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The Devil and Satan

What does the Old Testament teach us about the nature of evil, the devil, and Satan and how do those ideas square with a perusal of Old Testament Scripture?
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What does the Old Testament teach us about the nature of evil, the devil, and Satan? In popular Christianity, Satan is said to be a fallen angel who opposes God, wreaks havoc in the world and is the cause of sin and evil. How do those ideas square with a perusal of Old Testament Scripture?

Let’s begin with a concordance search of the key terms devil and Satan. We almost come up empty for “devil,” although in the KJV, the plural “devils” is found four times, translated from two Hebrew words. Modern versions mainly translate these words by the word “demons.” We would, however, find the word diabolos used in place of Satan and in other passages where Satan does not appear in the manuscript, in about twenty passages in the Septuagint (LXX). We’ll come to the LXX later, so for now, let’s move on to the word “Satan.”


Satan” occurs twenty-seven times in the Hebrew Old Testament. If “Satan” is the name of the agent of evil, according to mainstream Christianity, then we should be able to learn some things about him. However, the very first occurrence of the term presents an immediate problem. That first occurrence is in Num. 22:22, and the Hebrew satan—is not used as a name or about an evil angel. In fact, it is an angel of Yahweh who acts as an adversary against Balaam. 

In the same chapter, the angel speaks to Balaam and says, “I have come out to oppose (satan) you.” (v. 32).1 Therefore, an angel acting on behalf of Yahweh can act as an adversary or satan. 

It is Yahweh who raises up the adversaries in any case.

The next six occurrences of Satan are in the books of Samuel and 1 Kings. They all refer to human adversaries. Perhaps a case could be made for saying Satan himself directed these adversaries, but again, the word is not used as a proper noun throughout those passages. It is Yahweh who raises up the adversaries in any case.

If we take the books of the Bible in the common order in most versions, we still haven’t come across the fallen angel Satan of mainstream Christianity. However, we have come across a lot of sin, evil, and misfortune. Leaving aside Genesis 3 and the serpent, which we will consider next month, think of all the sin and evil described in the Book of Genesis.

We have Cain killing Abel, and Joseph sold into slavery, just to give two examples. In neither case do we find any reference to a fallen angel character named Satan or any other malevolent supernatural evil in the context. And that is true for all the sin and evil mentioned in Exodus through to 1 Chronicles 21, where we find the next occurrence of satan. 

The question needs to be asked: if Satan is such a factor in the sin and evil that plagues our world, why isn’t he mentioned? Why doesn’t God warn his people constantly about the threat of this fallen angel?

1 Chronicles 21:1 presents us with the first real passage that could be a reference to the mainstream Satan character, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” That sounds more like it, but when we analyze this passage against the parallel account in 2 Samuel 24, it is a big challenge to the mainstream view.

In Samuel, we read, “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them.” The word he cannot refer to an evil Satan character. It must refer to either the anger of God personified or God himself. Either way, the fact that Yahweh is being adversarial to David informs us about the identity of Satan in the Chronicles passage. If we do not take Satan to be God himself in Chronicles, he is at least an instrument of Yahweh, just like the angel in Numbers.

Before turning to the Book of Job, let’s look at the final three occurrences of Satan in Psalm 109:6 and Zechariah 3:1-2. In both instances, the Satan acts as a prosecutor. In Psalm 109, God appoints the prosecutor and is paralleled in the verse with “a wicked man.” The word for “wicked,” ra’, does not necessarily mean morally evil. It is closer to our English word “bad.” In other places, God sends ra’ angels against Egypt (Psa 78:49) and threatens Israel with ra’ in Deuteronomy 30:15. 

The Satan of Zechariah 3 seems to be more supernatural than the one in Psalm 109. Once again, however, the word Satan is a title rather than a name. He brings the accusation against Joshua, but it is not a false one because Joshua was wearing “filthy garments” (v. 3), representing either the state of the priesthood or the nation.

