Edited By Alex Santiago
In Judeo-Christian tradition, there are many revered characters, especially in the Bible,
that have helped to make Judaism and Christianity among the most practiced religions in the
world today. Other than God himself, there are many other figures that illustrate exemplary
behavior, such as Abraham, Moses, King David, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus of Nazareth.
However, there are also figures that illustrate negative models, who lead God’s people away from righteousness and into sin. Among all of these, none have the infamy and fear-inducing power of Christianity’s fallen angel Satan. As the enemy of God himself, ruler of Hell, and
source of all evil and suffering in this world, Satan has served as the inspiration behind some of humanity’s greatest fears. His power is so great that in the Gospels of the New Testament, he is able to offer Jesus the world itself in return for devotion and loyalty. But how could a lowly angel, fallen from the grace of God, have become a demon capable of terrorizing all of creation?
Even more importantly, how can the arch rival of God in Christianity not have played a major role in Judaism? To find the answers to these questions, we will explore the Hebrew Bible, what
Christians call the Old Testament, to find the origins of Satan, the Prince of Darkness.
Of all the names given to him, Satan is perhaps the most used and most easily recognized.
Other names, such as Belzebub, came from the downgrading of deities from other Near Eastern
religions that were made into lesser “divine figures” under the Judeo-Christian God.
The name Satan, however, stems from the Hebrew word “śaṭan,” a term whose definition includes “adversary” and “accuser.”
In the Hebrew Bible, śaṭan was thus never used as a proper nam
and served merely as a term to identify an adversary. In the Hebrew Bible there was no Satan with a capital S, and in early Hebrew traditions, there was no devil, demons, or Hell. Evil and
suffering in the world instead had another source; God himself. The Book of Isaiah 45:7 reads, Joan Comay and Ronald Brownrigg. “Satan” in Who’s Who in the Bible. (New York: Bonanza, 1980), pp. 404 -405. 2 Comay and Brownrigg. “Satan,” pp. 404.
“I form light, and create darkness, I make weal and create woe: I the Lord do all these things”
(NSRV). According to the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, God alone controlled all events and
was responsible for all conditions within creation, both good and evil. This idea, however acceptable it was early in Jewish traditions, became confusing and frustrating, and led to the
basic question of theodicy: How could a loving and benevolent God allow so much suffering and pain on earth?
The eventual answer to this question within the religion of ancient Israel was found during the Persian period, 539-332 BCE, the period in which Persia controlled the entire Near East, including Israel. Perhaps the earliest point in Satan’s history may have its roots in the Persian Empire, which in turn influenced ancient Judaism.
The ancient religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism, based on the teachings of a religious philosopher named Zoroaster who may
have lived around 600 BCE. Among his teachings was the compelling idea of dualism.
According to dualism, evil does not stem from the good God or spirit known as Ahura Mazda, “wise lord,” within the faith. Instead, there existed a separate evil being known as Ahriman,
“fiendish spirit,” also known as Angra Mainya, “evil spirit,” that created death, disease, and lies.
People had to choose whether to follow Ahura Mazda on the path of good or Ahriman on the
path of evil. The idea from Persia that God himself was separate from evil would have been an acceptable answer to the early Jewish theodicy question and would have explained how there
could be such suffering in a world created by a loving God. From this was born the idea that God did not personally create suffering himself, but that he would instead use other lowly figures
to complete such tasks with his approval. This idea would lay the foundation for Satan’s entrance into the world.
Gregory Mobely and T.J. Wray, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2005),
If there was at first no devil, then who was called śaṭan? Within the Hebrew Bible, the term is found in ten instances. Six of these uses were not to describe a divine figure, but a mere human being. The first of these is found in 1 Samuel 29:4 where the term is used to describe
David himself as he is on the run from Saul, the first King of Israel who feared that David will steal his throne and end his lineage. David spends time hiding within the Philistine army who was engaged against the Israelites, but is soon forced to leave when Philistine commanders
feared that he might become a śaṭan, an enemy or perhaps here a “stumbling block” to their goal of conquering Israel. In the second instance, found in 2 Samuel 19:21-23, śaṭan is used to
describe Abashai, David’s nephew and a member of his court. Abashai attempts to convince David to kill Shimei, a Benjaminite who actively spoke out against David in the times of Saul.
Victor Hamilton suggests that David forgives Shimei in order to gain favor among the Saulide Benjaminites and that is why David refers to Abashai as an “adversary.”
The third use is found in 1 Kings 5:4, where the great king Solomon, the son of David whose reign was mostly peaceful, reflects on having no more śaṭans or “adversaries” to fight. The next two uses are
found in 1 Kings 11:14 and 23, where śaṭan is used to refer to two militaristic adversaries, Hadad the Edomite and Rezon, son of Eliada, stirred up by God late in the reign of Solomon. The final
human adversary is mentioned in Psalm 109:1-6 where the Psalmist indicates that a slanderous opponent had been falsely “accusing” him of wrongdoing. In this last case, śaṭan is used to
describe an adversary within a legal proceeding.
