The Old Testament and The Satan

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?

A fallen angel on the ground. His face looks frightened, tormented. Next to him there is a shield and a sword. The image is called "Satan Shown as the Fallen Angel after Having Been Smitten". It was created by Gustave Dor茅. What does the Old Testament tell us about him?

I went to check, and here is what I have found:

The word Satan (砖指讉讟指谉) appears in the Old Testament 27 times. We can divide its use into 3 categories, each with a different meaning. It appears:

  • 13 times in Job
  • 2 times in Zechariah
  • And 11 times in the rest of the Bible

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

讜址讬执旨转职讬址爪值旨讘 诪址诇职讗址讱职聽讬职讛止讜指讛讘址旨讚侄旨专侄讱职聽诇职砖指讉讟指谉聽诇讜止
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 鈥榦bstacle鈥. 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

讜址讬止旨讗诪侄专 讚指旨讜执讚 诪址讛 诇执旨讬 讜职诇指讻侄诐 讘职旨谞值讬 爪职专讜旨讬指讛 讻执旨讬 转执讛职讬讜旨 诇执讬 讛址讬旨讜止诐 诇职砖指讉讟指谉
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 鈥榯he鈥 ().

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 鈥榯he satan鈥 (讛址砖指旨讉讟指譀谉) :

讜址讬址旨专职讗值謼谞执讬 讗侄转志讬职讛讜止砖只讈謾注址謾 讛址讻止旨讛值郑谉 讛址讙指旨讚謹讜止诇 注止诪值謺讚 诇执驻职谞值謻讬 诪址诇职讗址郑讱职 讬职讛止讜指謶讛 讜职讛址砖指旨讉讟指譀谉 注止诪值芝讚 注址诇志讬职诪执讬谞謻讜止 诇职砖执讉讟职谞纸讜止
And he showed me Yehosha the big priest standing in front of God鈥檚 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鈥檚 work.

It is only in Job that the Satan (with the definite article 鈥榯he鈥) appears as a non-human being

In Job 1:6 we read:

 讜址讬职讛执讬 讛址讬旨讜止诐 讜址讬指旨讘止讗讜旨 讘职旨谞值讬 讛指讗直诇止讛执讬诐 诇职讛执转职讬址爪值旨讘 注址诇 讬职讛止讜指讛 讜址讬指旨讘讜止讗 讙址诐 讛址砖指旨讉讟指谉 讘职旨转讜止讻指诐
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鈥檚 work and following God’s word. As we can see, for example, in Job 1:12

讜址讬止旨讗诪侄专聽讬职讛止讜指讛聽讗侄诇讛址砖指旨讉讟指谉聽讛执谞值旨讛 讻讎诇 讗植砖侄讈专 诇讜止 讘职旨讬指讚侄讱指 专址拽 讗值诇指讬讜 讗址诇 转执旨砖职讈诇址讞 讬指讚侄讱指
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鈥檚 bidding.

Conclusion

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鈥檚 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

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Eleonora
Eleonora
2 years ago

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 »

Ran Fuchs
Reply to  Eleonora
2 years ago

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 »

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Eleonora
1 year ago

Just a thought鈥..it seems like as humans we can鈥檛 know good without bad as it鈥檚 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鈥ll… Read more »

Ran Fuchs
Reply to  Anonymous
1 year ago

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 »

Lea
Lea
Reply to  Ran Fuchs
1 year ago

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 »

Ran Fuchs
Reply to  Lea
1 year ago

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 »

ron
ron
2 years ago

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

Ran Fuchs
Reply to  ron
2 years ago

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 »

Lea
Lea
1 year ago

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 »

Ran Fuchs
Reply to  Lea
1 year ago

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.