The range of views on Satan, from non-person to divine archrival or even divine colleague, suggests an analysis of his person and role.
Lael O. Caesar
The term Satan/satan appears 27 times in nine Old Testament books.
N. T. Wright considers the biblical satan figure as “a nonhuman and nondivine quasi-personal force.”1 For Bart Ehrman, he is clearly a more specific and powerful figure. According to Ehrman, Jewish Apocalyptic dualism, arising some 150 to 170 years before Jesus’ birth, makes him the controller of evil, while God is in charge of good.2 Other scholars see the roles and purposes of the biblical Satan and God as more closely intertwined than Ehrman does, with the Satan of Job understood by Robert Alden as part of a divine cabinet in which not all the members are good.3 This range of views on Satan, from non-person to divine archrival or even divine colleague, does suggest that an analysis of his person and role is a continuing necessity.
Roles of Satan
Edouard Dhorme views the adversary’s role in the prologue of Job as one of “capital importance.”4 The role of Satan has sometimes been seen as a dimension of divine justice. For example, in Numbers 22:21 to 35, the angel of the Lord drew a sword against Balaam, who was bent on a course the angel found offensive. The angel described himself as coming out as an adversary (vs. 32) against Balaam. Elsewhere, the Lord raised up more than one satan against Solomon (Hadad the Edomite, Rezon the son of Eliada), because he had turned away from the Lord (1 Kings 11:1–14, 23, 25). Again, the psalmist’s request that God condemn the wicked person and bring havoc upon him, his family, and his possessions includes appointing a Satan to stand at his right side (Ps. 109:6), that is, to accuse him (Zech. 3:1). But Job’s Satan does not properly fit into any of these situations.
The closest apparent resemblance to Psalm 106 is Zechariah 3, in which Satan accuses God’s protégé Joshua. Both these passages suggest a court situation, which is also the setting of the Job prologue. But while the psalmist requests that the adversary stand at his tormentor’s right hand to testify against him, as shown in Zechariah 3:1, he cannot properly do so in the setting of the Book of Job. For while the psalmist’s enemy is wicked, and Joshua the high priest is clothed in garments of unrighteousness, Job is perfect, upright, and God-fearing (Job 1:1). The agent of divine justice in Numbers, 1 Kings, and Psalm 109 does not fit Job, in which he challenges God’s hero, who is nothing if not righteous. Job is the book’s only man of integrity.
A major and noteworthy difference exists between the identification of Satan in Job or Zechariah and other Old Testament reference (1 Chronicles 21). That difference is instructive. Only in the books of Job and Zechariah are any of the term’s 27 Old Testament occurrences accompanied with the definite article. Elsewhere, references are to an adversary or accuser, or to someone behaving like a satan (Num. 22:22, 32; 1 Sam. 29:4; 2 Sam. 19:23). But in Job and Zechariah, the episodes that involve the one called “Satan” are not simply concerned with general opposition or accusation, or with satan-like behavior. All 17 of them are specifically focused on the adversary/accuser (Zech. 3:1, 2; Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–4, 6, 7). In these two books, he is not a role player or functioning as a satan. He is the adversary—Satan himself. Diminishing this distinction amounts to a failure to respect the plain and insistent statement of all the Old Testament texts that employ the term satan.
The metaphor of Satan as prosecuting attorney standing against Job as in a court of law, has sometimes been invoked to explain his role. Dhorme speaks of him as “essentially the adversary at law”5; Robert Gordis calls him “the prosecuting angel in the heavenly court”6; and N. H. Tur-Sinai models him after a Persian official appointed to spy out and inform at court on the misbehavers of the empire.7
But even as Gordis considers him as a public prosecutor, he is fully aware that Satan’s behavior is cynical with regard to Job, a stinging challenge to the Deity, and, in the end, a direct and vicious assault on the subject of the trial. John Wilcox finds Satan’s suggested trial “sensible”8; Emil G. Kraeling considers him a “zealot for righteousness.”9 These perspectives validate satanic intent to try Job as the innocent who may become guilty if provoked by sufficient abuse. Job’s Satan is no tax-financed prosecutor. He is a bold and brilliant scoundrel of astonishingly cruel vein.
