Looking for Satan in All the Wrong Places

Some think the Devil can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Are they right?

MARCH 9 2016

Mosaic reader Lynn Goucher writes:

I am a Jew by choice, who converted formally a little over a year ago. I was raised in a secular Christian home and have always been perplexed and somewhat disgusted by the Christian obsession with the devil. Although Christians insist that the devil appears in the Torah, my understanding is that the biblical Hebrew word satan, from which comes the name Satan, has been mistranslated as “devil” when it really means “obstacle.” Am I right or wrong?

The answer is: both. It depends partly on which books and periods of the biblical corpus one is looking at; partly on how one reads them; and partly on which post-biblical commentators one chooses to read them with.

The earliest occurrence of the noun satan (pronounced sah-TAHN) in the Hebrew Bible is in the story of the Moabite leader Balak and the sorcerer Balaam in the book of Numbers. There we are told that Balaam, setting out for a meeting with Balak, was intercepted on his way by an angel who, sword drawn, “stood . . . in his path to be a satan to him.” The Hebrew word comes from a verbal root, a variant of the more common verb satam, meaning to hate or be hostile to, and while it could conceivably be translated in this case as “obstacle,” more accurate would be “foe” or “adversary.” (The latter word is used by the King James Version and most other English Bible translations.) Yet there are other places in the early books of the Bible where “obstacle” might indeed be a better choice, as when Solomon declares in the book of Kings that there is no satan in the way of his building the Temple.

In two late books of the Bible, however, where satan appears, preceded by a definite article, as ha-satan, we are on trickier ground, because in this case the reference is clearly to a specific figure. One of these is the book of Zechariah, in which the prophet has a vision of the Temple’s high priest “standing before an angel of God; and the satan was standing to the right of him to oppose him [l’sitno].” The second, better known passage is the introductory scene from the book of Job, where we are told:

Read the rest of this story here…

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