Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Satan In The Old Testament

This is a brief survey on the occurrence and usage of the word “satan” in the Old Testament writings with the hope of showing that its common usage as a noun need be reevaluated to allow new illumination of the texts in which it occurs and develop a paradigm for reading, and asking questions of, other segments of scripture from a fresh and more meaningful perspective.

From the outset my assessment of these passages is informed by what I understand of the work of Rene Girard[1] and as further developed by Michael Hardin.[2] A part of this view considers that all ancient writings are first anthropological and therefore have inherently more to say about humanity making sense of its world and origins, and only while being mindful of this can they be evaluated theologically. Congruent to this I hold that there are multiple voices within scripture. Not all of the voices are God even when so attributed. Revelation is found throughout the texts but not all is revelation of God, often it reveals merely the perception of the world through ancient and primitive eyes.

In the Hebrew שׂטן translated satan means “an opponent or adversary.” Omitting the allegorical story of Job the usage of the word satan occurs in only three verses in the Old Testament: 1 Chronicles 21:1 and Zechariah 3:1-2. I hope to probe how a theological interpretive matrix that has been generated by religious and cultural traditions has altered our understanding and creates difficulties for later readers of the text. I believe it important to question interpretive models as they orient the questions we ask of the text and the right questions are necessary to have any hope of meaningful understanding.

Briefly, the book of Job belongs to the genre of poetry within the bible. There is scholarly disagreement as to authorship, date, and the differing questions that the book addresses. Many scholars agree that the prologue and epilogue are based on ancient folk tale.[3] One important question seems to be “how are the righteous to suffer?” Job amply departs from the pagan idea that suffering is connected to our actions as related to divine recompense though as of this writing my understanding of this still being challenged by the work of Girard. Obviously certain actions and choices have consequences but this is not the idea at issue. Ecclesiastes places an exclamation point on Job’s position.[4] His friends continually persuade him to accept that he is or has committed some evil and to accept his punishment, curse god and die! Job’s interlocutors reveal their belief about the gods in that they connect cursing with the supposition of the retributive imposition of death.

In the approximate chronology of the cited books the oldest is arguably Zechariah, originating approximately 8th to 6th century BCE. First Chronicles has a correlative story in the earlier book 2nd Samuel[5] though it reads ironically different which we’ll see shortly and this difference should raise other questions.
I will begin this examination with 1st Chronicles 21:1; And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. The name Israel, while symbolically understood as Jacob, has its translation here and elsewhere, as “he will rule as God” I render it here with the understanding “he will rule like God”. This is interesting especially in light of the story under examination. A summary review of the teachings of Jesus appears to lend credibility here as much of his teaching involved parables about what the world would look like if God were in charge[6] and if we, even in a limited sense, view the older testament as “shadows of things to come”[7] then this understanding comes full circle.

Let us look at a valid and alternate way of reading the text.

An opponent stood against he will rule as [like] God, and enticed David to weigh out his self

This variable reading of the text indicates that there was certainly something “opposing” David and what that may be is clarified both by sooth+ayth translated here as enticed or seduced to “weighing out his self.” Significant to understanding this is what David was enticed to do, which doesn’t seem particularly evil; how do we frame this “weighing out his self?” The whole passage here makes me think of the phrase: “He is his own worst enemy.”

David is attempting to “measure up”, to compare himself-weigh himself against other kings. Imitating the cultural paradigm for perceiving and measuring power and influence in a numbers game. This gives a clue to why Joab counseled David against such an act as bringing guilt upon Israel (he will rule as [or like] God) because God’s leadership was whom David and the nation were to imitate. David, imitating and deriving his desire for notoriety from the surrounding peoples and kings, is an affront to that. This is mimetic realism working itself out and therefore in this case a reasonable understanding of this “opponent” to David can be identified as imitated carnal desire.

In 2nd Samuel 24:1 we find a correlative account of this same record: And again the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them, saying; Go, number Israel and Judah.

Notice that the variation here in the earlier text of Samuel credits or blames Jehovah with “pricking” or “seducing” David to depart from “ruling as [or like] God” or to sin. Later writers apparently recognized this contradiction, or even the absurdity, of attributing the origination of this particular evil to Jehovah and reoriented this desire to David.

Zechariah poses a unique challenge in that the text is occurring within a series of dreams.

Zec 3:1 Then I saw Joshua the High Priest standing in the presence of the angel of the lord, with Satan standing at his right to oppose him. 2 The lord told Satan, "The lord rebuke you, Satan—in fact, may the lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! This man is a burning brand plucked from the fire, is he not?"

