The most important thing to understand about Satan is that he was originally in Jewish culture NOT the devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer, or even evil. In fact, he was an agent of God, the best way to describe him would have been the Spirit of Adversity. He was a positive spirit, meant to represent and present the obstacles which humans face. Such obstacles are then conquered, leaving the individual strengthened in faith, mind, and body.
It is this good Satan which I will present to you in scripture in volume one of this blog. It begins with the only two times that the name Satan occurs in the NET old testament, in Job and Zechariah.
(It is important to mention that while I am going to use the Satan titles represented in the English translations of the Jewish Bible, in the Hebrew there is absolutely no reference to a single individual named Satan, but rather the title of a position which best lines up with a modern day lawyer. See this Psalm passage for best parallel. For a more professional and scholarly/boring description of why this is so, download this instructional video.)
Job and Zechariah were both likely written around the same time, early 6th century BC. I’m going to start with Job, but only because I like Job, as you will know if you have read my previous blogs.
Job 1: 6-12 is the first reference to Satan. Now, as you will notice, it does not include Satan among the sons of God, however, it does not show them all being shocked at his presence or freaking out. God simply says, more or less, what have you been up to Satan? Some scholars have used this passage to show that this was one of Satan’s jobs for God, to travel back and forth across the world looking for people who needed testing. In any case, this reference certainly doesn’t suggest that Satan is the enemy of God, or in any way unwelcome before Him.
Zechariah 3: 1-2 is the second reference, and if you clicked the Psalm passage above you will see the similarity here. Satan is standing at the right hand of the angel, ready to accuse, that is ready to prosecute Joshua, but the Lord rebukes him and keeps him from doing so, instead claiming that he is not as unclean as he appears. Once again, Satan is working alongside God’s other agents in their duties as his servants.
That’s it for the Old Testament, and as I described above, even these references can be interpreted to not be a specific individual, but a reference to a job title. If taken as an individual, however, it is made fairly clear that Satan was not then who modern Christians believe him to be today.
Surprisingly enough, this neutral/positive view of Satan is upheld in just about every instance where the title is specifically used in the Gospels. I am going to select a choice few, because of the 205 direct references to Satan in the bible, 166 of them are in Revelation. That still leaves a sizeable number to review, which I did, so you’ll just have to trust me.
Matthew 4:10 is the first reference one comes across in the New Testament, and it’s at the end of Jesus’ temptations in the wild. Any previous references during this period use the term, the devil, and the only reason Satan is used here is because it is specifically Jesus speaking. This is unique only to Matthew, but it’s fascinating to note that Jesus is the only one who uses the name Satan, all other references by Matthew the narrator use devil. I will discuss the word devil and it’s Greek connotations and influences in the next blog discussing how Satan became evil.
One can note how the testing and obstacles placed before Jesus fit the old Jewish notion of the position of Satan. That Jesus tells him to “go away,” only suggests that Jesus has passed the presented tests, not that the individual is somehow evil or banished.
Matthew 16: 21-23 – Once again, Jesus speaking, but this time referring to Peter, who in his argumentation was placing obstacles before Jesus to keep him from doing what he felt he needed to do. This use of Satan, where it is not referencing some great evil, but once again referencing the position of opposer/accuser is the most common use of the Hebrew word in the old testament, in many places referring to individual humans or angels who were argumentative or literally standing in the way, creating an obstacle.
In an endeavour to keep this blog short, so as not to drown you in a wall of text, I will use only one more reference.
Luke 22: 31-32 is one of my favourites, because even those it uses a Jewish idiom, once that idiom is understood it speaks so clearly to who Satan was. The Jewish idiom I speak of is “to sift you like wheat.” It means, “to put to the test.” In this case, Jesus is literally telling Simon that Satan has demanded to test these chosen of Christ, and Jesus, rather than protecting them, or shielding them, rather encourages them saying that he is praying that they pass the tests and emerge victorious so that they might help others do likewise. The tests of Satan are again used here as they would have been in the Old Testament, as God ordained obstacles to overcome for the edification and betterment of those involved who pass.
Truly I say to you that nowhere in the Gospels where the title of Satan is used is it in reference to an evil, God opposing enemy. Such negative associations are reserved for a different word, devil, which has its own history and meaning. Eventually, the devil and satan become intertwined, as did satan’s other pseudonyms. The first person who begins intertwining the devil and satan goes by a very popular name: Paul.
Until next time, grace and peace to you all.
P.S. There were quite a few references in the Gospels that I was prepared for that I did not get to post here. If you have questions about a specific one, please ask in the comments and I will gladly discuss it!