Book Review: The Birth of Satan

The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots
by T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley
Palgrave Macmillan 2005
211 pages (hardcover)

Amazon
Powell’s

Satan, Christian history’s go-to bad guy, gets a shake-down in T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley’s The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots. Wray, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Salve Regina University, and Mobley, Professor of Old Testament at Andover Newton Theological School, find the story of Satan as coming in late in the Judeo-Christian theological story, and this has significant implications.

Discussing the relevance of the devil may appear a bit medieval to some, but if polls in recent years are correct, at least 70 percent of Americans still believe in his existence. The subject is important enough that it lead to a debate in 2009 between several religious leaders on whether this biblical figure actually exists (video). That is why I find The Birth of Satan to remain relevant. Wray and Mobley remind us that we cannot assume that we know what the Bible says or does not say about God’s archenemy. The question of existence is something entirely different.

The rise of monotheism, which occurred between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C.E., presented a problem, according to Wray and Mobley. If God is good and the only real power, where do we lay the blame for evil? “Could it be that along with the development of monotheism is a growing existential frustration that makes it difficult for God’s people to accept a deity who is responsible for both good and evil?”

The solution to the problem of evil is Satan.

Initially, the word for Satan was “a function, rather than being a proper name,” argues Wray and Mobley. During the Diaspora, the Jews were exposed to other cultures, notably the dualism of the Persian religion. “Jewish communities were exposed to Ahriman [a Zoroastrian demon] during the Persian period, from 530 to 330 B.C.E.,” they write. “Satan as a divine opponent of the LORD and as author of evil does not appear until the second century B.C.E., by which time Jews in Babylon and Persia had been exposed to the dualism of Zoroastrianism and to its evil deity Ahriman for generations.”

At some point in history, Satan becomes a personal being that has theological benefits.  Take, for example, the stories of 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. Here David’s census angers God and he unleashes a plague upon the people as a result of the king’s actions. In 2 Samuel, the older account of the same incident, it is God himself who moves David to count the people.

“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah” (2 Sam. 24:1).

In Chronicles, the later retelling of the incident, things have changed.  It is now Satan.

“Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1).

Why the difference? “The Chronicler is retelling Israel’s history—including a rehash of the story in 2 Samuel 24—through the lens of his own theology and at a later date,” they argue. While the Chronicler seeks to omit David’s “more unsavory transgressions—for example, he makes no mention of David’s exploitation of Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11)—he is unable to gloss over David’s census taking.  So how could he present this story in a more positive light?”

Part of the solution comes by bringing in Satan. The writer of 2 Samuel is “confronted with an account of the deity at his most murderous, in the mode of his bipolarity,” however, by making Satan the cause, “the Chronicler, in a stroke of sheer genius, is able both to preserve David’s integrity and to keep Yhwh’s reputation unblemished.”

“For the first time in the canonical Hebrew Bible,” they write, “‘Satan’ appears as a proper noun.”

The writers explore various contemporary cultural influences and parallels to Satan that help create or inform the figure presented more clearly in later New Testament books. By the time we reach the gospels, we have the more fully-developed, shadowy opponent and tempter of Jesus.

The writers do a good job of sticking to the steady progression of the Satan story. Conservative evangelicals may not appreciate the connection to local mythology nor the later dating of certain biblical books that goes into the argument. A more conservative Christian view of Satan will also have a different take on conflicting accounts like those found in Samuel and Chronicles. For example, a Calvinist response might simply be that Satan was a tool of God, therefore midrashing both accounts (see for example this commentary) in order to avoid the possibility that any human agenda makes it into the accounts of Samuel or Chronicles.

There are points where the authors make connections that are generally speculative—some mythic connections are not as solid—but they appear to recognize these for what they are. This is not to say that their speculation is unwarranted.

The Birth of Satan reminds Christians of the human tendency to read into the Bible what it is not saying. Christians often have fully-developed and detailed theologies of Satan, usually the result of pulling together biblical passages that have nothing to do with the subject. This is the problem of systematic theology; it provides the illusion of coherence where it is probably not intended. This is not to say that we cannot ask what the Bible says about X, but it is to remind readers who systematize Scripture that they will often impose a coherence on the text that belongs only to their theological presuppositions.

Like the show Glee, we mash up two or three songs—or Scriptural passages in this case—to create a story or message that was originally not there. It makes sense to us when we read Scripture with that story, largely because that is the worldview we already accept. The Birth of Satan provides that reminder by noting what the Bible does and does not say about that angelic bad boy and where readers may be engaging in their own theological mashup.

It also provides for more discussion in what I see as a continuing evangelical evolution, which is largely the result of the challenges presented by the emerging church and evangelicals that remain in the mainline. Within these groups there are calls to rethink prior theological assumptions and to raise the question as to who gets to define the word evangelical and determine which beliefs are and are not acceptable.

