SATAN IN JEWISH AND EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT
David B. Brooks
Ottawa Reconstructionist Havurah (09 August 2008) D’varim
Adath Shalom Congregation (06 September 2008) Shoftim
The Parashah for this week falls in D’varim (Deuteronomy). In this fifth and final book of Torah in its narrow sense, Moses gives three longish lectures to the Israelites that retell their history from the time they left Egypt until that time – Remember: Moses is about to die – when they are about to march into the promised land – Canaan or, as we have come to call it, Eretz Ysrael. Moses also restates many of the laws the Israelites have been told to follow, and he reminds them of how well, or more accurately how poorly, the people have responded to God’s wishes.
Moses is not easy on his people. He recalls their continual backsliding, their reluctance to obey the laws, their apparent readiness to follow false leaders, their lack of trust in God. On the one hand, he rails at them (9:24): “As long as I have known you,” he says, “you have been defiant toward the Lord.” On the other, he insists that they can do better (30:11-14): “Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us’ . . . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
Note that at no place in any of the entire three lectures does Moses attribute the failings of the Jewish people to any evil empire, to any external force, to anything but their own personal and communal weakness. Had some Israelite child been seen with a T-shirt with the message, “The devil made me do it,” no one would know what it meant. Judaism is, along with Islam, absolutely monotheistic, and there is simply no room in our belief system for any cosmic being other than God.
This absence of looking elsewhere for blame is remarkable, and it is the focus of my d’var today. In other hands and in later years, the all-too-easy need to assign blame led to the concept of Satan, and to the notion that there are powers close to, if not quite equal to, those of God that can take over the thinking and the actions of human beings in order to oppose the true path, God’s way. From that position, it took only a few more steps for early Christians to identify Jews as the agents of Satan and to initiate what became two millennia of anti-Semitism. But I am getting ahead of my story.
Let’s start with the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach as it is called in Jewish literature. What role does Satan play in our Bible? The first appearance of the root word s-t-n (ןטש) is not as an individual at all, but as a verb meaning to hassle or oppose. In the story of Bilaam and the talking donkey, which we read a couple of weeks back, the donkey keeps shying away from the path because he can see an angel with a sword in the path to oppose him – “le-satan-lo.” The word is used elsewhere, most commonly as a noun “meaning an adversary who opposes and obstructs” (Ency. Jud; Satan) but in some places as a verb with respect to prosecution in a court of law (Ps. 109:6).
There are only three times where Satan as an individual turns up in the Tanach, and all are late in the Biblical period. Satan’s most famous appearance occurs in the the story of Job. If you recall that wonderful book, Satan appears to act as God’s prosecuting attorney with the role not just to look for misdeeds on earth but to try to see if people (not just Jews; there is no indication that Job was Jewish) could be tempted into cursing God. However, and this is a big “however,” Satan did so only with God’s permission.
Satan’s other two appearances are a bit ambiguous. In one instance, the prophet Zechariah refers to the satan (השטן) as creating divisions between the Jews who had returned to Eretz Ysrael from Babylon and those who had never left (Zech: 3:1-2). In another, the author of Chronicles laid blame on the satan for inducing King David to take a census of the people when it had not been authorized by God (1 Chron. 21:1). In these two cases, Satan seems to have some independence of action, but he is still an angel and certainly no match for God. To quote from Elaine Pagel’s wonderful book, The Origin of Satan (New York Random House, 1995; p. 39): “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears . . . as one of God’s obedient servants.”
Most post-Biblical Jewish literature pays little attention to Satan though the term occasionally appears to refer collectively to the forces of evil. There are scattered references to Satan in the Talmud, and in the classical Midrash, most often in aggadic comments about his role in tempting or accusing human beings. For example, Satan is given credit for the golden calf by telling people that Moses would never return from Mount Sinai (Shab 89a) and for David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba (Sanh 107a), among other places noted in Encyclopaedia Judaica. The liturgy in Orthodox prayer books still contains a few vague references to a satan, but they have been excised from the siddurim of most other denominations.
Before I go on, let me step back and be clear that there are plenty of references to mythological beasts and other cosmic forces in the descriptions of the enemy tribes and of idolatrous practices. However, I think we can take these references as examples of metaphor and other literary devices. Whether or not the authors believed that these creatures existed, the beasts never have any specific role except to represent the bad guys, and they certainly do not try to take over human souls.
