Yes, We Know That, but Did They? … or … An Adversary Revealed
Having the benefit of the entire bible, we can now look at the world and understand God is not behind everything that happens. God has no evil in him and therefore does not send evil our way. Rather, there are forces in this world working to destroy God’s good creation. But if you look at the Old Testament, did they know this?
If you look back at the chapter discussing the history of God, one fairly significant point I neglected to mention was the sudden emergence of this second major player in the cosmic conflict we discussed above. This character is the Adversary, or Satan.
The introduction of Satan into the biblical narrative is, in my opinion, one of the most significant tools that can be used to understand the apparent contradictions found between the Old and New Testaments as it relates to the character of God.
Open the New Testament and search through the text looking for any information about Satan. What you should find is there are many references to Satan, by his various names, and a lot of teaching about his activity within creation. The early christians had developed a very clear understanding of Satan, the Devil, the prince of this world, the dragon, et cetera, and what his role in the universe is.
This revelation of Satan begins in the gospels in the parallel chapters of Matthew 4, Mark 1 and Luke 4. Before Jesus officially begins his ministry, he goes to the dessert and is tempted by Satan. Jesus then goes on to clearly teach about the evil one, casts out demons and states in John that on the cross, the ruler of this world would be defeated. Every writer in the New Testament that follows is very clear on the fact God has enemies who are actively at work to destroy his creation.
Now go back to the Old Testament and do the same. You should notice something very interesting.
The Hebrew word satan in the Old Testament actually simply means adversary. It is used to describe everything from an adversary in battle, to the angel of the Lord in the story of Balaam to David being described as a potential adversary to the Philistines in 1 Samuel 29.
Satan, as a “superhuman” adversary of God doesn’t seem to exist in the Hebrew bible.
In fact, there are a total of only three references in the entire Old Testament that approach this way of thinking. Let’s quickly look at these passages.
The first passage we’ll look at is in Job 1-2. Here, at the beginning of the book of Job we see Satan accusing God of buying the love of his creation (as described in the previous post). He requests, and is granted, permission to take all Job has from him and proceeds to do so.
What is most fascinating about this passage is that in the entire exchange, we, the readers, know that Satan is responsible for the attacks on Job and his family and yet none of the characters in the story are even the slightest bit aware that God is not the author of their suffering. The people who report the damage describe “the fire of God” falling from heaven and Job’s comforters claim God is punishing Job for some sin. Even though Job disagrees with his accusers, he does not disagree that God is to blame. He states; “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” and “shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad”.
As a reader of Job, I often feel like I am at a pantomime and screaming at Job saying, “Look around you! It’s not God! It was Satan!” and yet Job never discovers this truth. Even when God replies to his complaints, God essentially just says; “Who are you to question my ways?” and simply justifies Job before his friends. He accepts the blame for “the bad” and rejoices that Job has spoken rightly even in the midst of his trials.
I find that fascinating – accepting the blame for something you never did? That’s very strange isn’t it. Why would you do that?
… And that is the first description of Satan in the Old Testament.
On to passage number two in Zechariah 3. Here we are shown a prophetic vision and Satan is described as standing next to the high priest Joshua and accusing him before God. Again the passage is fascinating because the priest actually does have filthy clothes on in the vision, but God simply says “Take off his filthy clothes … See, I have taken your guilt away, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” In this passage, Satan is the accuser and God restores Joshua to right standing. It is Satan that is concerned with our filthiness, not God, in this passage.
Finally, one of the most revealing passages that will serve as a foundation for what is to come; 1 Chronicles 21:1. What makes this passage so interesting is the fact the same story is told, albeit in a VERY different way, in 2 Samuel 24. Here are the two passages side-by-side, starting with 2 Samuel (the older of the two);
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.'” – 2 Samuel 24:1
“Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 21:1
Did you catch it?
The contradiction here should be incredibly obvious. This is no minor difference. The same action is attributed to God or the one hand and Satan on the other hand. This is no small error in copying. We have two very different views of what was happening here.
