The Silences of Job
Evolution of Satan
First Lesson --Intro
Fifth--To the End
Putting it Together
Putting it Together II
SONG of SOLOMON
The Lovers--ch. 5
Lovers VI--ch. 8
The Evolution of The Satan in Job
Bill Long 3/27/06
The Satan Has a Story Too
It was all the rage when I was in the field of professional biblical studies in the late 1970s and 1980s to speak of and write about "narrative" theology. Rather than expositing the Scripture from the perspective of doctrine or theological concepts, which had been the focus of scholarship from the end of WWII until about 1980, these brave new scholars wanted to apply insights from literary criticism to the study of the biblical text. I rejoiced, and still rejoice, in that effort, though the verbiage of literary criticism is often thicker than the viscous surface of a sludge pond. One of the groundbreaking little books in biblical studies utilizing the insights of literary criticism was James Sanders' God Has a Story Too (1979). It wasn't a great book, but it emphasized that the experience of the people of God, and the life of God, "evolves" as the Scripture develops. More recently, Karen Armstrong has written (1994) A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which she tries to delineate the development of the idea of God in Western religions more precisely.
But, with all the interest in trying to tell God's story, it seems strange that no one has similarly told the Satan's story. After all, he (or she) is a pretty significant charcter in the Western literary imagination. Some might even say that the Satan (or Satan---see below) has personal characterists and existence much like people ascribe a personal existence to God. No one, however, has really told Satan's story sympathetically. This essay is an attempt to do so, by considering the role of the Satan in the Book of Job.
Satan and "The Satan"
A clarification is first in order. Christians generally make no distinction between "Satan" and "the Satan." For most Christians who think about the subject of Satan, they take the New Testament concept of a personal force directly opposing God and God's work in the world, and read it backwards into the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. That is, just as many Christians try to discover "types" of Christ in the Old Testament ("I know that my Redeemer lives"; "The Lord says to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool,'" etc.), they also project backwards the NT concept of Satan into the Old Testament. Thus, for example, it is common for Christians to see the serpent in Gen. 3 as Satan. Some Christian interpreters also find the New Testament Satan under every Old Testament bush, burning or otherwise.
Therefore, when Christians read the Book of Job (the few that do), they see the character in Job 1 and 2 who carries out the devastation against Job as "Satan," and ascribe him the characteristics of the NT Satan. This, in fact, is incorrect. The character in Job 1-2 is called "The Satan," which can be translated as "the adversary," but he bears little relationship to the full-blown Satan of the New Testament. That is, in Job 1 the Satan is seen in genial conversation with God. The Satan convinces God to let him bring devastation on Job in order to prove Job's fidelity. Never is it suggested that this character is an implacable opponent of God. He seems to be more like a messenger or divine spy, a sort of agent of the divine who surveys the behavior of humans. We might almost call him a counselor or advisor to God. God, in any case, seems to listen to him closely. This is not at all the picture of Satan in the NT. With this insight, we are ready to probe my thesis.
My thesis is this. The Satan in Job is at first a sort of counselor to God. Then, emboldened by his easy success with God (God is a sort of pushover for the Satan in Job 1-2), he decides on a more ambitious course. Instead of simply wreaking havoc on Job by destroying the physical conditions of his life, he also wants to deceive Job's mind. Thus, somewhere between chs. 2 and 32 the Satan went to God again (in a scene that isn't recorded) and convinced God to let him (the Satan) speak for God at the end of the book (38-41). Seen in this light, 38-41 is the Satan's third attempt to see if he can get Job to "curse God to his face." And, indeed, 38-41 are best understood in this way, since they are not the words either imagined by Job or really worthy of God. Oh, there are many lofty thoughts there, about how God has limited the flow of the oceans or how God knows the hidden ways of nature. But the tone is just a little too snippy for God, a little too paternalistic and intolerant, a little too critical and even insulting, a little too deferential to the strange beasts in creation (Behemoth and Leviathan) to be fully God's words.
My thesis is that the Satan, through this speech, is learning two things: (1) to deceive through appearances and words; and (2) to "side" with creatures whom God sees as opponents. These are two crucial aspects to the Satan's development into "Satan." In other words, in Job 38-41 the Satan is "maturing" towards the fully-blown picture of Satan who tempts an deceives and gathers his own minions to attack humans on the earth. In fact, we see in the Book of Job the most sophisticated development of the idea of the Satan of any biblical book.*
[*This observation depends on the thesis, argued in the previous essay, that the Satan is speaking for God in 38-41.]
God as Enabler
But the really interesting, albeit theologically scary, point that results from this is that the character most responsible for the Satan's development from divine spy to deceiver of humans is God himself. God is a sort of dupe who not only permits the Satan to torment his creature, allegedly because God doesn't know how faithful Job is**, but gives the Satan further scope in Job 38. My
[** How would most Christians receive this notion? Would you be comfortable with the idea put forth in Job 1 that God really doesn't know whether Job would be faithful if tested?]
argument is that the Satan saw how much of a pushover God was in ch. 1-2 and decided to play for higher stakes in 38-41: impersonating God. But, just as the Satan had to receive permission to torment Job in 1-2, so he had to receive that permission from God to speak for God in 38-41. Would God give this permission? Sure, why not? God goes along with every other suggestion the Satan has made in Job. Why not go along with this one, too?
This thesis leads to the further point that it is the Satan who skillfully manipulates God in Job to get what he wants. But what happens to a creature who goes down the path first of convincing God to let him torment Job and then convinces God to let him speak in God's voice? He then begins to despise God. After all, we despise people who are pushovers. And then, we begin to ask why we should work with, rather than against, the pushover. Coming up with no good reason, we oppose the pushover. That, then, is what the Satan eventually does. He becomes Satan and inveterately opposes God. And, God is responsible for it.
This explanation of the Satan's development into Satan helpfully explains the role of Satan in his first appearance in the NT--as the tempter of Jesus. He is really "in character" by then. Thanks be to God.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long