Was “Satan” in the Old Testament?

Today many people (Christian and non) understand the adversary of God to be Satan. In our modern culture we sometimes even view this cosmic bad guy to be an equal opponent to God in terms of power and dominion. It might Suprise you to know that the Old Testament didn’t (& doesn’t) read this way. In fact, if I handed you a Bible and you were able to read the Old Testament in ITS original language (Hebrew) you would be hard pressed to find “SATAN” as a singular or personal proper name being anywhere in the pages. However, in the New Testament, we get a clear picture of Satan being the leader of the fallen spirits and therefore have a tendency to read that concept back into the Old Testament. As Jesus and the New Testament often gives clarification or fulfillment to many aspects of the Old Testament, most readers are hermeneutically guilty of reading too much into the older text. It is important to first understand how the original audience understood the word given before applying any kind of later revelation or further meaning to a text. This is called a texts primary meaning.

In Hebrew, the specific noun and verb שׂטן (satan) usually take on an English translation of an accuser or adversary. Today in English, we sometimes use the word “satan” similarly when we say, “get behind me satan.” But in the New Testament the same term more often than not, referred to a specific person that is referred to by the proper name of “Satan.” Here is a basic example of the term “satan” used as the term for accuser. In Zechariah, “Joshua the high priest was standing before the angel of the Lord, and the satan [הַשָּׂטָן] was standing inat his right hand to accuse [שׂטן] him” (3:1). So essentially, the accuser was there to accuse him. In Hebrew this is exactly how it reads, but in English the interpreters have changed it likely to better fit with a New Testament view or perhaps even an interpretational bias for some reason or another. This is actually quite common and why I think every committed believer should have some understanding of the original Biblical languages and at least understand how to use an interlinear. Can you imagine being married to someone and not caring to understand any of their original language.

before we got too far into this conversation let’s also dispel a common notion. Some want to think of Satan as an “office” in the same way they talk about an Elder being an office position. Let’s just expel those notions. The Bible doesn’t clearly say there are any “offices” and we shouldn’t view these words that way. We don’t have a constitution or set of bylaws we are given with the Bible, and there aren’t offices, only a king of all and His name is clearly JESUS. X44 has done an entire episode on this. https://youtu.be/vLZhrZrL0Jk

Most English Bible translator’s pickup up on the “singular cosmic bad guy leader” to be represented at least in some way in the OT. That’s why every English translation (right or wrong) simply uses “Satan,” throughout the Old Testament such as in Job 1-2, Zechariah 3:1-2, and 1 Chronicles 21:1. It’s been the traditional understanding for many years that Satan was the leader of the fallen degenerate spirits even before the New Testament. But as a scholar, I would say that most translators have “back read” the singular cosmic bad guy into the story, having the New Testament at hand and likely taking more liberty as a translator than I would prefer. By that I mean, that in the above verses the Hebrew word would actually be better translated (as it is in some versions) as an accuser or challenger, and sometimes this even takes on a positive connotation which leaves some scratching their head. I have also written on this concept about being a positive challenger to your covenant community. I thought about naming that article “how to be a good Satan” but didn’t think that would go over well. You can read that here. https://expedition44.com/2022/05/31/be-a-challenger/

Would King David have had an understanding of a singular proper named entity of Satan? I doubt it.

Here’s why: In every case in Job and Zechariah, the Hebrew is “hassatan [הַשָּׂטָן],” that is, “the satan.” Translations do not reflect this well in English, they simply read “Satan,” as if it is a proper name when it isn’t written that way in Hebrew. On the other hand, there is a chance that this reference “could” be the singular person (ie SATAN) of the New Testament, the Hebrew text just doesn’t specifically say that in the way that you likely understand because of the English translation. In other words, we don’t have the hermeneutical merit to go one way or the other. It isn’t wrong to come to a conclusion, or have an opinion, but we don’t have concrete evidence to go either way.

In Job, the accuser or challenger (satan) appears among the divine council — although most assume this is the Satan figure of the New Testament; I would caution that way of thinking. The text is vague or ambiguous for many reasons, and we just don’t have all the cards. Is this a story that takes place before the fall? (Well, if you believe in a pre-Adamite race [and I do] -you can go this way, but you also don’t have to) does the accuser of Job become Satan? Maybe, or maybe not, we don’t need him to, but he might be. There is a link below to an x44 video on this as well.

Although scholarship is divided on the interpretation of who the satan is in specifically Job and Zechariah, (divine council good guy functioning like a district attorney in a court scene as one of the [fallen or unfallen] powers and principalities, or the singular bad guy etc… we don’t really know and again it doesn’t matter much imho. “WE DON’T HAVE THE ANSWER IN THE TEXT” – The best interpretation in my view is he may or may not be.

