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By: David Deschesne
Fort Fairfield Journal, September 7, 2011
One of the most misunderstood words in the Biblical lexicon is ‘satan.’ Satan is treated in most modern Biblical texts in capitalized form as a proper name. However, the original Hebrew rendition indicates it was a common noun, delineating an entity who is an adversary, not a proper name of an entity.
The word satan is transliterated into English from its original Hebrew,שׂטן(saw-tawn’)1
“In the Bible the term ‘satan’ is used attributively (1 Sam 29:4), or when personified it refers to a divine being who answers to God (Job 1:6-12; 1 Chron. 21:1), rather than to an independent entity who is God’s adversary (“Satan”). The concept only later developed into the “Devil.”2
“The Adversary, or ‘the Accuser,’ Heb. ‘ha-satan,’ is one of the divine beings. He functions as a kind of prosecuting attorney, and should not be confused with the character of Satan as it developed in the late Biblical (see Chron. 21:1) and especially the post-biblical period, that is, the source of evil and rebellion against God. (Hebrew ‘ha-’ is the definite article [“the”], which cannot precede a proper noun (Satan). Later, the idea of Satan developed into the devil, but these associations were not present at the time of our story.”3
As a verb, ‘satan’ occurs six times in the Old Testament, often in participial forms for one who bears a grudge or cherishes animosity.4
The root śtn, whose basic meaning can be rendered “to be hostile, to oppose” is attested in Hebrew and, independently in Jewish Aramaic, Syrian, Ethiopic and Arabic. In the Old Testament the root śtn forms the qal (qal is a Hebrew part of speech that denotes a simple or active verb) “to be hostile to,” and the nominatives śatān “opponent” and śitnâ “hostility”; the by-form śtm produces the qal and the noun maśtēmâ “hostility.”5
The modern day image of “Satan” being a specific being displaying animalistic traits such as horns, a goat head, a tail, etc. and holding a pitchfork is not supported by the Biblical description or context in which the Bible uses that word. “Satan, the Devil, is usually pictured as a handsome man, sinister and slick, with horns on his forehead, pointed ears, bat’s wings at his shoulders, a pointed tail, and at least one cloven hoof in place of a foot. He is accompanied by the hellish odor of brimstone. In Renaissance Germany, he was depicted as a huge crow; in medieval art, he appears as a serpent with a human head. Satan obviously is the repository of the cattle, serpent, goat, and dragon deities of ancient cults; he is the pagan god reduced to subservience to the true God, yet always he strives to convert people to his evil ways.”6
By 800 A.D. the Christian church gained power and had spread across the landmass of Europe. The conquerors sent their missionaries into pagan lands in an attempt to “civilize” them and convert them to Christianity. The missionaries encountered the Druids in Scotland, who performed strange magical rituals that claimed to make rain and bring down fire from the sky; in the ruins of the Egyptian culture they found the strange cults of Osiris, the god of vegetation and regeneration, the god of fertility, the tree spirit; in Greece they found the bloody rites of Dionysus, the goat-god, the god of vegetation, they also discovered people making offerings to Priapus, who bore the horns of a goat; they encountered the god of Pan waiting for them in the black forests; wherever the Christian missionaries turned, they found the peasantry worshipping many animal gods, primary among them being the bull, the ram and the stag.7
This is where the common animal traits of satan appear to come from since they do not derive their source from the Bible. Missionaries merely associated those attributes and traits to anything that is opposed to God and eventually through repetition and tradition they stuck.
As an adversary, the satan of the Bible does not necessarily connote evil, but rather that image was formed by the Jews shortly after their captivity in Babylon (Persia) and subsequent exposure to the Zoroastrian dualistic religion of “good” (Ahura Mazda) counterbalanced by evil (Angra Mainyu). “The [modern] concept of Satan belongs to the postexilic period of Hebrew development, and probably shows traces of the influence of Persian on Jewish thought; it also has its roots in much older beliefs...”8
“In the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the role of Satan is greatly enlarged, as it is in the Talmud and Midrash. Whereas previously he was subservient to God, he now incites man to disobey the will of God...This development in the concept of Satan may have been due to Persian dualism.”9
The translators correctly rendered the Hebrew satan as “adversary” in a few instances where a demonic being was obviously out of place due to the circumstances (see Num 22:22, 1 Sam 29:4, 1 Kings 5:4, 1 Kings 11:14, 1 Kings 11:23 and 1 Kings 11:24-25).
“It is note-worthy that the word “saw-tawn” never once applies to an evil, powerful chief ruler over ‘hell’ or some other domain as pictured by many church ministers. Instead, we have seen that ‘saw-tawn’ refers to men and nations, to God, the Angel of the LORD, David, David’s officer, and enemies of Solomon. In summary, we have encountered nothing thus far that would lead us to believe that the Satan of the Old Testament is anything but an adversary.” 10
Make no mistake, while the word saw-tawn is not in and of itself connoting evil, the adversary’s intent in many cases is to disconnect one with a rightful union with the God of the Universe, which is an evil act. “The indirect action of Satan is best discerned by an examination of the title by which he is designated in Scripture. He is called emphatically ho diábolos, ‘the devil.’ The derivation of the word in itself implies only the endeavor to break the bonds between others and ‘set them at variance;’ but common usage adds to this general sense the special idea of ‘setting at variance by slander.’ In the application of the title to Satan, both the general and special senses should be kept in view. His general object is to break the bonds of communion between God and man, and the bonds of truth and love which bind men to each other.”11
The satan as an adversary is to be looked upon as a lawyer, arguing against man in the court of the Heavens. He is constantly pointing out to God each man’s and woman’s shortcomings, frailties and faults. Indeed, the satan views all men and women through the lens of negativity and attempts to portray that image to the Great Judge in order to obtain a guilty verdict; he concomitantly attempts to dissuade man from coming to know his Lord and Savior, Yeshua (Jesus) the Christ and thus reconnecting with his Heavenly father. He uses sleight, deceit, misrepresentation and rhetoric to break the bonds between man and his Creator. As creatures who have been endowed with free will, so that we can freely choose to reconnect with our heavenly Father or not, we all have the ability to be tested, tried and ultimately decide in whom we will place our trust— in the God of the universe, or in fallible, mortal man.
1. Strong’s #7854
2. The Jewish Study Bible, ©2004 Oxford University Press, p. 329
3. op. cit., p. 1506
4 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ©1980 Moody Bible Institute, p. 874
5. see Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament Vol. 3, ©1997 Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. p. 1268
6. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend; ©1949 Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1984 paperback edition, p. 973.
7. see Satan Wants You: The Cult of Devil Worship in America, ©1988 Arthur Lyons, pp. 23-25 for further info
8. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958 ed., Vol. 7, p. 283
9. The New Encyclopedia of Judaism, ©2002 Jerusalem Publishing House, Ltd., p. 684
10. Counterfeit Christianity, E. Raymond Capt, ©2006 Artisan Publishers, p. 55
11. Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, ©1925 John C. Winston Co., p. 593