A BRIEF SURVEY STUDY OF SATAN FROM THE BIBLE
ONE GOD IN MANY FORMS
In the world generally, especially in the so-called 'Christian' world, there is the idea that Satan and God are locked in some sort of eternal combat over the souls of people. This is not a new idea; it is not even an idea only limited to Christianity. The Babylonians believed there were two gods, a god of good and light, and a god of evil and darkness. This view holds that the two supernatural Beings are locked in mortal combat.
This was also the standard religious view in Persia when the Jews were in captivity around 550 B.C. That is why Isaiah the prophet told Cyrus, the great King of Persia, "I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me...I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create chaos: I the Lord do all these things" (Is.45:5-22). God creates peace and He creates chaos. God is the author even of catastrophes in this sense.
SATAN AS A VERB
The Hebrew word, 'shatan,’ is a verb which means 'adversary’ or ‘opponent,’ or one who blocks the path of progress. We see this in Numbers 22 where the Hebrew prophet Balaam rides his donkey, in opposition to God’s will, to prophesy against his own people, Israel. The story says that the Angel of the LORD came to block (satan) the path of Balaam:
“Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.”
The phrase, ‘to oppose him’ is the Hebrew verb ‘shatan.’ Notice that it is God who is doing the ‘shataning’ or blocking. At this point in the Bible, there was no clear war between a Good God and an evil Satan. God was the author of all actions.
In the New Testament, the word ‘devil’ (diabolos) is used to describe actions by human beings. In 1 Timothy 3:11, Paul writes that the church leaders and their wives are not to be devils (malicious talkers):
“The wives of elders are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers (diabolos)…”
Similarly in Titus 2:3 Paul warns that the aged women in the church should not be "false accusers" or 'devils.’ He told Timothy that, "In the last days...men shall be...false accusers (devils)" (2 Tim.3:1,3). This does not mean that human beings will turn into superhuman beings or that they are possessed by the devil, but that they can commit acts of opposition.
ONE POWER, ONE PRESENCE, GOD THE GOOD
The Hebrews saw One God expressing in ALL of life:
“The Lord said to Moses, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” Exodus 4:11
“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” Lamentations 3:38
“I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Isaiah 45:5-8
The Hindu Bhagavad Gita takes a similar view of the One Power they called Brahman. In chapter eleven, the great God Vishnu in his earthly avatar named Krishna is teaching the righteous General Arjuna about spiritual reality. After several lessons, Arjuna begs Lord Krishna (Vishnu) to reveal his true divine form beyond the physical limitations. Krishna obliges and the heavens fill with multiple faces and forms of the One God. Arjuna sees the totality of God and says:
Arjuna: "O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered. All the sons of Dhritarashtra, along with their allied kings, and Bhishma, Drona, Karna—and our chief soldiers also—are rushing into Your fearful mouths. And some I see trapped with heads smashed between Your teeth." Gita 11
Arjuna is shocked to see that Krishna is not only life, light and order, but also death, darkness and chaos.
In another intriguing instance in the Old Testament, one story is told from two points of view. The story is about King David taking a population poll for military and taxation purposes. But notice what appear to be glaring differences in the same story:
“And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” II Samuel 24
“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, ‘Go, number Israel…’ ”I Chronicles 21:1-2
Which is it? The LORD (JHWH) or Satan? Either the Hebrew authors made an error of cosmically colossal proportion, or they saw the two archetypal personifications somehow working in tandem.
The Hebrew Book of Job goes so far as to call Shatan one of God’s sons:
“One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it." Job 1:6-7
It might help to know that in the ancient world, every powerful monarch had his ‘shatans’ or what we would call ‘secret police’ today. Their function was to spy on potential enemies and let the king know what was really going on. In this Hebrew literary drama, God is imagined as having his own secret agent who spies on and tests people to make them stronger. Please remember, this is not a literal theology, but rather an ancient poetic attempt to make sense of suffering in a world ruled by One Power and One Presence, God the Good, Omnipotent.
God: The Creator of Chaos (sometimes translated Evil)
The Bible abounds with examples of God bringing "chaos" into people's lives and into this world. Amos 3:6 says that if there is evil or chaos in a city, God has done it. Micah 1:12 says that "evil came down from the Lord unto the gate of Jerusalem.” In the book of Job we read how Job, a righteous man, lost his health and wealth; Job recognized immediately that "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away" (Job 1:21). Job does not say 'The Lord gave and Satan took away'. He said to his wife: "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not (also) receive evil?" (Job 2:10). At the end of the book, Job's friends comforted him over "all the chaos that the Lord had brought upon him" (Job 42:11 cp. 19:21; 8:4). Thus, according to the Bible, God is the source of what people have termed "evil" or “chaos.” In the Hebrew Bible, their God is in control of literally all things.
