The Origin of Satan in the Hebrew Bible

11/02/2019 04:47 PM - Permalink

Who or what is Satan, according to the Hebrew Bible?  If you grew up in church, the answer may shock you.  Not to say that many of the church's teachings are completely wrong.  Rather, it would be wrong to think they are complete.

The Hebrew behind our “Satan” is השטן - haasatan - which is pronounced “hah-sah-TAHN,” and means “The Opposer.”

Since the Hebrew prefix “ha” functions like our definite article (“the”), when early English translators were rendering the Hebrew into English, they dropped the article, and just didn’t translate the word — but only in a few places. In other places it was translated. There are only a very small number of places where the verb “to oppose” (STN) is used absent the definite article, and what you’ll read about it may shock you!

In Hebrew, there is the definite article “HA,” which means “THE,” but they do not have an indefinite article, “a” which would mean “one among possible many.” If you were holding a book, and you spoke Hebrew, and wanted to say you are holding a book, you would simply say אני נושא את ספר “Ani nose et safer” which means “I hold book/scroll” and the indefinite article “a” can be implied.

Here lists the totality of the occurrences of the Hebrew word “satan/HaSatan” in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament):

  1. שטן/SATAN appears in the following passages, absent the Definite Article “HA” which means “THE”:
    1. Numbers (Look at WHO is called SATAN here … and what the being who is called SATAN is doing - its the “angel of the Lord” - the “angel of Yahweh” … so, God, who is called Opposer as Balaam, a sketchy prophet at best - likely not loyal to Yahweh alone - had been paid by the King of Moab to go curse Israel against God’s command, and he was on his way to do it. Read Numbers 22.)
      1. Num 22:22 - God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road LeSATAN (translated ”as his adversary”). Now he was riding on the donkey and his two servants were with him.
      2. Num 22:32 - The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out LeSATAN (translated “as an adversary”) because your way is perverse before me.”
    2. 1 Samuel (Read 1 Sam 29 1–4 to get a feel for whats going on. The being talked about as who could become “LeSATAN” (an opposer) here is DAVID who fled to the Philistines to run away from King Saul, who had gone mad.)
      1. 1 Sam 29:4 - But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him; and the commanders of the Philistines said to him, “Send the man back, so that he may return to the place that you have assigned to him; he shall not go down with us to battle, or else he may become LeSATAN (translated “an adversary) to us in the battle. For how could this fellow reconcile himself to his lord? Would it not be with the heads of the men here?”
    3. 2 Samuel (Watch who it is here — a human, Abishai son of Zeruiah, who David said has become “LeSATAN” “an opposer” to him.)
      1. 2 Sam 19:22 - But David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should today become LeSATAN (translated “an adversary) to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?
    4. 1 Kings (In all three places, we translate satan “an opposer” - and the text is clear it’s referring to a human: v14 it’s Hadad the Edomite, v23 and 25, it’s Rezon son of Eliada)
      1. 1 Kings 11:14 - An the Lord raised up SATAN (translated “an adversary”) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite. He was of the royal house in Edom.
      2. 1 Kings 11:23 - God also raised up as SATAN (translated “an adversary”) to him, Rezon the son of Eliada, who had fled from his master Hadadezer king of Zobah.
      3. 2 Kings 11:25 - He was SATAN (translated “an adversary”) of all Israel all the days of Solomon, doing harm as Hadad did. And he loathed Israel and reigned over Syria.
    5. Psalms (Again, satan here is used about “wicked men/man”)
      1. Psalm 109:4 - In return for my love yiSTeNuni (the root is STN - the same as satan, translated “they accuse me”), even while I make prayer for them
      2. Psalm 109:6 - They say, “Appoint a wicked man against him; let SATAN (translated “an accuser”) stand on his right.
    6. 1 Chronicles (Here it just appears without a prefix, Ha or Le … so it's just the base verb, but used as a noun — likely, not a name — and could be accompanied with the indefinite article “a,” as it was in 1 Kings above. I will provide an alternate translation faithful to the Hebrew Grammar rules as a second point below.)
      1. 1 Ch 21:1 - SATAN stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.
      2. Alt. translation: “An opposer stood up against Israel and incited David to count the people of Israel.” (Read the surrounding passages with this understanding to see if it makes more sense - I think it does. I typically favor translating all the words that can be translated, and not arbitrarily choosing the ones that should not be translated in order to create a meaning the original text does not seem to mean.)
  2. השטן/HaSatan “The Opposer” appears in the following passages:
    1. Job (Watch what the being referred to as HaSatan is doing — spoiler: he’s opposing Job’s reputation which was claimed by Yahweh to be “blameless and upright” in the Divine Council meeting when heavenly beings present themselves before Yahweh. Is HASATAN opposing Yahweh or Job? The answer is yes. Thus “The Opposer.” But we didn’t translate this word: We DROPPED the definite article, and transliterated the Hebrew word with English letters, creating a name where the Hebrew Bible clearly does not use it as a name.)
      1. Job 1:6 - One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and HASATAN also came among them.
      2. Job 1:7 - The Lord said to HASATAN, “Where have you come from?” HASATAN answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
      3. Job 1:8 - The Lord said to HASATAN, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”
      4. Job 1:9 - Then HASATAN answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?”
      5. Job 1:12 - The Lord said to HASATAN, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So HASATAN went out from the presence of the Lord.
      6. Job 2:1 - One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and HASATAN also came among them to present himself before the Lord.
      7. Job 2:2 - The Lord said to HASATAN, “Where have you come from?” HASATAN answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
      8. Job 2:3 - The Lord said to HASATAN, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”
      9. Job 2:4 - Then HASATAN answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.”
      10. Job 2:6 - The Lord said to HASATAN, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
      11. Job 2:7 - So HASATAN went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
    2. Zechariah (Again, watch what the being referred to as HASATAN is doing - he’s just standing there to accuse the High Priest, Joshua, who is clearly guilty as v3 (after the 2 below) have him wearing dirty rags, but Yahweh shuts him up. So again, he’s cast as opposing the High Priest and Yahweh.)
      1. Zec 3:1 - Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and HASATAN standing at his right hand to accuse him.
      2. Zec 3:2 - And the Lord said to HASATAN, “The Lord rebuke you, HASATAN! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?”

And … that’s it. That’s all the appearances of the word in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament.

Now, I’m not attempting to claim that there isn’t an entity who is representative of or having been the “first doer” and therefore lord of spiritual evil. I’m saying that isn’t information you necessarily pick up reading just the Hebrew Bible itself. You need a bit more second temple period literature and New Testament passages which tie some of this together for us and have formed the modern conception of what “the devil” is.

But I find it interesting that “satan” can fit for some spiritual being that opposes God’s declaration and certain humans in certain circumstances (Job, Psalms, Zechariah), human enemies (Kings, Samuel), and God himself while opposing a wicked prophet (Numbers).

The source/figure/first doer/lord of spiritual evil … I don’t believe he is “named” in the Bible — I don’t believe the biblical authors ever intended to dignify him with a name. He’s just “HaSatan” or “HaDiablos” - the opposer / the accuser.

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Jay Baldwin is a follower of Jesus Christ residing in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and daughter. Jay is an Executive Director and Software Engineer (Web Ninja!), a self-proclaimed scriptural scholar, and a pilot. He's also an avid gamer, loves tennis, and has a black belt in Korean martial art Tang Soo Do.