It is only after the Biblical period and at the time of the Roman wars that we begin to hear of a bigger and more independent role for Satan. This was the time when the once reasonably united Hebrew people began to face schisms that drove wedges between one group of Jews and another, and that eventually led to one group breaking away completely to create Christianity. Jews were fighting one another at least as much as they were fighting external enemies. Some of the differences were political rather than theological, but the two overlapped. To the extent that any one group wanted to find a way of compromising with the Roman powers, it was charged with promoting assimilation – walking in the ways of the nations, as it was commonly described – rather than being on God’s side.
At the extreme, some of the dissident groups began to suggest that cosmic forces were at work. To quote Pagels again (p. 47): “More radical than their predecessors, these dissidents began increasingly to invoke the satan to characterize their Jewish opponents; in the process they turned this rather unpleasant angel into a far grander – and far more malevolent – figure. No longer one of God’s faithful servants, he begins to become what he is for Mark and for later Christianity – God’s antagonist, his enemy, even his rival.” In the extreme, and in the only case where a Jewish group with this world view gained any prominence, the Essenes created a whole theology built around a conflict between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. It goes without saying that they saw themselves as Sons of Light, and they saw other Jews as Sons of Darkness, consigned only to damnation.
Two things accompany the development of the notion that there is a second powerful cosmic being. One is a proliferation of names, as if everyone wanted to have their own anti-God: Semihazah, Azazel, Belial, Prince of Darkness, Diabolicus, Mastema. Samael. Some of these names have Biblical heritage; most do not. The other is an even more diverse proliferation of stories of this evil being’s origin, of which the fallen angel is the one that is best known today. Others go back to that highly questionable passage in Genesis 6 that relates that “When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings /lit: sons of God/ saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and they took wives from among them that pleased them.” You could not ask for a better opening than that, but there are lots of other stories too.
The important point is that, despite all the dissension and all the disruption of the first couple of centuries of the common era, such views were and remained marginal in Jewish literature and in Jewish theology. Some rabbinic figures spent a lot of time worrying about demons of various kinds, and most of the early rabbis certainly believed in what we would today call magic, but they never accepted the notion of any evil being or any collection of evil beings that was in any sense a rival to God. Indeed, the Pharisees, from whose thinking modern Judaism derives, explicitly denied any such notion and refused to consider their Jewish or their gentile enemies as anything more than that, human enemies, misguided certainly, perhaps malevolent, but not under the direction of anything supernatural.
Unfortunately, Judaism’s rejection of the concept of Satan was not duplicated in Christianity. Almost eagerly, Christian sects expanded on the concept and, by the time that the Christian Bible was canonized, Satan had become “the very personification of the spirit of evil, as an independent personality, the Antichrist. . . . the author of all evil” (Ency. Jud.). Moreover, they began to identify this newly empowered Satan with Jews.
As Pagels books shows, the earliest gospel, that of Mark, emphasizes a cosmic struggle between God’s people and Satan’s people with, ironically, both armies coming from the ranks of the Jews. God’s people are of course those who have accepted Christ as the messiah. A quarter of a century later, Matthew picks up the theme but is more explicit: Satan’s people are, or at least are led by, the Pharisees. Luke is even stronger. Only those people who have formally become Christian are really on God’s side; all others are witting or unwitting agents of Satan.
Finally, with the Gospel of John, the last and most difficult of the four canonized gospels, we come to a writer who speaks from a position similar to that of the Essenes. He simply sees the Jews, now undifferentiated, as the enemies of God. “Ye are of your father, the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do'’ (John 8:44) – a phrase that is the origin of the saying that Jews are “the spawn of Satan.” How can one characterize such views other than to call them anti-Semitic. And as James Carroll’s exhaustive study, Constantine’s Sword, shows, the Catholic Church gave anti-Semitism a central place in Church history with disastrous consequences for Jews for the next 2000 years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000) .
That is a pretty somber note on which to conclude. As you may know, it is a rule that neither Torah readings nor haftarah sections should end on a downbeat. I believe that rule should extend to divrai Torah as well. Let me therefore offer one ray of light. You are all safe from Satan on Yom Kippur. How do we know that? Because the numerical equivalent of the letters in the three Hebrew letters sin-tet-nun add up to 364, one short of the number of days in a year. The 365th day is Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, and it is therefore obvious that Satan has no power on that day.