1 Chronicles 21:1 seems to be the ONLY verse in the Old Testamant that would clearly use the term “satan” as a proper name: “Satan [שָׂטָן]” and not “the satan” or Hebrew “hassatan [הַשָּׂטָן].” One of the basic laws of Hermeneutics is to not use any one singular occurrence of something to make a doctrine or concrete statement based solely on the one situation, although people do this all the time (it isn’t good theology.) There are many reasons for this hermeneutic. Without getting into too much of a conversation on inerrancy, there are too many possible variations that could’ve led to this one thing being slightly off. It may be a scribe error, or perhaps a more modern translation with second temple thinking of Satan read into it as being the most modern manuscript we have and likely being different than the original manuscripts. to name a couple options. I’m careful not to completely discount them, but I also don’t want to give them too much merit. But the singular text of I Chronicles 21:1 doesn’t answer the question in contention of whether the singular Satan is represented in the Old Testament based solely on this verse, but hermeneutically it may give you a hint as to the consideration of your view. You should be “influenced” by it or consider the notion even if it is a singular occurrence.

as I stated with David above, personally, I don’t think any of the pre 2nd temple period audience had a concept of a singular bad guy named Satan. The Old Testament nearly always READS MORE as a powers and principalities description of fallen degenerate spirits rather than a singular super bad guy.

By the intertestamental period writers started to think of a singular proper named leader of the degenerate spirits and recognized him based on the text of the Torah as simply “satan.” (That type of etymology is common in Hebrew, a name was given that described “what” it was.) During this period, we see many names being used to describe the cosmic leader of Evil in extra biblical source and influences from the heavily mythic Greek cultures with names emerging such as Belial, Mastema, Satanail, and the devil (interesting how this term is usually not capitalized), but the term Satan is the likely the most prevalent. Some of these writings such as the Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all speak to the increased interest in the demonic realm. Jewish apocalyptic literature was common during the intertestamental period and often described stories within the realm of spiritual beings.

At this point in the article, I am sure you are wondering about the serpent in Genesis 3, and I held off on this conversation point because it ties into the 2nd temple period. The serpent in Genesis three might be the singular bad guy described in the New Testament. Whether it is or isn’t the case, we are likely reading a dual fall; or the story of the fall of humankind at the same time we are reading the story of the first fallen spiritual being that many propose ends up being the Satan of the New Testament. It does seem to be the story of the first fallen spiritual being as the tempting serpent appears to be sinning and likely would not have been allowed in the garden after he sins and is cast down. But these statements are scripturally informed hypotheses. We don’t get that for sure anywhere in the Biblical text to be clear. But by the intertestamental period many writers had made this deduction, that the serpent of Genesis 3 was the first of the fallen and the leader of the degenerate spirits. For example, in The Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, we read, “through the devil’s envy death entered the world,” which identifies Genesis 3 and also at several points connects the Devil with the proper name Satan.

There is also an argument that the New Testament authors assumed the same; in Revelation, we read, “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9). John says, “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (I John 3:8), and that the “evil one” influenced Cain to murder Abel (3:12). Paul states, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” in a Genesis 3:15 connection. Getting back to our inerrancy inference, we do need to consider the personal beliefs or influences of the writers and possibly keep these separate from the doctrine of the scriptures, but again this is a whole other conversation, and one that is a heated debate.

It’s obvious that by the New Testament, there was an understanding, of a leader of the fallen evil forces, being recognized as the proper name, Satan (the person who tempted Christ in the wilderness.) Do we have the merit to backwards read this into the Old Testament? Personally, I would say no… but I would also say that he – the Satan figure (proper name) was there and possibly in the garden.

Can we assume or give Him (Satan) the credit for several of the evils of the Old Testament? Why would we?

It’s also worth noting that even in the New Testament, there is a powers and principalities feel, that they weren’t just concerned about a singular bad guy, they were concerned about all of the fallen oppressors, the entire realm of evil and the fallen world.

Personally, what I don’t have a lot of interpretation for, is when anyone wants to make the cosmic ruler of evil (Satan) out to be greater than God or Jesus or even equal as if he was or is a worthy opponent. I do believe we are in a spiritual battle, but our King has won this fight generations ago. The keys have been reclaimed, the fallen bound, and the trajectory is towards reclaiming joy within the kingdom we “live” and reign in here and now and eschatologically to come.

If you want to explore this topic more, here are some great videos to get you started.

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