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Angels and Demons

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A Brief History of Satan (Part 1): Introduction, Old Testament teaching

Information: This article is Part 1 of a brief history and overview of Christian beliefs about Satan. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

Introduction

Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years. (Anton Szandor Lavey)

It was Christianity which first painted the Devil on the world's wall (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Also commonly known in Christianity as the Devil, the Serpent (Genesis 3), a fallen angel or Lucifer (amongst many other names [1]), Satan is said to be the name of an evil being opposed to God, and those who seek to do God's will. Most Christians believe the devil is an angel who was kicked out of heaven to roam the earth, after leading an unsuccessful rebellion against God, and they use passages such as this to justify this:

How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to earth... You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God... I will make myself like the Most High." But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-15)

However, although this passage might appear to be speaking about Satan, it is not. Satan is actually not a very prominent figure in the Bible, despite the fact that some people might argue that its presence can be seen throughout. Passages believed to speak about Satan, such as the one quoted above from Isaiah, can sometimes be taken out of their original context and given a new meaning based on what Christians believe. For instance, Isaiah's word's here have a historical context, and were spoken to Jews before, during and after they were taken into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Thus the original subject of these passages is not a 'fallen angel' called Satan, but the human rulers and nations who sought to oppose the Jewish people and their God. Therefore, in order to explore the biblical teaching about Satan/the devil we will restrict ourselves to passages which specifically mention Satan (or the Devil), so that we avoid 'reading-into' texts meanings which may not have been originally intended by those who authored them.

In Christian theology, hermeneutics is the 'science' (or art) of interpreting what the Bible might be saying to people today. One the problems theologians face in trying to do this, is that passages can be read through the lens of Church tradition, or the beliefs of particular denominations. The 'science' (or art) then, is trying to avoid doing this as often as possible.

Satan in the Old Testament

Although it is common to find Christians speaking of the universe as a place divided between good and evil forces (God and Satan respectively), this is not the picture of things in the Old Testament. As far as the writers of the Old Testament are concerned, everything that happened was an act of God. When bad things happened to people in the Old Testament, they did not blame a devil but assumed they had upset (or offended) God. When good things happened, it was believed to be because people had pleased/obeyed God. A good example of this can be seen in Deuteronomy 28:1-68, where blessings and curses are set out for obeying and disobeying God.

The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. The LORD will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. The LORD will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. (Deuteronomy 28:20-23)

This notion of God blessing and cursing (or punishing) people, can be seen in all aspects of human relationships. For example, women who could not have children were encouraged to find out what they had done to offend God, as infertility was considered to be a sign of divine dis-favour (Genesis 30:1-2). In Genesis 3:17-19 the ground is cursed by God to produce thorns, which will make man's working of the land much harder. This aspect of the world (i.e. God as the source of both good and 'evil' events in the world), can also be seen when the Jewish nation was taken into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The prophets believed this catastrophe was not the work of any evil being such as a devil, but the result of divine judgement against the people for turning away from God.

The peaceful meadows will be laid waste because of the fierce anger of the Lord. Like a lion he will leave his lair, and their land will become desolate because of the sword of the oppressor and because of the Lord's fierce anger. (Jeremiah 25:37-38)

So if every event in the world (either good or bad) was originally traceable to God, then who is Satan? 

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Balaam's donkey

The word satan in Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), is generally accepted to mean 'to obstruct', but it also has in it the idea of an opponent or an adversary (i.e. one who challenges). Thus 'the satan' originally meant one who 'obstructs', or 'challenges'. This aspect of the satan is seen in the story of Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:21ff). Balaam was going on a journey against the wishes of God, who sent 'a satan' (obstructer) to stand in his way ('... the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him'). It is only because his donkey saw the angel and refused to go on, that Balaam was prevented from being killed. So here we see that a 'satan' in this instance is not an evil being, but simply an angel sent to 'obstruct' (literally stop) Balaam. In 1 Kings 11:14 the word satan is also used to describe an enemy of Solomon ('Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary'). Once again, satan here does not refer to an evil being.

Job

In the book of Job (probably the oldest book in the Old Testament), Satan begins to take on some of the characteristics Christians traditionally ascribe to it. The book of Job is a story of a righteous man who loses everything (yet remains faithful to God), because of a 'bet' between God and Satan. After a period of intense suffering (when God has 'won'), Job receives back ten times the amount he originally had. In terms of Satan's role, the story begins with the angels presenting themselves before God, with Satan also coming with them (Job 1:6-7). Now if we begin with the idea that Satan is a being of pure-evil cast out from the presence of God, and totally opposed to all God stands for, then the story of Job presents us with a problem. For if Satan (aka the devil) is such a creature, why and how is it able to come into the presence of God? In the Scripture, God is said to be holy and pure and cannot dwell in the presence of sin ('Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.' (Habakkuk 1:13)), so how could the devil enter heaven? Clearly there is no easy answer here, yet if we see Satan's role simply as the 'accuser', this may resolve part of the problem. Satan is simply the challenger, the tester or the accuser.

Then the Lord said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no-one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil" "Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?... But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face." (Job 1:8-11)

If Satan is being of pure-evil, then this is a strange conversation. Yet it begins to make sense if we see Satan's role simply as that of an 'accuser' (or one who tests/challenges others). Furthermore, Satan only afflicts Job within the bounds of what God allows, and never goes against what God says (Job 1:12-2:10). Once again, this is not the image of Satan traditionally held by many Christians as a being who has, and does, find any and every way possible to intentionally disobey God. Yet it does fit in with the Old Testament picture of God as the source of both good and bad (or misfortune) in the world, and Satan as nothing more than God's adversary (but not in an evil sense).

The idea of Satan as adversary may explain how it appears in a world God created good and perfect ('God saw all he had made and it was good' (Genesis 1:31). Also, Satan must be included in the idea that everything God created was good. Yet as Satan is also a created being (Christians believe only God is uncreated), and as the Bible says that everything that God created was good, this means that prior to the Fall (Genesis 3), Satan could not have been the evil creature it is traditionally held to be.

A Brief History of Satan (Part 2): Inter and New Testament periods

Notes

[1] Other names for Satan which Christians believe can be found in the Bible include Abaddon (Revelation 9:11), Accuser of our brothers (Revelation 12:10), Ancient serpent ((Revelation 12:9; 20:2), Angel of the Abyss (Revelation 9:11), Apollyon (Revelation 9:11), Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24), Belial (2 Corinthians 6:15), Coiling serpent (Isaiah 27:1), Dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13), Dragon (Isaiah 27:1, Revelation 20:2), Enemy (Matthew 13:39, 1 Peter 5:8), Evil one (Matthew 13:19, 380, Evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14, Matthew 12:43), Father of lies (John 8:44), Gliding serpent (Isaiah 27:1), God of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4), Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1), Liar (John 8:44), Lying spirit (1 Kings 22:22), Murderer (John 8:44), Powers of this dark world (Ephesians 6:12), Prince of demons (Matthew 12:24), Prince of this world (John 14:30), Red dragon (Revelation 12:3), Ruler of the kingdom of the air (Ephesians 2:2), Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1, Job 1:6), Serpent (Genesis 3:4, 14; 2 Corinthians 11:3), Spirit that works in those disobedient (Ephesians 2:2), Tempter (Matthew 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). (Kohlenberger III, J. R., NIV Nave's Topical Bible, Zondervan, 1999)


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