. This is deliberate. As we will see, the Christian concept of the Devil is very different from what the original writers of the Hebrew Scriptures had in mind when they talked about “the satan”.
“Satan” is a Hebrew word, and it appears in the Bible 56 times; 38 times in the Christian New Testament and a mere 23 times in the Masoretic text of the Jewish Tanakh (which Christians call the Old Testament). Of the 38 times that it appears in the Christian New Testament, it is always a proper noun, “Satan”, the personal name of the familiar evil creature.
This article is going to focus, though. not on the New Testament and its 61 Devils and 38 Satans, but on the 23 satans of the Jewish Tanakh (known to Christians as the “Old Testament”). In this series of articles, we will see why the word “satan” is so little used in the Tanakh and why it becomes such an obsession in the New Testament (which is around a tenth of the size of the Tanakh but contains more than 81% of the references to that wicked creature) and in the Qur’an.
You may also have already noticed that I’ve been referring to “the satan” or “satan” with a lower-case letter, rather than “Satan”. This is because in the Tanakh, “the satan” is not always a proper noun referring to an individual person but a common noun meaning “adversary”, “opponent” or “prosecutor”. It is derived from a verb meaning “to obstruct, oppose, prosecute (in the legal sense)”.
The definite article in English is the word “the”, and it takes many forms in Hebrew, one of which is “ha-”. Without the definite article (“satan” or “a satan”), the word can refer to any kind of opposer or prosecutor, human or spirit, and with the definite article (“ha-satan), it refers to a specific entity “the Adversary”, “the Opponent”, “the Prosecutor” or “the Accuser”.
The word “satan” appears without the article 10 times in the Masoretic Text of the Tanakh:
Psalm 109:6: “Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy let an accuser stand at his right hand.” (NIV)
Numbers 22:22: “But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose (la-satan) him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.” (NIV)
Numbers 22:32: “The angel of the Lord asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose (be an adversary/satan) you because your path is a reckless one before me.'” (NIV)
1 Samuel 29:4: “But the Philistine commanders were angry with Achish and said, ‘Send the man back, that he may return to the place you assigned him. He must not go with us into battle, or he [David] will turn against (satan, “oppose”) us during the fighting. How better could he regain his master’s favor than by taking the heads of our own men?'” (NIV)
2 Samuel 19:22: “David replied, ‘What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah [Joab and his brothers]? What right do you have to interfere (be satans)? Should anyone be put to death in Israel today? Don’t I know that today I am king over Israel?” (NIV)
1 Kings 5:4: “But now the Lord my God has given me [Solomon] rest on every side, and there is no adversary (satan) or disaster.” (NIV)
1 Kings 11:14: “Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary (satan), Hadad the Edomite, from the royal line of Edom.” (NIV)
1 Kings 11:23: “And God raised up against Solomon another adversary (satan), Rezon son of Eliada, who had fled from his master, Hadadezer king of Zobah.” (NIV)
1 Kings 11:25: “Rezon was Israel’s adversary (satan) as long as Solomon lived, adding to the trouble caused by Hadad. So Rezon ruled in Aram and was hostile toward Israel.” (NIV)
1 Chronicles 21:1: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel”. (NIV)
Strangely, in two of those instances, “Satan” seems to be referring to Yahwéh himself. In the examples from Numbers 22:22 and Numbers 22:32 above, Yahwéh himself is “a satan” toward Balaam (the “angel of Yahwéh” often means the presence of Yahwéh himself).
What’s more, one story seems to be a repetition of a story found in 2 Samuel 24:1 which refers to Yahwéh. It’s obviously the same story, so when 1 Chronicles 21:1 names the instigator as “a satan” rather than Yahwéh, it seems rather incongruous especially to modern eyes:
2 Samuel 24:1: “Again the anger of the Lord (Yahwéh) burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” (NIV)
1 Chronicles 21:1: “A satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel”. (NIV)
Religious apologists usually say that Yahwéh himself was testing, prosecuting or accusing his own people. There is merit in this view depending on your theological stance, especially a theological stance that tries to tie all loose ends together. However, another, in my option, the Bible is not a book, but a collection of writings by a group of people with very disparate worldviews, backgrounds, biases and motivations. A more realistic interpretation of this, is that the conception of who God was changed over time by authors who had a different point of view about the divine.
