Mark 1:12-13 (NRSV)
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Job 1:6-12 (INL)
6And so it happened one day that the sons of God came to stand before YHWH, and the prosecutor also came in their midst. 7YHWH said to the prosecutor, “Where did you come from?” The prosecutor answered YHWH and said, “From roaming the earth, and walking around on it.” 8And YHWH said to the prosecutor, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth—a perfect and upright man who fears God and rejects evil.” 9Then the prosecutor answered YHWH and said, “Why wouldn’t he? 10You have shielded him and his house, and everything he has on all sides! You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have spread out over the land. 11But send forth your hand, please, and touch everything he has, and he will ‘bless’ you to your face.” 12YHWH said to the prosecutor, “Fine! Everything he has is in your hand; only do not send your hand against him.” So the prosecutor went out from the presence of YHWH.
Job 2:1-7 (INL)
2And so it happened one day that the sons of God came to stand before YHWH, and the prosecutor also came in their midst to stand before YHWH. 2YHWH said to the prosecutor, “Where did you come from?” The prosecutor answered YHWH and said, “From roaming the earth, and walking around on it.” 3YHWH said to the prosecutor, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth—a perfect and upright man who fears God and rejects evil. He still holds onto his integrity, and so you persuaded me to ruin him without cause.” 4Then the prosecutor answered YHWH and said, “One skin for another! The man will give anything for his life. 5But send forth your hand, please, and touch his bones and his flesh, and he will ‘bless’ you to your face.” 6YHWH said to the prosecutor, “Fine! He is in your hand; just preserve his life.” 7So the prosecutor went out from the presence of YHWH, and attacked Job with horrible disease, from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
Little Johnny was fond of playing in the neighbor’s yard, even though his mother had forbid it. When she asked him why he would always disobey her, Johnny fell back on that time-honored excuse, “The Devil made me do it.” Johnny’s mother was familiar with scripture and told him that the next time he felt tempted to play into the neighbor’s yard, he should just say, “Get behind me, Satan!” And then she had a fence built around the yard.
A few days later, she looked out into the yard only to see a hole in the fence, and little Johnny playing in the neighbor’s yard again. When she confronted him about it, he said, “But Mom, I did exactly what you told me to do!” His mother asked him what he meant. Little Johnny said, “Well, I felt tempted to play in the neighbor’s yard, so I said ‘Get behind me Satan.’ And that’s when Satan got behind me and pushed me through the hole I made in the fence.”
The Devil made me do it. Today we come to our final sermon in our series on the monsters in the Book of Job, and to our final monster, Satan. In the actual text of the book of Job, Satan occupies far less space than Behemoth or Leviathan, but in our cultural imagination, and in the history of Christianity, he is the greatest monster of all, the great archenemy of God, the supernatural embodiment of all evil, the fallen angel who rebelled against God and was cast down to earth, the ruler of Hell and all its demons.
Only, for thousands of years in ancient Israel and throughout the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) he was none of these things. In fact, he wasn’t even a thing at all. So where did he come from? And why does he have such a big role in modern Christianity and in the popular imagination? To answer that question, we’re going to take a trip through the Old Testament looking at several passages that eventually came to be associated with Satan, or the devil. I should note at the outset that I owe much of what I say today to an excellent book by Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels called “The Origin of Satan.” It’s a well-researched and well-written book that goes into far more detail than I can manage in a 20 minute sermon, and I thoroughly recommend it.
The Devil as Serpent
We’ll start in Genesis 3. Most of you are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, where Eve is tempted by the serpent, which is often assumed to be Satan. Only nowhere in Genesis do the scriptures actually say this. Genesis 3:1 simply says “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” And in fact, God himself confirms that the serpent is just an animal at the end of the chapter when he says “cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures.” The curse is also an example of what’s called an “etiological” story in the Bible — a story whose purpose is to explain something in the present day…like why snakes have no legs and why they don’t get along with women. But nowhere in the Bible is the serpent identified with any supernatural or angelic being. Sometimes a snake is just a snake.
