Who is the Satan?

In the post which began the current series, the figure of the Devil and his fall from membership in God’s divine council was discussed.  Having served as a cherub or seraph, a guardian of God’s throne, he sought to supplant God in the lives of newly created human beings out of envy, resulting in his being cast down to Sheol to reign over the dead in a kingdom of dust and ashes in Genesis 3.  This figure, though clearly seen in the understanding of death and Christ’s victory over it in the New Testament and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church, lacks many of the common features and characteristics of Satan.  He was not, per se, an archangel, certainly not one of the seven.  St. Michael was not directly involved in his fall.  Job presents a figure “the Satan”, who remains a member of the divine council long after Genesis 3.  There are clear references in the New Testament to the fall of Satan that seem not to refer to the events of Genesis 3.

The reason for this inconsistency is that at the earliest layer of Jewish tradition, these elements referred to different demonic beings, two different devil figures.  The first post in this series discussed one of those figures, the Devil or the Dragon.  This post will discuss the other.  While these figures are distinguished in Second Temple Jewish sources and many of the early Fathers, as time passed they began to be merged together in certain later fathers.  By the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th centuries, Fathers such as St. Andrew of Caesarea openly discuss the conflicting evidence they have received from previous Fathers regarding whether these beings are two or one, and commenting on, for example, the fact that there seem to be two different falls of Satan described in scripture.  The Quran, written after this period, merges these two figures together by name self-consciously.

This second figure is the archangel Samael.  His name, in Hebrew, means, “the venom of God.”  Samael regularly appears in lists of the seven (original) archangels up to and including that of St. Gregory the Dialogist at the end of the 6th century.  In Jewish tradition, Samael plays several roles, none of them very positive.  He is primarily identified as the angel of death.  This is not in the sense in which the Dragon, when cast down to Sheol was made lord of the dead.  Rather, Samael is the angel whom  God sent to take lives and claim souls.  Though not directly mentioned in the text of Exodus, traditionally he was responsible for the slaying of the firstborn at the Passover.  He was likewise traditionally seen to be the angelic being seen in 2 Sam/2 Kgdms 24:15 and the parallel passage, 1 Chron 21:15, killing the people of Jerusalem.  He is also identified as the angel in 2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 19:35 who in one night killed 185,000 members of the Assyrian army during their siege of Jerusalem.

As mentioned, Samael’s duties included not only bringing about physical death in many cases, but also the claiming of souls and their delivery to Sheol, the underworld.  God’s preservation of the souls of the righteous from Sheol therefore took the form of preserving that soul from the hands of Samael.  Here the role of Samael as adversary (in Hebrew, Satan) begins to be seen.  Jude 1:9 refers to a contest between St. Michael and Satan over the body of Moses.  St. Jude’s reference here seems clearly grounded in the traditions of the Assumption of Moses which describes Moses’ ascent into heaven.  In this text, it is precisely Samael who is playing this role, of seeking to claim the life of Moses, while God sends St. Michael to claim his soul and body so that he can partake of the resurrection.  This tradition is also referenced more subtly at the Transfiguration of Christ when Moses appears resurrected alongside the prophet Elijah who had not ever physically died with no distinction made regarding the embodied state of the two.

In the book of Job, we are presented with the figure of “the Satan.”  The definite article is here important because the Hebrew language does not use the definite article before proper names.  In the Greek language, the article during the Biblical period was still not a definite article per se, but rather a demonstrative pronoun, and so is found frequently before proper names.  This however was not the case in Hebrew or Aramaic.  This figure being identified as “the Adversary” therefore describes an office or role played by this angelic beings, rather than giving his name.  When he first appears in Job 1:6-8 he comes along with the rest of Yahweh, the God of Israel’s divine council to present himself, and this begins the dialogue between himself and God.  When God speaks of the faithfulness and righteousness of Job, it is the Satan who makes accusations against him and desires to test him (Job 1:9-11).  This angelic being is then allowed to kill all of Job’s children, servants, and livestock (Job 1:13-19).  In the second chapter, the Satan is allowed to afflict Job further, but not to kill him.  Though we are never told this being’s name, it fits the profile within Jewish tradition of Samael.

St. Michael is presented in scripture as the angelic being to whom the care and protection of God’s people Israel were assigned (Dan 10:20-21; 12:1).  This was seen to have developed from St. Michael’s role as the guardian angel of Israel himself, the patriarch Jacob.  As their protector, it fell to St. Michael to defend the souls of the righteous among God’s people from Samael.  Likely because of this adversarial relationship between the two archangels, some Jewish traditions identify Samael as the guardian angel of Esau, Jacob’s brother and early rival, and then his descendants in the nation of Edom.  This creates a dynamic within Jewish literature of Samael, the Satan, accusing those of the nation of Israel while St. Michael defends them before the throne of God.  It is also why, in both ancient and later Rabbinic Jewish literature, the figure of Satan is seen as a morally ambivalent one.  He is both an angelic member of God’s divine council and the one who accuses the brethren and carries out other dark tasks.

The New Testament, however, describes the fall of this being from the heavenly places as well.  The New Testament describes this fall as happening through the incarnation of Christ, in particular his death on the cross.  In Luke 10:18, Christ says that through the ministry of his disciples, he has seen the Satan fall from heaven like lightning.  This brief phrase is further developed in the teaching of St. John’s Gospel, in which he is referred to as “the prince of this world” in comparison to Daniel’s identification of St. Michael as “your prince”.  In John 14:30, Christ states that this archangel prince is coming for him, but has no hold over him, meaning he can make no accusation against Christ.  In John 12:31 and 16:11, Christ says that at the cross, this prince will be judged.  Revelation 12:7-12 narrate this event, placing it after the birth of Christ (12:5).  This is distinguished by, for example, St. Andrew of Caesarea in his commentary on this passage as a second fall, as he says, “The Father thought, after the creation of the physical world, the devil was thrown down because of his arrogance and envy” (12.34).  St. Michael is described as the angel of this fall, finally defeating his adversary (12:7).  Though it is not often brought out in modern English translations, 12:9 reads, “And that great dragon was cast down, that ancient serpent, that one who is called the devil.  And the Satan, the deceiver of the whole world was thrown down to the earth.  And his angels were thrown down.”  A voice from heaven describes the Satan here as, “the accuser of our brethren…who accuses them day and night before our God” (12:10).  He has finally been defeated by two things.  First, by the blood of the Lamb who was slain, because that blood having cleansed them, the Satan can no longer make any accusation against them.  Second, because they have gone to their death without rejecting Christ and so like Job have passed all of his tests (12:11).  There is therefore no role left for him in the heavenly places. and after his defeat through the life of Christ, his fall, and his knowledge that he will at the judgment be confined to Gehenna, he is no longer morally ambiguous, but has become an open blasphemer of God.  St. Justin Martyr testifies to this effect according to St. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 5.26.2) and Eusebius (Hist. 4.18.9).

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this series has sought to outline the separate traditions regarding the devil and demonic powers which underlie the descriptions of these evil spiritual beings in the scriptures.  Within the Fathers, some clearly differentiate these figures, in others elements of the various figures are seemingly blended together.  Already by the time of St. Andrew of Caesarea, he could read the preceding Fathers, including works no longer available to us, and see that some saw the Devil and the Satan as separate figures, others seemed to see them as one.  Later in church history, even elements of Azazel, Mastema, and other traditions that have been discussed are blended into this single figure.  The exact details, while they may become the subject of morbid curiosity, are less important than an awareness by Christians of the types of demonic activity, temptation, accusation, and opposition experienced in the spiritual life in Christ.  Understanding these traditions also makes more clear the degree to which every aspect of salvation as presented in the scriptures is grounded in Christ’s defeat of these powers.  Human persons are saved from the rebellion into which they’ve been led by these powers through the defeat of those powers, the purification and healing of the person, and their union with God in Christ, through which human persons come to displace and replace these fallen powers as heavenly Sons of God who participate in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ over the whole of creation.

6 comments:

  1. Dear Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for continuing your discussions on the topography of second-temple Judaism. You are a rich resource that I honestly didn’t expect to find in Orthodoxy (coming, like you seem to, from a scholastic/Reformed background). So thank you again, and blessed Nativity!
    Mark

  2. Dear father

    This is really excellent. Where did you learn all this? Bits of analysis resembling yours I’ve seen in other places, but never the thorough, finished (although one can always add new angles I suppose) thought process as you’ve laid it out in these articles.

    Something completely different: I came to think of The Toll House teaching time and time again while reading this latest article. Are you familiar with it? And if so, do you see the links too? Personally I find this teaching completely logical, although I can see why some people are uncomfortable with it – if presented wrongly.

    It seems to me, that The Toll Houses are but an extension of an already existing thought. Would you agree?

  3. All of this is another argument in favor of the Tradition as a source of truth. The New Testament doesn’t appear out of theological thin air. Even it is based in older Tradition and parts of it don’t make sense without that knowledge.

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