The pre-exilic Deuteronomistic writers of Samuel had no problem mentioning that Yahwéh could act capriciously (Samuel was composed and edited several times between 715-550 BCE), but by the time writers of Chronicles penned their book (most likely in the post-exilic period 350–300 BCE), the conception of Yahwéh had changed from a more flawed and human character who walked directly with the patriarchs, got angry and regretted mistakes, to a majestic and lofty deity who is infinitely perfect in every action.
Some even believe that the priestly elite that had re-migrated from Babylonia wanted to replace wholesale the entire Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) with the books of Chronicles, thereby covering-up negative references to Yahwéh and instead framing what had come to be seen as the unfair punishment of David as something carried out by someone other than Yahwéh. Who better than the perennial scapegoat, ha-satan?
Yahwéh and Ha-satan
Many other verses in the Tanakh give weight to the idea of a shifting conception of Yahwéh. In Isaiah 45:7 Yahwéh boasts:
Isaiah 45:7: I form light and create darkness; I make prosperity and I create calamity; I am Yahwéh who does all these things.
Another verse confirms this conception of God as less than perfect, admitting that he had at one point ordered child sacrifices:
Ezekiel 20:25–26: Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify, them; I did it that they might know that I am Yahwéh.
Yahwéh was at first said to bring both good and bad and early Judahite and Israelite people didn’t see any contradiction in that. After all, Yahweh made humans in His image, and they were capable of both good and bad, and as Yahwéh alone controlled all events and was responsible for all conditions within creation, it was not seen as incongruent.
It’s not dissimilar to how the Babylonians conceived of their gods. Ira Spar from the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art remarked “[the Babylonian gods] were considered to be unpredictable and oftentimes capricious. Their need for food and drink, housing, and care mirrored that of humans”. Yahwéh too acts capriciously when bringing the Flood, smells the sweet smell of animal sacrifices and resides in a physical tabernacle or temple.
The juxtaposition of 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 shows us that ha-satan may well have been just a manifestation of the way Yahwéh tests his followers rather than a separate entity. However, later, we begin to find more references to ha-satan, with the article, referring to a specific supernatural entity “the accuser” or “the satan” in other, later verses. Satan seems to be a person in his own right rather than an avatar of Yahwéh.
Out of the 13 times it appears with the article, 10 examples in the Book of Job, the word “Satan” can be correctly translated as “the accuser” or “the satan”:
Job 1:6 “One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan (“the accuser”) also came with them.” (NIV)
The 3 remaining references are found in Zechariah 3:1-2:
Zechariah 3:1–2: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser”) standing at his right side to accuse (to satan) him. The Lord said to Satan (“ha-satan, “the accuser”), “The Lord rebuke you, Satan (“ha-satan, “the accuser”)! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (NIV)
In Job, ha-satan is pictured as a heavenly prosecutor or accuser, a member of the divine council, the court of Yahwéh. He functions as a kind of prosecuting attorney, a role which was found throughout ancient Near Eastern court systems. He tests the loyalty of Yahwéh’s followers by forcing them to suffer like Job did. In Zechariah 3, ha-satan is pictured as standing at the right side of the angel of Yahwéh making accusations against Joshua the High Priest. It is his job to observe the behaviour of Yahwéh’s people and report any perceived shortcomings.
So looking at all these verses, ha-satan’s express purpose, his job, was originally to prosecute the nation of Judah in the heavenly court and test it to see if it will continue to serve Yahwéh even in adversity. The satan is an entity under the command of Yahwéh but its existence helps to distance Yahwéh from taking responsibility for the negative and evil experiences that humans experience in this world. Ha-satan was, therefore, the early Hebrew answer to the theodicy, the question of why god, or the gods, allow humans to suffer.
However, at some point in history, the Hebrews began to elevate their god to such a lofty position that it was unthinkable that he actually would or could create any sort of calamity. A scapegoat was needed and that took the form of ha-satan, the Prosecutor. Originally viewed an agent of Yahwéh, the Prosecutor became seen as a separate entity with its own goals, working independently of Yahwéh and often against him.
But the reputation of ha-satan was to be sullied further.
Ha-satan turns bad
At some point in the evolution of ancient Hebrew religion, Yahwéh could no longer do any wrong and the satan was loaded with more negative qualities. Why did this change take place?
