Who Is Satan?

The many forms of the devil in the Bible

dante-inferno

Wood engraving by Gustave Doré depicting Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, in which Dante and Virgil encounter Satan in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

From the most comical of cartoons to the most grotesque of gargoyles, the majority of the population today can immediately recognize an image of the devil. But does our modern conception of Satan have any resemblance to the devil in the Bible? Just who is Satan? Is this horned, red-skinned monster with a pitchfork ruling hell truly the great enemy of God envisioned by the writers of the Biblical texts?

The short answer: no, not really.

In the Hebrew Bible, YHWH’s greatest enemies are not fallen angels commanding armies of demons, nor even the gods of other nations, but, rather, human beings. It isn’t the devil that spreads evil across the face of creation—it is mankind. Other than human beings, YHWH has no nemesis, nor are there malevolent spiritual forces not under his authority. YHWH is ultimately a god of justice. He is behind the good and the bad, behind the blessings and the curses. It is within this divine court of justice and retribution that Satan has his origins.

The Hebrew word śāṭān, meaning “accuser” or “adversary,” occurs several times throughout the Hebrew Bible and refers to enemies both human and celestial alike. When referring to the celestial adversary, the word is typically accompanied by the definite article. He is ha-satanthe Accuser—and it is a job description rather than a proper name. From the Accuser’s appearances in the Books of Job and Zechariah, it seems that the job entails calling attention to the unworthiness of mankind. The Accuser is essentially the prosecuting attorney of the divine court of YHWH, and part of his job includes collecting evidence to prove his cases. With this bit of knowledge in mind, it isn’t difficult to envision the various “outcries against sin,” such as that against Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–21), as the voice of the Accuser.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.
 


 
It is difficult to determine at which point in Israel’s history the Accuser began to take on a much more sinister role in the Israelite/Jewish belief structure, or how heaven’s great prosecutor became the prince of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). It is certainly easy to make the connection between Israel’s time in exile and the likely influence of the cosmic dualism of Persian religion.1 However, even within books written well after the return from foreign lands, the Accuser is still a self-righteous lawyer. Though if 1 Chronicles 21:1 is any indication,2 they began to believe the Accuser wasn’t above getting his hands dirty.

It is perfectly clear, however, that by the first century C.E., Judaism developed a belief in the divine forces of darkness doing battle against the forces of light. This can be seen within the New Testament and other extra-Biblical writings such as those found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are likely several factors that inspired these developments, including the influence of Persian, as well as Hellenistic, religions.

If there was an army of evil spiritual forces making war on the righteous, they had to have a commander. It is at this time that the impersonal and lofty Accuser began to acquire the various names and titles that have filled the writings of western civilization for 2,000 years. The Greek word diabolos (from which “devil” is derived), meaning “slanderer,” comes from a verb that means “to hurl” (i.e., accusations). Diabolos was typically used as the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew śāṭān (in the Septuagint version of Job, for example), though it was not uncommon to simply transliterate the word into the Greek satanas (1 Kings 11:14). Other names used for the leader of the forces of evil at this time include Maśṭēmāh, which means “hatred” (1QM 13:4, 11; Jubilees 10:8), and Belial, a popular name among the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which means “worthless” or “corrupt.” “Children of Belial” (Hebrew: bene-belial) was a typical phrase used to describe evil people in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:13; 1 Samuel 1:16; 2 Chronicles 13:7, etc.). If someone were searching for a name that personified evil in the Hebrew Bible, it would be Belial, not Satan. Interesting enough, the name only occurs once in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6:15), as Paul’s stark contrast to Christ.

It is also in this period that we begin to see the development of the tradition of equating the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden with Satan (Life of Adam and Eve xi–xvii).

typhon

Etruscan fresco of Typhon from the Tomba del Tifone in Tarquinia, Italy, c. third century B.C.E. According to Greek mythology, the montrous Titan Typhon battled the mighty Zeus, who bound his foe in the dark depths of Tartarus to bring about a new era of peace.

