So I follow another blogger who has been putting up some pretty interesting posts lately. One of them is about Satan. The blogger is actually a Karaite Jew, and their position on Satan is more or less drawn from contemporary Jewish literature, not terribly distinct from rabbinic Judaism, though generally following a more progressive stance.
Now I talk a lot about Satan. I do so in various contexts, theological, ideological, and literary. Sometimes my talk about Satan is quite involved and serious, but sometimes it is very over the top and literary, making statements for shock value in some of my more flamboyant posts on social media. This being the case, I thought I would take some time to write about Satan. I’m going to categorize this post as an essay on my website, though it will have much in common with what I would normally consider a typical blog post, as I’ll be talking about my personal habits of talking about Satan. The term Satan, the idea Satan, and the dude Satan are central enough to a lot of what I have going on that it behoves me to have something written about this subject that straddles the academic and my own relationship to the subject.
So generally this “essay” will cover some of my own habits and perspectives as well as those in Judaism and Christianity, and we’ll even throw some Islamic references in for good measure. There are a few issues about Satan that tend to divide people when talking about him. The first is whether Satan is a personal being or not. The second, for those who do see Satan as a personal being, the issue of whether Satan is in rebellion against God or is just one of many angels, still on God’s payroll so to speak, tasked to do bad things, but not actually in rebellion against God. Finally, as sort of a tertiary and incidental issue, but not an entirely insignificant one for those who study the subject, there is the question of whether many evil spirits named in the religious literature are actually the same spirit or not. That is, there is the question of whther Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Samael, Iblis, Azazel, Satan, and many other named evil spirits are distinct individuals, different demons so to speak, or if they are all just various names for Satan. Of the names above, all but Iblis are mentioned in the Jewish literature. Beelzebub and Satan are named in the New Testament as well. Iblis is actually the name of the king of the Djinn in the Quran, who corresponds very closely to Satan in the New Testament. And then how closely Satan in the New Testament corresponds to Satan in the Rabbinic literature is of course the subject of interminable debate between Christians and Jews, with Hebrew roots style Christians and Messianic Jews trying to draw similarities and normative Christians and Jews trying to draw distinctions among the various renditions of the concept.
So about me, well, I started using the term Satan at a time when my social media posting was at its most bombastic. I’d had some utterly incredible psychedelic experiences at the end of 2019 which were really more than I could handle, and I was (and still to some degree am on occasion) possessed of a sense of urgency to get some ideas out on the table, and I actually wanted to buck some trends. Ever since the Satanic Panic and the Christian televangelist scandals of the 1980s, it has become something of a faux pas to even talk about Satan. My generation was exposed to a number of humorous jokes about the subject. Take for example the Church Lady of Saturday Night Live.
That is, I wanted to shock my readership and have a little fun with a word that secular society would say only an uneducated idiot would use, while at the same time address some ideas that I considered to be quite profound and in many cases extremely serious. I wanted to put the word “satan” back on the map for serious discussion while having some fun doing so.
Now at this point in my spiritual perspective I particularly like the word Satan because it unifies Judaism and Christianity to a large degree. “Samael” might be a little Kabbalistic. Even a lot of Jews might not be into that term. Everybody knows what is meant by Satan, however. And then finally, as will be explained below, Satan straddles the concept of an individual evil spiritual being and the idea of the tendency of evil itself. The sitra achara refers more to the patterns of evil inherent in our world. Beelzebub refers to an ancient pagan god. Asmodeus evokes reference to medival demonology. But Satan encompasses all that, and can say something to pretty much everyone regardless of their individual perspectives. It seemed to me that poking fun at Evangelical Christian culture robbed us of one of our best words in the common spiritual vocabulary.
So to begin with, yes, Satan started out as a verb. יִשְׂטוֹן (yiston) which I’ll translate as “to oppose” or “to be an enemy.” The word has been much contemplated, and many nuanced translations have been offered by the sages. Many of these are conjectural, though some are quite insightful. For our purposes here, to avoid confusion, I’ll just stick with the basic “enemy” idea. This verbal form was nominalized into a noun שָׂטָן (satan – enemy) or הַשָּׂטָן (hasatan – the enemy). Most Jews, when using hebraized speech, normally use the term Hasatan when referring to Satan, reflecting that most Jews tend to think of Satan as more of a force of opposition rather than a personal demon or fallen angel at this point.
