The origin and role of Satan – some comments by Elaine Pagels and my own thoughts
There seems to be a shift in how Satan is portrayed and understood in the Old Testament to the New Testament. What do you think about this?
I started reading (and am about half way through) an interesting book called The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. I thought I would raise some of the issues Pagels presents in her book.
Bellow are some (lengthy) quotes from Pagels, with my emphasis indicated by bold font, and some of my own (brief) comments.
Satan in general
Pay particular attention to Pagels’s emphasis on the lack of the satan’s inherent malevolence. In the early Hebrew literature, the satan is under God’s control, working for him as the other angels do. Notice, for example, satan’s urging God to “stretch out your hand and touch all that he has” (Job 1:11), where satan functions precisely as God’s hand (i.e. the way by which God achieves his will). Thus, God remains ultimately (though usually indirrectly) responsible for death or calamity in most situations (as far as the authors observe, whether correctly or incorrectly). For example:
Now compare the major shift from the Hebrew Scriptures to the intertestamental literature:
On the other hand, the book still maintains God “hast power of life and death: [leading] to the gates of hell [Sheol], and [bringing] up again” (Wis 16:13). However, I’m pretty sure this half of the book is regarded as penned by a different author.
Nevertheless, a shift appears, already having been developed in the intertestamental literature, in how satan is viewed by the time the New Testament comes into being. Thus:
One can see the influence of books such as 1 Enoch in this instance. More significantly, we see a satan emerge who is against, rather than obedient to, God. It is slightly more dualistic than in the Old Testament; there is more of a dichotomy between good and evil.
Satan in Numbers
Satan in Job
I would like to close my post by pointing to Raphael (which means “god has healed”) from the apocryphal Tobit, an angel who appears to assume the satan’s role.
In the narrative, Tobit, by an ironic twist of fate, becomes blind. Hearing of someone who recently died, he leaves his dinner table, before he even gets the chance to taste his food, and buries the man, making himself ritually unclean. Staying outside according to the Torah, Tobit falls asleep, and, sadly, droppings from some birds above him fall into his eyes, and in combination with the treatments of the physicians of his time, he eventually becomes completely blind.
Toward the end of the narrative, Raphael, who, until this point, was assumed to be a normal human, reveals himself as an angel. Interesting for our study of satan, he declares:
However, Raphael is not evil in this narrative; in fact, far from it. God sends Raphael also to heal Tobit, bind a demon afflicting a woman whose seven husbands had been killed by it, and give Tobit and his family a moral discourse.
Of course, the presence of a demon that can be dissuaded by human remedies (if that is what the story is suggesting) indicates the transfer taking place in the Israelite understanding of good and evil, angels, satan, and demons. Nevertheless, the role of satan remains relatively the same as the earlier, Hebrew literature describes it.
This passage from Tobit, in my opinion, indirectly parallels with Paul when he says, “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Co 5:5), where Satan takes on a beneficial role (if Paul is even describing a supernatural being in this instance).
I see many (usually non-academic) evangelicals blaming things on Satan; if something goes wrong, it is Satan’s fault. In the modern day context, Satan is inherently evil, out to persecute the people of God. No longer is God, nature, or just plain chance responsible for calamity; it is all Satan. Likewise, God’s chastening role is often completely ignored. People often look for the bad in their situations, rather than the good that often comes out of it. No longer does God send messengers of Satan to buffet his people to make them strong in weakness (2Co 12:7), as also in Tobit; it is either Satan out to get the people of God or the people of God invoking punishment for sins.
This modern image of Satan is very odd when compared with the Old Testament and perhaps even the New Testament. The result is a total shift away from the sovereignty of God, who, according to the ancient Israelites, brings both peace and calamity. Conversely, nature is completely ignored. Illness is no longer just nature running its course; it’s an affliction from Satan for some misdeed. Many ignore Jesus’ statement concerning those eighteen who had died when a tower collapsed on them, “think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Luk 13:4). I don’t deny there are oftentimes circumstances science cannot explain, with illness, calamity, or vice originating in as mysterious a way as it sometimes disappears with prayer, but one should not be so quick to attribute everything that appears negative in life to Satan. In fact, one should be looking for the positive that comes out of the negative, or acknowledging the mystery of life and remain agnostic on the cause or significance of a bad situation (for not everything happens for an apparent or significant reason); rather than look for the hand of Satan, look for the hand of God, or leave wonder in its proper abode.
How do you think the emerging church should view Satan? Do you think postmodernism will affect this view and should it? If the church can acknowledge the difference between the Satan of the Old Testament and the Satan of the New Testament (if there is a difference; on this point, discuss), which one should the church prefer – the heavenly law-court prosecutor or the pure evil being that works on his own accord?
Feel free to discuss the biblical (or extra-biblical) images of Satan, the role of Satan in the church and the world, and how the emerging church should deal with Satan and the problem of evil.
Another very interesting topic that could perhaps be included in this thread is the role of exorcism and demonology in the emerging church. How far should we stray toward or away from Pentecostalism?
Lastly, forgive me for taking up so much space with quotes from Pagels. I thought the sections I quoted, which I could not do justice with paraphrase, may be of interest to some of you, and help fuel the discussions of this thread. By the way, this is my first book by Pagels, so I’m not exactly sure what I think of her and her methodology yet.