Recently, I have been asked a few times if Satan appears in the Old Testament, and what does it mean: is it the Devil or a fallen angel like in the New Testament, or does it mean something different altogether?
I went to check, and here is what I have found:
The word Satan (שָׂטָן) appears in the Old Testament 27 times. We can divide its use into 3 categories, each with a different meaning. It appears:
Let’s start with the last category
The first time the word appears is in Numbers 22:22. Balaam goes with his donkey to curse the people in Israel. This is when
וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ לְשָׂטָן לוֹ
And the angel of God stood on his way as an obstacle
Although here the story is about an angel of God, there is nothing unearthly about the word satan. Here it is a synonymous to the word ‘obstacle’. In the other 10 times the word seem to have the same type meaning: an obstacle, an adversary or an enemy, and it mostly refers to person a group of people. As we can see, for instance, in 2 Samuel 19:23
וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד מַה לִּי וְלָכֶם בְּנֵי צְרוּיָה כִּי תִהְיוּ לִי הַיּוֹם לְשָׂטָן
And David said: What have I to do with you sons of Zeruiah that you have become today my enemy?
In these eleven appearances the word satan is used as a common, everyday word, and it appears without the definite article ‘the’ (ה).
The second use of the word we find in Zechariah 3:1
This is the first time that the word Satan appears with the definite article ‘the satan’ (הַשָּׂטָ֛ן) :
וַיַּרְאֵ֗נִי אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֙עַ֙ הַכֹּהֵ֣ן הַגָּד֔וֹל עֹמֵ֕ד לִפְנֵ֖י מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהֹוָ֑ה וְהַשָּׂטָ֛ן עֹמֵ֥ד עַל־יְמִינ֖וֹ לְשִׂטְנֽוֹ
And he showed me Yehosha the big priest standing in front of God’s angel, and the Satan stands on his right to accuse him.
In this verse and the following we find ourselves in a heavenly court of law, where the Satan is the accuser. It is not clear if the Satan here is human or super-human. Regardless, he is the accuser of a human, still doing God’s work.
It is only in Job that the Satan (with the definite article ‘the’) appears as a non-human being
In Job 1:6 we read:
וַיְהִי הַיּוֹם וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים לְהִתְיַצֵּב עַל יְהֹוָה וַיָּבוֹא גַם הַשָּׂטָן בְּתוֹכָם
One day the sons of God came to stand before God, and the Satan also came with them.
Here the Satan is in the company of the sons of God. We do not know whether he is one of them, that he is one of the son of God, but we know that he is in their company. Here, as well, as in other 12 occurrences of the word in Job, while challenging God, The Satan is still doing God’s work and following God’s word. As we can see, for example, in Job 1:12
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל הַשָּׂטָן הִנֵּה כׇל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ בְּיָדֶךָ רַק אֵלָיו אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ
God said to the Satan: everything he possesses is in your hand, but you cannot harm him
Whether the story of Job is a literal story or an allegory has been a debate by biblical scholars for millennia. It is interpreted differently from one scholar to another, and from one religious group to another. I am not in a position to settle this argument one way or another. However, even in Job the Satan is still one of God’s messengers doing God’s bidding.
To summarise, unlike the New Testament, in the Old Testament the Satan is mostly used as a general word for an obstacle or a human enemy. In Zechariah it is an accuser of a human being, but we do not know if he himself is one of the angels or a human. Only in Job he appears as a super-being. But there too, he is still doing God’s work.
So, although the word Satan does appear in the Old Testament, we cannot claim that The Satan as an adversary of God or a fallen angel, appears there. Only in the New Testament he appears for the first time.
You can see here the text of the Old Testament both in Hebrew and in English: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0104.htm
Another astonishing article of yours. You are changing my biblical world view completely. First Cain, who might have not been the bad son among the two brothers. Even if our bibles want to make us believe it. And maybe his father was not the nameless first man in the Bible.… Read more »
You are too kind. I would call it informative rather than astonishing, though :). I cannot say if The Satan was speaking to eve through the snake. I have no other knowledge than what is written in the Bible. So if people say so, it may be that they have… Read more »
Just a thought…..it seems like as humans we can’t know good without bad as it’s opposite. Maybe we have to have a satan to know God. So we have the choice to choose good or bad. We have both in us. God has both in him. He created all things…all… Read more »
An interesting thought, thank you. After all, how can we practice our free will if there was no evil? There would be no righteous men without evil. There would be no meaning for free will. I agree, I believe that we need evil to give us an opportunity to make… Read more »
I have some doubts. Let’s imagine sin has disappeared and we are not tempted to do sins anymore. Couldn’t we focus on becoming more skillful in the things we do, more affectionate in our relationship to others, to our children, more effective in our work, more careful towards nature, learning… Read more »
Probably you are right. But you are talking here about very different psychology. I wonder if some of these closer to nature, small societies had experienced what you are describing. I heard many stories about the harmony they used to live in. But I wonder how much of it was… Read more »
This is very interesting. Thank you, but what about Ezekiel 28 or Yeshaiah 14:12-13 Aren’t they telling us about a falling angel
Thank you Ron about another insightful comment. You are absolutely right that these two passages talk about a fallen angel. However, it is debatable whether they refer to The Satan that kept fighting against God as it is known from the New Testament. Also, the purpose of this post was… Read more »
Thank you for your profound researches and your new article. In my understanding Satan has always been the epitome of evil and sin, and God’s and men’s biggest opponent, so the information you were researching in the Old Testament is completely new to me. Extremely interesting that he has been… Read more »
Thank you Lea for another profound question. This is really hard one, and I keep changing my view about it over and again. Give me a few days, and I will try and write a full post only about this question.