The Development of the Concept of Satan in the Old Testament
By Alan D. Griffin
In the early stages of Jewish theology some biblical writers saw all things good and evil alike and coming from one divine principle. This form of Monotheism was the belief that the universe only contained one divine principle YHWH alone, who caused both joy and sorrow as well as prosperity and suffering such as you see in Deuteronomy 28.
Two of the oldest strands of the Pentateuch, Genesis 2 and Genesis 6-8, shows YHWH as first creating life then regretting it resulting in the flood to annihilate most life forms on Earth . This shows YHWH was both the giver of life as well as pitiless executioner.
There are other examples of this, such as in 1 Samuel 16:14-23, where first YHWH selects king Saul then rejecting him, driving him to madness by sending an “evil spirit” to torment him. In 1 Kings 22: 18-28 YHWH sends ” a lying spirit” to lead King Ahaz to his doom. Both texts indicate ” evil” as one means YHWH used to effect his will. Second Isaiah ( ch 40-55) depicts YHWH as both the origin of light and dark as well as good and evil. ( Harris p328).
The next step in the development of the concept of Satan can be found in Zechariah 3:1-9 and Job 1-2. These passages depict the idea of some of Israel’s thinkers that placed human troubles not on YHWH but on a divine council known as “Bene ha elohim” ( sons of the God) which form YHWH’s heavenly court including the Satan who’s job was to accuse YHWH’s people and to test their loyalty.
Satan by this time is seen as a separate entity from YHWH but he remains completely under the control of YHWH and able to do nothing without God’s expressed permission. He functions as God’s obedient agent, an aspect of God’s personality. He works as YHWH’s prosecuting attorney who tempts YHWH to punish the seemingly innocent.
Satan also works as YHWH’s destroyer that was originally seen as a job of YHWH himself. Psalm 82:1-7 speaks of God’s divine council and the divine council is with whom God is speaking to in Genesis 1:26 when he says ” let US make humankind in OUR own image.” Satan in his role as prosecuting attorney and destroyer is abundantly clear throughout the Book of Job which many believe is the oldest story in the Old Testament and there is a Sumerian version of the story.
In Zechariah 3:2 Zechariah has a vision of Joshua being arraigned before YHWH with an angel of the lord representing a defense for Joshua on one side of him and the Satan acting as prosecutor standing on Joshua’s other side. The two accounts of King David’s census shows the shift in development between YHWH being responsible for both creation and destruction and YHWH being only responsible for righteousness and justice and Satan being responsible for temptation and sin.
In 2 Samuel 24:1-25 YHWH influences David’s to sin by taking a census of Israel which was always hated by the people because such censuses were only conducted for 2 reasons taxation and conscription. David’s census taking angers YHWH and YHWH then instead of punishing King David directly he sends a plague to kill thousands of Israelites. In the second telling of this story found in 1 Chronicles 21:1-30 It is not YHWH who inspires David to sin this time it is Satan and YHWH only punishes the sin. So what the author of Samuel ascribes to God the Chronicler later separates and ascribes the cause of David’s sin to Satan. Up to this point Satan acts only as an adversary to humans not an adversary to God (Harris p328).
The term Lucifer only appears once in the Hebrew bible in Isaiah 14:12. This verse is equating the king of Babylon to the Canaanite myth found in The Birth of the Gracious Gods a Ugaritic poem about two divine children, Shachar (dawn) and Shalim (dusk), who were born as the result of the intercourse of the god El with mortal women sometimes the goddess atirat and refers to the rise and disappearance of the morning star Venus in the phrase “O light-bringer, (Helel ben Shaḥar, translated as Lucifer in the Vulgate and preserved in the early English translations of the Bible) son of the dawn.”
This understanding of Isa. 14:12–15 seems to be the most accepted interpretation in the New Testament, as well as among early Christians such as Origen, Eusebius, Tertullian, and Gregory the Great. The association of Lucifer in the verse found in Isaiah 14 and Satan is considered a Christian “remythologization” of Isa. 14, as the verse was originally as a reference to Canaanite mythology to build its imagery of the hubris of a historical ruler, “the king of Babylon “( revolvy.com).