This is in alignment with the other polytheistic mythologies of the world, except that the Hebrews try to unite all earthly phenomena into a single deity rather than a group of deities. But the effect is similar in that all human experiences can ultimately be traced back to numinous or divine origins. This is an archetypal perspective.
From these few sample passages we see that the Hebrews regarded God as the Source of All. The normative Jewish idea of Satan has always been that he/she/it cannot be viewed as an independent agent. In the great Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Levi asserts that "everything Satan does is for the sake of heaven." When another rabbi preached a similar idea in his town, it is said that Satan himself came and "kissed his knees." The 2nd century Christian theologian, Origen, said that Satan was God’s most beloved angel who volunteered to be the antagonist in the soul-making drama on earth, that humans might grow into their divinity.
This is akin to the Taoist notion of darkness and light being distinct yet unified, teaching that this earthly existence contains a larger purpose than simply experiencing perpetual happiness and success, specifically teaching that life is a mixture of light and darkness, good and evil, peace and war, and all opposites. The artist and poet William Blake called this the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and wrote, “Without contraries is no progression.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said the same thing, “Strife is the father of all that is.” These are all ways of affirming soul-making through spiritual isometrics. Satan is a human term for an eternal pattern, a mythical construct for an infinite archetypal Being. At this level, the debate over whether the Devil is a person, an internal impulse, a symbol of free will gone bad, etc. is moot. These literal designations and symbols all contain truths, yet none captures the eternal Essence completely.
SATAN AS AN ADJECTIVE
The term ‘shatan’ is also used as an adjective that describes a quality rather than supernatural being. For example, the words satan and devil can refer to the actions of ordinary human beings. In the following passage Jesus calls Peter ‘Shatan’ because Peter stands in the way of Christ’s mission:
“At this time, Jesus began to reveal to his disciples how he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the religious leaders, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. But Peter took him aside and began to correct him, saying, ‘Put this nonsense away, Lord: that is not your destiny.’ But Jesus turned, and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan; you are becoming my obstacle, for you are not aware of my God-given destiny, but are looking through the limited eyes of a mortal man.’” Matthew 16:21-23
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews teaches that problems are exercises, or a kind of spiritual isometrics designed to move people toward a more clear sense of what is ‘right’ or more Real:
“Have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as his children? My dear child, don't shrug off God's discipline, but don't be crushed by it either. It's the child he loves that he disciplines; the child he embraces, he also corrects. God is educating you; that's why you must never drop out. He's treating you as dear children. This trouble you're in isn't punishment; it's training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God's training so we can truly live? While we were children, our parents did what seemed best to them. But God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God's holy best. At the time, discipline isn't much fun. It always feels like it's going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it's the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God. So don't sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet! Clear the path for long-distance runners so no one will trip and fall, so no one will step in a hole and sprain an ankle. Help each other out. And run for it!” (The Message Bible, Hebrews 12:4-13)
This New Testament letter teaches that the difficulties in life are sent by God to promote spiritual growth. It does not say that the devil is a Being Who gets one over on God now and then. If there is a moral dualism in the Hebrew Bible, it is one set up by the One God for a purposeful end. The Idea (Presence, Person, Energy) called Satan always acts in accordance with God’s ultimate authority.
The Apostle Paul teaches that all things are under Gods control when he writes, "all things (in life) work together for good to those who love God and understand His purposes.” (Rom.8:28) Notice that Paul qualifies his controversial all-inclusive statement of ‘all things’ by saying ‘to those who are called in accordance with His purposes,’ meaning that those who are unconscious of an all encompassing, purposeful Soul-making Universe will find the notion repulsive and awful. Most people are conditioned to associate the word ‘God’ solely with feeling good, peaceful and happy. I call this the problem with exclusive monotheism. That is why most cultures developed multiple equal deities or polytheism.
SATAN NEEDS PERMISSION
Jesus had the typical Hebrew view of an all encompassing Higher Power when he tells Peter that the Divine aspect of the One he calls Shatan or the opponent, has asked permission to test Peter in order that Peter might become a great teacher:
Jesus said, "Simon (Peter), Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back (changed), strengthen your brothers.” But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” Luke 22
JUDAS GOD’S AGENT AND THE DEVIL
In the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas that he is the wisest of all of the disciples because he has seen the necessity of turning Christ over to the religious authorities that the Christ might shed the lower Jesus-self that is keeping him from a higher consciousness:
“But you, Judas, will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Gospel of Judas
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "Have not I chosen you twelve (disciples), and one of you is a devil? He spoke of Judas Iscariot..." Jesus was referring to an ordinary, mortal man. He was not speaking of a personal, supernatural being with horns. The word 'devil' here simply refers to a wicked man.
