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God Squad: Satan's role has had many incarnations

The ugly fallen angel who is the source of all evil was not the earliest understanding of Satan's role seen in the Bible.

Q: I was one of your students at Temple Beth Torah. I have found myself totally confused about the Book of Job, and some of my Christian friends have been using it to prove Satan exists. I was curious about your views. Thank you so much. –From J

A: Great to hear from you, J. You must have missed my Satan sermon at the synagogue, so let me fill you in.

Satan as accuser: Satan as the ugly fallen angel, the source of all evil, was not the earliest understanding of Satan's role in the Bible. In fact, Satan hardly makes an appearance in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Job is basically his only biblical role, and there Satan appears as the accuser of people, his first role. Satan is the angel who is constantly talking smack about people. In fact, the word "Satan" is also a verb meaning "to accuse." In Job, Satan establishes his role as the accuser. He bets God that the only reason Job is faithful to God is that Job is successful in life. Satan bets that if Job's blessings are taken from him, he will curse God. Satan loses his bet; that's the Book of Job. That's pretty much it for Satan in the Hebrew Bible. There are a other references to Satan in the Hebrew Bible, but they merely rephrase his role as the accuser (Zechariah 3:1-7; 1 Chronicles 21:1; Psalm 109:6).

Satan as tempter: Satan's next role goes beyond being merely the accuser of people. In the New Testament, in the story of the temptation of Christ by Satan, we see a new theological understanding of Satan (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). Jesus overcomes three temptations from Satan and thus proves his strength over him. See also the Parable of the Strong Man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is also depicted as the tempter of Judas (John 13:2).

Satan as the source of evil: Satan as the source of evil in the world is primarily the result of medieval theology and superstition. The word "devil" has its origins in medieval old English "defol." There is evidence of an earlier beginning to the idea that Satan is the devil. It comes from the period between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament when several books — such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Revelations — that are included in the Christian Bible but not in the Hebrew Bible tell a story about a group of angels called The Watchers. These angels rebelled against God and were exiled to Earth into various caves, from which they emerge and seduce people into evil acts. This new conception of Satan as the devil is similar to the role of Satan as a tempter, but it is much stronger and tied much more directly to Satan as the actual source of evil, working against God's desire for goodness in the world. In the 14th century, Dante wrote in his Inferno, "If he was once as handsome as he now is ugly and, despite that, raised his brows against his Maker, one can understand, how every sorrow has its source in him!" (Canto XXXIV translated by Allen Mandelbaum)

Christ as ransom for Satan: In the early medieval church, a theological belief emerged that Jesus was a ransom to Satan for the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. By this belief, now discarded by the church but embraced by the Eastern Orthodox church, Jesus traded his life for the liberation of humanity from that original sin. This also gave rise to the belief that the snake who tempted Eve was in fact Satan.

The Gellman Theory of Satan: I do not believe that Satan is a guy or a guy angel or a being of any kind. I believe that Satan is the force for evil that we all have within us. Just as we all possess an inclination to do good, we possess an inclination to do evil. Judaism calls this evil inclination the yetzer harah. Our task is to overcome the many inclinations within us that lead us to betray our better selves. It would be comforting if our evil impulses came from a red-horned guy with a pitchfork because we could run away from him. If, however, evil comes from within us, there is no place to run. That is Satan to me.

The anniversary of 9/11 is coming up, and that day was the work of Satan. The rescuers were the work of God. I remember both of them and I pledge myself, as I hope you do, to help the rescuers from any other work of Satan in this, God's world.

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