In the collection of sources that went into the Bible, there were several different perspectives regarding Satan and the role of evil in the world. In fact, the book of Job is an all-out argument right in the pages of scripture between several of these competing views. Israel was in a unique position to experience and ponder the problem of evil because they lived in a land that was a crossroads between Egypt on one side and Asia and Mesopotamia on the other. During much of their history they were constantly conquered or invaded by one ambitious empire after another.
Before this period, God’s attitude toward Abraham and his descendents is one of unqualified benevolence:
Now Yahweh said to Abram, Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your fathers house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you. (Genesis 12:1-3 WEB)
God continues to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in spite of their personal failings and problems.
The “Prophetic” View
As Israel began to experience repeated conquests by their neighbors, a religious question arose. If God promised to bless Israel and give them their land as a possession forever (see Gen 13:15), why were they often conquered and subjugated by their neighbors? The answer that developed has been called the “Prophetic” view of good and evil. God blesses Israel when they obey him, but he is prepared to punish them when they do NOT obey him.
Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you shall listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if you shall not listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28 WEB)
Remember that Deuteronomy was written long after the fact. The Deuteronomist (possibly Jeremiah) was looking back at Israel’s history from the perspective of repeated periods of suffering. Also notice that the blessings and curses are entirely physical, in there here-and-now. For example:
“I command you this day to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16 WEB)
The reward for obedience to God was not heavenly happiness. It was life, possessions, and posterity. Physical prosperity and happiness was the sign of God’s favor. Physical misfortune was the sign of God’s displeasure.
Also at this time, the concept of “Satan” began to occur in scripture. We are used to thinking of the serpent in the garden of Eden as the first appearance of Satan, but this is a later association. In the primitive original story, the serpent is only a serpent. “Satan” originally meant simply “adversary”. For example, in 1 Samuel 29:4, The Philistines are worried that if they take David into battle with them against Israel (David is serving the Philistines at that time) he will turn on them in battle and become a “satan” (an adversary).
God sends angels as “satans” to either oppose or test various individuals. In Numbers 22, for example, God sends an angel as a “satan” against Balaam, to prevent him from cursing Israel.
Gods anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of Yahweh placed himself in the way for an adversary [Hebrew = “satan”] against him. Now he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. (Numbers 22:22 WEB)
In one case, God himself acts as the “satan”. We read:
Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1 WEB)
But in a parallel version of the text, we read:
Again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Judah. (2 Samuel 24:1 WEB)
Was it Satan, or Yahweh, who moved David to number Israel? It was God, acting as an adversary (satan) against David. He was, in other words, testing David.
Satan as God’s Prosecutor.
By the time the book of Job is written, the view is beginning to shift again. There have been various religious reforms in Judah and Israel, and even during periods of religious righteousness, the people continue to suffer from invading armies on several sides. Physical misfortunes don’t seem to be confined only to the wicked. The good suffer also. The book of Job addresses this issue.
Job, whom we are told is an entirely righteous man, suffers horrible calamities. He looses his children, his livestock, his health. His friends, echoing the prophets and the book of Deuteronomy, insist that if Job is suffering, he must have done something to anger God.
Is it for your piety that he reproves you, that he enters with you into judgment?
Isnt your wickedness great? Neither is there any end to your iniquities. (Job 22:4-5 WEB)
What Job’s friends don’t know, of course, is that Job is suffering at the hand of “Satan”. Instead of being just an occasional role filled by whatever angel is convenient, however, the role of “Satan” now seems to be a full-time position. Satan is seen as the chief prosecutor of the court of heaven. He is still an honored member of the “sons of God”, the highest angels. But his role is now to seek out unrighteousness and bring it to God’s attention for punishment, and to test even the righteous with trials.
Now it happened on the day when God’s sons came to present themselves before Yahweh, that Satan also came among them. Yahweh said to Satan, Where have you come from? Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, From going back and forth in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. Yahweh said to Satan, Have you considered my servant, Job? For there is none like him in the earth, a blameless and an upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil. Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t you made a hedge around him, and around his house, and around all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will renounce you to your face. Yahweh said to Satan, Behold, all that he has is in your power. Only on himself don’t put forth your hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of Yahweh.
(Job 1:6-12 WEB)
We see here the beginnings of what will come to be called the “Apocalyptic” worldview. The good can expect to suffer in this life as a test of their faith. God will eventually make things right. In Job God shows up personally in the last chapter in a “personal” apocalypse, and makes everything right. But Job also begins to hint at the fact that not everything may end up justly resolved in this life. The unwarranted suffering of the righteous may require rewards AFTER this life.
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: (Job 19:25-26 KJV)
These rewards are still seen in terms of a physical resurrection. They are still physical rewards – but postponed until the resurrection.
