In Job, the Hebrew word, a noun, literally means “the accuser” or “the adversary.” In Job, the Hebrew text always has the definite article “the” prior to the noun which indicates that it is not a proper noun.[ii] While we often see Satan capitalized in Job, there is not indication that this should be the case. The adversary here appears to be an angel or someone else within the heavenly realm and not necessarily against God. This adversary acts within God’s limits except for one indication that illustrates he may have gone too far. Look in Job 2:3:[iii]
The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”
“The adversary” is also referenced in other OT locations such as in Numbers 22 when the adversary is an angel of the Lord blocking the path of Balaam, but that is on God’s bequest because Balaam is not in line with God. Look also in Zechariah 3:2:
And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!
The “accuser” or “adversary” stands at the right side of Joshua here in the vision and the Lord once again steps in as this divine being has gone too far because Joshua is at this point forgiven. The particular Old Testament reference to Satan, however, does not use the definite article and may indicate a specific person, but it is clear that there is more to the Satan of the New Testament than in this particular reference.[iv]
In the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, the original language is Greek and we see new names for Satan including the Devil, Beelzebul, the accuser, the ruler of the demons, and others. One of the most famous accounts when we recall Satan in the New Testament is when Jesus is in the dessert and tempted by Satan while surrounded by wild beasts (Mark 1, Matthew 4, Luke 4). It is not entirely clear in these accounts if this Satan is acting on his own accord or if he acts on behalf of God.[v] We also see Satan in the Gospels as the cause of those who have demonic possession, the one who snatches the seed from the soil, or when Jesus calls Peter “Satan!”
The letters, especially those of Paul, recount similar personified images of “the adversary” found in the Old Testament, sometimes blocking the correct path (see 1 Thessalonians 2). We also begin to find the account of Satan as the fallen angel. Look at 2 Corinthians 11:14:
And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
Or 2 Thessalonians 2:9-13
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.
Even here, we see some component of permissiveness on God’s account, but only in the individual’s absence or lack of acceptance of God’s love. Satan here is also depicted as deceptive and not flat out representative of evil in looks, appearance, or action. We do not have a red devil with a trident here but evil disguised as good in the absence of God’s love. The letters continue to echo the Old Testament “adversary” that blocks the way of the righteous but we also see the personification of evil in some instances.
Satan is certainly personified in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. In it we see the Satan figure testing faith against false teachings of God. This figure is, in the end of Revelation, bound by an angel of the Lord and cast into an abyss (Revelation 20).[vi]
What happened between the Old and New Testament with Satan? Did Satan become more of a figure upon Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension? One reason there is a larger difference between the Old Testament with a simple adversary and the New Testament, which begins to more than personify Satan but provides and actual evil force, is the influence of outside literature. There are many non-biblical and extracanonical sources which may have influenced the image of Satan in the New Testament, including the one of Satan as a fallen angel.[vii] Yes, outside literature enters into the narratives of our Biblical accounts.
So who or what is Satan? The Bible does not give us a clear-cut answer about this Adversary or Accuser, but provides us an idea of what inhibits us or blocks us from God’s love. Evil and the source of that which is evil is the absence of God’s love and giving into temptation, sin, is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”[viii] Anything that blocks our path with God and that draws us from the love of God is not of the work of God. Is this the particular work of a singular devil? We do not have that direct answer but there are forces of evil that work in our world that actively try to draw us from God and they are often deceptive as we see in the letters of the New Testament. However we name what draws us from the love of God, we should be mindful of its power and appeal, for it tempts us daily. We ask God “lead us not into temptation,” so that we may not even enter into a situation where a decision can lead us astray and block our path. “Don’t let us encounter the tempter, the adversary, the accuser,” we ask God.
I typically like to end these posts on a high note, but I want to end on some words from the first letter of Peter:
Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. - 1 Peter 5:8-9
[i] David J.A. Clines, “Job,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version: Michael Coogan, Marc Brettler, Carol Newsom, Pheme Perkins, Fully Revised 5th (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[ii] “Satan,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009), 112.
[iii] “Satan,” 112.
[vii] “Satan,” 113–14.
[viii] Episcopal Church et al., eds., The Book of Common Prayer: And Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Cermonies of the Church; Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David (New York: Church Publishing, 2002), 848.