Satan in Job

Brian Fulthorp has brought my attention back to Tyler Williams’ post The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job, also discussed by Chris Heard.

Now Tyler’s main point is quite correct. Formally, in Job chapters 1 and 2 there is no proper name “Satan”, but only several occurrences of a common noun with the definite article, ha-satan meaning “the adversary”. (In Hebrew, as in English but not Greek, proper nouns never take the definite article.) In the Hebrew Bible only in 1 Chronicles 21:1 does the proper noun satan, the name “Satan”, appear.

But who is “the adversary” referred to in Job, and similarly in Zechariah 3:1-2, if he is not in fact the one we know of as Satan or the Devil? In the context he must be a spiritual or angelic being with close access to God. There is good reason to identify him with the named Satan of 1 Chronicles 21:1. In Jewish writings later than the Hebrew Bible, for example Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, and then in the New Testament and other Christian works, this figure becomes identified with the tempter in the Garden of Eden and with the prince of demons. In Greek the word is usually translated as a proper noun diabolos “adversary” (or “devil”, but that is a secondary meaning of the word), and sometimes transliterated as a name, Satanas, but there is no question that in the New Testament these two words refer to the same being.It seems clear to me what has happened with the Hebrew word here: a common or generic noun has become identified primarily with an individual and so has gradually become a proper name. The same happened with Adam, who is at first ha-adam “the human being” and only gradually becomes adam as a proper name without the article. Also much the same happens with elohim “God”: sometimes we read ha-elohim “the god” as a common noun, and rather more often just elohim “God” as a proper name. But of course in Genesis 2-3 the person referred to as “the human being” is the same person as “Adam”, and throughout the Hebrew Bible the being referred to as “the god” is almost always the one true “God”. So similarly we should probably understand “the adversary”, in suitable contexts, and “Satan” as slightly different ways of referring to the same spiritual being.

Yes, Tyler is correct to note that

There is significant theological development from the time of the Old Testament through the Second Temple period to the New Testament and beyond.

That is true in our understanding not just of Satan, but also of God. This does not imply that the being referred to in the Hebrew Bible as “the god” and as “God” is not the same being as God in the New Testament. See what Jeremy Pierce has written on this issue, in the different context of showing that the God of the Muslims is also the same as the Jewish and Christian God. By exactly the same argument we cannot infer that the being referred to in the Hebrew Bible as “the adversary” and (once) as “Satan” is not the same person as Satan in the New Testament.

There is simply a logical error, a non sequitur, in these words of Tyler:

It is pretty clear that this passage isn’t referring to “Satan” (i.e., the king of demons) since the Hebrew noun “satan” has a definite article. The biblical text refers to “the satan”, not “Satan.”

Indeed the word is “the satan” or “the adversary”, but that by no means proves or even suggests that the adversary in question is not Satan. In fact, adapting Jeremy’s argument, to the extent that the concept of Satan in the New Testament is clearly a theological development from Job’s concept of the adversary, they should be identified as most probably the same being.

Yes, it might be better to put “the adversary” rather than “Satan” in translations of Job. But this is not because, to quote Tyler with his emphasis,

it is very clear that Satan was never in the book of Job to begin with!

Rather, it is good translation practice to render a common noun as a common noun, not as a name. But I would expect to see a footnote something like:

Hebrew ha-satan, understood as referring to Satan.

7 thoughts on “Satan in Job

  1. Peter, I did the book of Job in seminary and my instructor, well-versed in Hebrew, pointed that out to the class.

    I do agree with your conclusion. I believe it is the same one the class came to.

  2. Pingback: Satan, Job and Goethe « He is Sufficient

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  4. Hi Peter, thanks for the plug, and I agree with you completely – I just had gone at it a slightly different angle (maybe a altogether different one) – that just because we can and should translated “ha-satan” as the adversary – there is enough to say that the adversary is in fact, the devil.

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