This paper will explore the Hebrew word shatan as found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), especially the ways in which the ideas about satan relate to God, evil and suffering in the Hebrew world. I will then conclude with a few observations about these satanic images from the perspective of depth psychology.
The Hebrew word shatan (שָׂטָן) appears fewer than a dozen times in the Hebrew Bible, whereas the word LORD (Yahweh) appears 6,828 times, and the word God (elohim) appears 2,602 times. These numbers surprise most Americans who believe the character of Satan to be God's ever present archrival throughout the biblical narrative. However, an examination of the use of the word shatan, often occurring as satan, in the Hebrew Bible reveals a very different story--a story of scant appearances and developmental significance. We must first emphasize that the word shatan is a verb which means adversary or opponent, typically designating someone who impedes the path of progress. The verb shatan is used of human actions. For example in I Samuel David, before he became the king of Israel, sided with the Philistines who were about to go into battle against the Hebrews. The Philistine generals, knowing that David was a Hebrew, were afraid that he might turn against them in the clash: "But the Philistine commanders...said, 'Send the man [David] back, that he may return to the place you assigned him. He must not go with us into battle, or he will turn against (shatan) us during the fighting'" (29:4). In another place the word shatan is used by David when telling a soldier to mind his own business: "David replied, 'What does this have to do with you?...What right do you have to interfere (shatan)?'" (2 Sam. 19:22). So we see that the verb shatan can refer to human adversarial actions.
However, it is important for this paper to see that the first use of the verb shatan is employed to refer to an act of Israel's LORD God. This occurs in Numbers as the Hebrew prophet Balaam rides his donkey along a narrow path while on an assignment to prophesy against his own people, Israel. The story tells us that the Angel of the LORD came to block (shatan) 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 (shatan). 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. (22:22-23, italics mine)
The phrase, "to oppose him," is from the Hebrew verb shatan. Notice that it is God who is doing the shataning or opposing in this instance. God's involvement in shataning is also seen in I Kings: "Then the LORD raised up against Solomon an adversary (shatan), Hadad the Edomite...And God raised up against Solomon another adversary (shatan), Rezon son of Eliada...Rezon was Israel’s adversary (shatan) as long as Solomon lived, adding to the trouble caused by Hadad. So Rezon ruled in Aram and was hostile toward Israel" (11:14-25). Here the word shatan is used in its nominal form. It ought to be noted that the early Hebrews had no notion of a ubiquitous evil character named Satan who was opposing their God. This is an idea that would blossom much later in their history, and achieve full bloom in the New Testament. The early Hebrews generally traced all events, good and evil, back to the One true God. This can be seen in the Hebrew Bible where God appears to be involved directly or indirectly in an act of evil--collaborating with an "evil spirit". The word shatan is not used in this account, but the fact that an oppositional kind of behavior originates with God makes this passage noteworthy for our study. In I Samuel God rejects Saul as king of Israel by removing his Holy Spirit from the errant monarch and sending instead an evil spirit to oppress him:
Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better”...David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. Then Saul sent word to Jesse [David's father], saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” Whenever the [evil] spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. (16:14-23)
Four times in this brief passage we read that an evil spirit (הרָעָ֖ רֽוּחַ) was sent from the LORD to torment Saul. It is clear from this account that both pleasurable and pathological emotions were under the control of and associated with the purposes of the Hebrew God. There is no psychological state of mind that is not somehow connected with the divine plan. This Hebrew notion of all polarities deriving from the One God is also true of morality. In I Kings we discover that the LORD God is also in charge of truth and lies. The polytheistic King Ahab listens as his 400 sycophant prophets assure him of victory in an impending battle against Ramoth Gilead. However, one cantankerous monotheistic prophet named Micaiah warns Ahab:
I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the LORD said, "Who will deceive Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?" One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, "I will deceive him." "By what means?" the LORD asked. "I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets," he said. "You will succeed in deceiving him," said the LORD. "Go and do it." So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you. (22:19-22)
This is reminiscent of Zeus sending a deceptive dream to Agamemnon regarding an imminent battle with the Trojans (Iliad, Book II.28). Most Americans would expect such behavior from the "fickle" Pagan Gods, but are shocked to discover that the Hebrew deity is just as capable of deception as the Greek Zeus. Keep in mind that Hebrew monotheism had no tolerance for cosmic dualism. There was a sole Source, God, considered to be the ultimate Manager of all significant emotions and actions, moving the drama of human history forward. Ironically, such absolute monotheism did not preclude humans from making choices and being held accountable for immoral decisions. This mind boggling paradox between divine sovereignty and human free will can be found in a story about King David taking a census for military and taxation purposes. Notice the glaring differences as the same story is described in two different parts of the Hebrew Bible:
1. “...the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he [the LORD] moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” II Samuel 24:1
2. “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” I Chronicles 21:1-2
3. “And David said unto God, 'Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered.'" I Chronicles 21:17
Which is it? The LORD (JHWH), Satan or David that commanded the people to be numbered? Either the Hebrew authors made an error of a cosmically colossal proportion, or they saw God and Satan as somehow working in tandem, while still holding David as personally responsible. There is no attempt to reconcile these differences. The Hebrews seemed to be more concerned about simply recording the psychological phenomena as they experienced them.
