Satan
2010 S.H. Parker

"Satan" is a Hebrew word. I was young (or, at least, younger) when I learned that. And I was taught that "satan" (Heb., שטן) meant "obstacle." Thus, "satan" is a common noun, not a name (which would be a proper noun).

Proper nouns are unique designators, often names. They designate unique entities or are so intended (having met a number of people with same first and last name, same middle initial too, as me, I am fairly confident that "Steven H. Parker" is not a unique designator). Common nouns designate a group of entities (e.g., planet, building, foot) and, when a common noun is used, no specific object is intended (compare "a book" to "this book" or "the book").

Proper nouns are not preceded by an article ("a" or "the") or other limiting modifier (e.g., "this," "that," "any,"  "some," etc.), and are used to denote a particular entity, person, place or thing regardless of any descriptive content the word or phrase may also possess.

Common nouns can designate a particular entity only when used with a definite article ("the," "this," "that," etc.). A common noun can never be a name. 

As a common noun, then, "satan" does not refer to a single, unique entity (character, person, angel, whatever -- despite Microsoft's spell checker insisting on capitalizing it as if it were a proper noun1). "Satan" is not used to designate a single, particular person, place or thing. In Jewish thinking, "satan" is something like a prosecuting attorney, one who stands in constant opposition (it's not fun, he doesn't enjoy it, it is his job).

So, when the argument began and my correspondent claimed that "Satan" was mentioned in the Bible, that "Satan" was a Biblical character, I immediately answered that this was just not so. The Torah describes events that we call "miracles." Torah uses language in creative ways or, at least, in ways that are allegorical (especially to the western mind). But Torah doesn't conflate common nouns with proper nouns. I knew this.

My correspondent pointed to the book of Job. And searching the English translation of the Mechon-Mamre on line Chumash does reveal the word "satan" at Job 1:8-9 and 2:4-6.

Then I made the "mistake" of checking the original, the Hebrew, something my correspondent hadn't (and couldn't). And, in each case, I see "הַשָּׂטָן" (ha'satan), "the satan." Just as I had been taught: "satan" is not being used as a name (names, by definition, don't use articles, definite or otherwise). Therefore, "satan" is not a specific entity (person, angel) but a description, a role or, perhaps, a job title. 

Indeed, the Judaic Press Chumash (available on line at Chabad.org Library) renders "שטן" as "the Adversary" throughout Job. In general, this is a much more accurate translation . Rendering "שטן" as "the Adversary" provides a way for the story to go forward by having a character saying "But, what about ...," providing another point of view, allowing an exchange of ideas (can't exchange ideas, have a conversation, if there's only one idea presented...).

In Job, הַשָּׂטָן ("the accuser") is used as the title of an angel or role description (actually, "angel" is never used in the text; I am using the term here only for convenience -- and, while we're on the subject, there are no "angels," the word really means and is better translated "messenger"2) conversing with G-d. הַשָּׂטָן is not a source of evil, rather הַשָּׂטָן points out the evil inclinations of people (which is quite clearly what is going on in Job). הַשָּׂטָן has no power other than the power to talk about the evil that humans do (my teachers likened הַשָּׂטָן to a prosecuting attorney). G-d points out Job's piety and הַשָּׂטָן asks for a test of that faith (i.e., to attempt to show that Job really does have the inclination to evil, arguing that there simply hasn't been an occasion for him to show his "bad side").

In short, הַשָּׂטָן, in Job, isn't "the Devil" or "Satan." הַשָּׂטָן isn't a specific being. הַשָּׂטָן is a role, a point of view, a literary device in which contrary explanations are offered.

None (neither) of the occurrences of שטן in Job can remotely be translated as "Satan," an angel (messenger), much less the prince of evil. Are there other occurrences of שטן in Holy writ and can any of them be taken to denote a single "angel?"

In the Torah (Pentateuch), satan is mentioned only twice. Both times שטן is mentioned are in the story of Balaam's ass (Bamidbar 22). The messenger of the LORD is identified as an adversary, literally a physical block, to Balaam's journey in Bamidbar 22:22. Later, in Bamidbar 22:32, the messenger of the LORD specifically identifies himself by claiming to be like an adversary, again using the term satan:

כב  וַיִּחַר-אַף אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-הוֹלֵךְ הוּא, וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ, לְשָׂטָן לוֹ; וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל-אֲתֹנוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ. 22 And God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary [satan] against him.--Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.

 "לְשָׂטָן" has a modifier, which a proper noun cannot use. The ל prefix (Hebrew, like German, uses prefixes and suffixes to build up words) means "for," "like,"  "as," "to." So the translation, above, "for a satan," "like [or as] a satan" is quite accurate.

