Wednesday, July 16, 2008

old square toes

I have a question for readers of this blog, both casual and committed. Where do you stand on this whole Satan thing?

Many, if not most, Christians in America regard Satan as chief among the fallen; that is, they believe that Lucifer was created as the highest of all angels, second in power and authority only to God. His status led to pride, and Lucifer led a third of the heavenly host in rebellion against God. They failed, were cast out of heaven, and while they await final judgment, they do what they can to mar God's creation. In short, Lucifer became Satan, the devil; and the angels who rebelled with him became demons.

The difficult thing about this is that it's largely extrabiblical if not unbiblical. The story I just summarized is found in the book "Paradise Lost," by John Milton, and not any of the 66 biblical books Protestant Christians consider to be canon.

The ancient Hebrews considered the Satan to be an agent of God, rather than an evil creature bent on the ruin of God's plans. His job was to take a contrary view so that the truth could be determined through thorough cross-examination, a role much like the "Devil's advocate" we use in argument today.

We see this principally in the book of Job, where ha-Satan comes before the Presence. There is no remonstration or hostility expressed, just the question, "Have you considered my servant Job?" and the response, "Does Job love you for nothing? Look at all you've given him." The result of this challenge is the process just described: God removes all that Job has, and Job continues to worship him.

The role also surfaces in the parallel accounts of the census David took in the latter days of his reign, in 2 Samuel and in 1 Chronicles. In 2 Samuel 24, God incites David to take the census and then smites him; in 1 Chronicles 21, it is Satan who makes the suggestion. You also can see this notion of a heavenly court with advisers in 1 Kings 22, when the prophet Micaiah describes an angel that suggests putting a lying spirit into the mouths of Ahab's prophets so that Ahab will go to battle and be slain.

That view of ha-Satan is not entirely what we see in the New Testament, but that that is largely because we read the New Testament with preconceptions about who Satan is. The tempting in the wilderness is similar in nature to the testing of Job, to see what Jesus is made of.

Even when the Bible tells us about Jesus casting demons out of people, the term is better rendered as "unclean spirits," as the footnotes in the New International Version indicate. The afflictions described in the gospels -- epileptic fits, self-inflicted injury, aphasia -- can be seen as coming from a medical or psychological condition, which also would qualify as an "unclean spirit" in a poetic sense.

As a matter of religious history, the view of Satan as subservient to God did shift to the more familiar dualistic one during the intertestamental "silent period." During this period, Judaism acquired the noton of a devil from Zoroastrianism, another Eastern religion practiced near Judea. It lost the concept shortly after the destruction after the Second Temple, and resumed its previous view, namely that ha-Satan was an officer of the heavenly court, subservient to God.

Precisely because it is late in coming, I think we need to view such a dualist God/Satan view of the world with some suspicion. Don't we say that older revelation is the standard by which we gauge newer revelation?

If it weren't for passages of Scripture like Isaiah 49, which speak of God's desire to bring the Gentiles into his kingdom, or for places like Zechariah 12, which Christians believe foretell the Crucifixion, it would be harder to see a connection between the Tanakh and Christianity as we know it and practice it today.

So tell me, whether you're a regular guest here or a new visitor, what you think. Does the Bible actually teach about a devil, or that somethng we misunderstood and have all wrong?

Copyright 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Brucker said...

As it so happens, I've been thinking of that very subject. Response coming soon...

Brucker said...

Sheesh, I don't know when to stop.