The best known reference to Satan in the Hebrew Bible occurs in The Book of Job:
One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and the Satan also came with them. The LORD said to the Satan, “Where have you come from?” The Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it." Then the LORD said to the 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?” The Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The LORD said to the Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (1:6-12)
In short, Job presents a cosmic economy ruled by a celestial Sovereign surrounded by an assortment of subordinates called the "sons of God" (בְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים), sometimes translated angels or messengers. A few clues are scattered throughout the Jobian narrative revealing that these "sons of God" can commit errors (4:18), are untrustworthy (15:15), shout for joy at God's mighty works (38:7) and are often incapable of helping humans (5:1). Job also insists that he has his own heavenly guardian (16:19), a notion affirmed by one of his associates, Elihu (33:22-30). Of importance to our study is the fact that one of these "sons of God" is called "the Satan". The definite article (the) appears throughout the narrative indicating that the word Satan is more like a title than a personal name. "The Satan" is more like a job title for one of these "sons of God," whose cosmic occupation is to scout the earth in behalf of the divine Sovereign in search of evidence implicating a citizen as unworthy of God's favor. We see from the narrative that Satan was very familiar with Job, suggesting that his righteousness was due to God's blessing and special protection. Satan proposes that Job's pious attitude would change if his life circumstances were altered for the worse. God approves of the plan to create suffering in Job's life, but qualifies it by limiting Satan's initial act of cosmic terrorism to involve only the annihilation of Job's wealth and children. In this account we begin to see the verb shatan morph into a noun, ha shatan (the Satan), revealing a more personified adversary. It also appears that the Hebrew authors were calling into question the simplistic Mosaic system of reward and punishment based on obedience and disobedience to God's Law. I suggest that they were also beginning to take the occurrences of pathological phenomena more seriously as such sufferings related to the One True and "Good" God.
In the post-exilic Book of Zechariah (519 BCE), "the Satan" appears again. The prophet Zechariah shares a vision in which he sees Joshua the Hebrew high priest clad in rags and mourning over the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem. Joshua stands before the divine judgment seat where the Satan is positioned "at his right side to accuse him" (3:1) while the Angel of the LORD acts as Joshua's defense attorney. Yahweh declares that the high priest's repentance is adequate grounds for acquittal. The Satan loses the case. As in Job, we see God and the Satan working together to appraise a man's character. The context makes it clear that this social narrative was didactic, intended for the larger Jewish audience. Each hearer was to place his or her self in the place of Zechariah, seeing that any past wrong doing (evil inclinations) could be forgiven through repentance. The court-like scenarios in both Job and Zechariah appear to be more psychological and metaphorical than metaphysical. Each listener is to ask, "How would I do in such a trial?" Again, the writers are more existential and phenomenological than theological.
