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I’ve been reading The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels. She traces modern day notions of Satan back to their origins. In the chapter I’m reading now, she is looking at OT usages of “satan” and its historical context. According to Pagels, satan wasn’t originally an entity; that is to say, satan wasn’t a “who” but a “what.” A satan was an inanimate object that can be roughly translated as something that blocks the path. Interestingly enough, a “satan” wasn’t always bad.

She quotes another scholar in saying, “If the path is bad, a blockage could be good.” Pagels cites the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers 22. As Balaam is traveling, an angel of the Lord, or satan, blocks his path. In this instance, the satan not only causes Balaam to do the right thing, it is actually an angel from the Lord.

Again in Job, Satan is a member of God’s court and one of God’s attendants. In Job, Satan plays the role of an informant or spy, roaming the Earth and keep God abreast of the doings of God’s creation. Pagels suggests that this may have been a literary device used to demonize spies who acted as informants for Babylon, which controlled Israel at the time of Job’s writing. Pagels also notes that, contrary to popular present-day notions, the Satan we see in Job was a willing servant of God and was bound to do God’s bidding.

Oddly enough, many of our present day ideas about Satan and his history come from the First Book of Enoch, an apocryphal writing which isn’t accepted in the Protestant cannon. Growing up I heard stories about how Satan was one of God’s angels, but he became arrogant and tried to overthrow God. He and his legion of followers were cast out of Heaven, and descended to torment earth. I find it ironic that this story, widely accepted as orthodoxy in my tradition, is extrapolated from an apocryphal writing, widely accepted as heresy in my tradition.

From the perspective of Biblical texts, we can see satan evolve from an inanimate stumbling block, to an angel under the command of God, to a former angel who lead an insurrection against God, into the Satan we know and hate today.

More than likely, the patriarchs of our faith would have considered satan to be a difficulty that could be either evil or righteous. Today we would probably label such people as Satanists. At the very least, we would ostracize them for the Christian tradition for daring to suggest that Satan could be a good thing.