Updated: Jul 18, 2021
In a previous article, I laid out some of the information we find about Satan in the Old Testament. We looked at the serpent in Genesis 3, in the book of Job, and elsewhere in the Old Testament. In this part, we will look at the information in apocryphal literature, which we do not consider canon but can shed some light on how language and ideas about Satan developed in the second temple period of Jewish literature up to the New Testament. Next, we will examine some Satan-like figures in the Old Testament that connect with some of the ideas that emerge in second temple literature.
Satan in Apocryphal Literature
Through apocryphal Jewish literature, we are able to see the development in how Jews began to see Satan. The Dead Sea Scrolls give us access to the theology of various Jewish sects and mainstream thought, both of the Essene sect of the Dead Sea community and the wider Jewish world. The Book of Jubilees, the Damascus Document, and other apocryphal literature show a variety of ways Jews made sense of sin and evil in the world, and much of this understanding came from how they understood demons and evil spirits.
Jews gradually began to believe in a single evil being that stood opposed to the people of God. This being went by different names and characteristics in this literature, including Mastema, Asael, Shemihaza, Belial, Beelzebub, and Satan.
Each of these names and the ideas about sin and evil that accompanied them had varying influence between the Qumran sect and the mainstream Jewish community of the second temple period. Mastema probably has the most connection to what we would understand as the Satan, or devil, of the New Testament. Mastema, Asael, and Shemihaza were considered part of the Watchers that came to earth to corrupt humanity in Genesis 6. I won’t go into great detail on these characters and their attributes here for two reasons: I’m not an expert on them, and it would take too much space for my purposes here.
The important thing to recognize here is that these characters were a segue to referring to Satan as the opposer of God and humanity. While I will reference these characters in brief ways throughout this article, if you want to really understand these figures better, I highly recommend the Jewish scholar Miryam Braynd, and her blog and podcast called Understanding Sin and Evil. While I would not agree with her on everything, she is very insightful in helping understand the world of second temple literature as it pertains to evil spirits and their interpretation of Scripture. Another good resource from a Christian perspective is Michael Heiser, and his books The Unseen Realm and Supernatural. For some information on The Unseen Realm, check out my book review.
These second-temple apocryphal writings are speculative works that strive to understand especially the content of Genesis as it pertains to how sin and evil entered the world, and how sin and evil continues to permeate the world. The more I learn about second temple literature, the more I see the New Testament interacting with the ideas found there. I know many of us Christians, at least subconsciously, would like to treat both the Old and New Testaments as written in a vacuum, or dropped from heaven without any external influence, or other works they are in conversation with.
As I have begun to read not just second temple literature, but other major writings that would have influenced the thinking and culture of each time period in which Scripture is written, the more I see the Bible as placed in these times, either immersed in their ways of thinking or in conversation with them. Some think that interacting with second temple literature could undermine the authority of Scripture. However, realizing these influences has not diminished in the least my belief in the total authority and inspiration of Scripture. Rather, I have seen how God meets people where they are in order to bring them forward into holiness more than ever.
Satan-like Figures in The Old Testament
To be sure, there is a divine counsel, as well as various beings in the spiritual realm, throughout Scripture. Job 38:4-7 describes the “sons of God” as being with God before the creation of the world. Likewise, Psalm 82:1 says, “God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods [elohim].” In this Scripture, we get the idea that there are other spiritual beings whom the Psalmist calls elohim, or “gods.”
Does this mean the OT is polytheistic? Of course not. It is one of the primary goals of the OT to denounce polytheism. However, it seems that at the beginning of creation there were other “elohim” present, spiritual beings below the one true Elohim (Yahweh) in hierarchy, and all created by Yahweh. Some scholars even think that this is what is symbolically being referred to on the fourth day in Genesis 1.
Some of these spiritual beings rebelled against God and became demons (shedim) who stood opposed to God and His Kingdom, wanting to establish their own. Deuteronomy 32:17 clearly shows how elohim sometimes referred to demons since the word referred to spiritual beings created by God: “They [the Israelites] sacrificed to demons [shedim], not God [eloah], to gods [elohim] whom they had not known.”
Some scholars believe that Leviticus 16:8-22 is referring to the demon Azazel, rather than referring to a “scapegoat.” This is because the translation could actually go either way, depending on the two ways of dividing the Hebrew letters into words. In this Scripture, one goat is sacrificed to Yahweh while the second would be “for aza’zel” (in the Masoretic text, which could refer to a demon or deity) and “for az azai” (in the Septuagint, which is more likely to mean “the goat that goes away”). This goat would be driven out of the camp to symbolize the transference of the sins of the nations upon it.
Given that the Septuagint is the older text and the plausibility of the term meaning “the goat that goes away,” the etymology of az azai seems to fit the context well. However, regardless of which is the right interpretation of the passage, we know that Azazel came to be a Satan-like figure in apocryphal literature. This is likely because second temple Jews considered him to be a demon referred to in Leviticus. In 1 Enoch he was a demon associated with the desert (1 Enoch 8:1; 9:6; 10:4-8; 13:1-3).