Updated: Jul 17, 2021
In recent scholarship, the traditional Christian interpretation of Satan has come under some scrutiny.
Scholars like Dr. Michael Heiser, Dr. Miryam Braynd, and Dr. Archie Wright have focused on the development of the Satan character throughout biblical literature. Much of this scholarship has been helpful and enlightening, but the data presented can make the Satan character seem more of a literary development rather than a real being we are to treat as a serious and real threat to our spiritual lives.
As we will see, Satan is not a clearly defined character from beginning to end of Scripture and there is certainly a development in how this “Satan” figure comes to be understood. For those of us who have seen the evidence for this complex reality in Scripture, it may appear that a belief in Scriptural inerrancy comes into question.
My goal in this article will be to look at some of the data with a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
How we understand Satan is important to how we live our lives as Christians because we are to “be aware of Satan’s schemes” (2 Cor 2:11). We are to understand how this being works against us in the world, so we do not become unaware of this being’s intentions and plans.
What I present will account for the flexibility of language over history. We should take this flexibility into account when looking at the development of how the concept of Satan is used throughout the Bible.
In this article, I will explain the development to which I am referring. In a future article, I will present a few options of how Christians can make sense of the data in a systematic theology that takes into account language flexibility over time. My goal here will be to address some common traditional understandings of the Satan figure that may need some adjustment in light of the scholarly data. Lastly, I will present some practicals of how we should think about Satan’s work in the world.
My hope is that we will see scholarly study of the Satan figure as more of a help than a hindrance to our faith, and that we will come away able to practically apply this knowledge to our lives.
The Development of the Satan Character
The Serpent of Genesis 3
The traditional and modern interpretation of the serpent in Genesis 3 (nachash in Hebrew) is Satan disguised as a snake. This view was further driven home in Christian thought by literature such as Paradise Lost by John Milton.
While it is possible to come to this view by combining different biblical passages (for example, in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2, there is a serpent or dragon connected with the devil or Satan), there is no reason to suppose that this snake is certainly to be identified with the devil when we take this passage on its own terms and in its original context. In fact, there was no understanding of the Satan figure, or devil, at this point in the biblical literature.
While it is certainly plausible to suppose this serpent was a member of God’s heavenly host, or divine counsel, and a spiritual being who had rebelled against God, there is no hard evidence in the passage itself that this character was Satan. The word devil (from the Greek word diabolos) is a New Testament word, not a term we find in the Old Testament. Prior to Revelation, there is no explicit association between the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan. Arguably, even in Revelation a case could be made that there is no connection between the serpent of the garden of Eden and the serpent called the devil (Revelation 12:9).
The connection is made somewhat in second temple literature. For example, 1 Enoch speaks about the “angel” who “led Eve astray”—though this being was referred to as “Gadreel,” not Satan. The Wisdom of Solomon says, “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who are on his side suffer for it.” Satan, at Qumran, is opposed to humanity as the leader of darkness. However, it is not until after the New Testament was written that we begin to see the explicit connection between Satan and the snake of the Garden of Eden.
Simply using the Old Testament, however, one could still at the very least connect the serpent figure of Genesis 3 with a spiritual being who decides to rebel against God and deceive Adam and Eve.1
What we do see in the Old Testament is a serpent-like creature being symbolically referred to as an enemy of God (Isaiah 27:1).
This reflects the Near Eastern motif where a serpent is referred to as the opposition to deity. The battle between Marduk and Tiamat in Enuma Elish and Baal and Yam/Mot in Canaan are two such examples. The Old Testament commonly uses some ideas from the surrounding culture as rhetorical devices to show how Yahweh is better.
Another example of this is where the Old Testament often refers to the Exodus as God saving the Israelites through “a Mighty hand and outstretched arm.” This phrase was commonly used of the Egyptian pharaoh before the Old Testament uses it. This is a way of rhetorically showing how Yahweh is greater than Pharaoh by using language that people in the Ancient Near East would have recognized immediately.
In the same way, in some places the great serpent Leviathan is used rhetorically to show how God is greater than the other surrounding gods. Yahweh is greater and is the one who really has power over the great serpent.
What About Genesis 3:15?
Some may connect Genesis 3:15 with the idea that the serpent of Genesis is the enemy of mankind: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15 NIV).
In Ancient Near Eastern literature, the serpent is a chaos creature. Heiser takes the serpent as being a member of the divine council who dissents. This snake (nachash) isn’t just an animal; the Ancient Near Eastern world would have seen it as referring to a spiritual being, and in Heiser’s view, likely one of the divine council.
My point is not that the snake cannot be thought of as Satan or the devil but that the Genesis writer would not necessarily have made that connection, or at least would not have had that vocabulary, which wasn’t used in that way until the second temple period.
If we take “the satan” vocabulary as it was used at the time, it actually helps some of the Old Testament passages make more sense.
