The Devil Meme – an unexamined assumption

Most religious “teachers” teach more from a theological perspective, but not one from the etymology (original meanings) of the words used. In other words, even if one wants to say that the Bible is the “Word of God”, it has been so blatantly muddied that it is man’s theology that rules over honest translation or interpretation. I will show below, there is no better example of this than an etymological study of the word Satan and the term Lucifer.

First, check out the following film (although I do not agree with every word in it, it tries to educate people to the abuse and direct fear mongering used and is certainly man-made. There may be a satan, but it sure as hell isn’t the dude with a pitchfork and horns.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “The History of the Devil. Video“, posted with vodpod

When reading the Bible cover to cover the first reference to Satan is found in Num. 22:22 which tells how an Angel (described as ‘the satan’ or adversary) is dispatched to deal with Balaam the rebellious prophet. However, this is not the first reference to Satan. Job is the oldest book in the Bible so, technically speaking, the reference to Satan we find there is the first chronologically.

Num. 22:22 describes how an Angel of God stood in a narrow, walled path before Balaam, so that his donkey fell down beneath him. Job comments how the sufferings which ‘the satan’ brought upon him was God ‘walling up my way that I cannot pass’ (Job 19:8). The connection is clear – and surely indicates that this satan-Angel was acting as an adversary to Job just as such an Angel did to Balaam.

Job and Balaam have many such similarities – both were prophets, both had genuine difficulty in understanding God’s ways, but they to varying degrees consciously rebelled against what they failed to understand; both thus became angry with God, and were reproved by God.

In that oldest of Hebrew poetry ‘the LORD’ asks ‘the Satan’ where he came from. Here is the Young’s Literal Translation: “And Jehovah saith unto the Adversary, ‘Whence camest thou?’ And the Adversary answereth Jehovah and saith, ‘From going to and fro in the land, and from walking up and down in it.’”

Yhovah (yeh-ho-vaw’) = (the) self-Existent or Eternal; Jehovah, Jewish national name of God — Jehovah, the LORD.

Satan (saw-tawn’)= an opponent; adversary. Hebrew “ha-satan” is the title, not the proper name, of an angel submitted to God; he is the divine court’s chief prosecutor.

Job is a Hebrew midrash, or figurative tale or mythical story, not intended to be taken literally. Myth doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as untrue, quite the contrary. Myths are the vehicle that truth travels in, often such truth is hidden and requires insight to uncover. Error will alway result when the figurative is taken literally.

Harry Torczyner (author of ‘The Book Of Job’ Kiryat-Sefer, 1981) interprets ‘the Satan’ as being in God’s service, and not in opposition to Him: “The figure and role of the Satan derives from the Persian secret service… We now understand that there are in God’s service, as in that of any earthly king, secret roving officials, who go and come and report to him on the doings of his subjects.”

The references to ‘wandering about on the face of the earth’ have great similarities with the language used to describe the Persian empire’s spies, called “The King’s Eye”- a kind of agent of the King who wandered around picking up information and reporting back to him. But of course, “The King’s Eye” was on the King’s side and not working against him! Satan’s walking / running “to and fro in the earth / land” and reporting back to God about an individual is thus very much taken from the Persian idea of the King’s “evil eye”, “the eye of the King”, a kind of agent provocateur, a secret police-type agent, travelling around the Kingdom and reporting back to the King about suspect individuals.

It also has an evident connection with the Zechariah passages which speaks of the Angels in the time of the exile and restoration from Persia “running to and fro in the earth” on God’s behalf (Zech. 1:10,11; 4:10). The implication of course was that God and His Angels, and not the Persian King and his agents, were the ones really in control of the land. It’s maybe significant that the Septuagint translates “going to and fro” in Job 1:7 with the word -peripatei- and we find the same word in 1 Pet. 5:8 about the adversary of the early Christians ‘going about’ seeking them – a reference to the agents of the Roman and Jewish systems.

Much of the Hebrew Bible was rewritten in Babylon, to bring out relevant issues for the Jewish exiles. This includes the book of Job. It can be understood as an allegory – Job, the suffering servant of the Lord, thus becomes a type of Israel.

In Job 2:5 the satan asks God: “Put forth Thine hand” . The hand of God is a phrase often used concerning what God did through the Angels. God agrees- ” he is in thine hand” (v.6). Thus satan’s hand is God’s hand, which is an Angel. This is proof enough that satan is not in any way against God- they work together.

The “sons of God”, in the context of the book of Job, refer to the Angels (38:7). The sons of God coming before Yahweh suggests a scene in the court of Heaven, similar to that of 2 Chron. 18:19-21, where the Angels appear before Yahweh to discuss the case of Ahab, and then one Angel is empowered by God to carry out his suggestion. Satan going out from the presence of Yahweh, empowered by Him to afflict Job, would correspond with other references to Angels ‘going out’ from God’s presence to execute what had been agreed in the heavenly assembly (Ps. 37:36; 81:5; Zech. 2:3; 5:5; Lk. 22:22; Heb. 1:14). Satan describes himself as going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it (1:7)- using exactly the language of Zech. 1:11 concerning the Angels.

