Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Satan: God's Servant

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Satan: God's Servant

Article excerpt

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Satan is usually understood primarily as the archenemy of God, a supernatural being who opposes the will of God and seeks to lead people into sin. There are good grounds for this understanding in the Bible. However, there is another side to the biblical portrayal of Satan. While many texts emphasize the hostility between God and Satan, there is also abundant evidence that the biblical authors believed that Satan was subject to God's control and was used by God to accomplish his purposes.1 They represent Satan, not only as God's adversary, but also as God's servant.2 The subordination of Satan to God is most explicit in the prologue of the book of Job, but the Joban conception of Satan exercised significant influence on the rest of the biblical canon. We will look at how Satan is portrayed as a servant of God in Job, then explore how later biblical texts pick up and use the Joban ideas.

As is well known, the concept of Satan is not well developed in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word from which we get "Satan," ... (satan), is a common noun that designates an adversary or opponent and is used both of an enemy in a military context and of a legal opponent in a judicial context. There are only three places in the Hebrew Bible where the term is used of a supernatural being who opposes God: the prologue of Job; Zech 3:1-2; and 1 Chr 21:1.

I. THE PROLOGUE OF JOB

Job contains what may be the earliest reference to a celestial Satan figure in the Hebrew Bible.3 The opening chapters of this book include two scenes in which heavenly beings, including the Satan, appear before Yahweh.4 In Job 1:6-12, the Satan disputes the blamelessness of Job and receives Yahweh's permission to test his integrity by attacking his possessions. In Job 2:1-6, the Satan repeats his charge and receives permission to launch a second attack on Job, this time an attack upon his person. In both narratives, there is a pronounced emphasis on the subordination of the Satan to Yahweh.

From the outset, the setting of the dialogue between Yahweh and the Satan demonstrates the subordination of the Satan to Yahweh. The setting is that of a heavenly council or divine assembly. Such gatherings of celestial beings are well known in the literature of the ancient Near East, and the Israelites used this imagery to describe their understanding of the heavenly realm.5 However, unlike their polytheistic neighbours, they pictured the members of Yahweh's court as subservient to him. In Job 1:6 and 2:1, the author says that the heavenly beings (literally, "sons of God") came to "present themselves before the Lord," using language that implies that the denizens of heaven are subject to Yahweh's will (cf. Zech 6:5).6 When the heavenly beings gather, the Satan also comes with them. There is some dispute over whether the author conceived of the Satan as a regular member of the divine council or as an intruder, but in any case, he is not represented as Yahweh's equal.7

A second indicator of the subordination of the Satan to Yahweh consists of the title and role accorded to him. Some scholars think that the prologue of Job represents the Satan as a prosecuting attorney who has the unenviable task of bringing charges against human beings but is nonetheless a loyal member of Yahweh's retinue.8 Certainly, the Satan does bring accusations against Job, but his role cannot be reduced to this single activity. He not only questions Job's integrity, he attacks Job's property, family, and health in an effort to get him to curse Yahweh. As G. I. Riley observes,

This is not the action of a mere heavenly prosecutor in the divine council, appointed by God to accuse the defendant of sin (cf. Zech 3:1-2); no prosecutor destroys the property of the defendant, then kills his children and destroys his health, in order to bring about hatred for the Judge.9

The Joban Satan is much more than a legal adversary, but he reports to Yahweh and does his bidding. …

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