In contrast to these six human śaṭans, the Hebrew Bible also uses the term four times for celestial servants of God. These figures are typically seen as angelic beings, or (in Hebrew)
benay elohim, “sons of God.” According to Elaine Pagels, these adversaries were not necessarily evil by nature, but simply carried out a thankless task at the order of God, much like the Angel of
Victor Hamilton, “Satan,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 5, pp. 986 Death.
The first of these cosmic adversaries can be found in the story of Balaam and the Angel in Numbers 22:22. God was angered by Balaam for travelling with the men of Moab who wished to attack Israel, a nation blessed by God. In his anger, God sends an angel bearing a
sword to block their “perverse path.” However, this angel is completely invisible to Balaam and can only be seen by the donkey that Balaam is riding. The donkey, seeing this angel with a sword in hand, attempts to move out of the angel’s way to save Balaam’s life three times.
Balaam strikes him each time. God then speaks to Balaam through the donkey, shaming him for his poor treatment of the animal, and allows him to see the angel that blocked his path. In this instance, śaṭan is seen as a fully loyal servant of God who follows his command without
question; a far cry from the Satan we know today.
Of the four cosmic adversaries in the Hebrew Bible, it is haśśaṭan (“the satan”) in the Book of Job that plays the largest role of any “adversary” in the Hebrew Bible. This story begins as God is bragging about a man named Job, one his most loyal worshippers. Haśśaṭan
approaches God and challenges him to let him lay waste to the man’s property, livestock, and family, believing that Job is only loyal to God because he has a good and protected life. God
accepts his challenge on the condition that he does not harm Job and haśśaṭan destroys all of Job’s possessions and kills his ten children. Much to haśśaṭan’s dismay, Job still remains loyal
to God. After God once again begins to brag about Job, haśśaṭan offers another challenge. This time, he believes that if Job is physically hurt, he will turn from God. God again accepts his
challenge on the condition that he does not kill Job and haśśaṭan strikes Job with boils, burns, and other injuries. Yet again, Job remains faithful to God and haśśaṭan seems to vanish from the story. According to T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobely, the Book of Job is symbolic. Job represents
5 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York, Random House Inc. 1995), p. 39. 6 C. Breytanbach, “Satan,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden, Brill 1999), p. 727.
the people of Israel who had dealt with much suffering, including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylon exile that lasted from 586 to 539 BCE.
Haśśaṭan in Job, although it is likely a
direct ancestor of our modern Satan, is still not considered to be truly evil. Haśśaṭan is presented as a member of God’s court and has a very specific role – the accuser, or a kind of prosecuting
attorney, a role found throughout Near Eastern court systems. It is his job to observe the behavior of God’s people and report any perceived shortcomings.
The third celestial adversary of the Hebrew Bible is found in Zechariah 3:1-2, and here he reprises the role of “the accuser” or prosecuting attorney of Job. This passage recounts the vision of Joshua who sees himself standing before the heavenly court to be judged on his ability
to serve as the High Priest of Jerusalem. In the vision, Joshua is wearing dirty clothes, an indication that the trial is nearing its end, and haśśaṭan has been able to make valid points against
him. However, God, finding favor in Joshua, rebukes haśśaṭan and removes his dirty clothes, removing his guilt. This story solidifies haśśaṭan’s role as God’s “accuser.” However, what is
most important from this story is the interaction between God and haśśaṭan, the one as prosecutor and the other as Joshua’s defense. Although it is in a legal setting, this is the first time
in the Bible that a character called śaṭan is the direct adversary of God. It is perhaps these śaṭans of Zechariah and Job that may have planted the seeds for the belief in Satan as a true opponent of
God and the bringer of evil.
The final celestial śaṭan in the Hebrew Bible is found in 1 Chronicles, one of the last
books of the Hebrew Bible to have been written (in around 300 BCE). The passage in 1
Chronicles 21:1 retells the story of David and his census already found in the Book of 2 Samuel, an earlier account of David’s deeds; the main difference is that the census of 2 Samuel 7 Mobely and Wray, The Birth of Satan, p. 59. 8 Breytanbach, “Satan,” p. 728.
is David’s idea, whereas in 1 Chronicles, it is śaṭan who incites David to do it. In 2 Samuel 24 (the earlier account), David decides to take a census of his kingdom, an action that angers God.
David is offered forgiveness from God in exchange for three days of pestilence over his kingdom brought by an entity called Mashit, “the Destroyer” sent by God. In this early version of the
story, David appears to take the census on his own accord, but we are given a glimpse of a creature with destructive power – the Mashit, or Destroyer – who may presage something about
the ability of the later, much-more developed concept of Satan to bring about suffering. Perhaps this is why, in the retelling of the story found in 1 Chronicles 21, it is śaṭan who incites David to take the census, and not David’s own idea.
This shows a rather interesting development of the concept of Satan within the Jewish
tradition. It was becoming a more accepted idea that some kind of divine adversary had existed for a long time. But perhaps most startling for us is that in 1 Chronicles, Satan is used as a proper noun for the first time in the Bible.