The Apocalyptic View
After the Babylonian captivity, the returning exiles rebuilt Jerusalem in a spirit of religious purification and reform. The Torah was codified and followed rigorously. And yet in spite of unprecedented religious purity and righteousness, Judea soon experienced some of the worst persecution of its history at the hands of the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus, ruler of the Empire, prohibited Jewish religious practices, and punished any demonstrations of Jewish piety with unprecedented cruelty. Jewish scriptures were burned and even women and children tortured and killed for refusing to sacrifice to pagan idols.
During this period, the “Apocalyptic” worldview came to full flower. It seemed obvious that a righteous God would not willingly order such atrocities toward the pious simply as a test. Borrowing perhaps from the Zoroastrian dualism to which they had been exposed by the Persians, the Jews began to see Satan not as the prosecuting attorney of heaven – but a fallen angel in total rebellion against God. This idea of fallen angels begins to appear in Daniel, which was written at the time of the persecutions of Antiochus. An angel is sent to Daniel, but is delayed due to having to fight off the “prince” (a fallen angelic governor) of Persia.
But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but, behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me: and I remained there with the kings of Persia. (Daniel 10:13 WEB)
This is also one of the first mentions of Michael the Archangel. The introduction of angelic names and hierarchies – also a favorite topic of the Persians, would proliferate in later years.
Daniel is also filled with apocalyptic visions. God would eventually destroy the kingdoms of the world and set up his own. Until then, the righteous could expect persecution, because of the evil angelic powers – but God would reward them in the resurrection. For example, in 2nd Maccabees, an inter-testamental writing from this period, we read of seven brothers who were tortured to death for refusing to violate religious law. He says to his tormenters:
So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life. (2 Maccabees 7:14 KJVA)
We begin to see that God will not only reward the righteous in the resurrection, but punish the wicked. This theme is amplified in another intertestamental writing, 1 Enoch.
Then I looked and turned myself to another part of the earth, where I beheld a deep valley burning with fire. To this valley they brought monarchs and the mighty. And there my eyes beheld the instruments which they were making, fetters of iron without weight (or of immeasurable weight) Then I inquired of the angel of peace, who proceeded with me, saying, For whom are these fetters and instruments prepared? He replied, These are prepared for the host of Azazeel, that they may be delivered over and adjudged to the lowest condemnation; and that their angels may be overwhelmed with hurled stones, as the Lord of spirits has commanded. Michael and Gabriel, Raphael and Phanuel shall be strengthened in that day, and shall then cast them into a furnace of blazing fire, that the Lord of spirits may be avenged of them for their crimes; because they became ministers of Satan, and seduced those who dwell upon earth. ( 1 Enoch 53: 1-6)
Here we have the concept of a hell of burning fire. Satan also has been “promoted” to the head of the fallen angels.
The Gnostic View
Things continued to be difficult for the Jews under the Roman Empire, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. This event crushed the hopes of the most pious Jews. In a world that at times seemed utterly evil, some of the Jews began to question the wisdom of God in permitting such a situation. Combining influences of earlier philosophies, Jewish and Christian Gnostics took the next step past the apocalyptic viewpoint. The righteous suffered, said the Gnostics, not because evil was a test permitted by a good God, and not because a powerful fallen angel was on the loose opposing a good God. The righteous suffered because the God who had created the material world itself and all the powers that controlled it was an EVIL God (or at best, an incompetent one). This “Demiurge” had been created by a cosmic accident. He had incompetently created the world and ruled over it, demanding worship and obedience. To a number of these Gnostics – Satan basically WAS the God of the Old Testament. Satan had created the world and given the Old Testament law – demanding worship as the one and only God.
But above him was a TRUE God, of complete goodness and pure light. The true God, taking pity on the tortured creation of the Demiurge, had sent messengers into the world to show the way to escape from the clutches of the evil God of the material world.
The Apocryphon of John describes this incompetent creator:
"Now the archon who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, 'I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”
The Gnostic equating of Satan with the Demiurge or god of this world has it’s echos even in the New Testament writings
I will no more speak much with you, for the prince of the world comes, and he has nothing in me. (John 14:30 WEB)
For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the worlds rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
(Ephesians 6:12 WEB)
in whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them. (2 Corinthians 4:4 WEB)
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
(1 John 5:19 WEB)
The Gnostic view also regarded the next life as entirely spiritual. The physical world was evil, and so a physical resurrection made no sense.
To review, then, the conception of Satan has undergone considerable change in Biblical and extra-biblical writings, going hand in hand with a change in worldview and the perception of Evil. These changes can be summarized as follows:
The conception of Satan:
Primitive: An occasional role of God or his angels.
Prophetic: God’s official prosecutor.
Apocalyptic: A cosmic rebel against God.
Gnostic: The evil or incompetent creator of the world.
Conception of evil:
Primitive: An occasional fact of life.
Prophetic: God’s punishment.
Apocalyptic: Part of Satan’s civil war.
Gnostic: The primary nature of the material world.
Conception of rewards/punishments
Primitive: Earthly – unconditional
Prophetic: Earthly – conditional
Apocalyptic: Future earthly – conditional
Gnostic: Future spiritual – conditional