Satan’s role in the New Testament, though highly expanded, has much more in common with the Accuser of the Hebrew Bible than the commander of the armies of darkness that is typically portrayed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even though he is given such lofty titles as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), “father of lies” (John 8:44), “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “ruler of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and Beelzebul, “ruler of the demons” (Matthew 10:25; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15), Satan is essentially treated as nothing more than a glorified prison warden who has been corrupted by his own power. Throughout the Gospels, Satan’s “kingdom” is never considered to be a burning underworld full of the tormented dead, but, rather, is equated with the bondage of sin and the curses brought upon humanity for acts of unrighteousness. According to Jesus (Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21–22), a “strong man” (Satan) must be bound in order to plunder his house for treasures (humans), and it is clear he viewed his ministry and that of his disciples within this context. All other references to Satan in the New Testament, including those in Revelation, reflect this struggle for spiritual freedom.

Over the course of several centuries of influence from many different cultures, the defeated Accuser of the Christians would go on to appropriate aspects of various divine enemies (Typhon, Hades, Ahriman, Hela, to name but a few) to become the complex mythological monster that was thrown out of heaven at the beginning of time to rule the fiery underworld and torment the souls of the damned. Such a character makes for great movies and Halloween costumes, but would have been virtually unknown to anyone in Biblical times.
 


 
john-drummondJohn Gregory Drummond is a writer, artist and blogger as well as a researcher at Indiana University East. His academic interests include the Bronze Age relations between Egypt and the Levant, comparative mythology and its influence on the Biblical texts, and mystery cults in the Roman World.
 


 

Notes:

1. Adherents to Zoroastrianism believed in the ongoing battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu (known in later periods as Ormazd and Ahriman), the good creator god of light and order and the evil god of chaos and darkness.

2. Compare the earlier version of the story in 2 Samuel 24 in which YHWH himself is the one who incites David to sin.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

How the Serpent Became Satan by Shawna Dolansky

Understanding Revelations in the Bible

Ancient Pergamon: City of science … and satan?
 


 

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  • Sarah says

    Definitely don’t agree with your view of who Satan is.

    History of Satan – Where did he come from?
    The history of Satan is described in the Bible in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-19. These two biblical passages also reference the king of Babylon, the King of Tyre, and the spiritual power behind the kings.

    What caused Satan to be cast from Heaven? He fell because of pride that originated from his desire to be God instead of a servant of God. Satan was the highest of all the angels, but he wasn’t happy. He desired to be God and rule the universe. God cast Satan out of heaven as a fallen angel.

    History of Satan – Who is he?
    Satan is often caricatured as a red-horned, trident-raising cartoon villain; no wonder people question the history of Satan. His existence, however, is not based on fantasy. It’s verified in the same book that narrates Jesus’ life and death (Genesis 3:1-16, Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11).

    Christians believe Satan acts as leader of the fallen angels. These demons, existing in the invisible spirit realm yet affecting our physical world, rebelled against God, but are ultimately under His control. Satan masquerades as an “angel of light,” deceiving humans just as he deceived Eve in the beginning (Genesis 3).

    Jesus Himself testified of Satan’s existence. During His ministry, He personally faced temptation from the devil (Matthew 4:1-11), cast out demons possessing people (Luke 8:27-33), and defeated the evil one and his legion of demon angels at the cross. Christ also helped us understand the ongoing, spiritual war between God and Satan, good and evil (Isaiah 14:12-15; Luke 10:17-20).

    With Jesus Christ on our side, we need not fear Satan’s limited power (Hebrew 2:14-15). We ought to be wise, however, in resisting his tactics:

    “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
    History of Satan – What is his place now?
    Throughout the history of Satan, evil has been his identity because he is directly opposite God’s character. God’s holy standard found in the Bible exposes evil. If not relying on its truth, we can easily error:

    One error is denying Satan’s existence
    Another mistake is fearfully focusing on Satan rather than on Christ Jesus who overcame him
    Others outright worship Satan, preferring the darkness of evil rather than light that reveals sin (John 3:19; 2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
    Any of these approaches please the devil. He wants us denying, fearing, obeying, or worshiping him. Unless we follow the trustworthy source, the Bible, he’ll deceive us (Ephesians 6:10-11).
    History of Satan – Satan’s seduction versus reality
    In our scientific, rational age, spiritual beliefs are scorned as myth. Satan, however, doesn’t mind those who rebuff the reality of fallen angels or demons. By masking himself, he can tempt and deceive people without blame. The wise will never forget that Satan and demons, determined to deceive humans, are fighting real battles and wars against heavenly angels.