This seems to suggest that śaṭan had finally grown
from being a simple term used to describe any kind of adversary, human or angelic, to a major
source of malice or evil. This concept of Satan would continue to develop outside of the Jewish
canon, in the period known as the intertestamental period
The intertestamental period refers to the 300-400 years between the completion of the
Hebrew Bible (what Christian would call the Old Testament), and the beginning of the New
Testament that saw a flourishing of religious writings, especially apocalyptic ones. The
apocalypticism of the intertestamental writings included an attempted to further explain why
there was such great suffering in the world. This was a period that saw the invasion of the
Greeks in 332 BCE and the advent of Roman control of the Near East starting in 63 BCE, and
the diminishment of independent Jewish control over their own lands around Jerusalem. The
Mobely and Wray, The Birth of Satan, pp. 66-67
Jewish population was divided between those who accepted and those who rejected the
Hellenization of society. Roman occupation also led to an increase in violence which ultimately
led to a major assault on Jerusalem, a great famine against the Israelites, and the destruction of
the second Temple in 70 CE. According to Elaine Pagels, this onslaught of violence and conflict
left the people of Israel in both chaos and division.10 It is during this period that Satan’s final
development takes place before he emerges in the New Testament as God’s greatest adversary.
The first passage from this time that we will examine, the Life of Adam and Eve 17:4,
retells the story of Adam and Eve, but with important changes. Primarily, it changes the serpent
that tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit into Satan. While the idea that the serpent of Eden
was Satan is now a rather common assumption, it was relatively new in the 1st century C.E.,
primarily because Satan himself was a still a new idea. In an earlier passage, found in the Life of
Adam of Eve 12:3, it is revealed that Satan and his followers were cast away from heaven for
refusing to worship God and Adam, the image of God, as they were commanded. This passage
attempts to explain the origins of Satan as an outcast angel from primordial times.
A similar attempt can be found in 1 Enoch, which was written somewhere between 200 to
approximately 60 B.C.E. This book expands on the idea of the angelic beings known as the
“Watchers” referred to in Daniel 4:13, 17 and 23 and attempts to connect them with the obscure
and puzzling account from Genesis 6:1-4, in which angels descended to earth to reproduce with
women. According to 1 Enoch 7, a group of “lust-filled” watchers under the leadership of a
creature called Azael descended to earth to mate with human women. This created a race of
giants known as the nephilim who brought demons into the world. For their treachery, God cast
the perverse watchers into the fiery pit. In the final chapters of the book, Azael’s name is
changed to Satan, showing the name’s growing popularity within the Jewish culture. A similar
Pagels, The Origin of Satan, pp. 3-6
story is told in the Book of Jubilees, which was written around 160 to140 B.C.E. In this version,
the watchers, under the leadership of Mastema, descend to earth to teach justice and
righteousness as commanded by God. However, they soon abandon his command and, as in 1
Enoch, mate with human women, creating a race of nephilim, which in turn brings demonic
spirits into the world. While God does cast most of these watchers into the fiery pit, Mastema is
allowed to keep one tenth of his followers. Both of these stories show that the adversarial force
against God had a hand in creating suffering on Earth and is a leader of a multitude of opposing
The final book which we will examine is 2 Enoch 29: 1-4, which contains what is
probably the most well-known origination story of Satan – the fall from grace into a pit. Much
like the previous books, it pulls from earlier scripture, specifically Isaiah 14:12 and Ezekiel
28:17-18. Satan appears as a high ranking officer in the cosmic army named the saba’ot,
“angelic hosts.” With his followers, he attempts to overthrow the Kingdom of God to gain his
own power. However, the rebellion fails and he is cast out of heaven and is said to fall endlessly
over the “bottomless pit.” This passage draws from Isaiah the allusion to a Canaanite myth
about an ancient rebellion led by “Day Star,” or “Morning Star,”12 from which arose the coinage
of a popular name for Satan, that is the name Lucifer, the Greek form of Hebrew “Day Star.”
In conclusion, the writing of the New Testament would bring to an end the early
development of Satan and bring him center stage in Christianity as the most powerful opponent
of God, Jesus Christ, and humankind. Much like many concepts within Judeo-Christian tradition,
the development of Satan was a slow and gradual process. It took hundreds of years to make him
Mastema from the Book of Jubilees is also blamed for other actions of evil, including the testing of Abraham by almost
burning his son Isaac, the worshipping of the Golden Calf while Moses spoke with God on Mount Sinai, and provokes Gentiles
to ridicule Jewish law; Hamilton, “Satan,” pp. 987-988 Mobely and Wray, The Birth of Satan, pp. 110-111
the merciless King of Hell who, as the New Testament book of Revelation has it, will ultimately
fall to God at the end of time. Even today Satan still plays an important role in our American
society that has been much influenced by Christianity, inspiring many works of literature, music,
film, and art, and references to him are meant to deter God’s faithful away from sin for fear of
eternal damnation in hell. Whether Satan is real and truly as Christians believe him to be or
simply the product of centuries-worth of speculation over the nature of evil, Satan’s presence on
earth is very much real and alive.