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The Devil, You Say

by Tim O'Hearn

It is amazing how many things we know are in the Bible just are not in there, or at least are not in there as we know them. These range from the harmless (“God helps those who help themselves.”) to the potentially dangerous (the doctrine of “the Antichrist”). They reach into all aspects of our spiritual lives and worship. Thus we have congregations who think the elders have responsibility for the budget and physical operations, such as deciding whether or not to start construction of a new building. There are people who think that a preacher who is not an elder is a pastor. Some people think that the story in Paradise Lost about the devil’s rebellion can be found in the Bible.

Most of these are pretty harmless. It probably won’t mean you are going to hell if you add to the duties of the elders (unless by so doing you take them away from their true duty of watching over the spiritual growth of their flock). You won’t endanger your soul if you think the concept of immersion (baptism) began with John.

One such probably-harmless discussion centers around just who Satan is. Most would answer the question, “Is the devil Satan?” with a yes. Some would answer the question, “Is Satan the devil?” with a definiteThe angel literally told Balaam, “Behold, I went out to Satan you.” maybe. Just for fun, let’s look at this question of who Satan is.

The Adversary

The Hebrew word transliterated Satan simply means an adversary, one who opposes. A number of times in the standard translations of the Bible it is specifically translated as a general term. . In most cases it is a noun. Once it is even used as a verb.

There is a verb, based on a person’s name, that is not in common use in baseball, and its use is specifically forbidden in the city of Houston. That verb is “to biggio.” It means to intentionally move so as to be hit by a pitched ball while appearing to get out of the way. (Baseball rules allow an umpire to deny a batter hit by a pitch the right to go to first base if, in the umpire’s opinion, the batter intentionally moved into the path of the ball.) This verb is based on a great Houston Astros player, Craig Biggio, who holds the National League record for being hit by a pitch. While most Houston fans disagree, many other people believe that he frequently got away with illegally ensuring that he was hit by a pitch that should have missed him. Thus some people have used his name as a verb. There is one instance in the Bible where Satan is used in a similar way. In the story of Balaam and his speaking ass, the angel says, “And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me.” (Num 22:32) Literally it reads, “I went out to Satan you.”

Just ten verses earlier, the scripture says the angel stood in his way “as an adversary against him.” Several other times the Bible uses the word in this very generic sense. Three times in 1 Kings 11 specific human kings are called adversaries of Solomon. In 1 Samuel 29 the rulers of Philistia fear lest David, who is not yet king and who has been living amongst them, might become a Satan (adversary) to them in battle against Saul. In 1 Kings 5:4 Solomon claims to be at peace, having neither adversary nor evil chancing to come his way.

Satan in the Old Testament

Other than those previously mentioned, the other uses in the Old Testament refer to a specific, probably angelic being. This is the person that most people think is the devil. Some rabbis, however, have proposed a different interpretation of this being.

In most, if not all, of the Old Testament references to Satan, he is a being that stands before God in the position of a prosecuting attorney. He is not necessarily an adversary of God, although he certainly stands in an adversarial position in relation to a person who stands before God.

In the English system of justice, of which the American system is a subset, we are quite familiar with this type of person. When an individual is accused of a crime, he has the right to have a lawyer (barrister in Britain) represent him in matters before the court. On the other side of the process a district attorney (in the United States) represents the interests of the state. The lawyers on both sides should be well versed in case law, in all of its nuances. The only significant difference between sides is the employer. The one is employed by the accused; the other is employed by the state. Significantly, crime dramas notwithstanding, neither is inherently good or evil. So it is with Satan in the Old Testament.

It should be noted that there is a pair of scriptures in which the name or title Satan does not appear. Isaiah 14:12 makes a reference to “Lucifer,” in connection with the king of Babylon. Many people associate Lucifer with Satan, although this scripture (the only use of the word Lucifer) never does. In fact, most English translations of the Bible translate the word as “star of the morning” or “daystar,” rather than making it a name. The other misconception is that the serpent in Genesis 3 is necessarily Satan. It is conceivable that the serpent represents a being who, in his adversarial role, acts on God’s behalf to determine whether Adam and Eve will obey God’s law. It is also conceivable that the serpent represents the devil, specifically tempting our original forebears with the intent of causing them to sin. These are two different possible interpretations of the story, and so it is possible that the serpent fits the Old Testament example of Satan, or that he does not.

