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The existence of Satan is one of the central doctrines of Christianity. He is evil incarnate, an immortal being that exists solely to corrupt and tempt human beings into committing offenses against God. He was in the Garden of Eden and was responsible for the original fall of man. He was originally an angel, Lucifer, but rebelled against God and continues to rebel to this day. 

This is the Satan that most people picture when they hear about the Devil. Christians, of course, assume that Satan, as the ultimate adversary, is present throughout the entire Bible. He certainly appears or is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament. What about the Old Testament, though? Does Satan appear there as well?

Most Christians, and frankly most people, would assume that Satan is just as present in the Old Testament as he is in the New Testament. After all, Satan was that cunning snake in the apple tree in Eden, right? Wrong. Satan as an individual does not actually appear until the New Testament. In Genesis, the serpent is actually nothing but a particularly clever snake. It is not introduced as any sort of immortal being but as “the most clever of all the beasts of the field.” The infamous serpent was really just a snake.

If a Christian were to read through the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, they would likely think that Satan appears repeatedly. The word “satan” certainly shows up repeatedly. Unfortunately for those who are convinced that Satan, as he is commonly conceived of today, was present in the Old Testament, the word “satan” is never actually used as a name. Whenever “satan” is used in the Old Testament, it is preceded by the ancient Hebrew article ha. The two words are connected to read ha-satan.

In ancient Hebrew, the word “satan” is derived from the verb meaning “to obstruct” or “to oppose.” When used as a noun, it means “adversary” or “accuser.” The first definition is certainly one that would fit well with the image most people have of Satan today. He is the adversary of God and all that is good. He challenges Christ and tempts righteous people into sin. “Accuser” does not fit the vision of evil incarnate quite as well, but the combination of the two translations does a better job of defining who or what ha-satan was to the authors of the Old Testament. 

In the Old Testament being “the accuser” is, essentially, a job. The phrase is only used nine times, and in five of those uses, ha-satan is used to describe not an immortal demon but a human being who happens to be a military, political or legal enemy of Israel. The only time that satan appears without ha in front of it is in 1 Chronicles 21. In this instance, however, there is no real sign that the Christian Satan is the one being described. This satan “rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” despite the fact that David’s command was “evil in the sight of God.”

The closest the Old Testament comes to having ha-satan act as the Christian Devil is in the Book of Job. In this story, Job is a righteous and successful man. God is proud of his faith, but one of the heavenly beings in God’s court claims that Job would not be nearly as faithful if he were not successful and happy. God calls the being’s bluff and allows the being to test and torment Job to see if he will give up his faith. Job passes the tests. 

The being that questions God in Job is identified as ha-satan. Most Christians read this as the Devil directly challenging God and torturing the righteous for his own twisted pleasure. In Job, however, ha-satan never acts without God’s permission. After every torment, he reports back to God with news of Job’s stubborn faith and asks God to let him escalate Job’s troubles further. 

Ha-satan appears again as a divine being in Zechariah 3. During the prophet’s vision, Joshua the high priest is seen standing in a heavenly council or court similar to the one found in Job. Standing within the council is, once again, ha-satan whose job appears to be rather like that of a prosecutor or devil’s advocate. His job is to accuse the high priest and challenge him to see if he is worthy.

One of the only other times that ha-satan is used to refer to a divine enemy is in the Book of Numbers. When Balaam goes to curse the Israelites, he is stopped by ha-satan. This adversary keeps him from reaching his goal and, in reality, saves the Israelites. This is a far cry from what the Devil as Christians conceive of him would do. Interestingly enough, in Numbers 22 ha-satan is not usually translated as Satan but as “an angel of the Lord.”  

Though the ideas of sin and temptation appear repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, there is no single ruler of darkness in the Old Testament. Just as with visions of hell, the Old Testament and the New Testament present very different pictures of “the accuser.” The two depictions of Satan are not completely at odds, but they do present some very interesting contrasts for Christians to consider and raise a number of questions. There are, however, worse things in life. If the seemingly contradictory portrayals push Christians to dig a little deeper into their Bibles, well, there are certainly worse ways to be tested by “the accuser” than being encouraged to spend a little more time with the book that should already be governing a Christian’s life.