In fact, many of the earliest references to Satan in the Hebrew Bible are undoubtedly referring to a general concept of an enemy.
Let my accusers perish in frustration;Psalms 71:13
let those who seek my ruin be clothed in reproach and disgrace!
The JPS Tanach translates satan here as “accusers,” somewhat interestingly, as “accuser” or “prosecutor” is actually the root meaning of the Greek term “devil.”
But David said,“What has this to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should cross me today? Should a single Israelite be put to death today? don’t I know that today I am again king over Israel?”2 Samuel 19:23
Again the JPS Tanach is taking some license here with the word “cross.” “Be like an enemy” would be better. It does accurately convey that we are just talking about an element of opposition, though, and not some red guy with horns and a tail.
When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside,Numbers 22:21-22
Not only is this verse above from the books of Moses, very early, but the JPS Tanach here is pretty spot on. This verse doesn’t describe any old adversary, however, but an angel. Yet this angel doesn’t seem to be a fallen rebel angel, but an angel that is still working for God. But we will come to that issue in a bit. For now suffice it to state that the word satan refers to any kind of opponent.
Yet the book of Job quite clearly identifies Satan as a personal spiritual being.
One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them. The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.”Job 1:6-7
The JPS Tanach here rather artfully displays the history of the term by just making the word “Adversary” into a proper noun. You guessed it, Satan is the Hebrew word here. My favorite Christian bible (I said my favorite, not necessarily the best) is the English Standard Version, which, like the King James and the majority of Christian bibles, just goes all out and puts “Satan” here instead of making the proper noun “Adversary.”
He further showed me Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel of the LORD, and the Accuser standing at his right to accuse him. But [the angel of] the LORD said to the Accuser, “The LORD rebuke you, O Accuser; may the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this is a brand plucked from the fire.”Zechariah 3:1-2
Again the JPS Tanach likes “accuser” here. “Accuser” comes from the Greek word “diaballo” (sounds like “diablo” to you Spanish speakers, right?) which was the root word for a prosecuting attorney in the Greek world. Not sure why the JPS Tanach is so wrapped around this accuser idea, as it’s basically Greek, though it does tie the Hebrew to the New Testament, which talks a lot about the Devil. At any rate, we are clearly talking about a personal being here, and not just a general word for “enemy.”
With the above said, I really don’t think it is necessary to delve into the midrashim to make the statement that the word we are talking about, yiston, hasatan, satan, refers to being an enemy, enemies in general, opposition in general, and some specific supernatural enemy guy. This is all from the Bible, which predates any other literature on the subject, and to me this fact is absolutely clear.
I’d like to make a point via talking about the dating of the book of Job. This book contains a very clear reference to a conversation between God and Satan. There is a strong tendency to say that the idea of Satan as a being evolved over time, that it’s a mythological development. However, the book of Job is very difficult to date. It is written in an unusual form of Hebrew with it’s own vocabulary and a grammatical oddity or two here and there.
It mentions the legend of the rahab, likely a kind of Tiamat style legend of very ancient Babylonian origin.
By His power He stilled the sea;Job 26:12-13
By His skill He struck down Rahab.
By His wind the heavens were calmed;
His hand pierced the Elusive Serpent.
It talks of the Behemoth living in the fens and glades with a tail like Lebanon cedar, evoking images of the ancient Phoenician shipping industry as well as some kind of a brontosaurus-style dinosaur.
Job’s wealth was measured in camels and donkeys, not lands and castles, and he was called a man of the east. Like the story of Beowulf being a Germanic story that was Christianized, most scholars think Job was some kind of Edomite or Moabite epic that was judaized at some point, probably originating in the patriarchal era sometime between Jacob and Moses, so say between 1900 and 1400 BCE.
Having said the above, it certainly cannot be said that the idea of Satan as a personal being is some sort of late development or evolution. It would seem that this guy’s name is simply related to a verb and a term that has a variety of uses. Likewise, if I name my daughter Willow, this by no means that she is an evolutionary mythological adaptation of a species of tree. The Bible talks about a guy named “Enemy,” and has done so from the earliest of biblical texts.
So I think we’ve given a decent introduction to the usage of the word Satan in the Bible, and I think it’s pretty clear from the Bible that a personal being is described, but that there are a variety of uses and forms of the word. And with that we are fortunate that we really don’t need to dig into the midrashim to make that point clear.
