The subject? The concept of a being called 'Satan'. To properly investigate this subject we will examine the Hebrew Scriptures, focusing on the usage of the Hebrew word שטן, ('satan'), as it is used in the Tanakh. We will learn what the Hebrew word actually means and its usage throughout the Scriptures.
For many people this study will be a real eye-opener. Down through the millennium there have been many traditions, myths, and man-made stories surrounding this subject matter. Nevertheless, our purpose here is to learn the facts, as the Scriptures reveal them. From that position we can determine whether or not those traditions, myths, and man-made stories line up with the facts (i.e., the Scriptures).
Although the facts may not meet your current beliefs or expectations, I encourage you to prayerfully read this article in its entirety. In doing so, open your mind and your heart, and check the Scriptures for yourself, and see what is actually written in the Hebrew text.
Just because something has been taught for years, decades, or even millennia does not necessarily mean it's correct or it's the truth. Many people refuse to believe the facts, even when they are clearly presented to them, preferring instead to continue believing unfounded legends, rumors, and man-made stories handed down through the ages. They don't want to leave their comfort zones. But the fact is, for many people, when they find the truth and embrace it many things begin to make sense.
I hope you find the following study fruitful and enlightening.
The Legend of (the) Satan
For thousands of years many people have believed in the existence of a supernatural being called "Satan". He is known by many other names but "Satan" is the one most people know. While this subject shows up in many cultures and religions, we'll concentrate on it as it relates to the Tanakh.
[Note: This article does not include the topic of demons. Many times Satan is portrayed as the leader of the demons; however, as you will see, this does not apply to the subject at hand.]
"Satan" has been portrayed as many different personas, from a tiny, red cartoon-like character with a pitchfork and curly tail to a massive, sinister beast with large horns (sometimes depicted as a goat's head), large bat-like wings on his back, cloven hooves, and a vile, nasty disposition, out to possess the souls of all mankind. Many maintain he was the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He has been used in a variety of ways in advertising, movies, books, and art. Many people come to know of him because he has been used to keep children and others in line by using scare tactics. He has been depicted as the ultimate enemy of Yahweh, in a war for control of the earth and all the human souls. He has been equated with the most powerful of all the angels in the heavens, thrown down to earth due to disobedience to Yahweh.
Does this all sound familiar? It may surprise you to learn that most of what is considered "general knowledge" about Satan is not written anywhere within the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. So where does it all come from? Surprisingly, it comes from such sources as, Paradise Lost by John Milton, Zoroastrianism, and the Essenes.
Those who rely on the Hebrew Scriptures for their spiritual footing will find a big discrepancy between the images presented above and what the Scriptures say. For instance:
- Where is it written in the Tanakh that this being ...
- has horns, cloven hooves, or wings like a bat?
- is trying to possess all human souls?
- has a vile, nasty disposition?
- was the serpent in the Garden?
- rules over fallen angels in Hell?
- Where did the pitchfork come from?
- How does anyone even know what he looks like?
It's important to stop and consider these questions. Have you actually read any of this in the Scriptures? More than likely these ideas would have come from being told these things over and over and eventually accepting them as truth. That's the way many bad teachings get associated with Scripture.
The legend of Satan has continually grown over the years with input from many different sources. Unfortunately, these unbiblical precepts have been incorporated in teachings many times to fulfill different agendas. As we search the Scriptures throughout this article we will see how much they really do speak of this being.
One of the reasons the legend of Satan has persisted for so long is the need to have someone to blame when things go wrong. Many people find it hard to grasp the concept that people are basically not good. Yahweh Himself acknowledged that fact after the flood, when there were only eight people on the planet:
"Yahweh said to Himself: 'Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth'" (Genesis 8:21).
As Rabbi Berel Wein states, "Man, left to his own reason, will not choose right. Reason, by itself, is death and destruction, oppressive theories and murderous social engineering."
Many times someone who has just had a heart attack will blame Satan for the incident when actually it may be attributable to a lack of exercise and a bad diet. Other times bad things happen and it's not our fault, it's merely a fact of living in this world.
Let's begin our study at the beginning ‑ with the first use of the word 'satan'.
The Hebrew word satan (שטן) first appears in Numbers 22:22. Balaam son of Beor was a prophet in Pethor. In this instance he is called by Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, to curse the people of Israel to drive them out of his land. Balaam sought the guidance of Yahweh on how to proceed. Yahweh told Balaam he could not curse the people. But Balak was determined and made another offer to Balaam who, once again, sought the guidance of Yahweh. This time Yahweh gave permission for Balaam to go to Balak. However, when Balaam started out with the messengers of Balak, Yahweh was angry:
"But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of Yahweh placed himself in his way as an adversary."
