The Devil in the Details of the Old Testament: Is Satan in the Hebrew Bible?
Is the serpent in Genesis 3 just a snake or Satan? Does the Hebrew refer to "the satan" or "Satan"? And does it make a difference? Let's take a look at the Old Testament, early Jewish literature, and the New Testament for the answers.
From Sunday School onward, I had been taught that the serpent in Eden was Satan. So you can imagine my surprise when, during my graduate studies, some of my professors told me there was no biblical evidence for that interpretation.
What? Had I been wrong this whole time?
While I was learning Hebrew, my confusion increased. I realized that, with one exception, every reference in the Old Testament to the one called “Satan [שָׂטָן]” is actually “hassatan [הַשָּׂטָן].” The “ha” in Hebrew is the definite article “the.” This means that, when hassatan is used, it is a title or office, not a proper name: the satan not Satan. In Hebrew as in English, proper names do not have “the” attached to them (I am not “the Chad”).
My bafflement continued when I learned that many scholars think that it was only in the centuries immediately before the New Testament when Jews came to believe that Satan, the archenemy of God, even existed. This “new belief,” I was told, was probably the result of influence from dualistic religions, such as Zoroastrianism, or the Greek religious culture.
Had I been wrong about this, too?
Perhaps you have struggled with these same questions. And that’s fine. It’s good to ask questions; it’s good to be challenged. So, let’s do some digging. The devil is in the details, as they say, so let’s look at the details of the Bible and some early Jewish literature to find out what we can about the satan or Satan.
The Non-Technical Use of Satan
That English phrase, “the devil is in the details,” is a helpful illustration with which to begin. When we say that, we mean that it is vital to pay attention to small matters. We do not mean, of course, that there is an actual devil in some minuscule fact. It’s just a figure of speech. Or, if I say, “the flu has bedeviled me this whole week,” I don’t mean the flu is a malevolent celestial being (though it may seem that way at times!).
In these examples, both the noun “devil” and the verb “bedeviled” have non-technical meanings.
Likewise, in Old Testament Hebrew, the noun satan (which occurs 27x) and the verb satan (which occurs 6x) are often used in a general way. If I “satan” someone, I oppose them, accuse them, or slander them. David uses it this way in the psalms, “Those who render me evil for good accuse [שׂטן (satan)] me because I follow after good” (Ps. 38:21). If I act as a “satan” to someone, therefore, I am their adversary or accuser, as the messenger of the Lord stood in the way of Balaam “as his adversary [שׂטן (satan)]” (Numbers 22:22) or as Solomon told Hiram that he had no “adversary [שׂטן (satan)]” who opposed him (1 Kings 5:4).
Thus, in Hebrew, the noun and verb שׂטן (satan) can have the non-technical meaning of “stand opposed to someone as an adversary.” In the case of Balaam, even the Lord’s messenger was a “satan” to him, that is, a God-sent opponent. That is the first point to keep in mind: unlike in English, where “Satan” always refers to a malevolent being, in Hebrew satan can have a generic, non-technical meaning.
Title, Office, or Name?
We saw in the examples above there are both human “satans” and heavenly “satans,” that is, terrestrial and celestial opponents. David’s opponents in the psalms were human enemies. Balaam’s opponent was a celestial enemy.
But what about those cases in the Old Testament where almost every English translation uses “Satan,” such as in Job 1-2, Zechariah 3:1-2, and 1 Chronicles 21:1? Are these references to the archenemy of God or to something/someone else?
Let’s begin with the first two. In every case in Job and Zechariah, the Hebrew is “hassatan [הַשָּׂטָן],” that is, “the satan.” English translations do not reflect this; almost all of them just have “Satan,” as if it is a proper name. But here, it is not. It is a title or office.
In Job, the satan appears among the angels—which are called “sons of God”—to accuse Job of acting with integrity only because was “God’s pet,” as it were. The Lord later allows the satan to afflict Job with those grievous bodily sores. In Zechariah, “Joshua the high priest was standing before the angel of the Lord, and the satan [הַשָּׂטָן] was standing at his right hand to accuse [שׂטן] him” (3:1). The satan was there to satan him, that is, the Accuser was there to accuse him.
In Job and Zechariah, therefore, the satan appears to have a similar role: he accuses God’s people of serving him out of self-interest (Job) or of not being fit to hold the holy office of high priest (Joshua). Either way, almost like a prosecutorial attorney, the satan is there to convict, to point an accusing finger at believers, and to say to God, “You are wrong about this person.” Although scholarship is divided on the interpretation of who the satan is in Job and Zechariah, the evidence suggests that we are indeed dealing here not with just another angel but the devil himself.