From these two latter passages a picture emerges portraying the Satan as a kind of cosmic detective and prosecuting attorney working together with Yahweh on the souls of humans. In 1939 Adolphe Lods undertook a detailed study of the satan in Job and Zechariah, concluding that the satan character was analogous to the well known Ancient Near Eastern spies working for their despotic suzerains in matters of state security, similar to modern secret governmental agencies like the American C.I.A. or Russian K.G.B.. Lods cites the Greek writer Xenophon (.d 354 BCE) who composed a biography of the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great titled Cyropaedia (The Education of Cyrus), describing the education of the idyllic tyrant ruling over his grateful subjects. Xenophon mentions that Cyrus employed special agents trained to be the "Eyes and Ears of the King," acting as spies in order to locate and root out those who might cause problems in the kingdom (8.6.16). Lods speculates that the satan character found in Zechariah and Job may have been inspired by these Persian undercover practices, especially since the Jews had been held captive and released during the reign of Cyrus. Henry Kelly in his book, Satan: A Biography, summarizing Lods, writes:
...the organization of the inspecting network became especially well developed under Cyrus's powerful successor, Darius I, who came to power in 522 and died in 486 BC. Zechariah's visions of the satan accusing the high priest should...be taken...as an activity of the field-inspectors who return to court to make occasional accusations as his "research" warrants. This would reflect the situation in Jerusalem early in Darius's reign, and, if the author of the Prologue to Job was influenced by Darius's organization of government agents, it follows that he was writing after Zechariah. Lods is inclined to date him accordingly, while admitting other possibilities (...the date of Job is still much debated). (26-27 italics mine)
The upshot of these passages which connect the LORD and the shatan in the Hebrew Bible teach us that their God reigns over all. There are other statements from the Hebrew scriptures that substantiate this:
• “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
• “See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.” Deuteronomy 32:29
• “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
• “When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” Amos 3:6
Morton Kelsey writes: "God, the giver of all good things, was seen equally as the dispenser of misfortune and pain, including sickness of all kinds" (Healing 34). God wrestled with Jacob and dislocated his hip (Gen. 32:32), threatened to kill Moses for not circumcising his son (Ex. 4:24-26), killed Uzziah for simply reaching out to steady the tottering ark of the covenant as it was about fall from a platform (2 Sam. 6:7-10). The Mosaic covenant explicitly views God as the source of all blessing and cursing, health and disease:
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you…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…the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. (Deut. 28:1-61)
I remind the reader that this is the system that is challenged in the Book of Job where God becomes slightly distanced from pathologizings by having an agent called The Satan to do his dirty work. The chasm between God and evil deeds would widen in the subsequent centuries.
Let us now explore some psychological implications of this study. First off, it must be emphasized that myths, in our case the biblical myth of the satan, grow out of the ordinary experiences of human beings in a given cultural milieu. Particular Hebrews with their individual and collective experiences produced the mythic image of the satan (the adversary) because their lives were filled with conflict and suffering--physically and psychologically. When it comes to stories, we must never forget that the human experience comes first--then the story to make sense of it--not the other way around. The story may graphically depict what appears to be an adequate and complete explanatory representation of the cosmos, but we must avoid that trap. Every story is better viewed as a participatory image for the individual soul--as a reflective mirror or window to see through rather than a completed metaphysical or theological representation or final explanation. James Hillman writes, “myths are not explanations…they are stories, as our fantasies are, which project us into participation with the phenomena they tell us about so that the need for explanation falls away” (The Myth 195-202). The error of many theologians, metaphysicians, psychologists, sociologists and politicians is that of explicitly or implicitly forcing the experiences of individuals to conform to a particular cultural myth, philosophy, theology, political ideology or statistical study. A certain amount of mimesis is to be expected, even encouraged in children, but ultimately the mythical accounts are not meant to be copied, but rather used as a way into one's individual soul-making--into one's uniquely unfolding character and destiny. Put plainly, the biblical shatan presents ideas, images and stories which may or may not help one to make sense of her/his own internal and external challenges in life. Do not be conned into lopping off or distending your own soul and destiny in order to conform to the frozen myth of some ideological sect.
Now, it is possible to go to the other extreme--that of dismissing the myths altogether as outmoded products of ignorant primitives. While we must insist that individual human psychological experiences are primary over culturally conditioned myths, we must also stress that humans did not and do not originate the archetypal images. Mythopoeic expressions are rooted in the archetypes. Humanly constructed stories are attempts to find meaning in our daily emotions, thoughts and situations that reflect archetypal patterns. For us that means that the biblical satan imagery with all of its grotesque and troubling images may be humanly constructed, yet is archetypally founded. Hillman writes, “We can imagine nothing or perform nothing that is not already formally given by the archetypal imagination of the Gods” (Loose Ends 142-43, 180). Again, put simply, the reason the Hebrews constructed these stories which have attracted millions of followers over the centuries arises from the psychological fact that something bigger than human experiences is going on. Let's explore some of these "goings on" with reference to the satan.
Eric Neumann recommends a psychological view of the biblical Satan, associating him with the Jungian Shadow--the obscure and unfamiliar periphery of the personality that "normally encounters the ego, the centre and representative of the light side and of consciousness, in the form of a dark, uncanny figure of evil--to confront whom is always a fateful experience for the individual" (Depth Psych. 137, italics mine). Neumann's view is neither theological nor metaphysical, but rather a straightforward recognition of that ubiquitous human phenomenon--the meeting of one's conscious will with what seems like another "will" emerging from some mysterious "other". This is the biblical "shatan," the obstacle, the adversary, the oppositional "no" to the beneficial "yes" of Yahweh. Neumann points out that for the Hebrews, such encounters with "the dark side" were to be viewed as an "always...fateful experience for the individual". By fateful I think Neumann means to stress that the monotheistic Hebrews viewed all of life as being encompassed by their One God, and that every problematic shatanic (oppositional) encounter was momentous, auspicious, purposeful and part of what the 19th century German theologians called heilsgeschichte (salvation history). We see this perspective in Numbers 22 where the first mention of shataning (blocking) is attributed to the Angel of Yahweh. It is not a long stretch to see why many have extended this shataning action, although not the actual word, back into the Eden story as the Serpent shatans (blocks) the path of access to the Tree of Life by encouraging Eve to eat from the Tree of Death (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). The wily Serpent is not portrayed as some eternal dark entity, but as purposefully created by The LORD God and placed in the Garden, apparently as part of the original "good" creation. Theologians have debated for centuries as to whether Eve's and Adam's imbibing of the fruit that originated their awareness of duality was an aberration or part of the divine plan. It seems to me that the question is misplaced when we realize that the Hebrew God is considered to be the cosmic suzerain, forcing us to acknowledge the spiritual and psychological purposefulness of all adversity.
In relation to the opening Edenic story regarding "knowing good and evil," I think it is instructive that the last significant story of Genesis closes with an assessment of good and evil as well. Joseph, having been betrayed by his brothers, falsely accused of rape by Potiphar's wife and thrown in prison, sums up all of his "adversarial" experiences by proclaiming to his brothers, "You intended to do evil to me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen. 50:20). The Eden and Joseph stories regarding the function and relationship of good and evil not only frame the entire Genesis narrative as supporting God's ultimate and fateful providence, but sets the tone for the subsequent Hebrew canon. The Hebrews appear to affirm what William Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "Without contraries is no progression" (4). While the word shatan is not mentioned in Genesis, the seed idea is clearly present. Their experiences, by the time they composed their scriptures, confirmed the necessity of spiritual and psychological conflict in order to move any story (history) forward. On this topic Jung, in "A Psychological Approach to the Trinity," writes:
The shadow and the opposing will are the necessary conditions for all actualization. An object that has no will of its own, capable, if need be, of opposing its creator, and with no qualities other than its creator's, such an object has no independent existence and is incapable of ethical decision...Therefore Lucifer was perhaps the one who best understood the divine will struggling to create a world and who carried out that will most faithfully. For, by rebelling against God, he became the active principle of a creation which opposed to God a counter-will of its own. (CW 11:196, par. 290)
No matter how hard humans try to eliminate opposition and suffering from the world, an effort I commend by the way, there appears to be an archetypal satanic substratum (unconscious) that will always manifest new existential challenges. I believe this is part of what Hillman wanted to convey in his Terry Lectures when he said that pathologizing is a key idea for soul-making, describing one of the psyche's functions within the human to be an "autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and distorted perspective" (Re-Vis. 57). It seems that the Hebrew notion of the satan as an agent of Yahweh fits Hillman's psychological observation--something in the natural world and human nature itself manifests oppositions--presenting a kind incongruous cosmology of unity between seemingly opposing forces. If that is so, then the satan represents this innate and autonomous function found in the human psyche. This appears to be what the Talmudic Rabbis had in mind when they conflated the satan with human nature: "Satan and the yetser (evil inclination of the heart) and the angel of death are one" (Babylonian Talmud 16a). This reminds us of Freud's observations in Beyond the Pleasure Principle as he discusses the role of peculiar "repetition compulsions"--the tendency to repeat pathological thoughts and behaviors which run contrary to the basic desire for pleasure. This is a complex and complicated issue, but one of Freud's comments is pertinent to our study: "The manifestations of a compulsion to repeat exhibit to a high degree an instinctual character, and when they act in opposition to the pleasure principle, give the appearance of some 'demonic' force at work" (35 italics mine). With regard to this, Freud spoke of a "destiny neurosis" manifested in "the life-histories of men and women...[as] an essential character-trait which remains always the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experience" (293). These "instinctual compulsions" often contradict or oppose (shatan) the analysand's search for pleasure. Eventually Freud would stress that such an adversarial "instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things" (308) eventually arriving at his concept of the death drive.
