“Satan” in the Book of Job and How the Church Has Misunderstood This Character

Dorothy, Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion had done it! They, along with Toto, had captured the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick to bring to the Wizard of Oz so that he would grant Dorothy her wish to return home to Kansas. As they entered the inner sanctum of the Wizard’s domain, they witnessed with peels of thunder and lightning, as well as fire and smoke. An unusual and frightful display indeed! Their trepidation appears as they approach the almighty Wizard, not realizing what exactly was happening.

Approaching the Wizard’s presence, Dorothy presented the broomstick to the Wizard who proceeded to tell them all to return the next day. Much to the dismay of the ensemble, they persisted in requesting immediate redress of their concerns and the conditions into which they had entered into with the Wizard. They had upheld their part of the bargain; now it was his turn to sustain his. Amidst the terrorizing display of might the Wizard presented, it was the carefree canine, Toto whose senses led him to an anteroom shrouded by a curtain. Toto went in, and gripping the curtain between his teeth, ran as such that he opened it to the revelation of a man working his levers to create the frightful sight the Wizard presented.

Upon approaching and inquiring of who the man was, he confessed that he was the Wizard. Dorothy told him that he was a bad man to which he replied, “No, I’m a good man. Just a bad wizard.” Because the group had suffered misfortunes, the Wizard was thought to have been the remedy to their woes. In good faith, they entered into a contract with the great and powerful Wizard only to discover that he was a man who merely thought they would have been incapable of obtaining the Wicked Witch’s broomstick. The man himself wasn’t so bad, but he didn’t know how to wizard if you will.

A lot of people, Christians too, believe that if they could only peer behind the curtain and see what happens in heaven while mortal men endure hardship on earth, it would all make sense. However, it seldom ever makes sense even in the cases we might see what’s happening. A few scenes show us God’s immediate actions into human affairs, and none is as familiar or remarkable as what we read in Job 1–2. Here, God assembles with His courtiers to ascertain into their ministries, and one in particular, Satan, steps forward in what seems to be a tête-à-tête concerning Job.

Holding Court

The scene we witness in heaven in Job 1–2 resembles that of divine beings meetingdivinecouncil in a council with the chief deity as presiding chairperson on comparative religions of the region. We see the divine council in other passages such as 1 Kings 22:19, Psalm 82:1, and Daniel 7:9–14 among others. This very much resembles what we know from Medieval times as when a King held court and his courtiers, some of them of nobility—Dukes, Barons, Earls, etc.—attended his majesty for the matter(s) at hand. When we peer behind the curtain as to how God operates in human affairs, this is the familiar portrayal to which the Bible often points us.

Satan in this passage is, in our modern interpretations, held to be the Devil. However, an Ancient Near-Eastern reading of this passage would not lead us to this conclusion, because it isn’t until much later in Israel’s history that Satan became a proper name while in earlier literature it is a title. Because we are at a loss as to when Job was written, we cannot say precisely how best to understand it. We know enough that since the definite article appears before “Satan” that it was not a proper name at the time. John Goldingay translates Job 1:6 as, “There was a day when the divine beings came to take their stand with Yahweh. The adversary, too, came among them,”[1] and Robert Alter renders it, “And one day, the sons of God came to stand in attendance before the LORD, and the Adversary, too, came among them.”[2] The two Hebrew linguists agree that when translated, satan meant “adversary.” Others have proposed “accuser” as another viable option.

When we read this passage not in our modern sense, but the ancient thought, we deduce that among the council of God is an agent who is almost like the cross-examiner of heaven’s court. Ryan Stokes goes so far as to suggest that the Hebrew term satan here be translated as “attacker” or “executioner” as it appears so translated in other passages. He contends that contrary to other scholars’ translations, the satan here is not merely an “accuser” or “adversary,” because the figure doesn’t here accuse. His function instead is to attack, which God gives him leave to do but within the confines of God’s authority as supreme above the host that is before Him. On the first assault, God permits Satan to do what he wishes to the possessions of Job but to not harm his body, and on the second assault Satan could assail Job’s person but could not take his life. In Job, the divine figure we call Satan here isn’t good or bad, but functionary as one who would cross-examine in a courtroom. In this case, the supreme deity, Yahweh, is vindicated because Job never curses Him but is righteous regardless.[3]

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Other passages attest to a divine attacker for God’s will. When David numbered the people of Israel in an unsanctioned census, God punished David by sending plagues at the hand of an angel who reportedly ended 70,000 lives. This angel did Yahweh’s bidding as an attacker, an executioner, as Stokes would suggest (2 Sam. 24:15–16). This story leads us to recall the plagues in Egypt, one of which was by the destroyer which took the lives of the firstborn (Exod. 12:23). There’s also when an angel of the Lord struck Herod when he received praise as a god-man (Acts 12:23). More often than not, this figure, if it is, in fact, the same or a caste of angels, acted against evil-doers, so we wonder why Job was thus treated. We see the same in the case of Joshua, the priest when he stood accused before God, but acquitted by God in Zechariah 3:1–5. This was not Satan as we know, but the accuser, or attacker. Why did God vindicate Joshua, but give Job to this figure for ill-treatment?

First, it appears from a cursory reading that God offered up Job to the attacker. However, this translation may be misleading. The Hebrew itself seems to denote that God addresses the attacker and deduces that the attacker has set his sights on Job. Goldingay translates Job 1:8 in part as, “Have you applied your mind to my servant;”[4] Alter has, “Have you paid heed to my servant?”[5] Even the Septuagint renders it, “Have you given heed in your thoughts concerning my servant?” These translations appear to suggest that the attacker was pondering about Job already when he returned to heaven’s court.

The issue here isn’t so much a trial of Job, but an examination of God. The satan believed that God was why Job was so righteous. God had prospered the man, but if he were to remove His protection from Job and give, first, his possessions and family into the attacker’s hand, the satan could show that God made Job righteous. Second, if the satan could attack Job’s person, the man would be proven to have false righteousness. God has hitherto protected him, but if He removed His protection, Job wouldn’t be the righteous man that the satan has witnessed and that God praises him to be.

Conclusion

Was God using Job as a pawn? Why didn’t God do what He seemed to do for Joshua in Zechariah? These are some of the most significant questions to which I wish I had an answer, but I don’t have one. What I suggest as the remedy to this theodicy is what Job suggested when God begins questioning him later in the story: trust God. Job uses the Hebrew sobriquet, El Shaddai of God throughout the book. We typically translate it as “God Almighty,” but an alternative translation would be, “God All Sufficient.” God is all we need in life, even in the nightmares it brings us.

We’re not told why God permitted the attacker to do what he did to Job. Job didn’t know. We witness the hosts of heaven coming and going for the will of God. Jacob’s ladder here enters the mind. When Jacob rested at Bethel, he dreamed of a ladder reaching from the earth to the heavens, and angels ascending and descending on the ladder (Gen. 28:12–15). The fifth-century patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril wrote that this very ladder permitted the angles to do something that the Scripture reveals is their purpose: to minister to those who are heirs of salvation (Heb. 1:14). Job, however, received the short end of the stick, at least from what is written.


[1] John Goldingay, The First Testament: A New Translation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 496.

[2] Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: A Translation with a Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 12.

[3] Ryan E. Stokes, “Satan, YHWH’s Executioner,” JBL 133, no. 2 (2014): 251–70.

[4] Goldingay, The First Testament, 496.

[5] Alter, The Wisdom Books, 12.

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