That evangelicals are more willing to embrace egalitarianism, evolution, and question the status quo on eternal punishment (Rob Bell is not the first person) in recent years demonstrates this reality. In the academia, a few Christians have written powerful narrative commentaries on books like Revelation (see James Resseguie’s The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary), reminding the reader that it has more in common with the Exodus than it does with the fiction of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. Some have proposed forms of Christian materialism (like philosopher Kevin Corcoran), and others, like Biologos Fellow Peter Enns (“Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: A Crafty Serpent”), have called into question traditional views of Satan and Adam by looking at the Bible’s surrounding culture. Whether a theological change is good or not is not the point of asking the question. The fact is, Christianity needs those who are willing to ask questions and take their punches where they come.

The Birth of Satan ends with a discussion of hell, where Dante makes an appearance (as one might expect). Anyone interested in the subject and with some familiarity with the ancient near-eastern world will find the book accessible and thought-provoking, though the writers provide plenty of background to make it accessible to most readers. I found it to be a good reminder that the devil is in the details.

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Interested readers will also find a helpful interview with the authors at NPR, originally done in 2006.

  • Just out of curiosity, what does this book say about Satan in the book of Job?

  • @ Katie They dedicate a few pages to Job. Job is dated (in written form) after the exile. Satan is part of the heavenly court in Job and this reflects the cultural surroundings. They build on this a bit and I think they are right. I think the important points in Job are not found in a systematic presentation, but in the story and what we find in the story itself. That story only communicates as it connects to the culture. Here’s a good summarizing paragraph:

    “But what is wholly different in this story of testing and misfortune is that God employs a lieutenant to carry it out. This marks a significant turning point in our exploration of Satan. We now have evidence of the satan figure acting on behalf of the deity, but just one step away from acting alone. For although the hassatan in Job is still featured as a member of the heavenly court, he also appears to be a somewhat independent figure, roving the earth, wreaking havoc and disrupting the life of a good and pious man, and daring to make wagers with the Almighty himself. There is even a certain arrogance and audacity with this character—and if God is testing Job, one could just as easily argue that hassatan is testing God.”

    BTW, the book is in UF’s library.

  • Confusing to say the least.  Is the Bible written only to be dissected by the elite and philosophers? And Satan is a creation of biblical writers to mask a judgemental character flaw in the Father?  What is your opinion….not of the book, but of the premise?

  • @facebook-1304155061:disqus  Good questions. As to the first question, the Bible is an ancient text and is written within that context, so it does take some specialization to get at those historical and cultural connections that would have been—with some qualification as to things like literacy levels, the place and year of life of the reader, etc.—clearer to the average person living in that day. 
    This is not to say that only those who specialize can read it, but they can help to get at cultural points that are just not available to everyone. Fortunately, many of them also write books, encyclopedia, dictionaries, etc., just to make that information available to others as well. 

    One qualification I should add though is that not all scholars agree on how to understand these things. I think that some have certain theological commitments that frankly won’t allow them to read some of the Bible as particularly contextualized (those who hold to some strong belief of inerrancy, for example). Other scholars may have other convictions that also influence their interpretation. So, when the word “elite” is used, it can somehow sound like there’s a big club that everyone meets at in secret, but the truth is, those who weigh in on these discussions have varying levels and areas of specialization.  

    As to my thoughts, if I were to be asked if the Bible portrays a single image of a figure like Satan, I’d be forced to say no. I think the image of the figure tradition calls Satan is culturally infused. The point is not so much about whether the biblical writer understood something as an historical account in the way some theologians demand, but what is communicated by the language of text. A book is only effective when it communicates and so certain imagery is more geared towards that end than it is toward modern expectations of historical record as the only real way for something to be true. The book of Job, for example, clearly has a heavenly court image involved, which was an image that communicated in the day. 

    Books of the Bible that cover the same territory or story often provide differing information and different portrayals of the same story. The gospels are very much like this. One focuses on chronology (like Luke) and another on showing Christ as the second Moses (like Matthew). This changes the wording and order and emphasis of each book. I can tell you what the text seems to be communicating to me, but the one thing I can never do is tell you the author’s exact intent. If an author excludes something, there may be a reason behind it I’ll never know and perhaps even the author isn’t entirely aware of at the time of writing. I want to ask of the text what is being communicated to the implied audience of the day. Bringing in the idea of the devil for one passage versus having that idea left out in another does indicate a cultural tension involved, but why the author of one text does that and the author of another doesn’t, I can’t know exactly. 

    If one was looking for an answer that is acceptable within the evangelical vocabulary, then I suppose we could simply toss it up to progressive revelation or try to harmonize them like the commentary example I link to above. Neither of these are, in my opinion, good responses. One might see this as an example of the incarnational aspect of the Bible, that is, its fully-human and fully-divine nature and that at least takes into consideration human influence. The exactness of the text’s account, however, or of who did what isn’t so much my concern as to what it might say about potential readings of the text. For example, I don’t see Genesis as really communicating the history of creation, but I see it as communicating something else about belief in God and that belief in relationship to what surrounding cultures believed. For that reason, I would never see it as modern science (see my review of Walton’s book, for example).

    Of course, I’m an historian, so my reading is affected by what else I know about historical records. 

    Clear as mud?

    So, when are we gonna get together for lunch again?  I want to introduce you to Sarnie’s Shoppe out this way.

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