If the satan refers to a righteous Angel, it is likewise easier to understand why all the problems which the satan brought are described as God bringing them (especially as Job may have conceived of God in terms of an Angel). It is also understandable why there is no rebuke of the satan at the end.

Is there a powerful person in the Universe called Satan who is the arch-enemy of God? While most Christians accept this without question, based on this passage in Job there is much room for doubt. It has been said, “If God did not chain up the roaring lion, how soon would he devour us!” Well, on second thought, maybe not. It seem more correct to say, God does both good and evil in the world and he often uses agents, somethimes those agents are men, and sometimes those agents are his angles.

In the end, Job learned just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts.

The ‘Devil’ meme remains an unexamined assumption in much of Christianity, and in most societies and religions. The presence of unexamined assumptions in our lives and hearts, as well as in societies, ought to be a red flag. Why, in this age of apparently fearless examination, eager toppling of paradigms, deconstruction of just about everything, rigorous research, trashing of tradition, brutal testing of assumptions… does the Devil meme remain an unexamined assumption?

I suggest it’s because to reject that tradition of a personal Satan and get down to living out the Biblical position on the Devil demands just too much. It’s hard to accept all negative experience in life as ultimately allowed and even sent by a loving God, it’s humiliating to realize we’re only naive children, whose view of good and evil isn’t fully that of our Father; and it’s the call of a lifetime to recognize that our own personal, natural passions and desires are in fact the great Satan / adversary.

Isaiah 14: 12-14: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.”

Early Christian tradition interpreted the passage as a reference to the moment Satan was thrown from Heaven. This view was popularized by John Milton in his epic “Paradise Lost” and so the term “Lucifer” became another name for Satan and has remained so due to Christian dogma and popular tradition to this day.

First, the passage expressly refers to a “king of Babylon”, a “man” who seemed all-powerful, but who has been brought low. Second, it should be pointed out that the words ‘devil’, ’satan’ and ‘angel’ never occur in this chapter. This is the only place in Scripture where the word ‘Lucifer’ occurs. Thirdly, why is Lucifer punished for saying, “I will ascend into heaven” (v. 13), if he was already there?

It should be noted that the idea of ‘morning star’ is translated ‘Lucifer’ in the Vulgate [Latin] translation of the Bible made by Jerome. Significantly, he uses ‘Lucifer’ as a description of Christ, as the ‘morning star’ mentioned in Revelation. Indeed, some early Christians took the name ‘Lucifer’ as a ‘Christian name’ in order to identify themselves with Jesus (1). It wasn’t until Origen (circa 200 A.D.) that the term ‘Lucifer’ took on any connotation of ‘Satan’ or a force of evil. ‘Lucifer’ in its strict meaning of ‘bearer of the light’ actually was applied in a positive sense to Christian communities, e.g. the followers of Lucifer of Cagliari were called ‘Luciferians’. As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that they were one of the groups who insisted that the devil was not a personal being and held to the original Biblical picture of sin and the devil being one and the same.

Isaiah 14 is a proverb (parable) against the king of Babylon, the star represents the king’s royal majesty. Daniel chapter 4 explains how Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, proudly surveyed the great kingdom he had built up, thinking that he had conquered other nations in his own strength, rather than recognizing that God had given him success. “Thy greatness (pride) is grown, and reacheth unto heaven” (v.22). Because of this the king was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles feathers, and his nails like birds claws (v. 33). This sudden humbling of one of the world’s most powerful men to a deranged lunatic was such a dramatic event as to call for the parable about the falling of the morning star from heaven to earth. Stars are symbolic of powerful people, e.g. Genesis 37: 9; Isaiah 13:10 (concerning the leaders of Babylon); Ezekiel 32: 7 (concerning the leaders of Egypt); Daniel 8:10, cp. v. 24. Ascending to heaven and falling from heaven are Biblical idioms often used for increasing in pride and being humbled respectively – see Job 20: 6; Jeremiah 51:53 ( about Babylon); we even find this in the New Testament, Matthew 11:23 (about Capernaum): “Thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell”(the grave).

There’s a good reason why the King of Babylon is described as “the morning star”, or Venus. The Babylonians believed that their king was the child of their gods Bel and Ishtar, both of whom were associated with the planets- they thought that their King was the planet Venus.

In conclusion, it was not until post-Biblical times that Lucifer was associated with Satan, or that Satan was thought to have been cast out of heaven before the creation of Adam and Eve, or that Satan had some connection with Adam and Eve. While they may be mainstream Christian memes today, they were not shared by the Hebrews who wrote the Bible.


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