The word adversary used here is the English translation of the Hebrew word saw-tan' — שטן (Strong's #7854). So here, in it's first usage in the Hebrew Scriptures, it's Yahweh who is the satan, i.e., the adversary.
Later the angel of Yahweh explained to Balaam what had happened:
"'It is I who came out as an adversary [satan], for the errand is obnoxious to me.' (Numbers 22:32)"
Here the Hebrew word satan is not used as a proper noun but refers to someone who opposes another, e.g., in this case it's Yahweh who is opposing. The word is used again in the same manner in 1 Samuel 29:4, 2 Samuel 19:23 (19:22 in the Christian Bible), 1 Kings 5:18 (5.4 in the Christian Bible), Psalms 109:6, referring to a physical person not a proper noun, and Zechariah 3.1-2.
King Solomon's Satan
King Solomon had two physical satans mentioned specifically by name:
"So Yahweh raised up an adversary [satan] against Solomon, the Edomite Hadad, who was of the royal family of Edom." (1 Kings 11:14)
"Another adversary [satan] that God raised up against Solomon was Rezon son of Eliada ... He was an adversary [satan] of Israel all the days of Solomon." (1 Kings 11:23,25)
Here again, the word satan points to the position of the person named, i.e., an adversary, and not the actual name of the person.
King David's Satan
King David also had a satan who was sent to him by Yahweh:
"Satan arose against Israel and incited David to number Israel." (1 Chronicles 21:1)
It's hard to tell here whether this is a proper noun or not as Hebrew does not have upper case letters. If it is, it's the only place in the Scriptures it is used in such a manner. In any case, it was an adversary sent by Yahweh. As we will see in our discussion about the book of Job, nothing is done without the permission of Yahweh, no matter who ends up doing it — spiritual or physical being.
Job and the Satan
"Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and Satan also came among them. Yahweh said to Satan, 'From where do you come?' Then Satan answered Yahweh and said, 'From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it." (Job 1.6-7 NASB)
The Hebrew word used here for "Satan" is as before, satan ( שטן ). But here the wording is a bit different. The Hebrew is גם־השטן. The word גם here means "also, and the prefix "ha" (ה), means "the" in English. So the phrase is "also the satan". The addition of the article "the" ( ה ) points to an individual and not a proper noun, i.e., someone's name. Here the word "satan" might be a formal title. Hebrew does not have uppercase letters so we're not completely sure of the intent here. The translation reads better in the Tanakh (though they still capitalize it):
"One day the divine beings presented themselves before Yahweh. The Adversary came along with them to present himself before Yahweh. Yahweh said to the Adversary, 'Where have you been?' The Adversary answered Yahweh, 'I have been roaming all over the earth.'" (Job 1.6-7)
We can see from these verses that the Adversary is not roaming the earth trying to steal people's souls. Neither is he warring with Yahweh; quite the opposite. He seems to be 'patroling' the earth. Yahweh begins to question the adversary as to his doings:
"Yahweh said to the Adversary, 'Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!' The Adversary answered Yahweh, 'Does Job not have good reason to fear God? Why, it is You who have fenced him round, him and his household and all that he has. You have blessed his efforts so that his possessions spread out in the land. But lay Your hand upon all that he has and he will surely blaspheme You to Your face." Yahweh replied to the Adversary, 'See, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on him.' The Adversary departed from the presence of Yahweh." (Job 1.8-12)
The rest of Job describes what Yahweh allowed the Adversary to do to Job and how it was handled by Job and his friends. It is important to remember that the Advesary did nothing on his own. He needed Yahweh's permission to do anything. And through it all, he was not seeking Job's 'soul'.
Joshua and the Accuser
In Zechariah, the Accuser stands with Joshua before Yahweh:
"He further showed me Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel of Yahweh, and the Accuser [ והשטן ] standing at his right to accuse him. But [ the angel of ] Yahweh said to the Accuser [ אל־השטן ], “Yahweh rebuke you, O Accuser [ השטן ], may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this is a brand plucked from the fire.” (Zechariah 3.1-2)
In the verse above the Hebrew word interpreted as "rebuke" means "to be pushed out", e.g., "Adversary, leave the court".
This instance is much like that given in the book of Job. A divine being (who might even be the same one as in Job), whose task it is, evidently, to accuse others, much like a prosecutor. And here again is an example of where 'the Accuser' is a title not a proper noun. There is no violence or possession of a human soul ‑ Yahweh rebukes "the Accuser" and it's over.
"Demons Made Me Do It"
The Scriptures are full of a whole host of spirits, demons, and pagan gods, e.g., Azazel (Leviticus 16:10), Lilith (Isaiah 34:14), Molech (Leviticus 18:21), and Baal-Peor (Numbers 25:3).