The Hebrew world view teaches that ‘evil’ or suffering is included within the scope of an all powerful and all encompassing Higher Power, therefore the followers can pray to that Higher Power to do something about the problem. If this all encompassing Higher Power doesn't remove the suffering, then the follower knows that the obstacles are sent or at least permitted by their Higher Power for spiritual or soulful improvement. But if one believes that there is some independent evil Being called the Devil or Satan who thwarts God’s will and causes problems, then there is no way of viewing them as ultimately purposeful. Without an all encompassing view of a Higher Power, then disability, illness, sudden death or calamity at some point have to be blamed on a Devil, human sin, human unbelief, or bad luck. If the Devil is an independent power, then humans are helpless and hopeless victims when suffering arrives. Any theology that affirms an all powerful God, who is occasionally baffled and beaten by the Devil, has lost the all powerful God.
That being said, this doctrine causes many people to be troubled. Some just cannot or will not reconcile a Good God with acts of evil, illness and suffering.
WALT AND THE SMITING GOD
I had a friend named Walt while I was in seminary. He came by my house one afternoon and told me he was dropping out of school. His last words to me were, “If God is the author of all of the pain and suffering in this world, I have two words for this God, ‘F%@K You!’” I don’t know where Walt ended up, but when I last saw him, he was smoking pot everyday and bitterly angry at the world.
Many Westerners understandably have problems with this idea of a personal ‘God’ who smites people, or allows the holocaust and other horrific tragedies. This is especially true when people have been trained to see only with literalist, rationalistic, materialistic eyes. Modern Westerners make two assumptions the Hebrews did not make:
That God was like a limited human.
That comfort and happiness in this life are most important.
First, the Hebrews experienced God as a Living Source, but not as a human being limited in knowledge and power. They, along with other ancient cultures, submitted to the phenomena of earthly existence as they showed up - the good, the bad and the ugly. And this was before penicillin and toilet paper. To be ‘made in God’s image’ did not refer to their human physical form, ideas or emotions, but rather to their unique consciousness of the numinous or sacred in ways that plants and animals could not. God was a Source beyond human evaluation and explanation, but it was fine and even necessary to engage in the attempt. It would have to be, this Higher Power made us capable of arguing with ‘what is’ in order that we might expand our small limited selves. Eternity infused finitude through engagement with It, and sculpted larger Souls by doing so.
Second, the Hebrews saw this earthly experience primarily as a means to develop character. They did not superimpose a metaphysical value system or set of metaphysical expectations on God or the manifesting Universe. They looked at the Universe as it showed up, and tried to make sense of the experiences they encountered. Death as well as life was simply there, as was disease, natural disasters, accidents, poverty, old age and all other unpleasant phenomena right alongside the pleasurable phenomena. There was either a God Who was ultimately in control of a purposeful Universe, or a humans left to their own devices and self serving theories.
BUT I THOUGHT GOD WAS LOVE AND PEACE
This notion of a Good God being the Author of evil gets tricky when we come across Bible passages that specify “God is love,” and “God is peace,” “God is healing,” or when we read that God is going to do away with war and heal the nations. So which is it? Is God all that is, or is God just the light and love part? The Hebrews troubling answer is yes to all of the above. It is akin to the physicist who says light is made of particles and waves, and then speaking of just ‘light waves’ and how light goes around corners.
I personally keep a mental image when parsing these metaphysical conundrums between GOD as ALL and God as just the Good:
Just as we have a variety of words for water in its many forms and functions (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam, steam, ice), it should not trouble us that the word ‘God’ has so many forms and functions. Most of the World’s Religions do the same thing. Hinduism calls the ‘All’ Brahman, and the good Vishnu. Christianity speaks of the GODHEAD as the Source of all, and God the father, son and Holy Spirit as the good. Islam speaks of Allah as ‘Us’ or ‘We’ when referring to His Providential control over all situations, including good and evil.
CONCLUSION: AH, WHAT’S PUZZLING YOU IS THE NATURE OF MY GAME?
This brief study shows that the biblical idea of Satan cannot be understood apart from the One all powerful Hebrew God and a purposeful Universe. The first well known Christian ‘theologian,’ Origen (200 A.D.) was his name, told a story that said Satan was God’s closest and most beloved Angel. When God asked for a volunteer to bring opposition and chaos to the soul-making earth, Satan stepped up out of love and took on the role.
The aim of this class, and this study, is to ask the student to enter into the fray. You have likely experienced some ‘Satanic’ mental activity as you read the paper – that is, you have met mental obstacles, challenges to your current beliefs, unanswerable questions and other such troubling issues. In that regard, let me conclude with Mick Jagger’s lyrics from Sympathy for the Devil,
“Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah…”