Thursday, June 29, 2017

Satan and the Old Testament: who is he?

Recently I read on conversation on a message board where someone claimed that Satan does not appear in the Old Testament. A statement I knew was not true. Two conversations between Satan and God appears in Job 1:6-12 and Job 2:1-8. However, it peaked my interest: what was the origin of the word, Satan, and who is he in the Old Testament. In Hebrew, Satan is a noun from a verb meaning to obstruct or oppose as used in Numbers 22:22, 1 Samuel 29:4 and Psalm 109:6. Ha-Satan is translated as the accuser or the adversary. The definite article occurs in Job 1-2 ten times and three times in Zechariah 3:1-2. I also began to investigate who Satan was in Judaism and discovered something interesting: it depends on the different eras of Judaism.

First, Enochic Judaism occurred during the Second Temple period between 516 BCE to 70 CE. It taught that Satan is an opponent of God and a chiefly evil figure among demons. It is in the book of Enoch which references Satariel, an angel before the fall from Heaven. The second book of Enoch references a Grigori (Watcher) called Satanael who was cast out of heaven. Judaism and most of Christianity rejected the books of Enoch as canon due to the idea that angels sinned and rebelled against God as illustrated by Trypho the Jew while debating Justin Martyr (Dialogue 79). Although many Christian churches use the books for historical or theological interests. The only churches today who accept the books as canon are the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Second, Rabbinic Judaism has been practiced since the 6th century CE and teaches that satan was Yetzer hara or evil inclination of humans. Genesis 6:5 says “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become; and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Satan is personified in three places. In 1 Chronicles 21:1 as the seducer. In Job 2:1 as the heavenly persecutor and Zechariah 3:1-2 as the accuser. Satan is always subordinate to the power of God and has a role in the divine plan. However, during the Medieval era (5th – 15th century CE), the Enochic literary works were rejected and every attempt to root out any reference to rebel or fallen angels. Evil became viewed as abstract and the first two chapters of Job as a metaphor. These teachings can be seen in Modern Orthodox Judaism as the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, is studied.

Third, Hasidic Judaism arose as a spiritual revival movement founded by Israel Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century in what is today, modern Ukraine and spread across Eastern Europe. The story of his birth features Satan as a tester as an agent of God whose main function is to tempt one into sin and then report back to God. His parents, R’Eliezer and Sara, were known to bring in guests. Satan wanted to test R’Eliezer to see if he would take in a poor and dirty guest. The court of heaven agreed and Satan appeared at their home in dirty rags and behaved horribly for a guest. But his requests were met without complaint. When Satan returned to heaven, the court of heaven decided to reward R’Eliezer. Sara would soon give birth to a son in her extreme old age. A sin with a holy soul, the type of soul which only occurs once in a thousand years. These teaching that Satan as an agent of God can be seen in Modern Conservative Judaism as well.

Lastly, Modern Reform Judaism (also known as Progressive Judaism or Liberal Judaism) was founded on July 17, 1810 by Israel Jacobson in Germany. The reform movement came to American when German reformers immigrated here in the mid-1800s. According to their traditions, Satan is interpreted symbolically. He is the representation of innate human qualities to do evil and selfish desires. They reject any other representation or interpretation of Satan. He is not yetzer hara, an agent of God or a fallen angel. Their teachings tend to focus on learning, duty and obligation. Their teachings stress ethical responsibility both personal and social, including equality between the sexes as taught in the Torah. They focus on family devotion, private prayer and public worship as well as observance of the Sabbath and holy days.

In conclusion, the answer to who is Satan in Judaism is very complicated and has changed over time. The answer depends on the historical period and the beliefs of each individual sect. So to say that Satan doesn’t appear in the Old Testament is false. While researching this topic and reading about the different Jewish sects, I was reminded of the vast differences in Christian denominations too. Therefore, what I learned the most is, as always, it’s a good idea to avoid generalizations. I read a few articles that made statements about Christians that I, and others I know, do not ascribe to. Like Jews don’t believe in Satan and Christians believe he was a fallen angel. It may be true for some, however, not for all.