Joshua’s garments are changed, signaling that God chose to remedy the problem rather than let him be prosecuted. There is no mention of any ill intent for the actions of the Satan in this passage, so we cannot make any conclusions as to his identity. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament comments: 

A similar picture is given in the fourth vision of Zechariah (3:1-10). Here again we have a heavenly prosecutor, and this time at an actual trial. Here again the satan is not an evil power. The accused, Joshua, is in fact guilty, even though the accusation is quashed. The organ of grace confronts the organ of law.2

The main use of the term Satan is in the Book of Job. An important consideration when it comes to Job is its literary genre. Unlike the historical books of the Old Testament, Job is part of the wisdom literature. As such, we cannot read too much into the characters in the book. Job may well have been a historical figure, but the book is written like a thought experiment.3

The Satan character questions Job’s integrity and acts as a prosecutor, just like in Psalm 109 and Zechariah 3. However, it is not so much Job who is on trial in the book, but the retribution principle, which states that the righteous will prosper, and the wicked will suffer. The Satan contends that blessing the righteous does not help them to develop true righteousness. The Satan, however, is proved wrong when Job’s blessing is replaced with suffering, and he still retains his integrity. 

The main point here is that it is Yahweh, not the Satan, who brings suffering into Job’s life. In Job 2:3, God says to the Satan, “you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” This is confirmed at the end of the book, where his companions “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him.” (Job 42:11). The word for “evil” here is ra’.

Following is a summary of all the occurrences of satan in the Old Testament:

  • Numbers 22:22,32—an angel of Yahweh opposing Balaam.
  • 1 Samuel 29:4—the Philistines fear David will be an adversary to them.
  • 2 Samuel 19:22—the sons of Zeruiah are adversaries against David.
  • 1 Kings 5:4—there were no adversaries at the beginning of Solomon’s reign.
  • 1 Kings 11:14—Yahweh raised up Hadad as an adversary against Solomon.
  • 1 Kings 11:23, 25—God raised up Rezon as an adversary against Solomon.
  • 1 Chronicles 21:1—Yahweh moved David to number the people.
  • Job—a prosecuting adversary but the evil is of Yahweh.
  • Psalm 109:6—a prosecutor.
  • Zechariah 3:1-2—a prosecutor.

One theme we can see in many of these passages is that Yahweh raises up a Satan or that Yahweh endorses the actions of the Satan. We can conclude then that the term does not refer to the Satan of mainstream Christian thought.

It is also worthwhile looking at the verb form of satan, which is found six times in the Hebrew Bible. Three of those occurrences are in Psalm 109 (see comment on v. 6 above), where David speaks of his enemies who “In return for my love they accuse (satan) me.” (v. 4). David prays that these accusers may be judged by Yahweh (v. 20, 29). There is every indication David speaks of human adversaries.

The word is also found in Psalm 38:20 and Psalm 71:13. In each case, like Psalm 109, the psalmist complains about human adversaries. The same word is in Zechariah 3:1, where the Satan lives up to his name as he stood at Joshua’s right hand “to accuse him.”

In Ezra 4:6, we read that “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (v. 1) “wrote an accusation” against them. The word “accusation” here is a cognate noun sitna. Once again, those providing the accusation are not fallen angels but human beings.

Yahweh Creates Evil

It is useful at this juncture to consider the fact that Yahweh brings ra’ against people. Unlike the devil of orthodoxy, ra’ or “evil/badness” is God’s purview. A useful passage to consider is Deuteronomy 32:39 which says, “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” There is no sense of dualism here. There is not a good god who makes alive and heals and a bad god who kills and wounds; Yahweh is sovereign. The words immediately preceding these in the same verse are a common Old Testament statement about Yahweh—“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me.” 

The point is further emphasized by looking at the context. God upbraids Israel because “they stirred him to jealousy with strange gods” (v. 16) and “sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known.” (v. 17). By saying “demons that were no gods” the inspired writer is saying the demons of the nations which Israel went after were impotent; they had no power.

In fact, those same demons, to which the nations ascribed the various phenomena of nature are mentioned later, for instance, in verses 23-24. “And I will heap disasters upon them; I will spend my arrows on them; they shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured by plague and poisonous pestilence.” Things like “disasters,” “arrows,” “hunger,” “plague,” and “pestilence” were, according to the pagan nations around Israel, demons.

