|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Summer 2009|
illos by the author
“One day the Sons of God came to attend on Yahweh, and among them was Satan.”
A modern rational person must find his own way through Scripture’s thicket. You’re reading the words in English, which loses something in the translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin. The Bible is an entire library of books, written by diverse hands over millennia. Some books reflect a particular tradition, while others (re-telling the same story) demonstrate a very different bias. The very nature of Yahweh evolves from a storm god on an isolated mountain to the Trinity worshipped by Christians.
But what revelations –or literary devices- gave birth to the Adversary, Satan? Is Satan a separate supernatural being, or could he be the result of a gradual understanding of the dual nature of God?
The character Satan appears very few times in the Old Testament and only three times does he appear as a distinct personality. These appearances are in Job, II Chronicles, and in Zechariah. The Hebrew verb ‘satan originally meant “to accuse”, which is not unlike the role played by Job’s Satan, but this form of the word is a development of a functional concept of Yahweh himself. ‘Satan was also a demeaning term used to indicate something or someone who is a hindrance. We can see this in I Samuel 29:4, where David is the “adversary” (‘satan) to Achish’s men; that is, a hindrance: they are afraid he’ll not only be in the way but that he might “turn on us once the battle is joined”. In I Kings 5:4, 11:14, and 11:23, Solomon has and sometimes doesn’t have an adversary, not necessarily a military threat but someone who constitutes the opposite to rest and to undisturbed peace in this life.
When we look at the Angel of the LORD (mal‘ak Yahweh), however, we can see the word “adversary” in the sense of the divine plane meeting the mortal one. In Numbers 22:22, Balaam meets the “roving messenger of God”, who stands in the road as “le- ‘satan-lo”, “for an adversary to him”; he stands in Balaam’s way. Satan is not yet a mythological figure here; ‘satan is here, as in the preceding passages, a functional concept, not a proper name.
Let us examine for a moment the function of the mal’ak Yahweh. If we look at certain OT passages it is clear that the mal’ak Yahweh is identical to Yahweh, and yet is not Yahweh in his all-embracing totality. He is Yahweh in a definite function, as his manifestation. In Exodus 3:2 he appears to Moses in the burning bush, but in verse 4 it is Yahweh himself who speaks. In Judges 13:17-18, after the mal’ak Yahweh has disappeared in the flame of the altar, Manoah says to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” Gideon also fears dying because he has seen the mal’ak Yahweh face to face in Judges 6:22; Gideon’s lamentation is directed at Yahweh, not at the angel. These and other passages indicate that Yahweh and the mal’ak Yahweh are identical yet different: God and his emissary which is also a semi-mortal, semi-divine aspect. We can then say three things about the mal’ak Yahweh: (1) The mal’ak Yahweh is God operating in a concrete place and time. It is the enacted will of Yahweh which detaches itself from the divine personality in the process of actualization, hence the hypostasis of God’s active intervention. (2) It can cover the whole range of Yahweh’s activities, from eating lunch with Abram to becoming a pillar of fire by night and of smoke by day. (3) Its actions and words parallel Yahweh’s (see above). The point here is simply that from time to time, especially in the case of Numbers 22:22, the mal’ak Yahweh is a ‘satan, someone or something’s adversary, as in the case of the destroying angel of Exodus, if we can read between the lines. He was certainly Pharoah’s adversary!
When Yahweh was assigned a heavenly court we see the concept of the mal’ak Yahweh fading, to be replaced by the bene-ha-elohim, the “Sons of God”. Unlike the mal’ak Yahweh, these beings are always around Yahweh in a sort of heavenly assembly. We can safely assume that they are an assimilation of Canaanite-Babylonian cacodemons, perhaps even the zodiacal signs and personalities. The difference lies in that these spirits do not simply mouth the words of Yahweh: they are independent personalities which follow their own desires, as in mating with mortals in Genesis 6:1-4. It is interesting to note that their offspring are not demigods like Hercules in the Greco-Roman mythologies, but are monsters.