The next issue I wanted to discuss, though, has to do with the relationship of the various names of the various demons and demon kings that you find in the ancient literature. Here it is definitely necessary to get into the midrashim. However, my primary source of access to that is the Sefaria app, and quite a bit of the things I want to refer to are only available there in Hebrew. Being banned from Israel and currently riding a bicycle through La Mancha, Spain, I really am not quite in a position to treat this part of the subject with the academic depth that I would like. So, note to self: come back and make this part of the essay a little more robust when time and resources are available. And with that I’ll have to work from a couple of secondary sources that I have, memory, and maybe the odd Google search or two.
I’ll just say that the Jewish literature speaks of Belial, Azazel, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and the Serpent in addition to Satan. At the outset I’ll say that these demons and demon kings are absolutely and incontrovertibly a part of the earliest Jewish literature and go into the medival literature as well. Being from the USA, a western country, and with my personal travel experience being in the western hemisphere and Europe, my experience of Judaism is that of a minority culture and religion existing within a primarily Christian culture, or nowadays basically a secular culture with Christian roots housing a Jewish minority. It is not at all uncommon for Jews to point out nearly any religious idea that is unpopular and call it Christian, saying that this or that idea is not Jewish. Patriarchy? That’s the misogyny of the Apostle Paul. Not Jewish. (When actually the Apostle Paul sanctioned women in the ecclesiastical structure, a fact completely lost on the Christian ecclesiastical community.) Likewise, opposition to homosexuality? Again, the poor Apostle Paul is the culprit with his two or three sentences on the subject. Of course not Jewish, though, so they say. Again, I beg to differ. It’s as if a lot of Jews haven’t ever read Leviticus, much less the Talmud.
In the case of our subject, the existence of personal demons and their king is positively smattered all over the midrashim and consistently mentioned in the Talmud as well. In fact, medieval and modern demonology in the gentile world is primarily the purview of the theosphical community, also known as the ceremonial magicians. Look up Aleister Crowley, the Society of the Golden Dawn, alchemists such as John Dee, etc. These guys did get a certain amount of their material from the various bogeymen mentioned in the literature of the Christian Inquisition (think Baphomet), but you’d be surprised to learn that quite a lot of their understandings come from the Jewish Kabbalistic literature and Jewish aggadot (fairy tales and legendary material). The majority of it, in fact. When it comes to demons and demonology, there is a very extensive interplay between the works of Muslims and Jews and Christians. For instance, the Jewish aggada Tobit mentions both the angel Raphael and the demon king Asmodeus. That particular aggada made it into the Roman Catholic Old Testament as what they call a “deuterocanonical” book. Like, not quite as holy as the rest, but scripture nonetheless. Yet when you read it, the thing sounds like something you’d find in Arabian Nights, with magic potions and epic quests like something from a Dungeons and Dragons adventure.
So then on this point, I’ll have to say that the New Testament, with its mentioning of Satan and his demons, stands squarely within the Jewish tradition from the earliest of times. When it comes to the relation of Satan to God things get rather murky, and distinction between the Christian and Jewish traditions may diverge. But on the existence of personal demons there is unity. Yet this is no longer our focus. We want to know if Belial and Satan are the same guy or not.
The reason this is important actually relates to the final point of the essay, which has to do with Satan’s autonomy and relationship to God and the community of angels, which is actually the most important point of the essay. So if there is unity, we have a lot more information to go on. Let me illustrate this problem with some biblical verses.
Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'” And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.”Genesis 3:1-5
When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside,Numbers 22:21-22
So the verse in Numbers uses the word satan to describe an angel sent to oppose a wayward prophet, many use the text as a proof that Satan is not a fallen angel in rebellion against God, but an angel in God’s employ. Yet we have the description of the temptation of Eve, with the Serpent calling God a liar trying to hide the truth from Eve. Can these be the same being? My own personal interpretation is that this serpent is in fact the same as the being called Satan in Job, but is not the same being as the angel sent to be an adversary to Balaam in Numbers. However, there is a decided lack of clarity in the literature, to the point that the majority of Jews I talk to contend that a distinct difference between the New Testament and Jewish literature is this point that the New Testament makes about Satan being a fallen angel in rebellion against God vs. the notion that Satan is an angel in God’s service charged with the task of making bad things happen.
To muddy things further, there is a very cryptic verse from the antideluvian period of human history that many take as some sort of fall of angels in the Jewish literature.