The best-known description of the Satan and his function in the Jewish scriptures can be found in the early chapters of the book of Job. If Satan is to be necessarily equated with the devil, then this causes some theological problems. How could an evil Satan come into the sinless presence of God (and why could not sinful man do so without benefit of forgiveness)? Or was this before the “fall” of Satan (and therefore Satan could not be the serpent of Genesis 3)? On the other hand, could this be an angel standing in the position of, and bearing a title rather than a name of, Satan in God’s court? As presented in Job, this individual acts more as a representative of God, an advocate for the state, rather than as an enemy of God and of Job. Everything in these early chapters of the book (indeed the whole structure of the book) is in the form of a court appearance. The Satan acts as the prosecutor, and God (in this instance) acts as the defense attorney rather than the judge. Satan’s purpose in Job is not necessarily the destruction of Job’s faith, but rather the testing, and therefore strengthening, of it.

Some people have noted a supposed contradiction between 2 Samuel 24:1 and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21:1. In the Samuel passage God provokes David to take a census; in the Chronicles passage Satan does so. If Satan is necessarily the devil then there is a contradiction. If, on the other hand, Satan is representing God we have no such contradiction.

The other two Old Testament passages that mention Satan (Ps 109:6; Zech 3:1-2) continue the imagery of Satan in a judicial role. Both passages have Satan standing “at the right hand” of individuals in a courtroom setting. In the Zechariah passage God rebukes Satan, in essence passing sentence in favor of the defendant.

Satan in the New Testament

It is only in the New Testament that Satan acquires an absolute association with the devil. And yet, in some places the older view of a judicial representative of God persists. In the accounts of the temptation in the wilderness it is clearly the devil who is tempting Jesus. Nevertheless, at one point Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” (Matt 4:10; Lk 4:8) Jesus again uses the same phrase in reference to Peter, when Peter objected to the thought of Jesus being killed. (Matt 16:23; Mk 18:3) In these passages Jesus is using “Satan” in the sense of a title of one making a judicial argument, rather than as one in constant and intentional opposition to God. These passages are more a parallel to the passage in Zechariah than to many other New Testament passages. Even Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5:5 seems to use the title in this sense.

Nevertheless, Jesus and others frequently use the title as an alternate name for the devil. In Matthew 26:26, for instance, when Jesus asks, “Can Satan cast out Satan?” he is clearly responding to the accusation that he is acting on behalf of the devil. In the parable of the sower what Matthew calls “the wicked one” Mark calls “Satan.” (Matt 13:19; Mk 4:15) In Luke 10:18, Jesus says he beheld Satan “as lightning fall from heaven.” Paul and John continue using the term in this vein. John specifically equates the devil and Satan. (Rev 12:9; 20:2) While PaulIf Satan is to be necessarily equated with the devil, then the book of Job causes some theological problems. never uses the titles devil and Satan in the same sentence as John does, he clearly attributes to Satan those things that belong to the devil. In Paul’s mind Satan is the opposite of and enemy of God.

Does this constitute a contradiction in the Bible? Is the Satan of the Old Testament an entirely different person than the Satan of the New Testament? Or is this more of a case of someone taking a familiar term and reapplying it in an unfamiliar, though similar, way? This latter is not unheard of in the scripture. John appropriates the Greek concept of “the Word” and applies it to Jesus. Jesus and the apostles take the Jewish practice of immersion and make it into a new concept (so much so, that many Christians thousands of years later forget that it was even part of Judaism). Perhaps Paul’s view of Satan is not so much a contradiction as an evolution. One thing is certain. Whether acting on behalf of God or in opposition to him, Satan has always been an adversary to man. Regardless of his original nature, the individual or position has never been good for us.