And as if that weren't enough, many people even make up their own, giving them names such as "the demon of cancer" or "the demon of unforgiveness" and other diseases, aliments, and human conditions. But those are not scriptural nor is there even a scriptural basis for them. In fact, most of the time it's just a consequence of living in a fallen world. We're not always "under attack" by some demon or spirit.
"See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity [evil]." (Deuteronomy 30:15)
So Who or What Is to Blame for All the Evil in the World?
It's important to remember that after the flood — when there were only eight people on the planet, Yahweh Himself declared: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21). The Hebrew word translated here as evil is rah (רָע) which means "Dysfunctional impaired or abnormal action other than that for which a person or thing is intended. Something that does not function within its intended purpose." (Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible); 1) bad, evil 1a) bad, disagreeable, malignant 1b) bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery) 1c) evil, displeasing. Using this definition, we can see that "evil" basically means "dysfunctional".
So 'evil' used here doesn't necessarily mean murder, rape, pillage, etc. It can mean something as simple as lying to a friend or stealing that piece of candy.
It's a hard concept to comprehend — that man is responsible for much of the evil in the world. Even if we were to believe the legends and myths about a supernatural being named 'Satan', we have seen in Scripture that he can do nothing of his own will. It is Yahweh who allows or permits him (and others, see 1 Kings 22:20-23) to do whatever he does. So, instead of blaming some unseen adversary, we need to take responsibility for our actions. Is it all our fault? No, of course not. It could be a testing from Yahweh or some other spiritual thing that we do not understand.
After his wife tried to prompt him to blaspheme Yahweh, Job responds: "You talk as any shameless woman might talk! Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?" (Job 2.10). The Hebrew word used here for evil is "rah" (רע).
Taking a hard look at the level of evil around the world, it's pretty clear that much of it is not sanctioned by Yahweh. Just as in Job's case, we have the choice of how to react. We have freewill and are allowed to exercise it as we see fit. That doesn't mean, however, there are not consequences. After being driven out of the Garden of Eden, humans now had the knowledge of good and evil (derived from the tree in the Garden of the same name). Now, instead of seeing all things relative to Yahweh (i.e., good), they were also now seen things as relative to man (i.e., evil). Evil is the absence of good, i.e., the absence of God. God did not have to create evil, but rather only allow for the absence of good. Understanding this, the depth of the evil man can bring forth is beyond comprehension. Yahweh said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach" (Genesis 11:6). As we look through history we can see that the further man has gotten away from the presence of Yahweh, the level of evil man has been capable of achieving continues to escalate. Judging from what happened with the flood and the tower of Babel, Yahweh does interfere when things get, or are getting, too far out of hand. From this we can get a sense of the level of evil that was taking place in the days of Noah. God allows the advesary to work his evil yet that work is ultimately used for the glory of God. All this demonstrates God's absolute sovereignty over all creation.
It's understandable that if a person's involvement with the world is limited when it comes to witnessing or hearing about all the evil things that man does, it is hard for them to comprehend the depth of it. Nevertheless, it exists. Quoting from Rabbi Wein:
"This past century, the bloodiest in all of human history, should have lain to rest two of the most cherished theories about mankind postulated by the Enlightenment and Secular Humanism.
One was the idea that all moral questions, all issues of right and wrong, good and evil, were subject to being correctly decided on the basis of man's reason alone, without the necessity (better put, without the interference) of divine revelation or organized religion. Man, and man alone, would be the final and autonomous arbiter of morality.
This idea brought with it, as a necessary corollary, the firm belief that man left to his own reasoning devices would invariably choose to do what is right, what promotes life and fairness and the common good.
This second idea of man's innate choice of goodness was aided and abetted by an arrogant belief that an educated person was more likely to do good than an illiterate one — that a Ph.D. graduate would be less likely to kill, harm, maim, and destroy than a poor, hardscrabble, backwards farmer.
But none of these theories have proven true. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic and the entire slew of other murderers of the 20th century have all given the lie to these fantasies about human morality and rectitude. One-third of all of the commandants of the Nazi death camps held either a Ph.D. or M.D. degree. Man, left to his own reason, will not choose right. Reason, by itself, is death and destruction .... No faith and no belief have led us to the brink of the social abyss of self-destruction."
I realize this is a 'different' point of view than most people are used to. However, as we have seen, Scripture clearly shows that "the devil", as most people have learned about it, does not exist. There are demons, spirits, etc. but none of them named "Satan".
1. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture is taken from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, Copyright 1985 by The Jewish Publication Society. (Changes to allow for the proper use of the name of the Holy One — Yahweh — are done by the author.)
2. Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of Zoroaster, a 6th-century bc Iranian prophet and philosopher. Zoroastrianism survives today primarily in Iran but more prosperously in India where it is called Parsiism.