As in parable there is a message in these visions though, as is often the case, the message must be worked out and not always clear at the surface. The above passages are denser than explained by a simplistic exposition on the work of a person named satan. The passage appears to present a mystical struggle but how do we make sense of it?

The seer here reports that he sees in his vision the High Priest Joshua who is standing in front of a messenger of the lord and standing at Joshua’s right is a diablos from the LXX.[8] Diablos in the Greek is defined as a traducer, to speak maliciously and falsely of; slander; defame. That diablos was standing at Joshua’s right signifies a place of counsel or confidence.[9] This can be understood as Joshua’s interpretive framework. The messenger is epitimao or expressing censure, a strong expression of disapproval, at this diablos, or of the slander and defamation of this orientation.

Verses 3 & 4 from the LXX render in the following manner: Joshua was invested (enduo) with cheap or shabby (rhuparos) garments referring to this interpretive method. What follows gives the clue to what or who is slandered. The messenger responded to those present: “remove the cheap, shabby garment from him.” Followed by: “Behold I tore out (exaireo) your injustice or wrongfulness (adikia). Within this context the messenger, addressing Joshua, in a unilateral act removes the wrong-headedness of believing the slander of the “traducer.” Who might be the object of the “traducer?” Verse 5 continues with the messenger instructing [Zechariah] to place a clean or pure turban (kibotos) a box-translated everywhere else as ark presuming the sacred ark of the covenant-upon Joshua’s head. This I propose signifies that the slander or falsehood that is being corrected was toward God.

Resisting the import of later theological conceptions when reviewing the text it is fitting that the messenger, through the prophet, was addressing something that was within Joshua. The messenger lets Zechariah know he is tearing out the wrongfulness of this counsel and replaces it with a clean, pure turban exchanging the wrong-headedness of Joshua’s thinking about and orientation toward God.

Therefore the earliest biblical texts can be shown not to provide the origin of later theological conceptions of a supra-human evil personality. The New Testament mentions diablos or satan in various contexts nearly sixty times, though many are duplicate accounts, and this begs the question, from where is it derived?

In order to begin to understand this we must turn to the Apocrypha and the book of 1 Enoch.[10] The book itself is a pseudo-epigraph and is dated during the inter-testamental period at around mid 2nd century BCE and appears to have had widespread cultural influence by Jesus time. Many of the New Testament authors quoted or very nearly quoted[11] many sayings and writings that are found nowhere else but in the book of Enoch. It is in this book that the personhood of the satan seems to come of age.

Additionally the LXX having been translated since around 250 BCE signifies that the Jewish people had been exposed to and influenced by Hellenistic culture and thought for almost three centuries before Jesus time. It is within Greek mythology where we find Hades, being both the name of the king of the underworld, god of death and the dead, and his abode. This was the world within which the New Testament came into being and should not be divorced from consideration when examining the metaphorical nature of parable and other unique challenges of reading the texts from within a perspective twenty-centuries in their future.

[1] The Scapegoat by Girard, René and Freccero, Yvonne (Jan 8, 1989)
[2] The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity With Jesus, 2nd Edition by Michael Hardin (2010)
[3] Fohrer G. Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press; 1958) 325. Fohrer says, “It is almost universally accepted that the framework was originally an independent narrative, a legend whose point was didactic and paraenetic.”
[4] Eccl 7:15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.
[5] It seems best to place the writing of Samuel sometime after the divided monarchy (913 B.C.) but before the fall of Samaria (7:22 B.C.) https://bible.org/article/introduction-book-second-samuel
[6] The point of the parables…  is what it will look like when God is in charge! And unless we read the book of Acts in this way we will never understand what’s going on. When the Spirit Comes, a sermon for Pentecost (May 23) 2010; Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
[7] Colossians 2:17
[8] LXX – Septuagint, Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Refers to the legendary seventy Jewish scholars who completed the translation as early as the late 2nd century BCE
[9] For further treatment of the significance in Jewish thought on right/left see the Jewish Virtual Library at: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0017_0_16755.html
[10] You can download the translation of the book of Enoch free from http://book-ofenoch.com/download-pdf/ in Acrobat *.pdf or Kindle format provided by Princeton Theological Seminary Library. I recommend reading the introduction (around 60 pages) followed immediately by a parallel listing of passages from the book correlated with their New Testament counterparts.
[11] Laurence, Richard LL.D. In the introduction from “The Book of Enoch” translated from an Ethiopia MS in the Bodleian Library Dr. Laurence collates dozens of the more striking occurrences of this “borrowing”

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