The idea that Yahwéh controlled all aspects of life, good and evil, soon became quite frustrating and brought about the concept we know as “theodicy”: How could a loving and benevolent God allow so much suffering and pain on earth?
Many scholars also believe that it was contact with the Persians, whose ancient religion was called “Zoroastrianism”. Peter Clark, in his book “An introduction to Ancient Faith” says on page 152:
“There are so many features that Zoroastrianism seems to share with the Judeo-Christian tradition […] Historically the first point of contact that we can determine is when the Achaemenian Cyrus conquered Babylon: 539 BC”
After the Babylonian exile, Judah was politically rebuilt as a Persian “satrapy”, a semi-autonomous administrative province, ruled by a priestly elite that had re-migrated from Babylonia and whose views and attitudes were shaped by the plans for the reconstruction of Judah drafted during the exile.
They were at odds with the local population, rigorously enforced separation from the mixed multitude of inhabitants of Judah, and ruled on the basis of the Torah. This code of law was promulgated by Ezra in the early 4thcentury BCE and it served as the legal ideal of a theocratic state (ruled by priests rather than kings). According to the later rabbis, the institution of the Torah as the basic law brought the earlier institution of prophecy to an end.
The contact between the Judahites and the Persians from 539 BCE onwards led to the Jewish religion being reformed in the image of Zoroastrianism.
Angra Mainyu was the Persian embodiment of the evil “destructive spirit” who is omnimalevolent and is the twin brother and chief adversary of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. The Middle Persian equivalent is Ahriman. This dualistic theology seeped into Judeo-Christian and Islamic religion, not only in the aposition of God-Satan but also of Good-Evil, Heaven-Hell and Body-Soul (pre-exilic Yahwism had only a rudimentary concept of the afterlife, and may have believed that the body and the soul were one entity).
The Persians’ religion Zoroastrianism used Avestan terms such as daebaaman (deceiver) and paitisha (opponent) to describe Angra Mainyu which hark back to not only the Jewish epithet of ha-satan (adversary, opponent), but also that of later Christian theology (“diabolos”, from which we get the word “devil” meaning deceiver). The coincidence leads us to a very compelling conclusion that the Jews recognised this character and synchronised their ha-satan with Angra Mainyu.
Angra Mainyu was a dragon-like beast with horns and forked tongue and a tail, an image which had been previously alien to the Judahite people.
Jewish Apocalypticism in the Intertestamental Period –
This demonised version of ha-satan is the one that became incredibly popular in the intertestamental period, with many of the Jewish writers of the Biblical Apocrypha using this Satan as the source of all evil in the world.
The intertestamental period (the period between the ministry of Malachi (c. 420 BC) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early 1st century AD) is when the full characterisation of this new “Satan the Devil” comes into full fruition.
In this period, probably due to Persian and then Greek influence, the Jews became obsessed with messianic prophecy, end-time predictions, obscure allegory, hidden books and spirit creatures (a trend which started in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel and continued until Revelation’s climax and beyond).
In the second part of this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Devil in the Intertestamental and Christian periods.
Kelly, Henry Ansgar (2006), Satan: A Biography, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press
Edward Langton (1977), Satan, a Portrait. ISBN: 0848215621 (c)
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition. A History of Second Temple Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken: Ktav, 1991), Martin S. Jaffee, Early Judaism (Upper Saddle River/NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997).
Bernard Bamberger (1952), Fallen Angels – The Soldiers of Satan’s Realm. ISBN: 156619850X (c)
Clark, Peter (1998) Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to Ancient Faith
Winn, Shan M.M. (1995). Heaven, heroes, and happiness : the Indo-European roots of Western ideology. Lanham, Md.: University press of America.
VIDEOS AND WEBSITES
Hayes, Christine (2012) Lecture 20. Responses to Suffering and Evil: Lamentations and Wisdom Literature – (I recommend watching this entire video, however, the section about Job which mentions ha-satan starts at 19:20)
Vitz Law Firm (2014) Satan Was a Prosecutor. Jesus was a Defense Lawyer.
Jewish Anwers (2007) The Jewish View of Satan
Babylonian Exile and Beyond – Boston Univeristy: http://www.bu.edu/mzank/Jerusalem/cp/exret.htm
Mesopotamian Deities – Ira Spar, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/deit/hd_deit.htm