The Old Testament frequently bolsters the notion of the Deity as supreme in His court. Job’s prologue critiques such a notion, portraying a vulnerable God. In both dialogue and consequence, the prologue’s portrayal is unique. Whereas, in Zechariah 3:1 to 10, Satan is unheard and summarily banished, in Job he speaks, harangues, disputes, and reappears—unparalleled in Old Testament Scripture. Like Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Iago, Job’s Satan implicates the innocent without supplying any incriminating evidence. He pursues both his perceived right to destroy Job and to bring about God’s undoing. Allegedly, his slaughter of Job’s children and possessions and his torture of Job’s person are acceptable means of exposing the falsehood of God’s claims that Job is a man of virtue.
Besides the roles of agent of justice and lover of cruelty, we may recognize a third dimension of the term satan in the comment of Philistine lords who feared for their lives against David when he mustered with them. They distrust him as a satan who would presently reconcile himself to his master Saul by turning his sword against them (1 Sam. 29:4). Similarly, David repudiated his nephews’ behavior as adversarial (2 Sam. 19:22), when they expressed a desire to behead Shimei for insulting their uncle the king. These cases reveal that the Old Testament term satan may signal anything from prosecutor, in such cases as Balaam’s and Solomon’s; to sadist, in the case of Job; to treacherous murderer, in the examples of the Philistine lords and David’s nephews.
A Literary Comparison
Job’s Satan is a figure of “very well defined personality,”10 both galling by his daring and masterful in his concealment. In God’s own court, he scorns the notion of a Job-like or general goodness, and he commits acts of carnage that are blamed on God.
Victor L. Cahn highlights “one overwhelming truth” of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is “the only tragedy in which the title character . . . takes second place in audience interest. . . . The fulcrum of the story, the figure of greatest fascination, is far and away Iago.”11 Job’s Satan, like Othello’s Iago, commands within the book’s drama a significant proportion of readers’ attention. And as the question of Iago’s motivations is “central to any interpretation of the play,”12 so it is, too, with Job’s Satan. He and Iago share a common goal—undoing a hero of virtue. Iago hunts the paragon Othello, as does Satan the perfect and upright Job, resorting to insinuation when he lacks evidence. And Job’s accuser is bolder than Othello’s slanderer.
Impugning divine integrity within the divine court shows vastly more audacity than to make an alien soldier Moor distrustful of his innocent wife Desdemona. Comparisons and contrasts between the Bible’s Satan and Shakespeare’s Iago raise three questions about Satan in Job: (1) What is said about his behavior? (2) What is said about his nature? (3) What literary or theological conclusions may be drawn from answers to the first two questions?
The narrator’s introduction shows Satan at odds within the company where we first meet him. This is the significance of the adverb also, the preposition among, and the repeated verb enter/come. The narrator repeats these elements in both introductions of Satan: “and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6; 2:1, NRSV). These are the only texts in which the phrase “and X also came among Y” occurs in the Old Testament. In this way, this “equivocal figure” is properly distinguished from the rest of the court. More subtle and insidious than in Zechariah 3, Satan is still determined to attack those whom the Lord wishes to protect.
Satan is also the only court attendee in these scenes who departs from the Lord’s presence (Job 1:12; 2:7). By both his arrival and departure, his awkwardness within the court’s natural constitution is highlighted by the narrator. Other narrative differences between Job 1:6 to 12 and 2:1 to 7 that further underline the incongruity between the Lord and the adversary are (1) the repetition of “to present himself before the Lord”—“and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord” [2:1, NRSV]; and (2) the blunt reporting of Satan’s attack on Job [vs. 7]. Gordis observes that the second “to present himself” expresses Satan’s “insolence and rebelliousness”13 in coming back, after the challenge and climax of chapter 1, to take his stand among the sons of God. He is no more submissive and respectful when he returns than in the first scene.
In chapter 1, following his departure from the Lord’s presence, Sabeans, Chaldeans, wind, and fire of God are blamed for the havoc that befalls Job and his possessions (vss. 14–19). But Job 2:7 states plainly what 1:14 to 19 does not. For Satan now personally and blatantly violates Job’s person, quite uninterested in validating God’s knowledge of Job’s virtue. Probing court prosecutors have been unflatteringly likened to this slanderer, openly skeptical about the very idea of disinterested goodness. His critical spirit may even earn him comparison with the Deity who looks down on “the sons of men” and finds them all corrupt (Ps. 53:2, 3, NIV). But this is neither because God and Satan are in agreement on the subject, nor because God is mistaken about His observations on Job or “the sons of men.” The two belong to different and contrasting categories. The “sons of men” are Satan’s own “evildoers,” whose total corruption and commitment to iniquity distinguish them from the people of God, whom they devour like bread (vs. 4). Satan’s current interest, which God recognizes, is more such devouring. His focus is Job’s destruction. Only God’s veto stops him from murdering Job (2:6), whose death would serve purposes that are being frustrated by his continued faithfulness under torture.