As we dig a little deeper, we discover that in both accounts, the story goes on to reveal that the Lord was not pleased with this census and it had consequences. Therefore, I think we can safely say it was not “God’s will” for David to undertake this census, which means the account in 1 Chronicles is more likely to be “literally” accurate. But, does that mean the writers of 2 Samuel got it wrong? I would suggest the answer to that question is “no”. The reason is twofold;
- In Ancient Near Eastern cultures, “activities could be ascribed to kings and officials whenever anyone under their authority did something. Given that the Old Testament’s central concern is to proclaim Yahweh to be the one sole King and Ruler of the universe – in contrast to Israel’s neighbors who all believed in many gods – it makes sense to wonder how much of this near eastern monarchical language is in play.” (Greg Boyd, Shedding Light on ‘The Dark Side of God’). We will discuss this further shortly, but essentially what this means is that frequently in the Old Testament, when the bible says God did something, it does not necessarily mean he did it directly, but that he allowed them and accepts full responsibility for them (as seen in our earlier discussion of Job).
- As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the Hebrew understanding of God developed over time. God chooses to reveal things about himself at different times when he feels we are ready to know more. The full revelation came in Christ, but throughout the Old Testament, he was slowly revealing himself and what he is like. The fact the later writers of Chronicles understood Satan to be behind this wrong action, shows their understanding is beginning to be better formed in the image of Christ.
As we move back to discussing Satan’s relative absence from the Old Testament, I’m sure some people are wondering about the other references to Satan; say in the beginning of Genesis for example. This is where the foundation we have built in previous chapters becomes so important. We, with the benefits of having the book of Revelation (12:9), understand the “serpent” in the garden was in fact Satan, but this was not the case for early Jewish audiences. The identity of the serpent in Genesis is never revealed in the Old Testament and further descriptions of the Adversary in the Old Testament are well disguised, usually behind the mask of a very human figure. We may be able to see Satan in the passages, but the early audiences would not have. This does not mean the intent was not there, just that they would not have been primarily understood that way. The writers of the Old Testament would not have had a fully formed understanding of Satan the way the New Testament writers did.
The obvious question, now, is why would God keep the existence of Satan such a secret from his people? For this, we’ll return briefly to the second part of Greg Boyd’s quote above;
“…the Old Testament’s central concern is to proclaim Yahweh to be the one sole King and Ruler of the universe – in contrast to Israel’s neighbors who all believed in many gods …”
As you look at the Old Testament you will see the theme of Yahweh’s revelation was that he is the only true God. Christians today may see this as being incredibly obvious, but in the Ancient Near East, this was unheard of. In fact, if you look closely, you will notice that even this revelation moved more slowly than you might like to think.
Take a closer look at the first commandment – “you shall have no other gods before me”.
Wait, what? Why not simply, “I am the only God”? This goes back to our discussion on the fact the law first and foremost reveals the state of the culture, not the ideal God wishes we were. God was meeting his people where they were. Step one; “let’s get you to view me as being the most important god in your world. Once that has been settled, we’ll move on to the realization that I am, in fact, the only God.”
God meets people where they are and slowly moves them to a deeper understanding of who he is. To do that, he teaches us in ways that ignore certain things for the sake of moving us on a proper trajectory toward him. It is understandable that sometimes information needs to be concealed in order to avoid distractions that would keep us from what the teacher is attempting to get across. In this case, it meant keeping Satan under wraps.
“Pagan religions are often dominated by fear … people took all manner of superstitious precautions to protect themselves from the demonic … Had God chosen to highlight the role of a satanic figure, the condition of the people could have made dualism, if not polytheism, a likely threat to the purity of the faith that God was seeking to establish.” – Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?
As it was, throughout her history, Israel is shown seriously struggling with the gods of her neighbours. Even Solomon, who the bible puts forward as the wisest person ever to live, turned to worship Molech, a god who demanded the sacrifice of firstborn children. When in battle, Israel feared the gods of her adversaries and seemed continually to doubt God was strong and powerful enough to protect her. Imagine if God had revealed there was a true enemy who was out to destroy God’s good creation. In his wisdom, God appears to have chosen to keep much of this knowledge hidden until the time had come when the ruler of this world would be destroyed at the cross.
At this point, it is critical that we turn to consider what this means from a very practical point of view. Given what we have discussed in previous chapters about the fact God works from within a culture and does not override human understanding, but inspires his penmen to write from their own environments, how did the writers of the Old Testament deal with the presence of evil in the world in the absence of its true source?
Imagine having to describe the atrocities of the holocaust without being able to include any details about Hitler (1). It makes no sense given our understanding, but if knowledge of Hitler’s existence were to be hidden, people would need an explanation for how such horrible things could possibly happen.
In the case of the bible, that explanation appears to have been that God accepted responsibility for everything, both good and bad.
The Old Testament is littered with statements showing God taking direct responsibility for things he merely allowed or did not stop from happening. In fact, he is often depicted as commanding things that he merely allowed to happen.