It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.Genesis 6:4
In my experience, Jewish sources consider what this verse describes as a fall of the angels. However, it happened after the Serpent tempted Eve. So the Serpent cannot be a fallen angel Satan because the temptation of Eve happened before the fall of the angels. Of course the sentence in Genesis 6 doesn’t necessarily refer to an angelic rebellion. It may be that the angels described were perfectly within their rights to take human wives at that time according to God’s design. All we have is one sentence of memory. The event is just commonly referred to as an angelic fall in Jewish literature. Actually, get this: I’ve actually run into Christians who say there is a distinction between demons and fallen angels, and this verse in Genesis 6 is commonly brought to fore in these discussions. So these muddy waters are not exclusive to the Jewish community.
Yet below we see from the Jewish literature, here specifically in Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah, that the Serpent is in fact equated with Samael, a demon king of Jewish literature.
And the woman beheld Samael, the angel of death, and was afraid; yet she knew that the tree was good to eat, and that it was medicine for the enlightenment of the eyes, and desirable tree by means of which to understand. And she took of its fruit, and did eat; and she gave to her husband with her, and he did eat.Genesis 3:6 (Targum Jonathan)
Also, Deuteronomy Rabbah calls Samael the rosh hasatanim. The head of the satans.
This in itself is interesting, as in Arabic, شيطان (shaytan) does not refer to Satan, but rather it means “demon.” The plural is شياطين (shayateen) – “demons.” The actual name for the head of the demons in Islam is Iblis. And in the Quran he is clearly a rebel. In that book he is described as a djinn who rebelled against God when God told him to bow down to Adam, but he was incensed because Adam was made of clay and Iblis was made of smokeless fire.
So we have Targum Jonathan equating the Serpent with Samael and Deuteronomy Rabbah calling Samael the head of the demons. Now let’s talk a bit about the rebellion.
Samael was the great prince in Heaven; the Chayyot (Holy Animals) had four wings, and the Seraphim had six wings, and Samael had twelve wings. What did Samael do? He took his band and descended and saw all the creatures which the Holy One, blessed be He, had created in His world and he found among them none so skilled to do evil as the serpent, as it is said, “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.” Its appearance was something like that of the camel, and he mounted and rode upon it. The Torah began to cry aloud, saying, Why, O Samael! Now that the world is created, is it the time to rebel against the Omnipresent?Pirkei Derabbi Eliezer 13
Above we see that Samael was formerly a prince in heaven. He wasn’t the Serpent, but rode it. And also, he is stated to be rebelling against God.
Now there is another name, Asmodeus, common in Jewish demonology. There is apparently a version of the book of Tobit that describes him as the king of the demons.
For she had been given to wife to seven husbands, and not one of them had approached her, but Asmodeus, the King of the demons, had killed them before they approached her after the way of all the earth.Tobit 3:17 (as quoted by Baal Kadmon in his book “Devils, Demons, and Ghosts in the Hebrew Tradition”)
However, I found this quote in a secondary source. Not being satisfied with that, and since Tobit is commonly available in the apycrypha section of Christian Bibles, of which I have many, I checked the New Revised Standard Version and found “wicked demon” instead of “king of the demons.”
So Raphael was sent to heal both of them: Tobit, by removing the white films from his eyes, so that he might see God’s light with his eyes; and Sarah, daughter of Raguel, by giving her in marriage to Tobias son of Tobit, and by setting her free from the wicked demon Asmodeus. For Tobias was entitled to have her before all others who had desired to marry her. At the same time that Tobit returned from the courtyard into his house, Sarah daughter of Raguel came down from her upper room.Tobit 3:17 (NRSV)
Now the NRSV is an absolutely atrocious translation, so I decided to get closer to the source and check the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This Greek translation is the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church and the source for most translations of Tobit in Christian Bibles.
καὶ ἀπεστάλη ἰάσασθαι τοὺς δύο, τοῦ Τωβιτ λεπίσαι τὰ λευκώματα καὶ Σαρραν τὴν τοῦ Ραγουηλ δοῦναι Τωβια τῷ υἱῷ Τωβιτ γυναῖκα καὶ δῆσαι Ασμοδαυν τὸ πονηρὸν δαιμόνιον, διότι Τωβια ἐπιβάλλει κληρονομῆσαι αὐτήν. ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ καιρῷ ἐπιστρέψας Τωβιτ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ καὶ Σαρρα ἡ τοῦ Ραγουηλ κατέβη ἐκ τοῦ ὑπερῴου αὐτῆς.Tobit 3.17 (Septuagint)
Now I know my audience doesn’t read Greek, but I’m putting the Septuagint here for thoroughness. The highlighted portion does indeed say “the evil demon.” I don’t know where Baal Kadmon got his version of Tobit. Perhaps the Latin Vulgate? I have that available too, but I don’t want to waste any more space on the subject. I am just going to assume that this Jewish scholar of Jewish demonology was working with a different manuscript than the Greek and Christian sources that I have available. And with that I’ll trust him that we have a source for a guy named Asmodeus, the king of the demons.