The Devil as Lucifer/Fallen Angel
In Isaiah 14:12, the King James translation reads “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!” So who is this Lucifer person? As a proper name, Lucifer appears only once in the entire Bible, and only in older translations like the King James. The NIV says “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn. You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!”
The name Lucifer doesn’t actually show up until several centuries after the time of Christ, when the Bible was translated into Latin. Lucifer is actually Latin for “light bringer” (a nickname for the morning star, הֵילֵל in the Hebrew text).
But still, even if Lucifer isn’t really a name, it seems like this passage is talking about someone falling from Heaven, right? It can’t be God, and who else is in Heaven besides the angels? So it must be an angel. The problem is that this only works if you ignore the surrounding verses, which clearly state that the entire message of Isaiah 14 is addressed as a prophecy against the king of Babylon. The phrase translated as “from Heaven” is מִשָּׁמַ֖יִם (mishamayim) which can also simply mean “from up high”. Isaiah is making a prophecy that the King of Babylon, who at the time of Isaiah’s writing is about as high up as anyone can be, will be “cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations (specifically the nation of Israel).
The name “morning star” also shows up in the New Testament, in Revelation 22:16. “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright, morning star.” Only here we don’t translate it as Lucifer, because calling Jesus Lucifer would be a little bit problematic.
The Devil as Satan
The very first place where the word “satan” appears in the Bible is in the book of Numbers, in the story of Balaam and his donkey. Balaam is a prophet who is hired by the enemies of Israel to curse Israel. He is on his way to do exactly that when we read (in Numbers 22:22) that “God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.” You probably know the rest of the story–Balaam’s donkey is smart enough to see the angel and stop, saving Balaam’s life. But in the verse “the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary” the word adversary is the Hebrew word שָּׂטָן (satan). In this case it is quite correctly translated as an angelic function or role and not as a personal name. The angel is doing God’s bidding, being an “adversary” of Balaam, not of God. This is actually a good thing for Balaam. It is sometimes better for us to be blocked in our own plans when those plans are not God’s plans.
In Psalm 109, the psalmist asks for an accuser to be appointed to stand next to his enemy, so that his enemy might be found guilty. The word for accuser is (you guessed it) satan. Here we see again that satan is a function–in this case a legal function, not unlike a prosecuting attorney.
In 2nd Chronicles 21:1 we read the story of the first census in Israel: “Then Satan (or a satan) stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.” But the exact same story is told in 2nd Samuel 24. Listen to the difference: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.” This time, no satan. Just the anger of the Lord. That’s because the two are interchangeable, one and the same. The function of the satan is simply carrying out the divine will. And that leads us to our last example, the book of Job.
In Job chapters one and two, we have a divine council, where all the divine beings (literally the sons of God) present themselves to God for inspection in their assigned duties. One of them happens to be a satan. Like the satan in Psalm 109, like a district attorney, his God-given job seems to be roaming the earth looking for people to prosecute. And God specifically asks him to “consider my servant, Job.” So the satan obeys, and prosecutes Job to the best of his ability. And then, having done his duty, at the end of only the second chapter, he disappears from the story never to return again in any of the remaining 40 chapters.
Why? Because he’s just not that important of a character, despite later attempts to enlarge his role. Taken in the context of the entire Old Testament, the satan is nothing more than an extension of God’s will.
In modern-day Judaism, Satan is not God’s adversary, but rather (according to Shamash: the Jewish Network) “the angel who is the embodiment of man’s challenges. His job is to make choosing good over evil enough of a challenge so that it can be a meaningful choice . . . to add difficulty, challenges, and growth experiences to life. In Jewish thought, the idea that there exists anything capable of setting itself up as God’s opponent would be considered overly polytheistic–you are setting up the devil to be a god or demigod.”
The Devil as Greek Intrusion
So if the devil is not an original part of the Old Testament or Jewish belief, where did he come into the picture?
