Satan or the devil is a popular figure in Western culture. In this article I will explain the Jewish concept of Satan. As will be seen, the Jewish concept of Satan is very different from the popular culture concept.
Meaning of the Word Satan
The root letters of the Hebrew word satan are sin-tet-nun. As with so many Hebrew words, this root can be used as a verb and a noun.
As a verb, sin-tet-nun means be hostile to, hinder, or accuse.
As a noun this root means hinderer, adversary, accuser, seducer, or enemy.
The root sin-tet-nun can and is used to refer to ordinary people. In other words, one person can be an adversary or accuser to another person.
The above definitions are all for the general use of the word. However, our main interest in this article is to look at a specific use of the word.
The specific usage is the Hebrew word ha-satan which we would translate as The Satan.
The Satan in the Bible
The word ha-satan is found 3 times in Zecharia and 14 times in the Book of Job. It does not appear anywhere else in the Jewish Bible.
Let’s look briefly at those passages to understand the Satan. (There are many details in these verses that I will not discuss in this article because they are not relevant to our main objective.)
The translation of these passages is based on the Judaica Press Tanach. I have added any words that are in square brackets in an attempt to make the translation more literal.
1. And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and [the] Satan standing at his right hand to thwart him.
2. And the [angel of the] Lord said to [the] Satan, The Lord rebukes you, O [the] Satan; the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebukes you. Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?
The word translated here as “to thwart him” is the verb form of the root sin-tet-nun. The Artscroll Tanach translates it as “to accuse him.”
I think this difference in translations reflects (at least in part) different understandings the Satan’s role in this prophecy. According to the translation “to thwart him,” the Satan was inspiring those who were opposed to building the new Temple.
According to the Artscroll translation “to accuse him,” the Satan was presenting to the heavenly court transgressions that Joshua the high priest might be guilty of committing.
6. Now there was a day when the angels of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and [the] Satan came also among them.
7. And the Lord said to [the] Satan, Where are you coming from? Then [the] Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
8. And the Lord said to [the] Satan, Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil?
9. Then [the] Satan answered the Lord, and said, Does Job fear God for nothing?
10. Have not you made a hedge around him, and around his house, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions are increased in the land.
11. But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.
12. And the Lord said to [the] Satan, Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself put not forth your hand. So [the] Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.
These verses record a conversation between God and the Satan. According to Jewish tradition, this gathering took place on Rosh HaShanah.
God praises Job. The Satan accuses Job of only being righteous because he is wealthy. God gives the Satan permission to destroy Job’s wealth but not to harm Job.
The rest of Job Chapter 1 records the destruction of Job’s wealth and the death of all of his children.
1. Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and [the] Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord.
2. And the Lord said to [the] Satan, Where are you coming from? And [the] Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
3. And the Lord said to [the] Satan, Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a blameless and an upright man, one who fears God, and turns away from evil? And still he holds fast to his integrity, although you moved Me against him, to destroy him without cause.
4. And [the] Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin! All that a man has will he give for his life.
5. But put forth your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.
6. And the Lord said to [the] Satan, Behold, he is in your hand; but spare his life.
7. So went [the] Satan forth from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
Job chapter 2 reveals to us that God gave the Satan additional permission to afflict Job with illness. We understand from verse 6 that the Satan has the power to kill Job but was not given permission to do so.
Job and Satan in the Gemara
Now let’s look briefly at 3 passages in the Talmud that discuss how the Satan is portrayed in the book of Job.
“And the Lord said to Satan, Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth …and still he holds fast to his integrity, although you moved Me against him, to destroy him without cause.” (Job 2:3)
Said R. Yochanan: Were it not expressly stated in the Scripture, we would not dare to say it. [God is made to appear] like a man who allows himself to be persuaded against his better judgment.
A Tanna taught: [Satan] comes down to earth and seduces, then ascends to heaven and awakens wrath; permission is granted to him and he takes away the soul.
Rabbi Yochanan looks closely at God’s words “you [The Satan] moved Me against him [Job].” These words appear to be saying that The Satan convinced God to do something that He did not want to do.
However, in fact, what is recorded in this passage is the way God has arranged the physical and spiritual worlds. The Satan operates in the world in various aspects. He is able to seduce a person and then accuse that person of sinning. However, his actions are all constrained by the permission granted to him by God.
Resh Lakish said: Satan, the evil prompter [Hebrew: yetzer hara], and the Angel of Death are all one.
Resh Lakish clarifies for us the three guises of evil in this world. These 3 exist because they serve different purposes.
The Maharal (Chidushei Aggadah Baba Batra) explains that there is a hierarchy in these 3 forces.