לב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, עַל-מָה הִכִּיתָ אֶת-אֲתֹנְךָ, זֶה שָׁלוֹשׁ רְגָלִים; הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי יָצָאתִי לְשָׂטָן, כִּי-יָרַט הַדֶּרֶךְ לְנֶגְדִּי. 32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him: 'Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I am come forth for an adversary [satan], because thy way is contrary unto me;

Again,  "לְשָׂטָן," modified, "for an adversary."

So, neither instance of שטן in Balaam's travails can be "Satan."

A text search of the entire English translation of Tanach, using the Mechon-Mamre site, reveals the following as the total occurrences of "satan:"

Job 1:8-9:

ח  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל הַשָּׂטָן, הֲשַׂמְתָּ לִבְּךָ עַל עַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב:  כִּי אֵין כָּמֹהוּ בָּאָרֶץ, אִישׁ תָּם וְיָשָׁר יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים וְסָר מֵרָע. 8 And the LORD said unto Satan: 'Hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a whole-hearted and an upright man, one that feareth God, and shunneth evil?'
ט  וַיַּעַן הַשָּׂטָן אֶת יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַחִנָּם, יָרֵא אִיּוֹב אֱלֹהִים. 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, and said: 'Doth Job fear God for nought?

And again in Job, 2:4-6:

ב  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל הַשָּׂטָן, אֵי מִזֶּה תָּבֹא; וַיַּעַן הַשָּׂטָן אֶת יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר, מִשֻּׁט בָּאָרֶץ, וּמֵהִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּהּ. 2 And the LORD said unto Satan: 'From whence comest thou?' And Satan answered the LORD, and said: 'From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.'
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל הַשָּׂטָן, הֲשַׂמְתָּ לִבְּךָ אֶל עַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב--כִּי אֵין כָּמֹהוּ בָּאָרֶץ אִישׁ תָּם וְיָשָׁר יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים, וְסָר מֵרָע; וְעֹדֶנּוּ מַחֲזִיק בְּתֻמָּתוֹ, וַתְּסִיתֵנִי בוֹ לְבַלְּעוֹ חִנָּם. 3 And the LORD said unto Satan: 'Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a whole-hearted and an upright man, one that feareth God, and shunneth evil? and he still holdeth fast his integrity, although thou didst move Me against him, to destroy him without cause.'
ד  וַיַּעַן הַשָּׂטָן אֶת יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר:  עוֹר בְּעַד עוֹר, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לָאִישׁ--יִתֵּן, בְּעַד נַפְשׁוֹ. 4 And Satan answered the LORD, and said: 'Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.
ה  אוּלָם שְׁלַח נָא יָדְךָ, וְגַע אֶל עַצְמוֹ וְאֶל בְּשָׂרוֹ--אִם לֹא אֶל פָּנֶיךָ, יְבָרְכֶךָּ. 5 But put forth Thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, surely he will blaspheme Thee to Thy face.'
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל הַשָּׂטָן, הִנּוֹ בְיָדֶךָ:  אַךְ, אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ שְׁמֹר. 6 And the LORD said unto Satan: 'Behold, he is in thy hand; only spare his life.'

which I have already discussed.

Zechariah 3:1 reads:

א  וַיַּרְאֵנִי, אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, עֹמֵד, לִפְנֵי מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה; וְהַשָּׂטָן עֹמֵד עַל-יְמִינוֹ, לְשִׂטְנוֹ. 1 And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.

Here, again, הַשָּׂטָן (ha'satan), using the definite article. לְשִׂטְנוֹ, "to accuse him," you will note this verb is formed around the root, שטן (satan). So, the passage should be rendered, "and the accuser standing at his right to accuse him." Again, no "Satan." 

And, finally, 1 Chronicles 21:1:

א  וַיַּעֲמֹד שָׂטָן, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיָּסֶת, אֶת-דָּוִיד, לִמְנוֹת, אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל. 1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.

Finally! Here is one (and the only) unmodified instance of the word שטן in the entire Bible. This is a pretty accurate translation. But, who or what "Satan" refers to here is mystifying. The context helps not at all. 

Could the use of "Satan" here be due to the negative associations Israel has with "numbering," a census? This seems to me quite possible but I don't want to make that case here.

So, how does "satan, adversary" become "Satan, devil?"

