We never know when we might engage in debates on religion. On theology, cosmology, faith… My most recent one occurred on Thanksgiving, in the company of family and friends, who happened to be a diverse bunch of atheists, agnostics, a Russian Orthodox Christian, and yours truly Catholic Christian. Our conversation, attended by all and with participation by a few, mostly took place between the Orthodox family friend and me and revolved around questions of rightness and wrongness of interpretation. This, of course, includes the issues of authenticity of faith, literal vs. metaphorical reading of the Bible, what makes a Christian, and so on. Toward the end, it all came to a head over one point – a point that may seem inconsequential to some and crucial to others but that exemplifies, I think, the very differences in approach we take to biblical exegesis as well as to interreligious dialogue and even to the problem of evil, if not to life itself.
I was asked if I believed in Satan.
My one answer to that one question determined the outcome of our whole conversation and, according to my interlocutor, cut me off from the Body of Christ – the Church. “I’m sorry,” she said to me. “You’re not a Christian.”
The thing is, I did not say that I did not believe in Satan. I did, however, qualify my answer.
Satan is an important article of faith in Christianity. This is the name of the Devil – the Evil One. Personal Evil in opposition to the Personal Good, who is God. Yet this worldview, which always balances dangerously on the brink of ontological dualism, is not inherited from the same ancient sources as most of the other cornerstone Christian concepts: the One ultimately good Creator-God, prophecy, sin and redemption, sacrifice, covenantal relationship between Creator and Creation, neighborly love, sacrament, messianic fulfillment, priesthood, and so on. These ideas had come and developed from (if you prefer, read “had been revealed through, discerned from”) mostly the Hebrew scriptures, practices, and oral traditions. In other words, as Christianity is a daughter of Judaism, her roots are in the original Jewish/near eastern worldview, and you can find them in the Hebrew Bible. Of course, the gospel message of Jesus of Nazareth that started the movement, the theological discourse that resulted from his teachings and the events surrounding his death, post-Jewish history of development, and even outside cultural influences upon the late Second Temple Judah have made modern Christian teachings what they are: distinctive from biblical Judaism. Yet roots, by definition, are roots: the more deeply we dig, the farther down into the Jewish, biblical past we find them extending.
The concept even approaching anything equivalent to the Devil, on the other hand, comes to live in the Jewish scriptures only very late, only sparingly, and only in very apocryphal locations. It’s an import. It has roots somewhere else – mostly, in Persia and Greece. This is not to say that Satan is a Persian invention, but the Satan of the Old Testament is not the ontological evil force subverting the Good of God.
Ancient Israel didn’t think in terms of such dualisms – ontological or ethical. From the dawn of their attempts to formulate an origin myth to the times some of the latest biblical books were put together, Hebrew-writing Israel thought of YHWH Elohim as the triumphant source of the ordered universe, and by the time monotheism was truly realized in Judaism, He became also the uncontested source – of Good and of the world that was good. Because God made it so. If you read the very first chapter of the Bible, you’ll see that the Judeo-Christian tradition takes it from the highest authority.
This is why, even in the times when Judaism was still finding its way through henotheism to the untainted realization of the oneness of God, it did not think of sin as evil in the way we tend to use the word today. They certainly dealt with enmity and violence and suffering, with ill will, disaster, and betrayal – and again and again they had to explain why bad things happened or why God’s nation was occupied and decimated and exiled – but instead of positing a force opposite to God, they struggled with their own limits of understanding in the face of God’s sovereignty. Their thinking progressed from a straight-forward “the good persons will be rewarded and the bad punished” theodicy to a generations-long circular view of history in which God moved foreign armies in conquest to destroy and punish His wayward Israel for injustice and idolatry only to save a purified remnant out of which He would restore Israel anew. Eventually, the book of Job shows us the slow discarding of explanations as the maturing Judaism comes to grips with the unfathomability of God’s plans and motivations.
Through all of that, sin never became to them its own entity. Sin, to the very down-to-earth biblical Jews, who even to the Garden of Eden bothered to give geographical coordinates, was the straying away from God’s covenant. Separation. Alienation. Falling short, missing the mark, doing wrong. Turning our backs. The destruction of harmony resulting from our pride, stubbornness, greed, or faithlessness. That’s why they sought redemption in the Law – God was the Father, and if disobedience got us disowned, obedience earned us the return into His favor.
Jewish idea of sin never left us anyone to blame but ourselves. It also made making up seem like an achievable goal.
Speaking of the book of Job, it is the place in the Hebrew Bible where Satan makes perhaps his most notable appearance. It’s a pretty late book, as far as we can tell (though it hasn’t been precisely dated and is probably a composite text from more than one time period), and it certainly shows the character of this biblical character (forgive the pun) in the Jewish minds in the Second Temple period. At the start of the story, one of God’s divine council is introduced to us as ha-Satan. This is not a name but a title that means something like “opposer” or “adversary,” and it seems to belong to what we might call a prosecutor in God’s, you might say, court.
He is clearly an argumentative sort, probably a habitual thorn in God’s side, and this time, as usual, in response to God’s bragging about His righteous and faithful servant Job, ha-Satan steps up with a challenge. Of course, Job is faithful – as per the Hebrew traditional theodicy, God has rewarded him with everything a man could want: wealth, health, and a multitude of wonderful sheep and sons! Ha-Satan proposes that if all this were taken away, Job would crack like a cheap pot and, no better than other lowly humans, curse God up and down. God bets on Job, and the wager is on.
At first ha-Satan is allowed by God to take away only Job’s possessions (which includes destroying his things, burning down his house, and killing his children – yes, you may cringe now), but eventually stakes are raised to the man’s health, and he is covered with boils, too. This sends Job on a very long journey of moral and spiritual exploration along with his friends, but our point is this: ha-Satan cannot harm Job beyond the boundaries drawn by God. He may be a loud-mouthed annoying servant, but he is still God’s servant and submissive to Him. Just like the rest of Creation. There is no power struggle in Heaven. No one is working against God. Ontological evil does not exist.
By the way, if you are worried about Job, you needn’t be. He walks a thorny path for a while – lonely, too, as all his friends think there must be something wrong with him if God has afflicted him so (traditional theodicy, remember?) and his wife is extremely unhelpful in the entire affair – and he tries every answer he knows on for size and fails, so he yells at God and calls Him unjust but never quite gives up, and eventually God shows up and pretty literally wails on Job’s head for even questioning Him, belittles Job and asks him a bunch of rhetorical questions designed to make us understand that we don’t understand the majesty of God. Which, of course, is true. Then God pats Job on the back and restores to him everything that was taken – his health, his house, his flocks, the whole thing. Even gives him new children, better than the old. Yes, you are allowed to cringe again at the idea of replaceable children. Keep in mind the brutal realities of the ancient world. They had to be pretty used to that.
Anyway, here we are. There is no evil in the Hebrew Bible. Only sin.
By the time Jesus of Nazareth walks the Earth, however – by the time nascent Christianity begins to develop its terms and concepts – by the time New Testament writers formulate their mythology – the thinking about sin and evil has gotten more complicated in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
To be continued…