A History of the Devil and Satan in Old Testament Times

To begin at the beginning. The words Satan, Devil, demon, Lucifer, fallen angel, etc. simply don’t occur in the whole of the book of Genesis. Throughout the Old Testament, the one and only God is presented as all powerful, without equal and in no competition with any other cosmic force. The Old Testament makes it clear that any ‘adversary’ to God’s people was ultimately under the control of God Himself. All Angels are spoken of as being righteous and the servants of God, even “Angels of evil/disaster”, who may bring destruction upon sinners, are still God’s Angels carrying out His will and judgments. God’s people Israel initially held this view; but as has so often happened to God’s people, they mixed their true beliefs with those of the world around them. Earlier Judaism spoke of the human tendency to evil [yetser ha-ra] and the tendency to good [yetser ha-tob]. This tendency to evil they understood as being at times personified or symbolized by “the devil”: “Satan and the yetser ha-ra are one”¹. But earlier Judaism rejected the idea that angels had rebelled, and they specifically rejected the idea that the serpent in Genesis was Satan. At that time, “the Jewish devil was little more than an allegory of the evil inclination among humans”². It is noted by the editor of Dent’s edition of the Talmud that neither the Talmud nor the Midrash (the Jewish interpretations of the Law of Moses) even mention Satan as being a fallen angel.³ Even in the Zohar—a second century A.D. Jewish book that became the basis of the Kabbalah—the sitra ahra, the “dark side” is presented as an aspect of God, not independent of Him, which operates on earth as a result of human sin.  The Zohar uses the ideas of the Shekhinta b’galuta [God’s glory in exile] and sitra ahra in order to speak of God’s struggle with evil and to explain its very existence. The Zohar doesn’t teach dualism, a universe split between God and Satan, but rather teaches that the struggle between good and evil occurs within God’s own self.

It’s been truly observed: “The Satan of later imagination is absent in the Hebrew Bible”.⁴ “The early stage of Israelite religion knows no Satan; if a power attacks a man and threatens him, it is proper to recognize YHVH in it or behind it”⁵. The Old Testament teaches that God is all powerful, with no equal; sin comes from within the human mind. Never is there any indication of a battle between Angels, and Angels falling from Heaven to earth. Indeed, the Biblical record at times makes allusions to the surrounding myths about a personal Satan [or his equivalent] and deconstructs them. The ancient near East was full of stories of cosmic combat, e.g. Tiamat rebelling against Marduk, Athtar the rebel; they are summarized at length by Neil Forsyth.⁶ The Old Testament stands out from other local religions by not teaching such ideas. And further, there are a number of Biblical passages which allude to these myths and show them to be untrue. Take Psalms 104, full of allusions to the Ninurta myth. But the inspired writer stresses that it is Yahweh and not Ninurta who rides a chariot “on the wings of the wind”; Ninurta supposedly struggles with the Satan figure who is in the “waters”, but in Psalms 104 it is shown that Yahweh does with the oceans or tehom (cognate with the Akkadian Satan figure Tiamat) just what He wishes—He’s in no struggle.⁷ Job 26:5-14 has a whole string of allusions to popular Canaanite myths of cosmic combat; and the point of the passage is that Yahweh is so far greater than them that effectively they don’t exist. Thus “The Shades writhe beneath Him [a reference to Mot, writhing as a serpent]… he strips naked Abaddon… stretches Zaphon… by his power he stilled the Sea [a reference to the god Yamm]. By his cunning he smote Rahab. By his wind the heavens are cleared [a reference to the Labbu myth, in which the dragon is cleared out of Heaven], his hand pierced the twisting serpent”. Compared to Yahweh, those gods have no power, and they have been effectively ‘cleared out of heaven’ by Yahweh’s power—they simply don’t exist out there in the cosmos.⁸ Although the Gospel records do use the language of the day, it should be noted that implicitly, Jesus is working to correct the wrong understandings. Thus in the storm on Galilee, which would’ve been understood as the machinations of the Devil, Jesus tells the sea to “shut up” (Mark 4:37-41), in the same terms as He told the demon to “shut up” in Mark 1:25. He addressed the sea directly, rather than any dragon or Satan figure.

The well known ‘Lucifer’ passage in Isaiah 14 is another relevant passage, as we consider in section 5-5. This passage is about the rise and fall of the King of Babylon—the words satan, Angel and devil don’t occur there at all. But the likening of Babylon’s king to the morning star suggests parallels with the Canaanite myths about Athtar, the “shining one, Son of Dawn”, who goes up to “the reaches of Zaphon” to challenge king Baal, and is hurled down. Surely Isaiah’s point was that Israel and Judah should worry more about the King of Babylon, keep their eyes on realities here on earth, rather than be involved with such cosmic speculations which were obviously familiar to them. It was the King of Babylon, and not a bunch of cosmic rebels, who were tyrannizing God’s people. The Babylonian power invaded Israel from the north, down the fertile crescent. And yet “the north” was associated in pagan thinking with the origin of the gods of evil.⁹ The prophets were attempting to steer Israel away from such a fear by emphasizing that the literal, human enemy and judge of Israel for their sin was to come from the literal north. They were to quit their cosmic myths and get real, facing up to actual realities in human life on earth. This is why Ezekiel speaks of the Kings of Tyre and Egypt in language very reminiscent of the myths about Tiamat, Mot etc.—they were to be caught like a dragon [tannin, cp. Tiamat], cut up and bled to death (Ezekiel 29:3-5; 32:2-31). Again, the point is to refocus Israel away from the mythical beings and onto actual realities here on earth.

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Author: Duncan Heaster

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Bible reference(s): 1 Chronicles 21:1, Job 1:6-9, Job 1:12, Job 2:1-7, Isaiah 14:12, Zechariah 3:1-2, Matthew 4:1-11, Matthew 12:26, Matthew 13:19, Matthew 13:38-39, Matthew 16:23, Matthew 25:41, Mark 1:13, Mark 3:23, Mark 3:26, Mark 4:15, Mark 8:33, Luke 4:2-5, Luke 4:13, Luke 8:12, Luke 10:18, Luke 11:18, Luke 13:16, Luke 22:3, Luke 22:31, John 6:70, John 8:44, John 13:2, John 13:27, John 17:15, Acts 5:3, Acts 10:38, Acts 13:10, Acts 26:18, Romans 16:20, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Corinthians 2:11, 2 Corinthians 11:14, 2 Corinthians 12:7, Ephesians 4:27, Ephesians 6:11, Ephesians 6:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:18, 1 Thessalonians 3:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:9, 1 Timothy 1:20, 1 Timothy 3:6, 1 Timothy 3:7, 1 Timothy 5:15, 2 Timothy 2:26, Hebrews 2:14, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8, 1 John 2:13, 1 John 2:14, 1 John 3:8, 1 John 3:10, 1 John 3:12, 1 John 5:18, 1 John 5:19, Jude 1:9, Revelation 2:9, Revelation 2:10, Revelation 2:13, Revelation 2:24, Revelation 3:9, Revelation 12:9, Revelation 12:12, Revelation 20:2, Revelation 20:7, Revelation 20:10

Source: Duncan Heaster, “A History of the Devil and Satan in Old Testament Times.”

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