Etymology on-line may help us find an answer:


Satan
proper name of the supreme evil spirit in Christianity, O.E. Satan, from L.L. Satan (in Vulgate, in O.T. only), from Gk. Satanas, from Heb. satan "adversary, one who plots against another," from satan "to show enmity to, oppose, plot against," from root s-t-n "one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary." In Septuagint (Gk.) usually translated as diabolos "slanderer," lit. "one who throws (something) across" the path of another (see devil), though epiboulos "plotter" is used once.
"In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan [emphasis added], what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity." [Elaine Pagels, "The Origin of Satan," 1995] [N.B.: In this book, Dr. Pagels argues that the figure of Satan became a way for orthodox Christians to demonize their religious opponents, that is, other Christian sects and Jews.]3
Satanic "pertaining to Satan" is first recorded 1667 (in "Paradise Lost"); meaning "diabolical" is from 1793. Satanism "worship of Satan" dates from 1896, with ref. to France, where it was said to be active at that time; Satanist is attested from 1559, applied by their enemies to Protestant sects.

Could this supreme source of evil come from Christian converts from Zoroastrianism?

Most religious historians believe the Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs concerning God and Satan, the soul, heaven and hell, the virgin birth of the savior, slaughter of the innocents, resurrection, the final judgment, etc. were all derived from Zoroastrianism. [Zoroastrianism: An ancient religion founded by Zarathushtra]4

Zoroastrians held that good and evil have distinct and independent sources. Though Zoroastrianism held that there was one supreme deity, Christian fathers thought Zoroastrians held that there were two gods, one of good and one of evil and persecuted them for this belief.

While this does, in fact, sound suspiciously like Christian theology vis--vis Satan, what is important to realize that many early converts to Christianity were (formerly) Zoroastrians. Thus, the idea of good and evil as coming from two separate and distinct sources could easily have been absorbed in early Christian metaphysics.

The idea of Satan, the evil angel, as powerful or almost so, as god was not expunged because of its utility, as Prof. Pagels points out, in consolidating the power base of the early church fathers (also see the discussion of "Official religion" in Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel). After that ... well, once you've unleashed an idea so easily abused, there's no putting the genie back in the bottle.

In short, not only is Satan not a Biblical character, it is about as anti-Biblical a notion as one is ever liable to come across. "Satan" is an entirely Christian construct and is useful for marginalizing ideas you can't compete with and whose proponents you wish to do away with (Pagels argues that late sectarian dissident Jewish groups may have started using the "satan" idea to indicate schisms and opposition (note, however, that these groups, as Frank Moore Cross, among others, demonstrated are the Judaic roots of Christianity); but the personification of evil in a demi-god "Satan" is uniquely Christian).

1 It was common practice in English documents to capitalize all nouns. If you've seen a copy of the original Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, you'll notice many capitalized (common) nouns. This practice ended around 1800 in the United States.

2 The  etymology on-line has this to say about "angel:"

angel 
14c. fusion of O.E. engel (with hard -g-) and O.Fr. angele, both from L. angelus, from Gk. angelos "messenger," possibly related to angaros "mounted courier," both from an unknown Oriental source, perhaps related to Skt. ajira- "swift." Used in Scriptural translations for Heb. mal'akh (yehowah) "messenger (of Jehovah)," from base l-'-k "to send." The medieval gold coin (a new issue of the noble, first struck 1465 by Edward VI) was so called for the image of archangel Michael slaying the dragon, which was stamped on it. It was the coin given to patients who had been "touched" for the King's Evil. Angel food cake is from 1881; angel dust "phencyclidine" is from 1968. Angel-fish (1668) was so called for its "wings."

3 Read Dr. Pagels' Tanner Lecture on Human Values "The Origin of Satan in Christian Tradition", based on this book.

4 Introduction to Zoroastianism:

bullet A single god Ahura Mazda who is supreme. Communication between Himself and humans is by a number of Attributes, called Amesha Spentas or Bounteous Immortals. Within the Gathas, the original Zoroastrian sacred text, these Immortals are sometimes described as concepts, and are sometimes personified.
bullet One school of thought promotes a cosmic dualism between:
  • An all powerful God Ahura Mazda who is the only deity worthy of being worshipped, and
  • An evil spirit of violence and death, Angra Mainyu, who opposes Ahura Mazda.

The resulting cosmic conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity who is required to choose which to follow. Evil, and the Spirit of Evil, will be completely destroyed at the end of time. Dualism will come to an end and Goodness will be all in all.

bullet Another school of thought perceives the battle between Good and Evil as an ethical dualism, set within the human consciousness.
bullet A Saoshyant (savior) will be born of a virgin, but of the lineage of the Prophet Zoroaster who will raise the dead and judge everyone in a final judgment.