In our previous installment, we saw that there never was any Lucifer in the Old Testament. So who, then, was Satan?
The word debuts in the Book of Numbers. I say “word” rather than “name” because satan originally was not a name but an office. As Elaine Pagels explains in The Origin of Satan:
…the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century BCE occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity.
The satan is not necessarily evil. Forsyth points out that “If the path is bad, the obstruction is good.” [p.113] This is more or less the case in the story of Balaam, who saddles up his donkey at the behest of the Moabites (with God’s approval) and sets off on the road to curse the Israelites, who have just returned from Egypt. God, however, inexplicably changes his mind: “Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his [God’s] satan.” [Numbers 22:22] At first Balaam doesn’t see the angel; only his donkey does. When the angel finally appears to Balaam, he delivers a message from God: “Behold, I came here to oppose you because your way is evil in my eyes …” [22:32] The satan here is quite clearly “good.” (This is, incidentally, precisely the use of satan Jesus has in mind when he says to Peter in Matthew 16:23 “Get behind me, Satan! You are an offense to Me for you are not mindful of the things of God, the but things of men.” Peter is not being equated with God’s arch foe; he’s just getting in the way.)
In the Book of Job the satan is simply a shadowy wayfarer going to and fro on the Earth who doubts Job’s faith and gets God’s permission to torture Job any way he likes. Everything the satan takes from Job is of course restored in what may be the origin of the deus ex machina ending.
The satan also appears in Zechariah 3–4, where he is rebuked by God apparently for going a little too far in giving the high priest, Joshua, a hard time. What we gather from this exchange is that the satan, in his role as accuser and tester, is part of God’s court and after he is given a tongue lashing and Joshua gets a new set of robes, there’s not a ripple of discord left in heaven or on earth.
The most telling mention of Satan—there are only four that refer to supernatural agents in all of the Old Testament—occurs in Chronicles 21:1: “Now Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” It’s a single sentence at a critical moment. As Forsyth points out, “here and only here in the whole of the canonical Old Testament do we find a reference to an independent spiritual force named ‘Satan,’ minus the definite article and minus any identification with the heavenly court.” [p. 118] And here is where our history-changing capital letter comes in—albeit in translation, for while Hebrew has no cases for letters, clearly enough the word has become a proper noun.
Why the Chronicler brought in Satan at this point might forever be a mystery if it weren’t for the fact that the very same incident is related in Samuel 2 24:1: “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” David, feeling guilty for having taken a census, repents and accepts as punishment a plague that kills 70,000 Jews. “And when the angel stretched out his hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord … said to the angel who was destroying the people, ‘Enough, now restrain your hand.’” (To commemorate the place where the angel’s hand was stayed, the Israelites built Jerusalem’s first Temple.)
It would seem that the slaying of 70,000 should earn one the office of the satan, but as Henry A. Kelly points out in Satan: A Biography, “The Destroying Angel is now identified as the Angel of Yahweh.” [p. 20]
The Destroying Angel, therefore, is not denounced as evil; his act was sanctioned by God. This is also the case with everything the satan does in the Old Testament with the exception of inspiring David to take a census. This is the moment when the concept of the Devil as the West has come to understand it was born. Here is our paradigm shift and our cosmological revision. For the first time in Judaism, there is a being in the universe working against God’s will. For the first time, the Israelites have begun exonerating God, and we now have the rudiments of religious dualism.
Chronicles, written after the Babylonian captivity, is a later document than Samuel. Essentially, it’s a rewriting—with a somewhat altered agenda—of Samuel and Kings. The Chronicler, like many Jews who hailed Cyrus the Great as the Messiah (bear in mind, he smashed Babylon’s hegemony over the Middle East and delivered the Jews from exile), is pro-Persian. And the Persians brought Zoroastrianism to Babylon, the first major religion to explain the ills of the world by way of an evil god (Ahriman) whose power rivals that of a benevolent creator (Ahura Mazda). Possibly the Chronicler couldn’t resist such a pat theodicy in spite of the fact that it clearly contradicts the original concept of Yahweh as the author of both good and evil: “I form light, and I create darkness; I produce good, and I create evil; I, Yahweh, do all these things. [Isaiah 45.4 - 45.9, in which, coincidentally, Yahweh is addressing Cyrus the Great].
It’s probably worth noting, as Kelly does, that the satan in the Old Testament was not always an angel. When Yahweh decides to punish Solomon, He “raises up a satan against him in the person of Hadad the Edomite, and then Elohim raises up another satan against him, this time Rezon son of Eliada.” [1 Kings 11.12–25] It’s also telling that the Chronicler deletes references to all of these human satans, which is precisely what we would expected of a biblical author who wants to deify evil and absolve Yahweh of any blame.
With Chronicles, the book is closed on the appearances of Satan as a supernatural agent in the Old Testament. For those readers who may be frowning, recalling another incident involving the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a rereading of the third book of Genesis should clear up the confusion. Nowhere is the snake called or even compared to the Devil, a concept that did not yet exist among the Hebrews; it is merely a snake, which was considered the most cunning of animals. Indeed, Kelly points out that no less an authority than Paul did not see Satan’s forked tongue wagging in Eden. [Kelly p. 69] In 2 Corinthians 11.3 Paul says, “I am afraid that, as the Serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from … Christ.” Not only does Paul fail to mention Satan here, only eleven verses later he warns his audience that Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light. It seems reasonable to assume that if the Serpent were Satan in disguise, Paul would have warned them of this as well. In fact, the biblical association between fallen angel and underhanded reptile was still to come.
As for the Lucifer we’ve all come to know and loathe, we will have to dig through the somewhat obscure books of intertestamental literature to find the sketchy outlines of a familiar likeness.
Vincent Czyz received an MA in comparative literature from Columbia University, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. He is the author of the collection Adrift in a Vanishing City and the novel The Christos Mosaic, and is the recipient of the 1994 Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Boston Review, and many other publications.