Posted By MSH on February 1, 2010
Several commenters to the last post asked for some information on the satan.
Although English Bibles continue the practice of capitalizing the word “satan” in passages like Job 1 and 2, those passage do not have a specific individual in mind — that is, “satan” in these passages should *not* be understood as a proper personal name. Here is a video presentation of the material that follows in case you’d rather watch (I also run a search through the OT for what I’m talking about).
The reason for this is straightforward. In biblical Hebrew, the definite article (the word “the) is a single letter (heh). Hebrew prefixes (attaches) the definite article to a noun (or participle to make it a substantive) so that, like all languages that have definite articles, the noun is made specific. Biblical Hebrew does not, however, put the definite article (the word “the”) on proper personal nouns (personal names). In this respect, Hebrew is like English. I don’t call myself “the Mike”. No one (except maybe Donald Trump ) puts the word “the” in front of their first name. Hebrew simply does not do this at all. As the well known biblical Hebrew reference grammar by Jouon-Muraoka notes: “No proper noun of person takes the article, not even when it has the form of an adjective or a participle.”1
Without exception, the word “satan” in Job occurs *with* the article. This indicates quite clearly that “satan” is *not* a personal name. It is generic, and means “the adversary”. The word can be used of human beings (1 Sam 29:4; 2 Sam 19:23; 1 Kings 5:18; 1 Kings 11:14). All of these examples have “satan” without the article, but the referent is a human being, not a divine being, so we don’t have “Satan” here either.
In terms of statistics, the noun “satan” occurs 27 times in the Hebrew Bible, ten times *without* the article.
Of these ten, seven refer to human beings and two refer to the Angel of Yahweh for sure. The lone outlier is 1 Chron 21:1. This is the famous passage where “Satan” provokes David to take a census, but in the parallel passage, 2 Sam 24:1-25, it’s Yahweh provoking David to take the census. Due to this parallel, and due to the fact that “satan” here has no article, this is viewed by some as the single instance of an evil, cosmic figure called “satan” in the OT. It actually isn’t, though. If you’re familiar with my work on the two Yahwehs in the OT, the parallel (Yahweh-satan) is striking to you. The “satan” figure here is none other than the Angel of Yahweh — and so this instance without the article is akin to the two instances in the book of Numbers where “satan” was used of the Angel. This relieves the “is Yahweh Satan?” question and any notion of contradiction — since it would mean BOTH passages have Yahweh provoking David — one appears to be the invisible Yahweh; the other is the visible Yahweh.
There’s actually been a good recent article on why the satan in 1 Chron 21:1 is the Angel. The article is freely available online, so I’ve posted it here as a PDF. Consider this one fact that the article notes. It is in THIS passage that, after verse 1 mentions the “satan” provoking David, we read the Angel is there “with a sword drawn in his hand”. The Hebrew phrasing behind this occurs only three other times: Joshua 5:13 and Numbers 22:23, 31. ALL of these references are the Angel of Yahweh. and in one of them (Num. 22) he is the satan.
This would mean there are ZERO verses in the OT that have a personal name “satan”, and ZERO references to Satan as a cosmic evil entity as in the NT.
So where does this leave us?
Basically, “the satan” in Job is an officer of the divine council (sort of like a prosecutor). His job is to “run to and fro throughout the earth” to see who is and who is not obeying Yahweh. When he finds someone who isn’t and is therefore under Yahweh’s wrath, he “accuses” that person. This is what we see in Job — and it actually has a distinct New Testament flavor. (We also see it in Zechariah 3). But the point here is that this satan is not evil; he’s doing his job. Over time (specifically the idea of “being an adversary in the heavenly council” was applied intellectually to the enemy of God — the nachash (typically rendered “serpent”) in Eden, the one who asserted his own will against Yahweh’s designs. That entity eventually becomes labeled “Satan” and so the adversarial role gets personified and stuck to God’s great enemy (also called the Devil). This is a good example of how an idea in Israelite religion plays out and is applied in different ways during the progress of revelation.
- Paul Jouon and Takamitsu Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2003; 2005), vol. 2:505; Par 137.b. ↩