The Lord is the prologue’s second commentator on Satan’s behavior, engaging in facetious dialogue with Satan about his whereabouts. Satan well knows of the Lord’s omniscience. The Lord surely knows of his activities. In dialogue initiated with a challenge, He expounds from the very outset on the incompatibility between Himself and Satan, upon the difference between their characters.
Satan’s own words on his behavior are deceptively simple. He describes himself as just an aimless wanderer on earth (Job 1:7). God’s first ironic query suggests a search for information—itself an oxymoron. His repetition, though (2:2), and Satan’s answer in this second court scene, communicate together something of the latter’s intransigence. The Lord singles him out for challenge because his person and spirit are incompatible with that of the court. Satan’s untroubled manner in response displays arrogance in the face of exposure of his deviance. Instead of embarrassment and apology, he aggressively implicates the Lord, denying his own hand in Job’s torture (2:5). As an echo of his earlier challenge inciting the Lord to strike Job and his possessions (1:11), this is no new sentiment. That very token, given the summary on Job’s faithfulness through all (1:22), is evidence of his ability to perpetuate calumny and justify continued brutality. The narrator’s concluding remarks then make explicit that it is Satan, the one who suggests that Job suffer, who himself inflicts his wounds (2:7).
Job’s servants provide other voices that explicitly comment on Satan’s behavior. The rhetoric of their formulaic reporting of tragedy achieves a synchrony of wretched laments symmetrically linked from cry to cry. The narrative refrain (“while he was still speaking”) becomes merged with the reportorial chorus, “‘and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’” 1:15–19, NIV) through a methodical building up of horror, dramatizing the calculated tyranny that Satan the sadist practices in Job.
In Job, ethical affirmations concentrated on the protagonist provide the book’s clearest measure of judgment on every other of its characters. Job is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:1, ASV). His goodness, and God’s pride in it, elicit Satan’s open skepticism. Job’s virtue and God’s appreciation for it provoke Satan’s hostility and inspire his brutality. God’s testimony in Job’s favor stands contradicted by a revelation, claimed in the first speech given by any of the friends, that God puts no confidence in any of His creation (4:12–21). And the last contribution to the dialogue that bears Bildad’s name, returns by way of a closing argument, to Eliphaz’s claimed revelation against God and His confidence in Job (4:16–19; 25:1–6). Satan’s own rhetoric, Eliphaz’s opening revelation, and Bildad’s surrender in conclusion provide, together, a composite picture of Satan that also highlights one of Job’s most distinctive contributions within the overall biblical revelation. The friends’ unfortunate alignment with Satan’s views against Job and God illustrate, in microcosm, the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. And the manner of their persuasion effectively parallels elements of the sixth plague as prophesied in Revelation 16:12 to 16.
In the Book of Job, God and Job admire and extol each other, and attract definitive, positive rhetoric. Much less is said about Satan. But his actions and arguments, with the havoc they wreak, contrast definitively with Job, the drama’s standard bearer of virtue from its opening lines. Satan denies disinterested virtue, setting out to prove that Job, God’s prime example, is not what God makes him out to be. He predicts Job’s blasphemy (1:11); he aims to end his life, but God protects it (2:7).
Others pursue Satan’s goals in his absence. Job’s wife urges him to abandon integrity, curse God, and die (Job 2:9). Then, after a week of silence and grief rituals, Job’s friends, in their first and last speeches, denounce his integrity and the very notion of disinterested virtue, based on insight mysteriously provided (4:12–21; 25:1–6). These speeches as they stand sound a common note of diabolical cynicism against Job and his God. They sustain this cynicism on the basis of a lie. This enveloping symmetry is often overlooked, and Job’s literary, rhetorical, intellectual, and spiritual integrity are all challenged by continuing scholarly effort to explain away the book as an accidental reshuffling of ancient textual material that needs restoration in accordance with the commentators’ contrived, three-speech logic.
