Satan: Function and Foe
Here is a brief summary of the scholarly information I presented:
- The snake of Genesis 3 most likely would not have been understood as God’s cosmic enemy to its original readers.
- Ultimately, there are no Old Testament passages that clearly link the word satan to God’s cosmic enemy.
- It is possible that “the Satan” may not have necessarily had an evil or sinister role throughout the Old Testament, but rather a role of accusation and judgment in God’s divine counsel.
- The word Satan is not applied explicitly to the divine cosmic enemy of God until the New Testament and is not unmistakably combined with the snake of Genesis 3 until Revelation.
- There are other Satan-like, or demonic, figures that we can find in the Old Testament that are not referred to with that language.
Since there was a development of the idea of Satan (the śātān) from the OT to the NT, it becomes necessary as Christians to understand this development in view of biblical authority and inspiration. To me it seems there is no way to understand this development other than through progressive revelation in some form of another.
In this article, we need to clarify the nuances of what kind of progressive revelation is at work. Although each of the ideas I present in this article will reflect progressive revelation in some way, I will attempt to show how some ways better account for the scholarly data than others.
Filling in the Gaps from the “Breadcrumbs”
We can interpret the Old Testament as God “building the plot lines” on the story of evil without giving away everything at once. We are given hints here and there throughout the Bible, but we don’t know everything going on behind the scenes (even as we can’t know everything even now).
I mentioned a few examples in my first and second articles of these “breadcrumbs,” although these three articles don’t have nearly enough space to point to all of them. If you want a more complete picture, I highly recommend Michael Heiser’s 2020 book Demons. This book has a high view of Scripture along with exceptional and honest scholarship on the subject of demons and Satan.
I highly recommend getting the book and reading chapters 3 and 4 if you need any gaps filled in from these articles. This book is not based on conjecture or theories, but completely centered around the scholarly data we have. Conjecture and speculation is fine (it could also be called “using your imagination”), but ultimately we need to know when we are delving into speculation and conjecture rather than the data that Scripture gives us.
Paradise Lost by John Milton is a great example of how spiritual speculation can be both interesting and edifying for believers when it comes to exploring what’s going on behind the scenes in the spiritual or unseen realm.
However, some of the imagination from Milton’s epic has actually gained so much popularity over time that we sometimes assume that we have the biblical picture when our view of the unseen world is actually more informed by the cultural influence of Paradise Lost!
Second temple literature is also filled with speculation and conjecture that is obviously more fully informed by the culture and context of the Old Testament. Some of these ancient Jewish writers had no problem filling in the gaps of the biblical text with different ideas of what may have occurred, and these different theories do not always agree. These ancient Jews were simply trying to connect the dots of what they saw in Scripture, and we have access to many of their attempts to make sense of Old Testament passages.
The “Information About Satan Revealed Later” Approach
Now I want to mention an approach to progressive revelation regarding this subject that is not the result of careful thinking or scholarship. This is to contend that the change in the use of Satan in the New Testament could be meant to give us divine insight into what was really going on behind the scenes and is not explicitly laid out in Scripture.
According to this approach, the new information we are given about Satan in the New Testament is not based on literary development, but is divine revelation of the person of Satan given directly by God.
Is it possible that the śātān in Job and Zechariah was actually the one opposed to humanity from the very beginning, even though God did not reveal this yet in the Old Testament Scriptures? Is that why he is rebuked by God in Zechariah and seems to have a desire to get Job to be unfaithful? Is the opposer in 1 Chronicles 21:1 actually an evil figure that is a cosmic enemy of God whom God uses in that instance to bring about judgment–but we don’t get this behind-the-scenes insight until the New Testament?
Heiser lays out a few problems with this perspective. This will be a rather extensive quote because all of the information is necessary to understand why this approach is insufficient:
“The Hebrew word śātān commonly transformed into the personal name ‘Satan,’ is actually no such thing: this Hebrew term is not a proper personal noun and therefore does not point to the specific figure we know from the New Testament as Satan. . . . Without exception, every rendering of śātān as ‘Satan’ in English translations of Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3 has the definite article. The term should therefore not be rendered as a proper personal name in those passages—passages presumed by English readers to be critically important for a doctrine of the original rebel of Eden (Satan). This would mean that we don’t have the serpent (or ‘devil,’ in New Testament language) in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3. The correct translation of śātān in these famous scenes is ‘the adversary’ or ‘the accuser’” (Heiser, Demons, Chapter 3, “What About Satan?”).
As has already been mentioned in previous articles, the śātān was likely a member of God’s heavenly court, and there is no hint that the role itself was to be taken as evil or out of place.
The translation as a proper name bends the Hebrew grammar in these passages.
As Heiser points out, there are ten passages in the Old Testament which lack a definite article (i.e., “the”). But we shouldn’t assume that these instances are automatically referring to Satan, because lacking a definite article can just as easily mean “an accuser.” Also, seven of these ten passages are talking about human adversaries.
Of the other three, twice śātān refers to the angel of the Lord (Numbers 22:22 and 23): “The angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary.” The other time is 1 Chronicles 21:1, where “Satan” incites David to count the Israelites. What is fascinating is that 2 Samuel 24 narrates the same story, and says that it is God who incites David to number Israel. In both the Numbers and 2 Samuel stories, the angel of the Lord figures prominently (e.g., Numbers 22:22; 2 Samuel 24:16). Heiser suggests that, in both passages, śātān refers to the angel of the Lord.
Whatever the case, the reason the “information about Satan later revealed” approach does not work is that it is clearly not the same Satan in each instance used in the Old Testament. In fact, sometimes the figure being discussed is God himself (2 Samuel 24)! The word śātān with definite article or not seems to simply mean opposer, adversary, or accuser.
Taking the Literary Development on Its Own Terms
In my opinion, the only option we have regarding this information is to take the literary development on its own terms. This view attempts to reconcile the meaning of Satan by showing its literary flexibility. Even if Satan simply means “opposer,” this is easily reconciled with its use in the New Testament.
If we understand the śātān as it is used in the Old Testament as an office or term for “opposer,” “adversary,” or “accuser” rather than simply the cosmic enemy of God, it makes sense that we can still call the deceiver or snake of Genesis 3 “Satan” since he was the original “opposer” of God’s Kingdom on earth.
While the “information about Satan later revealed” approach will simply read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament as “the final word,” this approach takes the data as it stands in the Old Testament and explores the possibilities found in the flexibility of language.
The subject of Satan or demonology can be hit from a number of directions, and these three articles hardly scratch the surface. Our views of Satan and demonology are intimately connected to our view of God because they are immediately attached to our views on evil and God’s sovereignty.
With all this said, there is plenty in the Old Testament that segues us into the full understanding of the unseen world that we see in the New Testament. Heiser’s work in Demons will give you the full picture, exploring how passages like Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 do in fact point us back to the snake of Genesis 3, and gives accurate insight into other perplexing Scriptures like Luke 10:18, Azazel in Leviticus 16:8, and much more. The book also explores the conundrum of how the type of demons in the New Testament arrive on the scene seemingly out of nowhere. I also found Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright to be another good place to start for those who want to dig deeper.
(For more from Jonathan, check out jonwalt.com.)