The word satan has been both an instrumental linguistic weapon used to tear people apart and also a word picture that describes the evil goblin that invites us into his chambers if we did not live a satisfactory life – or if we believed the “wrong” dogma. However, the word “satan,” originally docile in meaning, has morphed and re-morphed in order to describe the beliefs and perceptions of its prevailing time.
I preface this essay with this one crucial point: Satan is not an evil beast guarding the underworld, rather, he is my cat Muffins who lies in the middle of the hallway causing me to sometimes trip over him. Now I will prove this thesis.
Words and meanings of words often go through an evolutionary process. For instance, the word unique isn’t unique anymore. It used to be an absolute which meant one of a kind. But in the 1800’s its meaning became diluted as people started to use it to mean unusual or uncommon. And to make matters worse, they started adding modifiers such as pretty, somewhat, and kind of. How can something be kind of unique? You can’t kind of be one of a kind. Even when we look inside religious circles, we notice how context and history shift meanings. The word hell is understood entirely differently from 1950s when compared to the current idea of hell. Once a literal place with weeping and gnashing of teeth has slowly morphed into a metaphorical place that represents eternal isolation.
Ask any religious person today who is Satan or the devil and they will describe the evil ruler of the underworld that seeks to steal, kill and destroy. He is also the one who sends his demon messengers to possess and oppress people who refuse to accept the correct religious prescriptions. Satan is the Prince of Darkness who holds the keys to the eternal dwelling place of Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and – depending on which era you are in – early martyrs who didn’t believe in the trinity, unorthodox Jews, black people of the 19th and early 20th century and, of course, gays. But is this what Satan has always represented?
Although sixth century storytellers introduced a supernatural character called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The Hebraic root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.” (The Greek diabolos, later translated “devil” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)
For instance, in the book of Numbers 22:23-33, the satan is sent by God as a protector. Here, the satan, acting as an obstacle, actually protects Balaam from further harm. In Job, the satan is not a malevolent beast, rather, he is among God’s divine court acting as a secret police, roaming the earth. As a play on words in the opening chapter of Job, he plays on “stn” and “st” (to roam). As most people familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures know, a play on words is a common literary device used by (poetic) writers in ancient literature. All this to say that both Numbers and Job, written around 1440-1400 BCE, present the satan in a role as an obstacle. Indeed, that is the moral lesson of Job: perseverance in the face of obstacles. **Side note: Numbers and Job were written well before the deceiving snake found in Genesis (500-600 BCE).
So how did the term satan get weaponized from an obstacle in one’s path to a villain? Just as the harmless term cockroach morphed into a dehumanizing nomenclature of the Third Reich against the Jew, so did the term the satan become for the Jewish heretic. Part of the DNA of ancient Jewish history is pride for the whole of Jewish community. From the Abrahamic blessing, “and through you all nations will be blessed,” to the continued deliverance from oppressive bondage – the covenant relationship with God that designate Jews as God’s people is central. But when some of the Israelites deviate from ‘the plan’ and begin to assimilate with foreign culture, the satan morphs into a Ebola virus that divides us/them and righteous/wicked. The prophet Zechariah sides with the returning exiles in a heated conflict with the defectors of Israel, and Satan takes on a sinister quality, as he did in the story of David’s census (I Chronicles) , and his role begins to change from that of God’s angelic agent to that of an opponent.
“Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you!” (Zechariah 3:1-2)
But the morphology of the satan isn’t over. Things get worse in the Book of Daniel as it reflects upon the zeitgeist of wartime apocalyptic sentiment. So Satan begins to really take shape in part to the Syrian Kink Antiochus Epiphanes. In 168 BCE, he and his Seleucid court outlawed circumcision, along with the study of Torah, and then desecrated the Jerusalem Temple and rededicated it to the Greek god Olympian Zeus. This created factions within Judaism between those who resisted assimilation and the Jews who wanted to integrate into Hellenistic culture. After the Pharisees challenged the rigor of the Hasmoanean dynasty because that had become essentially a secular state who had abandoned Israel’s ancestral ways. Other radical dissident groups broke away from the Pharisees such as the Essenes who were of the monastic community at Kirbet Qumran. As factions broke into more factions, the key question came to be: which of us Jews are on God’s side? These radical dissidents began to increasingly to invoke the satan to characterize their Jewish opponents. Now satan was God’s antagonist, his enemy, and his rival. Now Jewish apostates are said to have been possessed by: Satan, Beelzebub, Semihazah, Azazel, Belial, and Prince of Darkness.
There you have it. Now the stage is set for the Gospel writers to enter the scene and tell the dramatic story of the cosmic battle between good and evil – God vs. Satan. While angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan (capital “S”), along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent. But among certain first-century Jewish groups, prominently including the Essenes (who saw themselves as allied with angels) and the followers of Jesus, the figure variously called Satan, Beelzebub, or Belial also began to take on central importance. It is of upmost importance that we understand the Gospels in their context: the gospels reflect the emergence of a Jesus movement from the postwar factionalism of the late first century.
Mark, the first of the New Testament gospels (70 ACE), seeks out to show how the factions of Pharisees are agents of evil – really, they are simply not as ethical and pure as the rigorous sect of the Essenes. The name calling and dehumanization is an intra-conflict within Judaism – a Jewish nation divided against itself.
“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” (Mark 3:23)
Satan is now a potent duplicitous beast that is employed to disintegrate the legitimacy between the righteous and the wicked. In Revelation, he is depicted as a dragon who has been caged for 1,000 years until the day when he is let loose just prior to the grand cosmic battle between himself and God.
So who is the satan? Is he a beast-like dragon that terrorizes immoral people? Nope. The satan is my cat Muffins because when he lays in the middle of the hallway, he is an obstruction and obstacle in my way – just as the original intent of the word “satan” meant originally.
– Wes Fornes