The poem of Job has been called “one of the most sublime creations in all of biblical literature—in fact, in all of literature.”14 Tragically, Harold Kushner creates an artificial setting for this poem by the distinction he imagines between it and the prose frame, what he calls “the fable.” For him “the author of the Poem totally leaves the Fable behind.”15 But the envelope structure of the friends’ first and last speeches illustrates the power, thrust, and climax the poetic sections derive from the prologue. Similarly, proper grasp of the conclusion relates to proper appreciation for the nature and intensity of Job’s diabolical trial—initiated by Satan, perpetuated by those who sustain his sentiments, and resolved only when, in parallel to the spirit of Jesus later on the Cross, he prayed for those he said had not been ashamed to wrong him and had “ten times” insulted him (19:3, NIV). Exalted by God in the prologue, Job, as an immediate consequence, is assaulted by Satan. Then, in the dialogue with friends, he is harassed by those who, most transparently so at the beginning and at the end of their series of misconceived addresses, unite against him based upon a message from Eliphaz’s night visitor. This phenomenon of spiritual union against God’s representative and purpose, grounded in special revelation, represents the climactic, global union against God and His cause that will again unfold on earth during the time of Revelation’s sixth plague.
Satan and the Climax of the Cosmic Conflict
Astonishingly, Francis I. Andersen identifies Eliphaz’s night visitor, credited as author of a lying revelation, as the Spirit of God.16 No less astonishingly, Edouard Dhorme, citing Thomas Aquinas, finds it “needless to ask whether [Eliphaz] really experienced this vision or whether he imagines it for the purposes of his argument.”17 While Dhorme and Aquinas are willing to allow for Eliphaz’s personal genius in this account, Andersen attributes it to God the Holy Spirit; and this despite the fact that the revelation directly opposes both the Lord’s and the narrator’s voices. Eliphaz teaches that God puts no trust in His servants (4:18). By contrast, God extols Job (1:8; 2:3). And the last of the speeches by any of the three friends is as contemptuous as Eliphaz’s first: God doesn’t trust the angels, argues Eliphaz, “‘How much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth!’” (4:19, NASB). Bildad mirrors this with “‘How much less man, that maggot, and the son of man, that worm!’” (25:6, NASB).
In Job and in the sixth plague, deceptive supernatural revelation generates sociological and theological unity against the cause and people of God. Job and his friends are the human expression of a spiritual alignment either for God or for the cause of satanic deception. In the sixth plague, the world responds to the direction of demon spirits that “go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 16:14, NASB). While the content of those demonic instructions is not given, Satan’s self-disclosure, more clearly observable in Job than anywhere else in Old Testament Scripture, may provide some orientation for Revelation’s scenes that are yet to unfold.
The Book of Job, like the history of humanity, begins with an idyll and climaxes in a remarkable and elaborate restoration. From the first to the last chapter, except for the first and last seven verses, the Book of Job swirls in a Satan-generated controversy. Job’s experience and human history feature much physical pain. But Job’s and Scripture’s conflict have always been, first and foremost, moral. In the Book of Job, as in the cosmic controversy, Satan the sadist may well be most insidiously successful as Satan the night-visiting revealer. Revelation 12 emphasizes Satan’s power of deception. He is the dragon, the ancient serpent, devil, and Satan, “who deceives the whole world” (vs. 9, NKJV). Reference to his identity as “the ancient serpent” (NIV) speaks of the seducing power he has wielded through the whole history of cosmic conflict. A lie to Eve effected humanity’s fall. So Eliphaz’s opening lie, granted dominant status, ruled the entire dialogue with Job. Bildad resisted until, whether through belief or merely in exhausted surrender, he united with Eliphaz and Zophar. Then universal accord is achieved. For the narrator of this conflict between truth and error, between integrity and farce, nothing is left to prove; the dialogue collapses. It is done.
This end of the struggle in Job equates with some precision to that which transpires under demonic impulse in the sixth plague, and relates to the nature and character of Satan’s work as it climaxes with the battle of Armageddon. Once his demonic spirits succeed in gathering the kings of the whole world together, nothing remains but the outpouring of the seventh bowl and the voice of God announcing, “It is done.” “And they gathered them together to the place which in Hebrew is called Har Magedon. And the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air; and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, ‘It is done’” (Rev. 16:16, 17, NASB).
The Battle of Armageddon follows the final acts of demon spirits that unify the world of rebels against God and His faithful remnant. It is a moral confrontation—the camp of evil, united by deception, arrayed against the Lord of virtue and goodness, and those who have trusted and served His lordship here on earth. That battle may yet be, but the apocalyptic unfolding of truth is already taught, and history already lived in microcosm in the Book of Job.
Lael Caesar, PhD, is Associate Editor, Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.; and Research Professor of Hebrew Bible, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES