Job: The Satan
What is God?
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The book of Job is the clear winner in the contest of the most mysterious book of the Bible. It beats out the sensual Song of Songs by a landslide. It outlasts Ezekiel, chariot and all, because it never relents on its mystery. It asks an obvious question and spends 30 chapters rejecting answers. When it finally gives an answer, it is almost as indecipherable as the Rosetta stone. That question is the eternal puzzle of why the righteous suffer. Here, we are going to look at one of the most puzzling and potentially heretical images of the Bible in its primary source. We are going to look into the diabolical image of Satan through the mysterious book of Job.
‘There was a man in the land of Utz named Job; the man was pure and straight, and he feared Elohim and stayed away from evil’ (Job 1:1). It’s like the Biblical version of a fairy tale beginning. But it’s deceiving. ‘And on that day, the sons of Elohim came to stand before Hashem, and the Satan come among them. And Hashem said to the Satan, “From where are you coming”, and the Satan answered Hashem, “Floating around the world and traveling in it”. And Hashem said to the Satan, “Have you paid attention to my servant Job? There are none like him in the world, a man who is pure and straight and fears Elohim and stays away from evil”. And the Satan answered Hashem, “Do you think that Job fears Elohim for nothing? You have protected him and his household and all that he has; his work You have blessed him and his cattle roam on the earth. But if You send your hand and touch all that he has, will he not curse Your presence?” And Hashem said to the Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hands, just do not send your hand on him”. And the Satan left the presence of Hashem.’ (1:5-12)
The story goes on. While Job’s children are feasting, a messenger comes to Job informing him that his cattle have been stolen and the servants were killed. Another comes and tells him a fire destroyed the sheep. Another comes and announces still another monetary disaster. Then a wind comes and blows down the house his children are eating in. Job finally rends his clothing and tears his hair and falls on his face. His reaction to all this is, ‘I came naked from my mother’s womb and I will return there naked, Hashem gave and Hashem took, let the name of Hashem be blessed”. In all this, Job did not sin, and did not voice foolishness to Elohim.’(21-22) This scenario gets progressively worse. The Satan demands that he be allowed to afflict Job’s body. Hashem relents on this limitation with the only restriction that he not take his life. ‘So the Satan left the presence of Hashem and struck Job with painful boils from the bottom of his foot until the top of his head’ (2:7).
We are interested not so much in Job and his problems, as in the Satan and his agenda. Who is this guy? Who brought him into the Bible? Is he an angel? Is he one of these ‘sons of Elohim’? Why is he given almost free reign to wreak havoc on this poor fellow Job? Why doesn’t God shut him down and tell him to mind his own business? Did he succeed in his devious agenda in the end or did he fail? Is this an image of God or is it some Biblical version of the devil?
This one is going to be interesting. The first question that we shall answer is the last question. This thing is not God. At least at this point in Jewish theological development it wasn’t God. Is it the devil? That depends on how one defines the word ‘devil’.
It is a little surprising that a spiritual force that would later on acquire so much power and dread in religious development should hardly be mentioned in the Bible. Christianity really made a much bigger deal out of the Satan than the Jews ever did. He plays an important role in tempting Jesus in the Gospels. For Christians, he really did become the devil incarnate. For Jews, he acquired some of that image, but never quite the independent home wrecker that he is to the Christians. His task is to test the spiritual fortitude of people.
God asks the Satan where he was coming from. This simple question tells us quite a bit about the Biblical understanding of the relationship between God and the Satan. God, it seems, does not necessarily know what the Satan is up to. This theological limitation would become unacceptable in medieval times when God’s knowledge was considered omnipotent – extending to everything and to all times. There would be no possibility for the Satan to slip out from under God’s all-seeing scrutiny.
The Satan’s answer is also revealing. He tells God that he has been ‘floating around the world and traveling in it’. Does this really answer the question? Possibly the Satan means to answer, ‘Nowhere in particular’, meaning that he has been doing his job but he hasn’t had any really interesting cases for a while. To that, God responds that he might find a real challenge with this guy Job, who is genuinely righteous and truly fears God.
The Satan’s answer speaks volumes about what he’s really after. ‘Do you think that Job fears Elohim for nothing?’ Of course Job has an ulterior motivation. Of course he is only putting on this righteous, God-fearing act because he has it all good. Dish out a healthy dosage of problems and let’s see how righteous he is. This is probably the most telling line in the entire dialogue. Satan is the spiritual force that reveals what is going on inside. He is that strange power in the world that makes things go wrong for no other purpose than to see what happens to people when things go wrong.
Most of us thought that things go wrong because that’s just the way things are. While it is possible that this is indeed the case much of the time, it is equally possible that there is something else at work. This something else is a power that works with the approval of God, but not, at least at this stage of Biblical thinking, under God’s micromanagement. It is a power that may not force a person into doing something that goes against his or her better judgment, but it pushes that person to the limit of their endurance until they break.
Satan floats around the world doing this sort of thing on a constant basis. It is a divinely-assigned task in which he is given great freedom of operation with only certain limitations, and even those can be tinkered with. That Biblical Judaism would have such a force is quite telling. The Bible, among all great books of the world, had to address these two most Biblical questions: why do the righteous suffer and what is the cause of evil? The book of Job attempts to answer both questions.
The answer to the second question is the power known as the Satan. God, according what we read in Isaiah, may very well be the ‘Creator of evil’, but that only means that God created the fact of evil and lets it apply its influence. It doesn’t say that God actually dishes out the evil. Satan was put in charge of this highly influential but spiritually unsavory department. He does his job remarkably well.
In later centuries, Judaism would transform this spiritual power floating around the world into a spiritual power floating around the human mind. It would be called the yetzer hara, a term that we have seen before and will see again. Modern psychologists and neurologists might shrink at such a primitive explanation of human motivation, but they haven’t come up with anything to replace it. They have a hodgepodge of chemicals and complex molecular structures making up and controlling our minds, which may or may not be influenced by outside forces such as interaction with the rest of the world. It so inadequately explains the bizarre behavior of human beings in such a mind-boggling variety and magnitude of situations that it hardly qualifies as an explanation. Satan or the yetzer hara may not be a scientific explanation of human behavior, but it is at least an explanation.
The Satan in Job is the Satan as of the close of the Bible. It would also remain a powerful force in traditional Judaism, even well into modern scientific times. There is something about evil that just defies rational logic. It needs a Biblical outlook to fathom it. The Satanic explanation of Job may not satisfy everyone, but it was one of the earliest attempts at coming to terms with what remains one of the thorniest problems of human existence.
The Satan is the force of evil in the world. This is his image. It isn’t the image of God, thank God, but it is the image of a force that God allows to roam the world. It does what it must, with certain limitations. It may be true that it usually hits its mark. But it is also true that it is going about its business with a purpose – to test us to our limits by challenging our fortitude. Just knowing this is an important step in being able to resist. We don’t worship this power. But we respect it and know that it needs to be there. It may not be appropriate to give it sympathy, but it is worthwhile to recognize it for what it is.
Perceiving the Image
Nobody really wants to perceive evil as a spiritual force. It is much easier to see it as a glop of chemicals and DNA mutations, combined with bad luck and bad vibes. Labeling it as a spiritual force, with God’s tacit approval no less, gives it divine sanctity. It also makes it a permanent and necessary feature of life. Who wants that? But is it not better and more spiritually mature to call it what it is and not pretend that it is something else that is just as powerful but less theologically fundamental? How we perceive evil determines, to a great degree, how we deal with it. If we see it as one more chemical reaction in the brain or one more random event among a sea of meaninglessness, we may very likely find ourselves not really caring all that much about which side of the moral divide we land on. On the other hand, if we see it as an essential component of the spiritual landscape, having a definite purpose that vitally affects our own purpose in life - it may make us take a completely different attitude in dealing with it.
It’s not a matter of religion – it’s spiritual attitude. Seeing evil as a spiritual power to contend with, maybe calling it Satan, maybe not, but seeing it as profoundly significant, is all in the attitude. It doesn’t mean having ‘sympathy for the devil’, as much as respect for the power. Perhaps we could all take a lesson from this ancient mysterious text. Job respected a power that was greater than him, a power that overcame him but never fully broke him. This, perhaps, is how we are supposed to perceive the Satan – as a power to contend with that must be respected. Respect, not sympathy.
Satan is a firm fixture of the superstitious, ‘dark’ side of reality. It has no place in the rational world of atoms and genes. Is there any point in trying to keep this irrational side alive?
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Date: 07/23/17 at 13:47:32
This article seems to imply that the satan is a partial separate entity from God and that while he executes under his supervision he is free to act on his own accord. Although we do know that angels are tasked with doing Gods will and nothing more because if they had there own free choice and will then it would be as though God is not in fact one, which is a core basis of our belief. My question is how can this being act on his own accord and have the choice to do what he wishes woth humans, and not infringe on the oness and all powerfulness of God?
Date: 08/04/17 at 13:54:13
It's a very good question you are asking. However, we must take into account that some of the fundamental ideas of Judaism were not necessarily there all the time. The basic ideas of the oneness of God is possibly one of these, despite the fact that it is so important for Judaism of the past at least 1000 years. Torah Judaism always believed in one God but not necessarily in that one God having complete control over everything in creation. It is clear from many midrashim and aggadot that the idea of angels having a will of their own was not anathema to early rabbinic Judaism. The Satan would fit right in there with the semi-independent will attributed to him. The only relic of this independence from God that has remained in Judaism is the freedom of the human will, an issue that has never been fully explained in Torah sources, to the best of my knowledge. If we have this power now, why is it so heretical if the Satan had/has a similar power?