In the 4th Century B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered most of the Mediterranean world, including all of Israel. He introduced Greek culture, Greek literature, and Greek belief systems that would dominate the region for hundreds of years (and in many ways to this very day). Greek religion was polytheistic, and included belief in an afterlife, an underworld, and Hades, the God of the underworld. Some 1st century Jews were eager to identify themselves (and their faith) with the more fashionable and elite Greek culture. They found ways to connect some unrelated dots in their sacred scriptures and weave together a Hades-like character whom they identified as Satan, now for the first time a proper name. But this view was a minority view in Judaism, and never became mainstream.
Christianity was also, for a long time, a minority view within Judaism. When it finally began to spread, it did so primarily among gentiles, people who were more familiar and comfortable with Greek culture and belief than they were with Jewish monotheism. The idea that God had a powerful supernatural enemy made a lot of sense to people who were used to stories about battles between the gods in heaven. In early Christianity, the book of Job began to be interpreted in this light: A heavenly battle between God and Satan with Job as the lowly pawn down on earth.
The Devil as a Bad Excuse
Throughout Christian history, Satan, or the devil has been used for one of three purposes:
- To explain away our own failures and shortcomings (“The devil made me do it”).
- To demonize people we disagree with and explain what we believe are their failures and shortcomings.
- To get God off the hook for anything we can’t explain that might be perceived as a failure or shortcoming on his part.
In this regard, explaining evil in the world by attributing it to the work of the devil is a simple and effective argument…but ultimately not a very helpful one. If the devil made me do it, then I’m not responsible for my actions. If my enemies are driven by the devil, then I don’t have to love them, work with them, or try to understand why they do what they do–they’re just evil. And if the devil is the source of everything I judge to be evil, then I can let God off the hook for those things…by creating another God.
A Different Approach
If you were hoping that by this point in the sermon series I would have solved the problem of evil and monstrosities in the world, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Better theologians than I have been working on that one for a couple of thousand years without any solutions that are completly satisfactory. At best, they solve one problem by creating another. Besides, I’ve only got about five minutes left.
But while I can’t offer a solution, I can offer a more honest, authentic approach; an example for us to follow.
The Book of Job is a struggle between two characters, but it’s not God and Satan. It’s God…and Job. And never once in the book’s 42 chapters does Job blame his struggles on Satan. He doesn’t even indicate that he is aware there is a Satan (which would make sense, given the time the book is written). Neither does Job take his lumps quietly, peacefully, despite the stereotype of the “patience of Job.” After chapter two, Job is anything but patient.
Instead, over and over again, Job looks squarely into the heavens and blames God alone for his troubles. For 38 chapters, Job rants and raves, he questions and accuses, he demands justice, he demands an audience with God. For his honesty, God does not fry Job, or even disagree with his accusations. Surprisingly, he says that everything Job has said about him is correct. Now–to be fair–God also doesn’t answer any of Job’s questions, or explain his actions in any kind of satisfactory way. God goes on for a chapter or two about some terrifying monsters (Behemoth and Leviathan) and perhaps there is some hidden message or wisdom for Job in these verses, but if so it’s pretty cryptic.
The monstrosities in the world around us are cryptic, too, and terrifying. Sometimes, in the midst of terror and tragedy, you might discern some small glimmer of a message or a greater purpose, but more often, you just can’t. When that happens, don’t give up. Don’t run away. Do what Job does, and face your monstrosities head on. Stand your ground, and ask the difficult questions. God can take it. He might hold up a mirror, and you might see monstrosity reflected in your own image. Or you might behold some monstrous aspect of God that you don’t like, or that you struggle to accept. You might be tempted to invent monsters to explain or excuse the ones you don’t understand.
In any case, the point is this: God will meet you wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, and whatever monsters you face. More than anything, it’s the encounter that matters. In that encounter, mortals glimpse the immortal, monsters become irrelevant, and for just a moment, heaven and earth collide.