For example, 1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1. If, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan is understood as an opposing angel sent by God, rather than the enemy of all God’s people, this retelling of the 2 Samuel 24 narrative seems more coherent.
What Does Satan Mean in the Old Testament?
Satan is not a name in the Old Testament. Satan also does not start off in the Bible as the cosmic enemy of God. In fact, most of the 27 occurrences of satan in the Old Testament read “the satan.” Like English, Hebrew does not attach the definite article “the” to names. This means that “the satan” is actually an office or role rather than a name.
“The Satan” in Job
For instance, “the satan” shows up early in Job as an ambiguous figure. Scholars like Dr. Heiser think that “the satan” refers here to an office within Yahweh’s divine council—God’s ruling body. In other words, this being had a job that involved “investigating what is happening on earth” (Job 1:7).
Heiser has more to say and I’d like to quote him here since I don’t think I could say it better:
“He is, so to speak, Yahweh’s eyes and ears on the ground, reporting what has been seen and heard. . . . The function or office of the satan is why later Jewish writings began to adopt it as a proper name for the serpent figure from Genesis 3 who brought ruin to Eden. . . . The dark figure of Genesis 3 was eventually thought of as the ‘mother of all adversaries,’ and so the label satan got stuck to him. He deserves it. The point here is only that the Old Testament doesn’t use that term for the divine criminal of Eden.
“In Job 1 the satan and God converse about Job. The satan gets a bit uppity, challenging God about Job’s integrity. We know the rest of the story—God gives the satan enough latitude to prove himself wrong, albeit at Job’s expense.”2
The satan is not necessarily a villain here, though I would say he does seem to have a sinister tone in the story. For instance, the satan seems to both accuse Job and God: Job’s faithfulness isn’t genuine, and God is only worthy of being followed insofar as He blesses people.
However, in the whole, the satan here, while perhaps sinister, would not have been understood in its context as referring to the cosmic enemy of God, but simply doing a job assigned for him by God as a member of God’s heavenly court.
Can we still read this character as “the devil” of the New Testament? Yes, but we have to do this by reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament.
If we are to do this, we should at least realize that’s what we are doing rather than pretending that the Satan is clearly defined as a cosmic enemy of God in the Old Testament. We can do this from a position of faith in God’s “progressive revelation,” but not from a position based on the data found in the Old Testament itself.
“The Satan” in Other Places in the Old Testament
Here is a quote from The Unseen Realm that is vital to understanding the Old Testament data on Satan:
“Most of the twenty-seven occurrences of satan in the Hebrew Bible . . . do indeed have the definite article—including all the places English readers presume the devil is present (Job 1:6-9, 12; 2:1-4, 6-7; Zech 3:1-2). The satan described in these passages is not the devil. Rather, he’s an anonymous prosecutor, as it were, fulfilling a role in Yahweh’s council—bringing an accusatory report. The instances of satan in the Old Testament that lack the definite article also don’t refer to the devil or the serpent figure. Those occurrences describe either humans or the Angel of Yahweh, who is occasionally sent by God to ‘oppose’ someone or execute judgement (e.g. Num. 22:22-23).”3
In this way, there are many Satans or adversaries throughout the Old Testament.
In Numbers 22:22 and Numbers 22:32, the satan, translated “adversary,” stands opposed to Balaam and ready to kill him. This means the satan, or Satan, could perhaps refer to a cosmic enemy of God, but the context seems to rule this out. The two scriptures in Numbers refer to the Angel of Yahweh, and the parallel passage to 1 Chronicles 21:1 is 2 Sam. 24:1, which has God himself prompting the census. This means that the Jewish writers in this period likely did not consider Satan to be a cosmic enemy of God, but rather a spiritual being who held an office in God’s divine counsel to “accuse” and “oppose.”
While this allows for a better harmonization of the two passages that previously seemed unlikely through our modern understanding of Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Sam. 24:1), this new understanding opens up some new problems in interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. These problems will be addressed in a later article.
Every remaining use of satan is used of a human being. So why is Satan or the satan used to describe humans or the angel of Yahweh? While the word is often translated either “Satan” or “adversary,” the term actually means “accuser” or “challenger.” In Hebrew, the word describes a role in the context of judgement or opposition. God may use the satan (accuser) as an instrument of judgment or opposition. It can refer to a human or divine being, depending on the context.
In the next article, we continue looking at more data about Satan throughout the Old Testament and in the apocryphal literature that leads up to the New Testament.
1 See note in the Faith Life Study Bible under Luke 10:18 on “Satan in the Old Testament and the Serpent of Genesis 3” written by Michael Heiser. See also The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser, ch. 11.
2 Michael S. Heiser. The Unseen Realm. p. 56-57.
3 Michael S. Heiser. The Unseen Realm. pg. 57.