Or, should that be “the devils in the detail”? A blog post on why we’ve misunderstood some hebrew and greek and how “the Devil” is as misleading as “Hell”.
We all know what the devil looks like, he’s got wings, horns, a tail and a three-pronged pitch fork. He’s dark red, and has an evil glint in his mischevious eye.
We (and by we, I mean those of us with an evangelical upbringing) also all know that the devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or the Snake, is actually a “fallen angel” who tricked Adam and Eve, tries to trick Jesus, comes back and rules the earth for a bit and finally gets vanquished at the end of time.
Except that the first of the above two paragraphs is entirely medieval conjecture, and the second is all very misleading folk-tale stuff that has somehow become what we actually believe.
What’s in a Name?
Much like “Hell” not having one direct translation – and thus being a conglomeration of several different ideas, “The Devil” has a bit of a complicated make-up. As far as I can tell, “The Devil” is made up of the following – in chronological order:
- Snake who tricks Adam and Eve (Genesis 3)
- Satan to Job (Job 1), David (1 Chronicles 21) and Zechariah (Zechariah 3)
- Lucifer (Isaiah 14)
- Satan who interacts with and is referenced by Jesus
- Beelzebub in the book of Matthew
- Belial in 2 Corinthians
- The “Evil One” in the Lord’s Prayer
- Dragon in the book of Revelation
Let’s look at these in turn.
The Snake tricks Adam and Eve into eating fruit from the tree, which then opens their eyes and allows them to make bad choices, which in turn alienates them and their ancestors from God. Of course, this is a mythical story which helps us to give spiritual meaning to our origins, and not a literal retelling.
The snake is the first attempt at explaining the idea that there’s a temptation to do things that aren’t good. But it isn’t an evil demi-God. The snake doesn’t appear again until the book of Revelation when it is again invoked allegorically.
For some time, the Christian idea of the devil has incorporated the “Morning Star” in Isaiah 14:12 – this is translated as “Lucifer” from the latin, and when used as an adjective means “light-bringing” or can refer to the planet Venus. The passage in question is concerned with Babylon, and the language seems to be sarcastic and hyperbolic praise to the Babylonian king.
Beelzebub and Belial
These are references to other deities. Quite why they’ve even made my list, I’m not sure.
The Dragon is mentioned in Revelation 12. It is described destroying the stars, attempting to devour a child, and fighting a war against the angels, with his own angels. The dragon loses the fight – and – crucially – is spoken of in verse 9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or satan, who leads the whole world astray”
We’ll deal with “satan” below. Devil here is “diabolos” – meaning “he who divides”.
The “Evil One”
The greek for this is “απο του” and it occures most prominently in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel. Here, we need to ask what the greek is getting at. Jesus prays “deliver us from the place of evil” rather than “from the evil one”. It’s easy to start mistranslating when you’ve got an idea like the devil inside your head. Those pesky medievil monks…
Finally, the name of the devil. Satan himself. Satan is the hebrew equivalent of diabolos, meaning “accuser”, “slanderer”. You can think of Satan as the “bad cop” or the “attorney general” character, who tries to point out to people all their flaws, wrongs and negative traits.
Satan is used in various places in Bible stories to make a point. The classic example is Job, where Satan appears to be a servant of God, and is obliged to ask God to carry out his wishes.
The problem with Satan is that it’s actually “satan” – a generic noun (a concept) rather than an individaul, used as an individual in rhetorical form to make a point. The word means “to obstruct, or oppose”. It can refer to any accuser, except when used with the definite article (“ha-satan”), referring to a specific character – it is that character with whom we are concerned.
Fundamentally, of all of the above possible variations of “the Devil”, the only realistic possibilities are “the Dragon”, some instances of “the evil one” and “ha-Satan“. Everything else can go into the bin of bad (folk?) theology and medieval mistakes.
Ha-Satan occures 13 times – in Job (10x) and Zechariah (3x). Let’s look at Zechariah first:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Ha-Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Ha-Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”Zechariah 3:1-2
The question we should ask ourselves is this: what is the context? An angel is telling a story to Zechariah and showing him a vision. He sees a specific character in a vision. Much the same could be said of Job. Job is a story about the different voices, ideas and tensions that we have around the nature of God and the nature of evil, and how we respond to adversity. It is also incredibly old and early on in the development of the Jewish faith.
Jesus and Satan
Fast forward to Jesus and the Greek rendering of satan (σατανᾶς) and devil (διάβολος). One crucial thing to note is that “satan” here is translated as a proper noun (Satan) but could equally be seen as a regular noun (“a satan”, “satan” – i.e. an accuser). The same is true of diabolos.
Thus, we can’t conclude from any of the traditional “Devil” scriptures that there’s a pointy-fork-holding chap called Lucifer/Satan who wants you to worship him, rebelled from God, and will torture you forever if you mess up and don’t accept Jesus as your personal lord and saviour.
Rather puts to bed the idea of hell in its traditional form too, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t mean there isn’t some sort of influence on us, an adversary, an accuser, a voice that speaks negatively to us – but perhaps that what satan truly is in many of these stories – perhaps that comes from inside us, perhaps it comes from a specific voice or personality. But there’s certainly no reason as far as I can see to think that there is some sort of demi-powerful “Devil” at work in the world.
Perhaps instead we should focus on God. Happy Halloween!