The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots
by T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley
Palgrave Macmillan 2005
211 pages (hardcover)
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.
Interested readers will also find a helpful interview with the authors at NPR, originally done in 2006.