The Evolution of Satan

It’s been a while since I last posted something, but I deserve my rest after the extensive article on Mormons. This time though I thought I’d tell you about a subject I promised to talk about when I wrote about the evolution of Yahweh: the evolution of his adversary, Satan.

I will start by repeating what I said in the post “God of War”, where I mentioned that the Abrahamic religion was different from other religions at the time it arose, since this religion only believed in one god, while other religions held a polytheistic view with a counsel of gods and goddesses. I mentioned that we can see the traces of polytheism in Genesis when it says “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26). But monotheism meant that one all-powerful being controlled everything and stood for all that happened, even the evil. By taking a look at the Old Testament we can see that Yahweh pretty much is kind of evil, especially when compared to the New Testament god. In the end, this religion could not talk about a loving god who committed these atrocities, so after a while a character would rise that could be blamed for the mishaps of the world: Satan. The whole concept of Satan was also heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism, which was the first religion to believe the earth was a battlefield between good and evil deities, in this case the good god Ahura Mazda and the evil god Angra Mainyu.

I’m pretty sure we are all familiar with the story about Moses and the flee from Egypt. One of the harshest plagues were sent upon man when Yahweh killed everybody who had not smeared blood of a lamb on their door frame. But was this really Yahweh personally? Did he in person fly around the city killing people? Exodus 12:23 says that if one were to smear blood on their door frame, Yahweh would “not permit the destroyer to enter [their] houses and strike [them] down.”. This destroyer is known in ancient Hebrew as Mashit, and note that Yahweh has full control over him, sending this assassin personally to kill the Egyptians. If you are familiar with the story of David, who conducted a census which Yahweh didn’t like, he was punished for what he had done. The punisher was not Yahweh though, but an entity referred to as: 1. Pestilence, 2. an angel (ma’lak), 3. the angel who was bringing destruction (ma’lak hammashit).

The older texts from the Old Testament (called First Temple), make use of the word ‘satan’, which loosely translates to “an angel of obstruction (or punishment)”. Note that this is not Satan with an upper-case letter, which is the Satan we are familiar with. Lower-case satan appears in the Old Testament to mean both an earthly and a heavenly adversary. The earthly satan appears five times, one example being 1 Kings 11:23-25: “And God raised up against Solomon another adversary (satan), Rezon son of Eliada […] Rezon was Israel’s adversary (satan) as long as Solomon lived.”. Another fine example is in Psalm 109:6, where the writer is furious with people who have slandered him, and looks for someone to prosecute this misdeed: “Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser (satan) stand at his right hand.”. So as you can see, this satan is an earthly person, one of negative attributes.

The first appearance of a heavenly satan is in Numbers, in the story of Balaam. In this story, Yahweh sends an angel wielding a sword, or mal’ak Ywh (angel of the Lord) to earth. Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but the donkey he is traveling on does, so the donkey changes course to avoid the angel. This leads to Balaam beating the donkey. This routine happens again, and on the third time the donkey just lays down since the angel blocks the only path. Now the donkey goes all Shrek on Balaam and starts talking (hopefully with Eddie Murphy’s voice). After chatting about their past together, the angel appears to Balaam and asks him: “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you (be a satan) because your path is a reckless one before me.” (Numbers 22:32). So we can see that now satan is starting to become attributed to heavenly beings too, not only earthly. If we move towards the Second Temple (later Old Testament writings) the heavenly attributions get more frequent.

The story of Job tells the horrible tale of one man and a bet made in Heaven which causes him great misfortune. I’ll start with a direct quote from the first chapter from this book: “One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves to the LORD and Satan also came among them.” (Job 1:6). In earlier versions of the Bible it says “the Accuser” in place of “Satan”. In the Hebrew version it says “hassatan” (the satan). Those of you familiar with this story know how this heavenly being (whom I will call Satan) makes a bet with God that Job will turn against God if great misfortune would befall him. God gives his permission, and Satan kills Job’s livestock and family, but Job does not blame God. Satan then tells God that Job has to be affected personally, since humans are selfish beings, and God gives permission to harm Job. Satan then gives Job boils, poison ivy, scabies and other unpleasant things, and Job cries out in pain asking God for an explanation.

By reading the story of Job, we realize that this version of Satan comes and goes between Heaven and Earth as he pleases, that he is part of some celestial counsel, that he acts accordingly to Gods will and permission, and that he has limited powers. As we can see, this is not the Satan that we usually hear about.

I mentioned the story of David earlier. This story can be found in the Book of Samuel, but was later retold in Chronicles. In this retelling, we see the first use of the proper noun “Satan”: “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1).

Let’s move on to the New Testament. Here we can see the continuing evolution of Satan. In the earliest books of the New Testament (Epistles of Paul), Satan is not mentioned many times, but when he is mentioned, he is only some sort of a small hindrance for Christians. By the time we come to the Gospels though (60-100 AD), Satan has become to play a far more greater role. He has become Jesus’ nemesis, and (according to both Matthew and Luke) tempts Jesus with the following line: “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please”. In the New Testament we see this powerful character, who has command over a legion of demons (568 demons mentioned in the New Testament). These demons were not apparent in the old Hebrew texts, but suddenly arose at the time the New Testament was being written. Then finally, Satan develops into the most powerful being he has ever been: the Beast.

In the Book of Revelation, Satan appears as a dragon, a monster, and even as a giant serpent. In this book comes the first mention of Satan being the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve (something that never was Christian canon until this book). But Satan’s evolution does not stop here. In medieval times the depictions varied, some becoming more popular than others. Horns, scaled wings and goat legs were among the most popular traits of Satan. In the beginning of the 14th century Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy popularized a certain view of Satan, both physically as story-related, but the modern day Satan most of us are familiar with was popularized by another epic poem: Paradise Lost by John Milton. Here we meet Satan, who actually is the main character of this work. He is a fallen angel and a tortured ruler of Hell. The view of Satan modern-day Christians have is largely molded after this version of Satan. Probably since this version is the most interesting.

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