Finally, in one example in the OT, 1 Chronicles 21:1, the word satan is used as a proper name: “Satan [שָׂטָן]” and not “the satan (hassatan [הַשָּׂטָן].” In this case, “Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” Most scholars agree that Satan is a specific name, not a title, in this verse.
Pulling all this together, what we do know so far?
A Distinction Without a Difference
In those instances from the OT where “the satan” or “Satan” refers to the celestial being who accuses believers (Job and Joshua) or tempts them to sin (David), the most straightforward answer is that we are dealing with one and the same Accuser. Whether he is called by his title (“the satan”) or whether that title has morphed into a name (“Satan”), he is still going about the same business of thwarting the ways of God, accusing his children, and wreaking havoc in the community of believers.
It seems to me, therefore, that in Job, Zechariah, and 1 Chronicles, the distinction between the titular use of “the satan” and the name “Satan” is a distinction without a difference. We are dealing with the same creature.
If we believe, as I do, that the Scriptures present a coherent, cohesive, noncontradictory message from Genesis to Revelation, then in those three biblical books, one and the same foe is meant. Call him “the satan” or call him “Satan,” he is the same enemy of the Lord and his people.
What About the Serpent in Genesis 3?
In the centuries immediately preceding the New Testament, various Jewish writings make it abundantly clear that Jewish interpreters at that time saw “the satan” as “Satan,” that is, a specific evil being. In this vast and fascinating literature, he is called by a variety of names and titles: Belial, Mastema, Satanail, Satan, the devil, etc.
Writings such as the Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all give witness to a rise of interest in the angelic and demonic realm. Contrary to what you will sometimes read, this does not mean that Jews borrowed this interest from other religions. Certainly these may have played a part, but most of these Jewish writings are expanding upon what was already present—or at least implicit—in books such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Job, Zechariah, and the Psalms. What’s more, during this time, Jewish apocalyptic literature was on the rise. This literature focuses heavily upon the celestial realm, so it makes sense that there was an increased interest in angels and demons.
Some of these Jewish writings also hint or make explicit that the writers understood the “serpent” in Genesis 3 to be Satan. The Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, for instance, after referring to the creation of humans in God’s image (Genesis 1-2), then adds, “through the devil’s envy death entered the world,” an obvious allusion to Genesis 3. And in The Life of Adam and Eve, the author refers to when the devil led Eve astray “to eat of the unlawful and forbidden tree” (33).
This interpretation of Genesis 3, which predates the New Testament, is also embraced by the writers of the NT. In Revelation, we read, “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9). John says “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8), and that the “evil one” influenced Cain to murder Abel (3:12). And Paul, utilizing the language of Genesis 3:15 about the serpent’s head being crushed, told the church in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20).
There are many other passages about Satan and demons in the New Testament, of course, but these especially underscore the fact that when the apostles of our Lord read Genesis 3, they understood “the serpent” to be Satan.
Trust Apostolic Interpretation of the Old Testament
This brings us back to the opening of this article, where I learned, in my graduate studies, that supposedly there was no biblical evidence for Satan being the serpent in Eden. I would urge, first of all, that the Old Testament itself provides ample evidence that “the serpent” in Genesis 3:15 was understood as the archenemy of God’s people because there is an ongoing theme in the Hebrew Bible of the enemies of the Lord getting their heads crushed (see my article “Where’s the Sunday School Picture of Jesus Crushing Skulls?”).
Secondly, if we cannot trust the apostles of our Lord Jesus to provide the correct interpretation of the Old Testament, then who can we trust? Taught by our Lord, led by his Spirit, and immersed in the Scriptures of Israel, these apostolic interpreters are our best guide when reading Genesis 3, Isaiah 53, or any other passage of the Old Testament. Since both John and Paul understood the serpent in Eden to be Satan, I will gladly and confidently pronounce my Amen to their exegesis.
One Little Word Can Fell Him
We have only touched on many important details about Satan, but hopefully this is sufficient to clear up some questions. Here are the three main takeaways:
First, whether he is called by his title, “the satan” or by name as “Satan,” this fallen angel and leader of the demons is in the dark business of thwarting the ways of God, accusing his children, and wreaking havoc in the community of believers.
Second, while the Jewish literature about Satan, demons, and angels did increase in the centuries leading up to the Messiah’s birth, and is prevalent in the New Testament itself, this was the outgrowth of the Old Testament itself. It also seems to have been spurred on by the increase in Jewish apocalyptic literature, which tends to accent the celestial realm.
Third, there is implicit evidence within the Old Testament, and explicit evidence within the New Testament, that the serpent in Eden was Satan. This was not some magical, talking snake but—as John calls him—the great dragon…that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9).
Let’s conclude with this stanza from Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill;
They shall not overpow'r us.
This world's prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none.
He's judged; the deed is done!
One little word can fell him.
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