But where does a supporting cast of minor gods come from in a rigidly monotheistic religion? During and after the Exodus, Yahweh was represented by the Ark of the Covenant, a portable god sometimes carried into battle. Jerusalem was made the holy religious center of the nation when David brought the Ark there after the conquest of the Philistines. The center, then, of the Federation of Tribes was the shrine, the Temple, for the Ark was the very presence of Yahweh (II Samuel 4:4, II Samuel 6:2, II Kings 19:15), no longer identified with Mount Sinai. Canaanite cults in the Kingdom could not be completely uprooted, but were tolerated as long as taxes were paid. Yahweh had kept the Covenant and delivered Israel to the Promised Land.
The Covenant had to be re-examined, then, after Israel’s civil war and conquest by the Babylonians. Sargon II conquered Samaria (northern Israel) and in 721 BC deported its populace. Religious syncretism seemed a foregone conclusion (II Kings 17:5ff). In 587 Nebuchanezar deported the population of Judah to Babylon, and although Cyrus the Great restored a Hebrew community to the area in 538, it was a Persian colony under Cyrus’ hand-picked satrap. Why had Yahweh abandoned his chosen people?
The Prophets declared that the apostasy of the people had brought this chastisement. The Covenant was not withdrawn, but not yet fulfilled. Whenever Israel failed to keep its side of the bargain, the fulfillment is further postponed (Hosea 2:16 and Isaiah 6:13, 8:18, 10:19ff). Yahweh God was responsible for these calamities, and the nations which had overthrown Israel were but instruments of Yahweh, raised up for that purpose. God was not just more powerful than Ba’al—He was Ba’al.
While captive in Babylon and Persia, Israel assimilated concepts alien to the Patriarchs but all too familiar to us: the dual nature of Good and Evil in the Godhood. The Persian pantheon was dominated by the eternal conflict between Ahura Mazda, sky god, and Ahriman, Lord of Darkness. The antagonism between these Zoroastrian gods would continue into the next life, thence to a cataclysmic battle wherein all men would enjoy a general resurrection, the good gaining immortality, the irredeemably evil being annihilated by fire together with Ahriman himself and his hordes of bat-winged devils.
The greatest Hebrew literature came from this period, and was written to preserve racial and cultic purity. But the language of Hebrew cosmology was forever altered. Where before Yahweh had sent man good or evil, and when dying a man could expect his soul (neppish) to descend to the shadowy realm of Sheol (Ecclesiastes 9:10), man could now expect that his bones would rise (says Ezekial) and that a great confrontation between good and evil would culminate in a final judgment. Ahriman and his attendant demons had a profound influence on Hebrew thought. Here was an answer to God’s unpredictable and inscrutable behavior. The entire shape of monotheism was drastically changed. Of course, Ahriman and his court was the absolute equal of Ahura Mazda, not some subordinant being, and this posed problems for the radical monotheism of Judaism. The book of Job provides an answer.
What we have in Job is not an argument between God and a lesser angel, especially one who has been consigned to the opposite end of the Universe. The wager in Job sounds as if it had not originally been agreed to between a servant and a master high above him, but between two equals. This impression is also supported by the fact that Yahweh and Satan speak together without any regard for the distance between them.
In Job 1:8 Satan is a nagging doubt in God’s mind, a doubt without grounds. Compare this dialogue to the one in I Kings 22:19ff, when one of the “spirits” (ha-ruah) volunteers a suggestion to Yahweh. Could a discussion in the divine court be a divine soliloquy? I offer as a parallel the creation passage of Genesis 1:26. Furthermore, look at I Chronicles 21:1, where we see Satan moving David to take a census of his people and incurring the wrath of God, while in II Samuel 24:1 we see Yahweh giving David the same instructions! Compare the “roaring lion” in Hosea 11:10 and Jeremiah 49:19 to the devil in I Peter 5:8. God’s anger has become Satan.