The idea of 1/3 of the angels fell with Lucifer is from an indirect passage in Revelation 12:3-5 .” 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. 5 She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. ( Biblegateway.com).
This concept also comes from this Ugaritic poem and is a mythology associated with an astronomical phenomenon known as the Orionid meteor shower. Michael Solontoi, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “As Halley’s comet orbits the sun, it has left behind dust that was liberated from the comet when it was warmed by its close passage to the sun, most recently in 1986,” Solontoi said. The Orionid meteor shower we see is the result of the Earth passing through this trail of debris deposited by the comet. “The Orionids appear around the same time each year, when sand grain-size pebbles from Halley’s debris stream race through the sky at speeds of more than 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers) an hour. At these high speeds, the pebbles disintegrate in Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating streaks of light.( Nationalgeographic.com).
Astronomers call it the “Orionid meteor shower,” because the meteors appear to stream out of a point (called “the radiant”) in the constellation Orion. The radiant is near Orion’s left shoulder. But, meteors near the radiant seem short and stubby, as a result of foreshortening. Instead, look toward any dark region of the sky about 90 degrees away in the vicinity of Venus. You’ll see just as many Orionids as you would in the radiant but they will seem longer and more dramatic (universitytoday.com).
So these ideas about Lucifer which is later associated with Satan were all originally a Canaanite myth about the planet Venus and the annual Orionid Meteor shower. The King of Tyre passage in Ezekiel 28:11-19 is also a reference to this Canaanite myth.
The later influence of Zoroastrianism on the Jews led to religious syncretism and aspects of Zoroastrianism become a big part of later Judeo-Christian thought. After the Babylonian exile new religious ideas gradually infiltrated Jewish thinking. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persians who defeated Babylon, freed the Jews, allowed them to return home, and rebuild the temple But, they were still under Persian rule, taxation, and influence.
Zoroastrianism viewed the universe as dualistic, ruled over by the two opposing supernatural forces of Good and Evil. The force of good and light were led by Ahura Mazda. The force of evil and dark were led by his opposite Ahriman the Zoroastrian devil. According to Zoroaster there will be a cosmic battle between good and evil at the end of time in which Ahriman is defeated and good triumphs. But, until this battle takes place the struggle between the 2 forces through a hierarchy of Angels and Demons will continue resulting in a mix of creative peace and violent destruction.
These concepts in Zoroastrianism will profoundly influence later Judeo- Christian ideas about the nature of Satan who would become not only the enemy of humankind but the enemy of God himself. No biblical literature written before the Persian period names individual angels or depicts Satan as an entity apart from God ( Harris p.329).
In the 4th century BCE following the conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great Platonic ideas of the immortality of the soul and an afterlife full of Angels and Demons began to infiltrate Jewish writing and thought as seen in 2 Esdras chapter 30 and in chapter 31 of the book of Enoch ( Harris p. 329).
The oldest of what is considered an extra biblical source which describes Satan’s Fall is from the Apocryphal book of The Life of Adam and Eve chapters 12-17. In these chapters Satan states that after God Created Man he ordered all the heavenly hosts to worship the human image as divine. Satan refused to worship what he saw as a younger and inferior creation than himself. This caused God to cast out of Heaven Satan and all the Angels who agreed with him. Satan caused Adam and Eve to Fall from grace because he believed humankind should be humiliated just as he had been humiliated for human’s sake.
This scene will have a close equivalent in Revelation although Revelation is more subtle which is common in apocalyptic literature. In the Midrash on the Genesis tale of Humanity’s fall from Grace Satan then becomes the voice behind the speaking serpent and the source of human sin, this late tradition profoundly influenced Christian thought ( Harris p. 403).
In Genesis the serpent is generally and commonly interpreted negatively and in association with Satan. No writer in the Tanakh identified the serpent as Satan nor evil only subtle and crafty who skeptically questions the way God runs things ( Harris p. 141)
By the time of the New Testament Persian, Greek, Syrian, and other non-Jewish ideas had been fully assimilated by the covenant community of Judaism. The Old Testament gives scant details of Satan and a low priority of respect and importance ( Harris p. 329).
Harris, Stephen L., The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible 2nd Edition, McGraw Hill, New York, 2008.