In the Hebrew Wisdom and Poetry class I’m currently teaching, we recently discussed the character called the śaṭan (השטן) in the book of Job. Many of the students were surprised to discover that “śaṭan” in the Hebrew Bible is not a proper name, but rather a role of one of the heavenly beings (האלהים) in YHWH’s heavenly court: “the adversary.” We compared Job 1-2 with the other two references to the śaṭan in the Hebrew Bible: 1 Chronicles 21:1 and Zechariah 3:1-5.
One of my students emailed me some questions after class, asking for clarification on a few points. With his permission, I’m publishing his message and my response.
I found your statements very interesting, because I had never heard such arguments before, but at the same time I am also confused or troubled about these questions.
I also had the sense that actually quite many of us were surprised about you connecting God and Satan and displaying them as more or less playing for the same team, as well as stating that God is in charge over hell.
I am not sure if I correctly summarized that, so my question is whether you could possibly summarize again what you mentioned in class about Satan and his relationship to God as well as about hell? I think being able to read it would help me to think things through and to understand them better.
Let me say that I probably didn’t present the topic of “the śaṭan” in the most systematic way. Sometimes I feel the need to be extreme in order to shift others’ perception on an issue. Here are a few clarifications.
I do believe that “the adversary/śaṭan” in the Old Testament is the same being as “ho satanas” (the śaṭan) and “ho diabolos” (the devil/slanderer) in the New Testament. However, God’s revelation in Scripture is progressive. When interpreting OT texts, I believe it is important to bracket out the “updated information” we find in the NT—at least temporarily—until we fully grasp what the OT authors are trying to say in their context.
That said, there is continuity between the OT and NT on this issue: nothing said about “the śaṭan” or “the devil” in the NT contradicts what is said in the OT. Some NT passages imbue OT passages with greater significance because we now understand that “the śaṭan” was present in the OT passage in a non-obvious way–sort of like the way we can see Christ or the church in many OT passages once we read with the lens of the NT. For example, we understand that the “serpent” in Genesis 3 and Isaiah 27:1 was “the śaṭan” because of Romans 16:20 and Revelation 20:2. When we look at Isaiah 14:12-14, immediate context indicates that the “Day Star, Son of the Dawn” is the king of Babylon—but Revelation 12 causes Christians to want to see “Śaṭan” or “Lucifer” in Isaiah 14. (I think that’s a legitimate way to read Isaiah 14, but because of typology, not by virtue of direct reference or fulfillment.)
Because of Christian tradition and popular culture, there are a lot of ideas widely held by Christians and non-Christians about Satan, angels and demons that just aren’t biblical, or which have very flimsy biblical support. One of these is the idea that all temptation comes from Satan or demons, and that humans who give in to temptation can at least partially deflect the blame for their sin onto Satan/demons. Scripture teaches that our sinful natures do a great job of tempting us to sin (e.g., Rom 7) without any help from demons, and that there is no temptation that is too great to resist for those of us who have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 10:13).
Another widespread idea is the notion that Satan governs “hell” or even the present earth that has been “subjected to futility.” But the NT actually teaches that “hell” is a place into which all reprobate (unsaved) humans and demons and Satan will be cast after the final judgment. Satan and the demons don’t have power to cast anyone into the lake of fire or Še’ol/Hades; that is God’s decision—see Matthew 8:28-43 and 10:28; and James 4:12. In fact, I don’t think we can say that anyone right now is “in hell,” if we mean the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:10-15. Unsaved persons who have died go to some holding place for the dead (Še’ol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek), while they await resurrection to eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
Satan is active and does have some circumscribed power on earth, as we see from passages like Acts 5:3; 26:18; Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20; 1 Peter 5:8; Ephesians 2:2. But even in many of these passages, God is using Satan to accomplish his plans (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20; 2 Cor 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18). To think of God and Satan as opposing forces of nearly equal strength (with God just barely being strong enough to win out) is more akin to dualism that is found in other religions (Zoroastrianism, Taoism) or some pseudo-Christian heresies (Manichaeism).
From these passages (OT and NT) and what we can infer about the differences between the degrees of moral autonomy granted to humans and angelic beings, it seems that at some point before the creation of humanity, God did offer some measure (or moment) of free will to angels, and many—led by one that we now call “Satan”—chose to rebel. Yet God is still using those fallen angelic beings for his purposes, as we see in 1 Chronicles 21:1; Zechariah 3; Job 1-2; and the NT passages mentioned above.
Anyway, granting Satan and demons more freedom (as many try to do) does not absolve God of responsibility when we consider the problem of evil, because ultimately we must ask why God chose to create angelic and human beings with some capacity to choose evil.
I would encourage you to read more in the area of systematic theology to see what other scholars have to say about the śaṭan. With the world of “theological scholarship,” I am quite consciously an Old Testament scholar trying to “protect” OT texts from systematic theologians trying to import an NT perspective on the śaṭan. And yet, I am a Christian, so I must acknowledge the whole counsel of God and the consistency of OT and NT! But from what I recall from my Intro to Systematic Theology courses back in undergrad and seminary days, I think you’ll find what I’ve said about the NT’s presentation of “the śaṭan” to be in the mainstream of evangelical scholarly opinion (even though at odds with popular understandings). Let me know if I’m mistaken about that.