For instance, the word translated as “plague” is resep, the name of a Canaanite demon/deity. However, in this passage, it is Yahweh who is in control of resep, and the word, a name in Canaanite mythology, is used for a plague under the control of Yahweh. Yahweh is the one who kills and wounds, not the demons/gods of paganism.

The passage is important because it informs one of the greatest polemics against idolatry in the Old Testament. It is found in the latter half of Isaiah, the so-called Deutero-Isaiah. This book was written to prepare Israel for life in Babylon and Persia, where they would encounter dualistic philosophies like Zoroastrianism. Isaiah preaches that the gods they are to encounter are, as Deuteronomy says, no gods. 

Isaiah 44 is based on Deuteronomy 32. We know this from its use of the nickname for Israel, “Jeshurun” in verse 2—“O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun who I have chosen.” This name is only found elsewhere in Deuteronomy (32:15, 33:5, 26). Later in the chapter, the prophet Isaiah asks, “Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”

The word for God here is unusual, Eloah, as opposed to the more usual Elohim. This passage is the only time Isaiah uses this word, and one of the few times it is found elsewhere is in Deuteronomy 32:15, “then he forsook God,” and verse 17, “to demons that were no gods.” The reference to God being a rock in Isaiah is also a keyword describing Him in Deuteronomy 32.

Why does Isaiah use Deuteronomy 32? Because the prophet wants to remind the people, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God,” (45:5) and “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (45:7). Just as in Deuteronomy, God doesn’t just make alive, he kills or creates “calamity”—ra’. 

Once again, ra’ is the purview of Yahweh, not a malevolent fallen angel. The Old Testament is emphatic on this point even as they were about to enter captivity in Babylon, where they would encounter the idea of an evil god.


Earlier, I mentioned that the LXX often replaces satan with the word “devil”—diabolos, the same word used in the New Testament. This statement is true for the passage in 1 Chronicles 21, the Book of Job, Psalm 109, and Zechariah 3. However, there are two other uses of the word that aren’t in place of satan, both found in the Book of Esther. It is worthwhile briefly considering these passages.

Esther is one of three books in the LXX that has survived in two distinct Greek manuscripts called Old Greek and Alpha. Below is an English translation of the Old Greek of Esther 7:4, the occasion when Esther tells the king about Haman’s plan:

For we have been sold, I am my people, to be destroyed, to be booty and to be enslaved—we and our children as male and female slaves—and I kept silent. For the slanderer (diabolos) is not worthy of the court of the king.

Who is Esther referring to here? The Alpha text, instead of “the slanderer” has “the man who did evil,” and is obviously referring to Haman. The next couple of verses confirm this when the king asks who this man is, and Esther replies that it is Haman.

There is further confirmation the diabolos refers to Haman in the next chapter, which in the LXX reads, “On that very day king Artaxerxes granted to Esther all that belonged to Haman the slanderer (diabolos).” 

One thing we can learn from this is that the Jews were happy to employ the term ha diabolos (the devil) to a human being. 


Much of the Old Testament is the story of sinful mankind. And yet, we do not find references in its pages to a malevolent fallen angel tempting people and causing disaster. Why wasn’t Satan mentioned in the story of the golden calf? Why doesn’t the Book of Proverbs talk about the dangers of falling into the hands of the devil? If Satan is the main foe of mankind, the Old Testament does a terrible job of helping us counter his moves.

It is Yahweh himself who brings ra’, evil, bad things, calamity, disaster, into the world, not an evil fallen angel. Even though the Satan of Job is prominent (at least in the first couple of chapters), the book highlights that God brought the suffering into Job’s life. 

The noun satan and its verbal form are most often used for human adversaries. In the few texts where the word satan could refer to a heavenly being (1 Chr 21; Job 1-2; Psa 109; Zech 3), there is no evidence it refers to a fallen angel, and indeed, there is better evidence that the satan in each incident is employed by Yahweh or even Yahweh himself as in the case of 1 Chronicles 21.

Next month, we’ll expand our reading of the Old Testament by considering the serpent of Genesis 3, a character thought to be either a tool of Satan or the devil himself.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA


  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted.

  2. Walton J.H. and Walton J.H. (2019). Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology. Cascade Books. p. 216.

  3. Werner Foerster, “Διαβάλλω, Διάβολος,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 74.

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