Satan isn’t who we think he is. Inheriting a tradition from across centuries, it can be easily supposed that modern ideas help to explain the reality of that tradition. Sorry, let me try this with more specificity. The character of “Satan” does not occur in the Hebrew Bible. By the time of the Gospels, however, he’s there. We tend to use modern ideas of Satan to understand the enigmatic person of “the satan” in the Hebrew Bible. Peggy L. Day explored this idea decades ago in her revised Harvard dissertation, An Adversary in Heaven: śāṭān in the Hebrew Bible. Reading this took me back to those heady days when I consumed Harvard Semitic Monographs like breakfast cereal. To those of us not from Harvard we pretty much knew what to expect, but we read anyway. Scholars are like that.
In any case, Day here explores what is sometimes surprising to those who read the Devil back into the Hebrew Bible: the satan is mentioned in only four passages and in none of them is he “Satan.” In Numbers the satan is identified as a good angel sent to knock Balaam off his ass. In the book of Job the satan is a member of the divine council and he does his job by accusing Job. Day shows, by the way, that his accusation is really against God and not the mere human sufferer. Her outlook on Job is still amazing after all these years. After Job, the satan appears in the short book of Zechariah to accuse Joshua the high priest of the restoration era. He’s no Devil here either. The final reference comes in Chronicles where instead of God tempting David to take a census a satan does. By this time the reader already knows a satan is an accuser and need not be superhuman.
This monograph raises the perennial issue of how to understand ancient texts without chaffing under the weight of tradition. The character of the Devil developed over many centuries and, when he appeared, he was only one of many iterations. The New Testament made Satan “biblical” and later readers tried to explain the Devil (who came from Zoroastrian mythology) as part of the Christian divine economy. In Judaism he went on to play a much lesser role. Once Christian writers established this character, he was read back into the Bible, even where the original writers didn’t see him. Day isn’t the first to have noticed this, but she handles it very well and her book is still thought-provoking after all these years.