Q and A on the role of Satan in Scripture
Question From Melody Murray
Enjoyed your posts on Satan
If Satan is a role rather than a person, then who/what tempted Jesus in the desert?
Hi thanks for the question! So maybe some clarification would be helpful. In the Old Testament most scholars agree that the Satan is a role, which is why it normally has the definite article "ha Satan," or "The Satan." The Satan simply means "the opposer" in the Old Testament. Most scholars agree that in most cases in the Old Testament, the Satan is referring to a member of God's divine council. In Job for example, the Satan is not necessarily evil but has a role in roaming (investigating) the earth.
This changes in the New Testament. Satan seems to be a name for a sinister being, along with other names like Belial (2 Cor. 6:15), Beelzebub, and the Devil. If you look at other Jewish literature from around the time, you will find more names for evil leaders in the supernatural realm like Azazel, Mastema, or Shemihaza. On top of this, we see for the first time the activity of demons on earth, which we did not see in the Old Testament, at least not in the same way as in the New Testament.
Whenever we read scripture, it helps us get closer to the original meaning when we consider the context of the people who originally read it. For the original readers of Job, for example, no one has ever connected the Satan with the serpent in Genesis 3. No one had any reason to suppose the angel of Yahweh in Num. 22:22-23 was the devil because people did not yet have the modern concept of the Devil. For us to make those connections is not necessarily wrong, but we should admit that we aren't necessarily trying to get to the original meaning of the passage, but rather connect it with our own modern-day beliefs.
So what are we to do with this information? Dr. Michael Heiser in his book Demons has one scholarly approach to making sense of all this information. What he will help us to see is that demons and evil Spirits are still present in the Old Testament, but have different names than in the New Testament. He will also connect the Nephilim, Rephaim, Shedim, and Sons of God with the demons in the New Testament. You can take what you will from how he connects the phenomenology of evil spirits in the Old Testament with that of the New Testament. Though I find much of Heiser's work compelling, I'm still processing it myself.
I know for Christians there is a desire to want to know what we "ought to" believe when it comes to the supernatural world. This makes sense and it does matter what we believe about the supernatural. Of course, Christians must discern how much of what scripture says on this point was only a reflection of the time in which it was written and if it is also important for us to believe in modern times. Dr. Heiser's approach, in my opinion, is a good example of someone with a high view of scripture who also wants to honor the scholarly complexity of scripture. He helps provide a way we can take the language of the New Testament around Satan seriously while not ignoring the scholarly complexity of the use of the word throughout scripture. He wants to uphold the importance and consistency of the supernatural world in scripture. I also recommend reading Reviving Old Scratch by Richard Beck if you are interested in the sociological and psychological affect of believing in demons in modernity. I like how Beck pushes against some of the assumptions of moderns concerning the dangers of a belief in Demons.
There are, however, other approaches to this information. For example, the Waltons in "Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology" will downplay the importance of what we believe about any of it. So to the Waltons, many of these data points and not meant to be connected as Heiser does, but are merely reflections of the beliefs of the wider culture at the time they were written.
You have to decide which approach makes the most sense of your beliefs about the authority of scripture and respects the complexity of the scholarly information we have on the subject.
So my overall point in my articles on Satan was not that Satan is only a role and not a person, but that in the Old Testament, he is only a role and not a person. The language changes in the New Testament.
I hope this helps. Let me know if you are still confused. This isn't a subject with easy answers, and there are a lot of directions we could go with the question.