In the view of the Ancient Near East, whoever was the god of Israel would be responsible for anything that happened to his people. If we look at this on a larger scale, if there is one God and he is ruler of the world, he must be responsible for everything and if his people do something, it must have been commanded by their God.
This was the ancient worldview.
From our “advantageous” position in the 21st century, we can read New Testament accounts that clearly show Satan is, in actual fact, ruler of this world and therefore should be given “credit” for many of the things that happen in this world. Ancient Israel did not have this luxury.
This is where we can so clearly see God’s willingness to not simply allow this thinking, but encourage it. Read the following prophetic statements made in the name of the Lord and ask yourself if this is in any way possible given the new understanding we find in the New Testament?
“I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the LORD do all these things.”
– Isaiah 45:6-7
“I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live.” – Ezekiel 20:25
“The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.”
– 1 Samuel 2:6-7
“Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him // The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house // Then an evil spirit from the LORD came upon Saul … ” – 1 Samuel 16:14, 18:10. 19:9
Here we have God taking responsibility for creating darkness or tragedy, providing Israel with laws that were not good, killing and making people poor and, finally, sending evil spirits. There are many more examples of God taking credit or being given credit for things that appear very ungodly in the Old Testament. I considered listing every single example, but quickly realized it would be an exercise that would exhaust even the most dedicated of readers.
These seemingly very un-God-like statements are contrasted with the very clear statements about God we see in the New Testament;
“No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” – James 1:13
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” – 1 John 1:5
When we look at these contradictory statements, it would be very easy to ignore the contradictions and chalk it all up to some great mystery, but the revelation of Jesus definitively describes the nature of God. This understanding of who God is must be brought back to our understanding of God in the Old Testament if we are to take a “Christian” view of the Hebrew bible. As such, I would argue the differences seen between the Old and New Testaments show what inspired authors did without a revelation from God of the cosmic conflict going on all around them. They could only describe things in terms they understood.
This results in God being given “credit” for doing things we now fully understand his character could not allow. His primary focus in Old Testament times was to showcase he was the ONLY God and to do so meant he had to proclaim his sovereignty. He would not damage this goal by causing his people to think there may be a true enemy to God; a being they would, then, seek to appease.
In that culture, allowing his people, at this stage of their development, to understand the existence of Satan and his “angels” would have resulted in only negative consequences. To avoid this, God allowed his people to believe he was responsible for some pretty horrific things. As we have seen, polytheism dominated the cultures of this day and convincing Israel there was only one God was not an easy thing to do.
With the revelation found at the cross, we can finally view these Old Testament passages in a more complete light, understanding that Jesus has always been willing to take ownership of and responsibility for the sins of his creation regardless of the fact “in him there is no darkness at all”. We are told that on the cross, “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us,” and when we begin to look through the lens of Christ, we can see he has been taking on the appearance of sin since creation chose to go its own path rather than trust in a good God.
He has willingly allowed himself to look “sinful” in our eyes so that we would move slowly toward him and his plans for reconciliation when his pure goodness is finally recognized by our crusty eyes.
The route God took to reveal truth may seem long and slow moving to us, but God has always been patient. After all, love is patient.
It is humanity that looks for the quick and easy way – we desire fast food while God wants the meal to be slow roasted to perfection and utterly enjoyable. He is not concerned with how long things may take; he acts and reveals himself at just the right time.
God is constantly at work teaching us, his children, and developing us for our eternal roles ruling with him. He starts where we are and slowly works us toward an ideal. In the case of Israel, his starting point was to show them he was the one and only true God. In a polytheistic world, this meant taking credit and blame for everything and so, in the bible, we see God doing things he actually merely allows. Because of his desire for us to freely choose him, he allows alternative choices to exist without the fear of immediate destruction. This has allowed Satan to rule this present age and created the opportunity for the resulting cosmic conflict over whether or not God can be trusted.
In the next post, I am hoping to provide a few additional tips for reading portions of the Old Testament that may seem hard to reconcile with Jesus. Some may be slightly repetitive, but my aim is to build on what has been said so far, add a few additional things to consider and give succinct bullets to assist in forming better interpretation. By “better”, I mean a more plain and faithful view of what the passage intends to reveal about God from within its proper context (at least as I see it).
Next: Checklist Time
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
11. Checklist Time
12. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?
(1) This example has been shamelessly stolen from Brad Cole of Godscharacter.com