Who Is Satan? (Part 2)
Updated: Jul 17, 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).
The Faith Life Study Bible Commentary, which takes the view of Azazel being a demon, rather than a scapegoat, says,
“If Azazel, the deity, is in view, this is not meant to indicate that the people were offering a sacrifice to this Azazel (17:7 would prohibit this), but instead they were sending the goat that carried the sin outside the land deemed holy for Yahweh—into a territory understood to be under Azazel’s jurisdiction [designated for the demonic realm, represented by Azazel, where sin belonged]. In some of these texts, Azazel is the leader of the angels that sinned in Gen. 6:1-4… This goat—not the goat that was sacrificed—was the one connected with the sins of the people. The goat was not free to wander; it was driven far enough from the camp that it could not return…The goat was a means to transport sin to the demonic realm [outside the land deemed holy for Yahweh] since sin could not be tolerated on holy ground. Rabbinic literature records stories of how the Jews in the first century AD were so frightened that the goat for Azazel would return that they would drive it over a cliff. Compare Isa 53:10-12.”
Other Demonic Beings in the Old Testament
In addition to Azazel, there are other possible inhabitants of the demonic realm we find in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 32:17, there seems to be a whole host of demonic beings, called both shedim and elohim, whom the Israelites worshipped in rebellion against Yahweh. These beings are represented as real beings, not merely idols.
We see something similar in how Paul discusses demons in 1 Cor. 10:20. In Paul’s view, the beings behind the idols were real beings that were being worshiped called daimoninion.
These Scriptures make it clear that, though there is only one God of the universe, Yahweh, there are other “gods” who are real beings and could be considered demons. These beings are not powerless in the world. Where Deuteronomy 4:35 says there is no god besides Yahweh, it means there is no god like Yahweh, meaning no other elohim compare to Him. Likewise, Psalm 29:1-2 calls all other elim to worship Yahweh.
Satan in the New Testament
By the time of the New Testament, Satan has come to be understood as the cosmic enemy of God. We can also see other names used like Beelzebul and Belial (Matt. 12:27; Mark 3:22; 2 Cor. 6:15). These were probably seen more or less as synonyms for Satan, or at least very close to Satan in terms of chain of command for evil beings. In the case of Beelzebul, this is clearly a variant of the god Baal-Zebub in the Old Testament (2 Kings 1:2). This goes to show how the Jews often thought about the gods of other nations as real beings standing opposed to Yahweh, not just idols, as Paul does in the New Testament (see 1 Cor 10:18-22).
Prior to Revelation, we don’t find an explicit association between the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan. In Revelation 12:9, we read this:
“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
The correlation is logical, as this snake was the original “opposer” (satan) of humanity.
In the next article, I will present possibilities for a systematic theology of Satan based on this scholarly data.
 See The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser, ch. 3-4.
 Faith Life Study Bible, See notes for Leviticus 16:8-22.
 Faith Life Study Bible, See notes for Leviticus 16:8-22.