After leaving the church and beginning to only read my Tanakh, I started to realize Christianity’s obsession with Satan. You see, my new mission in life is to unlearn those teachings found in the Christian testament (NT) and try to refine my walk using Tanakh only. Sometimes it’s hard; thoughts come into my head and I have to ask myself, “Is that really in God’s scriptures or is that in the NT?” When it comes to the topic of Satan in the NT, it can be overwhelming. For instance, the NT mentions demons over 60 times, and almost half of its books talk about Satan. Conversely, the Tanakh never talks about people being possessed by demons, and only three books even mention Satan. Furthermore, even Satan’s appearances in these books are limited. We will discuss here the three times Satan is mentioned in the Tanakh to better understand who or what he is to us.
For starters, it appears that Satan’s roll is to challenge people. The first time the Tanakh mentions him is in the Book of Job, where God allows him to impose hardships on Job (Job 1:6-2:7). Many people see this exchange in terms of a competition between God and Satan, but God is clearly in charge and establishes certain restraints on Satan (Job 2:7). After this verse, we do not hear about Satan again. The majority of the Book of Job is dialogue between Job and his friends as they contemplate the purpose behind Job’s misfortunes. The point of the Book of Job is not to introduce Satan but to inspire readers to ponder the age old question “Why do the righteous suffer?”1 God enters the conversation starting in Chapter 38 by challenging Job’s weakness with His divine wisdom and omnipotence2. Satan, merely a facilitator, did his job and moved on.
Satan resurfaces in the Tanakh over a millennium later where we see him swaying King David. 1 Chronicles states that Satan prompted King David to take a census (1 Chronicles 21:1). Apparently, this was wrong and angered God, and He ended up punishing Israel for this infraction (1 Chronicles 21:7). Over 1,400 years earlier, God did have Israel take a census in Exodus in order to receive contributions for His Tabernacle (Exodus 30:13). So, what was the difference? One of the possibilities is that if a count took place without God’s command, then the census could have communicated the idea that a king or a human leader owned Israel, when God alone owned the land. Regardless of the reason, we know that David should not have done this, and his action angered God. At this point we need to say to ourselves, “If Satan truly possessed David, David wouldn’t have been able to control his own actions and God probably would not have punished him”. However, the truth is that David more than likely gave into his own evil inclination (Yetzer Hara). Instead of resisting temptation, David disobeyed God, and thus he was punished. God counseled Cain in Genesis 4:7, and David and the rest of us need to adhere to this same advice: “…rule over our own sin”.
The third and last time Satan is mentioned is in the Book of Zechariah. Here Satan is making an accusation against Israel’s High Priest, Jeshua. God rebukes Satan for his accusations. But these are prophecies much like Daniel’s visions in Daniel 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1 and 12. In Zechariah chapters 1-6, the scriptures portray Zechariah’s visions as rich in symbolism. For example, shortly after these verses in which God rebukes Satan, Jeshua is said to be wearing a dingy garment. An angel then changes them for clean ones. After this the angel exclaims, “…I have taken away your sins…” (Zechariah 3:3-4). Later in chapter 6 Jeshua is crowned High Priest. Again these are all visions because Jeshua was already the High Priest before Zechariah was ever written. The Book of Zechariah recalls the nation’s past history for the purpose of relating a solemn warning to the present generation3. Satan is used in this story to symbolically accentuate the sin of Israel. The representation now becomes God rebuking Satan, which means that Israel was forgiven (Zechariah 3:2).
In conclusion, the Satan talked about in the Tanakh is not the same one the Christians portray in their books. The Christians give Satan something of a godly status (2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19, Ephesians 2:2). As we reviewed in Tanakh, the first two times Satan was mentioned, he was a mere underling to God. The third and last time Satan makes an appearance in Tanakh, he is simply a vision that is used to spur on a story about Israel’s past sins.
- Lawson, Steven J. Job. B&H Publishing Group., 2005
- Sawyer, John F.A. “Job”. In Lieb, Michael; Mason, Emma; Roberts, Jonathan. The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible. Oxford University Press. 2013
- Carol L. Meyers Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 Vol.25B The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries 1987