Satan: The Devil Is In The Details

Poor Satan. He gets blamed for everything. He wasn’t present in the Garden of Eden (read Genesis 3 to see for yourself), yet he is wrongly accused of tempting Adam and Eve and causing the downfall of humanity as a result. There should be a commandment against bearing false witness.

But Satan wasn’t always bad, at least not according to the Bible. In fact, at one point Satan and God were on the same side. It was humans who were on the other. Complicating matters further, Satan didn’t always exist, which explains why he cannot be found in the earliest books of the Bible. Where, then, did evil come from if not from Satan? God. God was the source of both good and evil in the early period of theological development expressed in the Bible.

In the view of religion scholars, the figure of Satan probably evolved in stages, originating from the negative qualities once attributed to God. From this perspective, in the earliest stage of the development of the Satan concept, God was viewed as the only divine principle in the universe, thus God was the cause of everything — good and evil, joy and sorrow, prosperity and suffering, blessings and curses. This is plainly stated in Deuteronomy 28, Amos 4, and Isaiah 45:7, for example.

In a subsequent stage in the development of Satan, the dark, violent and destructive qualities of God begin to be separated from the deity. Here God dispatches an “evil spirit” (1 Samuel 16) or a “lying spirit” (1 Kings 22) to torment those who have fallen out of God’s favor. God uses evil as a tool to impose his will. Remnants of this stage of development also are found in Ezekiel 20:25-26, where God boasts that he intentionally gave his people laws that were not good and practices that would horrify them to prove his might.

In a later development, God presided over a heavenly assembly and judged other gods based on the extent to which they fulfilled their responsibilities (Psalms 82). Satan’s earliest appearance as a separate entity comes in the role as a regular member of God’s divine council. In the book of Job, Satan is included among the “sons of God.” In this period of development in the concept of Satan, Satan’s job is to carry out God’s orders. Satan is a servant of God who is tasked with “accusing” us and testing our loyalty to God. This is made clear in the books of Job and Zechariah, where Satan functions as a heavenly prosecuting attorney, presenting a case against the faith of humanity to God the judge. Sometimes God accepts Satan’s argument (Job); sometimes he doesn’t (Zechariah).

But it should be kept in mind that during this stage of development, Satan is the adversary of humanity, not God. Satan is not independent from God and can do nothing without God’s permission.

Satan emerges as an independent figure after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, when Jews were forced into exile and live under the control of foreign powers. Foreign beliefs and ideas — including Persian and Greek notions of evil — begin to influence and shape the biblical religion. Satan is recast as God’s opponent, a dark wicked force waging a cosmic battle against the righteous.

Perhaps the best example to illustrate the historical development of the Satan concept can be seen by looking at the views presented by two different books in the Bible (2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles) written hundreds of years apart (one before the Babylonian exile and one after) that describe the same event: the census by King David and the death of 70,000 men. People hated censuses because they were used for taxation purposes and for military conscription. In 2 Samuel 24, God causes David to take a census of the people and then punishes him for doing it by sending a plague that kills 70,000 men. This may seem odd (why would God cause David to do something terrible and then punish him for obeying his orders?), but at this stage there is no Satan figure yet. God is the source of all things. By the time 1 Chronicles was written, however, the concept of Satan had emerged and had been incorporated into the Bible. Thus, in the 1 Chronicles 21 account, it is now Satan who is responsible for causing David to take the census of the people. God only punishes David for the act by killing 70,000 people. Who, then, caused David to take the fatal census, God or Satan? It depends on which biblical book you read.

By the time the last book that closes the Christian Bible was written, earlier biblical stories were reinterpreted to cast Satan as the devil (Revelation 12). Satan now had become a completely independent entity who opposes God, the supernatural embodiment of evil and the powerful master over an underworld of fire and brimstone.

The concept of Satan as MidWeek columnist would be developed later.

Jay Sakashita teaches religion courses at Leeward Community College and UH-Manoa.