Michael Conforti speculates that these Freudian pathological impulses or Jungian archetypal presences can be called psychic fields. In Field, Form and Fate he speaks of psychic "field-influencers" or representative patterns which transcend the will of the subjective ego, drawing persons into certain, specific experiences for individuation or making a soul. Sometimes these are adversarial, showing up as troubling dreams, bizarre fantasies, spontaneous addictive behaviors, compulsive love relationships and a host of other unexpected life events--akin to the biblical satan. For the recipient of such dreams, fantasies and compulsions, it may very well seem as if a personified adversary were assailing the psyche. Conforti sums it up well: "I believe that an investigation of the workings of these archetypal fields and the development of an archetypal field theory may compensate for our culture's increased disregard for psychic [non-egoic] autonomy, the wisdom of nature, and the role of unseen forces in the individual and collective psyche" (58).
A contemporary example of how these adversarial and pathological challenges are showing up in 21st century America can be found in the March 11, 2013 issue of Time magazine in a story titled, "Serial Killing: How TV dramas, good and bad, have become addicted to blood" (50). When asked why people consistently prefer television shows that are rife with highly pathologized images, the author writes:
Violence is your grandma's entertainment and your nephew's. What they see is life as a relentless struggle and their fellow man as their potential executioner. Whether in suburbia or in 1920s Atlantic City or in a fantasy kingdom, people want what they want and are glad to build their dreams on a pile of skulls. (Time March 11, 2013)
In 1978, Meg Greenfield in Newsweek, after the Jonestown mass suicide in the Guyanan jungle, noted that everyone had a quick explanation. Secularists blamed religionists, religionists blamed socialist radicals, progressives blamed capitalists and American racism, etc. Greenfield noted that humans seek quick explanations that make "the night less frightening [and] domesticate the horror by making it fit our prejudices and predilections," however, in reality the horror arises from "the dark impulses that lurk in every private psyche [and] the jungle is only a few yards away" (132).
The Hebrew union of a satanic oppositional impulse working together with the living LORD God is akin to the Taoist notion of darkness and light being distinct yet unified--a single circle encompassing the opposites, signifying that this earthly existence contains a mixture of light and darkness, good and evil, peace and war, and all opposites. The Hebrews and the Taoists seem to be affirming some kind of developmental process through a kind of psycho-spiritual isometrics. The satan is a human term applied to the ubiquitous human phenomenon of encountering internal and external obstacles--a mythical construct for an infinite archetypal Process and/or Being. At this level the debate over whether the satan is a person, an internal impulse, a symbol of free will gone bad, etc. is moot. These symbolic descriptions all contain phenomenological truth regarding human existence, yet none captures the eternal essence completely. I would like to conclude with a passage from Plato’s Timaeus:
If then, Socrates, amid the many opinions about the gods and the generation of the universe, we are not able to give notions which are altogether and in every respect exact and consistent with one another, do not be surprised. Enough, if we adduce probabilities as likely as any others; for we must remember that I who am the speaker, and you who are the judges, are only mortal men, and we ought to accept the tale which is probable and enquire no further…Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.
The Timaeus reminds us that there are many opinions about the gods, the origin of the universe and all of the puzzling stuff that occurs around and within us. We are allowed guesses and probable solutions--but never absolutes around these big issues. I suspect that our compulsion to make sense of human suffering is an aspect of suffering itself, perhaps even a "satanic" soul-making activity. With Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones we might end by acknowledging through his lyrics from Sympathy for the Devil: "Ah, what’s puzzling you / Is the nature of my game, oh yeah…". Oh yeah, indeed.