Job is delivered into Satan’s hands, but it is not Satan who deals the blows, but Yahweh. Job acknowledges Yahweh’s hand in his fate, but not Satan’s: “…Shall we receive good at the hands of God and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:10)” This perception of Satan as God’s “dark side” is a key to the transition between the Testaments. In Zechariah 3:1ff, Satan and the mal’ak Yahweh, two angels, two aspects of God, are fighting over the high priest Joshua. One wants to annihilate him, the other to save him. One wants justice, the other mercy. Here Satan becomes what was once a positive quality of God, his justice. A high principle of love is visualized in mercy. This is the outermost edge of Old Testament thought, a premise for the merciful God in the New Testament.
By the first century of the Common Era, stateless Judaism was Hellenized, then Romanized, and its rich mythology absorbed and reflected these new influences. The new faith Christianity becomes much more than an apocalyptic sect of nominal Judaism, because early in its history most of its converts were Gentiles. The growing popularity of “mystery cults” and the world-view of Gnosticism colored this new faith, dramatically changing the nature of the Hebrew God. Jesus the Christ is not just the long-awaited Jewish Messiah but is also the Divine Man and the Heavenly Redeemer.
The Redeemer was an ambassador from the Most High God, the Nous, Greek for the spiritual counterpart of base matter. Unknown to this great God, lesser manifestations of godhood called archons created this world; this concept was the result of violent anti-Semitism which contended that since this world was awful, it was a mistake to have made it at all, and its creator can only be evil. Yahweh becomes demoted by the Gnostics to a malevolent spirit which had misguided the Hebrews for thousands of years. Jesus the Christ was not just a wandering preacher, but was the Anthropous, an alter-ego of the Nous, and his sole mission was to rescue souls trapped in this world of base matter. Their rescue was effected and their transcendence from Earth assured by the transmission of secret gnosis, knowledge, and of course, only those with ears to hear will hear, and this Truth will set you free. Evidence of Gnosticism abounds in the Gospel of John, and in the apocryphal gospels of Peter, Phillip, and Thomas, and although Ignatius of Antioch blasted the Gnostics in his letter to the Ephesians (19:20) as did Justin Martyr and Paul, it has survived down through the centuries to color modern Christianity.
Gnostic teachers and other apocalyptic writers went to great lengths to free the Nous from any blame in various controversial stories. Why did Yahweh prefer Abel’s offering over Cain’s? Why did Yahweh flood the world? Why did he love Jacob and hate Essau? Surely, they concluded, Yahweh must be a jealous, irrational god, inferior to another Supreme Being. So we have developing the concept of a High Father who created many lesser spirits, including Yahweh/Elohim, whom they equate with Satan.
Gnostics arose in some cases from those who were tired of “lies and broken promises”. The Covenant had not been kept and Yahweh/Elohim had delivered Israel into the hands of one oppressor after another. The failure of Danielism and apocalyptic thought in general led to the idea that a wayward angel had misguided the Hebrew people since the dawn of history. And so in the Gnostic thought, Christ had come not only to redeem the lost souls but to destroy the god of the Jews. We can attribute this largely to Saturninus, who taught at Antioch during the reign of Hadrian (117-138). Saturninus wrote during the period in which Jerusalem revolted against the Romans and were crushed not once but twice, in 115-117 and in 132-135. This destruction led radical dualist Jews and Christians to move from apocalyptic hopes toward Gnosis, and to reinterpret the Old Testament. Thus Yahweh the Protector and Deliverer of Israel from Egypt to the Maccabees had to undergo many drastic changes in the minds of these liberal Jews and Christians.
By now we are far and beyond traditional Judaism. The Old Testament and its eschatology have been rejected. We have reached a point in the dualistic development that is radically anti-Semitic. But as Christianity evolved, it deliberately overlooked these excesses, incorporating the Old Testament, retaining a doctrine of a world created by and for goodness. Satan, the Adversary, becomes the Serpent in the Garden, the Tempter and the Father of Lies, and yet doomed to fail in the fullness of time. Despite his many guises and mythological trappings, Satan has, in the end, become someone to blame other than a loving but unknowable God, when bad things happen to good people.