So then with the above, I think that it is pretty clear that there are a variety of names for a singular being who is the king of the demons. The Greek word “the Devil” is actually common enough in the Jewish literature that the JPS Tanakh has no problem using it. The Serpent of the Garden of Eden is equated to him as well as being called an animal that was used by him. Samael is called the king of the demons as well as stated to be in rebellion against God. And Asmodeus is called the king of the demons as well.
The Jewish literature is not entirely consistent, however. There are instances where Asmodeus works for Samael. In other instances Samael works for Asmodeus. And as indicated above, the relationship between the Serpent and Satan and the Serpent and Samael follow a general pattern of equation, but in the details there are differences, such as Samael riding the Serpent. And it is with this in mind that we get to the final point of whether this Satan character is an angel working for God or if he is in rebellion against God.
Keep in mind that the blogger that I am answering is a Karaite, and does not put much stock in the Jewish tradition. So going from the Hebrew Bible alone, we are left with the verse from Numbers that a holy angel in divine service is sent as a satan to oppose Balaam, a weak-willed prophet. We are left with the instance in Job where Satan shows up in God’s court and participates in a kind of a debate with God about how much suffering Job can handle.
Now the Job reference itself is unclear. God asked Satan where he had been. He was not among the rest of the angels, but wandering the earth. God was not commanding Satan, but it seemed Satan was trying to prove God wrong, and to get God to give him power to hurt Job. God seemed to refererence Job with a certain pride that Job had not succumbed to Satan. This doesn’t seem like a conversation between a commander and servant.
As for the Numbers reference, remember, the word satan has a number of uses outside of a proper name for the demon king. Just because an angel is sent as a satan to a wayward prophet does not mean that this angel is Satan the demon king. Yet the Bible is fairly clear that there is an angel called Satan by name, and the Jewish literature does call this angel a rebel against God. Not invariably, but it is an opinion within the literature. And at this point I will include a couple of New Testament references to clarify the New Testament position.
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”Luke 10:17-19
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.John 8:44-45
These two verses, one about the Devil and the other about Satan, indicate that there is an equation between the two, and that this guy certainly is not a faithful angel in God’s employ. And so stating the New Testament position, it looks from all of the above that the New Testament position is a position echoed in the Jewish position and consistent with reasonable interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. I don’t expect my readers to fall in love with the New Testament because of this. I also don’t claim that the New Testament recounts a dogmatic position of Judaism. Only that it is a reasonable opinion consistent with certain of the Jewish literature, to include very old and highly esteemed Jewish literature. So then the addage that “Satan as a rebel angel is a Christian opinion, but the Jewish opinion is that Satan is an angel in God’s retinue” is simply not the truth. Like saying that Judaism is not patriarchal or that Judaism has no problem with homosexuality, this is simply an uninformed and disingenuous attempt to draw distinction between Judaism and Christianity that isn’t there in this particular instance.
Now the whole issue of how Satan can be a rebel against God while ultimately doing what God wants him to and thus fulfil many aspects of being in divine service is actually a matter of the issue of divine sovereignty, human freedom, and determinism. That is, ultimately everything that happens is God’s doing. So then even a rebellion of the angels is a part of God’s plan and serves God’s purposes, and so these rebels can thus be described as being in God’s service, in a way. But this is a very weighty matter that has ripped the Christian Protestants to shreds for almost five hundred years now with their Calvinist vs Arminian debates. Having participated in those during my years as a Christian, I will say that it is the hardest theological concept for a human being to wrap their head around that I have ever dealt with. I am not even going to touch it here. Judaism has its own take on these issues as well. It should be the subject of another essay.
And so with that, I’ll draw this essay to a close. It should serve as a first entry in a series of writings that I plan to put forth on the subject of Satan, since I can’t seem to stop referencing him in my poetry, prose, and social media posting. I hope this essay is received as informative.