Understandably, we want to know details about things that are important to us, and Satan is important to us; but what does the Bible tell us? We have discovered that the passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel say nothing about Satan, but we shall now see that the Old Testament hardly refers to Satan at all; references are shockingly slight!
The word ‘satan’ is used several times, in the sense of an adversary, to describe literary devices, messengers, and even God. For example, in Numbers 22 the messenger of the Lord confronted Balaam—you know the story. After an interesting two-way argument between Balaam and his donkey, the invisible messenger becomes visible to Balaam and tells him: ‘I have come here to oppose you (to be your satan)’.
In a second example, 2 Samuel 24 tells of God becoming angry with Israel and inciting David to take a census that leads to terrible consequences for Israel. God was acting here as an adversary. The same story, told in 1 Chronicles 21, states that Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take the census. Apparently, that ‘satan’ (adversary) was God.
Satan in Job
The most memorable depiction of a satan comes from the first two chapters of the book of Job. It is here that adversity (satan) is given personality.
The book of Job is a part of a genre of Jewish wisdom tradition that developed alongside prophetic tradition. Jewish wisdom literature is vast and includes Old Testament books such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Job deals with the problem of suffering.
The character of Satan appears in the first two chapters to help set up the story and then totally disappears. One can understand the story either as the experience of an historic individual or as a representation of common human experience, but in neither case must Satan be literal.
The story is about the problem of evil; but God is at issue—Satan merely moves the plot along, serving as a literary device in preparing the reader for Job’s suffering. If he is meant to be historical, I would like to know how the writer came into possession of the detailed dialogue between God and Satan.
Satan in Zechariah
Finally, Zechariah is one of the last books in the Old Testament written when, after a long captivity, the Jews began to return to their old lands. Zechariah has a vision regarding the restoration of Israel, and chapter 3 contains a passing reference in which the adversary is raised to a name—Satan.
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan!’
This is an interesting development!
During captivity, the Jews were cured of the thing that repeatedly got them into trouble—idolatry. After the captivity, idolatry was never a collective problem among the Jews. However, the exiled Jews were exposed to new religious ideas; the religion of Persia, in particular, seemed to influence their thinking.
Persian beliefs about God were more palatable to the Jews than were the idolatrous beliefs of the Canaanites. The Persians believed in a single, powerful God; and working with him were countless good spirits—angels. They also believed in a single, powerful anti-god and countless evil spirits—demons.
The two great powers were closely matched, although the Persians believed the god (Ahura Mazda) ultimately would defeat the evil power (Ahriman). The Jews would not accept an evil power equal to God, but the idea of a force of evil demons led by an evil leader worked within their belief system without destroying monotheism.
Interest in demons and angels grew, and literature about them proliferated, as we have already seen in the Book of Enoch.
No More Old Testament References to Satan
These few references exhausts Old Testament mentions of a satan–nothing else is said; but some might ask: ‘What about the serpent in Eden?’ We will talk about that next time.