    Satan compels or entices his prey to follow him whether they realize it or not. Maybe they are simply ignorant and confused. Many would rather believe human theory than obey divine revelation and natural law. Whether blind, bound, or brazenly willing, they join Satan for a doomed destiny. They condemn themselves to eternity in hell.

    While Satan is more powerful than we humans, God doesn’t leave us defenseless (Ephesians 6:10-11). At the Lord’s rebuke, Satan and his demons shudder and flee (James 2:19; Jude 1:9). When Jesus Christ died, He overcame them (Colossians 2:15). Only in the authority of Jesus does anyone have power to stand against the devil. Those saved from sin by Jesus’ death on the cross are protected; those who are not saved from Satan’s power perish with him (John 3:16; 1 Peter 5:8-10).

  • Albert says

    Thanks for the article. Based on my research, Satan makes a grand entrance in the New Testament. I talk about this in my new publication. In “Opposing Forces,” I trace the history of the Devil and evil in general and how they changed over time. Click the link below.

    https://www.amazon.com/Opposing-Forces-Metaphysical-Between-Progress/dp/1541393120/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1500517071&sr=8-1&keywords=albert+ramos

  • Frank says

    I am taken aback by this comment you made

    Notes#2 Compare the earlier version of the story in 2 Samuel 24 in which YHWH himself is the one who incites David to sin.

    James 1:13
    God’s permission, but Satan’s suggestion

    2 Samuel 24:1
    And again. The history in this chapter precedes 2Sa 23, by Figure of speech Hysterologia (App-6). See note on 23. i. the LORD. Hebrew. Jehovah. App-4. He moved-He suffered him to be moved. By He-brew idiom (and also by modern usage) a person is said to do that which he permits to be done. Here we have the historical fact. In 1Ch_21:1 we have the real fact from the Divine standpoint. Here the exoteric, in 1Ch_21:1 the esoteric. For examples, see Exo_4:21; Exo_5:22. Jer_4:10. Eze_14:9; Eze_20:25. Mat_11:25; Mat_13:11. Rom_9:18; Rom_11:7, Rom_11:8; 2Th_2:11. God’s permission, but Satan’s suggestion (Jam_1:13, Jam_1:14); or, yasath may be taken impersonally, “David was moved”.

  • Paul says

    I’m awe-stricken by the profound mystical discourse by commentator Brian (#12) which I believe to be accurate based on what I’ve read from various sources and as for the quote from Isaiah 14:12 I have to agree with commentator Wes (#13) that here the scripture should be placed within the proper context with this being an allusion to the fall of the Neo-Assyrian emperor Sargon Ii. The winged sun disk was the icon of the official state-god Asshur but in times past this emblem had an 8 pointed star with wings instead of a solar disk, which was the official seal of King Saushtator of the Mitanni Empire during the 15th century B.C.E. The 8 pointed star is the emblem of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the Akkadian Ishtar, so the term “son of the dawn” may be a referance to the goddess in the aspect of the planet Venus as the morning star. The Habor River Valley was once host to the Biblical Patriarchs who would become known as Hebrews, and this designation was derived from the word “Hebrew” as meaning “from beyond” which originally pertained to people who migrated from the Habor region across the Euphrates River to settle in lands south as did the Patriarch Jacob when he fled from his exploitive uncle Laban in Paddam Aram to the region of Gilead. The Assyrian Empire kept records of people who be became Hebrews by leaving the Habor River region because they felt unduly over-taxed and singled out because of their religious affiliaton. Hence the tradition of Abraham being persecuted by Nimrod because he refused to worship the official state-sponsored gods in a Ziggurat-structured social tier system (or, if you prefer, the “corporate ladder”).

  • Beatrice says

    Educative. Thanks so much for the providing insight into who or what satan truly is.

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