The yetzer hara is the spiritual force that presents people with temptations and opportunities to sin. Stronger than that is the Satan who opposes a person and is the prosecutor in the heavenly court. Stronger still is the Angel of Death that removes a person from this world.
However, they are not independent forces. They only act after God grants them permission.
“Although you know that I am not wicked; and there is no one who can save from your hand.” (Job 10:7)
Rava said: Job sought to exempt the whole world from punishment. He [Job] said: Sovereign of the Universe, You have created the ox with cloven hoofs and You have created the donkey with whole hoofs; You have created Paradise and You have created Gehinnom: You have created righteous men and You have created wicked men, and who can prevent You?
His companions answered him: “But you cast off fear, and you slight the prayer that is made before God.” (Job 15:4) If God created the evil inclination [yetzer hara], He also created the Torah as its antidote.
Rava understands Job’s words in verse 10:7 to mean that God created man without free will. The ox and the donkey were created by God with distinguishing physical marks that can never be changed. Job complains that it appears that the righteous and the wicked also have no control over their natures and their actions.
His companions explain that indeed God created the yetzer hara and He created the ability to resist it.
The yetzer hara (another name for the Satan) may tempt a person, but that person has the ability to overcome it. That power of resistance is found in the Torah.
God’s Courts and Satan’s Role
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) wrote a book called Derech Hashem (the English translation is titled The Way of God). This book is a systematic explanation of the relationships between heaven and earth and between God and man.
God arranged matters so that His direction of the world should resemble that of an earthly government. …
The spiritual realm therefore contains courts of justice and deliberating bodies, with appropriate rules and procedures. God arranged these various tribunals consisting of spiritual beings in particular systems and levels. All cases that are to be judged are brought before these courts, and what subsequently happens is the result of their decrees.
The heavenly court is mentioned a few times in the Bible. It plays a key role in the first 2 chapters of Job as we saw in the verses quoted above.
God also appointed a prosecutor, known as the Satan. The Bible mentions him when it say (Job 1:6), “The day came when the sons of God arrived to present themselves before God, and the Satan also came among them.”
The function of the Satan is to seek judgment before these tribunals and bring action alerting the court to sit in judgment.
In the last sentence, the Ramchal teaches us that the Satan functions in 2 ways. First, he serves as the prosecutor before the heavenly court when it is meeting. Second, he can accuse a person and request that the heavenly court meet in a special session to try that person.
It appears we see both of these functions in the Book of Job. Chapter 1 (according to Jewish tradition) happened on Rosh HaShanah, a day when the heavenly court meets every year.
However, Job Chapter 2 was not on Rosh HaShanah. Rather, the Satan thought he had detected a flaw in Job and asked the court to come into session to consider this new accusation.
The significance of sounding the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah is related to the fact that on this day God judges all the world.
On Rosh HaShanah, God renews all creation as part of a new cycle, namely a new year. Courts of justice are set up [on high] and all created beings brought to trial. This follows the system of the highest judgment explained in the second section (2:6:5).
At this time, the Prosecutor [or Satan] is prepared to accuse mankind for its sins. God therefore commanded us to sound the Shofar, in order to invoke a process of mercy, rather than one of harsh judgment. This in turn confounds the Prosecutor to such an extent that he is no longer able to accuse.
God judges the entire world on Rosh HaShanah and the Satan as the prosecutor plays his role in that court. However, God in His mercy, commands the Jewish people to blow the shofar on that day. Our blowing the shofar creates conditions in the world that increase God’s mercy and limit the Satan’s abilities.
Conclusion – The Concept of Satan in Judaism
This has been a long article. Therefore, let’s briefly summarize the Jewish concept of Satan.
- The Satan is one of God’s angels.
- Like all of the other angels, he is a being created by God.
- The Satan does not have independent free will.
- The Satan can only do what God permits him to do.
- The Satan does not cause a person to sin.
- He may be given permission to place an opportunity to sin in front of a person.
- In the heavenly court, the Satan serves as the prosecutor.
- God gave us the Torah as our main tool to resist the Satan.
A Note on the Featured Image
It was difficult to choose images to use with this article.
In popular culture, Satan is often depicted as a savage being with horns and holding a pitchfork. He is depicted as ruling in the under world.
This article should have made it clear to you that none of these depictions are accurate according to the Jewish concept of Satan.
The Satan’s main role in Jewish thought is as the prosecutor in the heavenly court. Therefore I chose a picture of a gavel. The gavel is a symbol of the judge in an earthly court who pronounces a verdict after hearing from the prosecutor and the defendant. This is similar to how the heavenly court operates.