Do Jews Believe in the Devil?

Satan didn’t arise from Hell fully formed. The concept of an ultimate Evil One was apparently borrowed from the Persians and continued to evolve throughout antiquity

When Jews believed in multiple gods, there was no difficulty in explaining why bad things happen to good men. A vast array of spirits, demons, evil gods and things that go bump in the night could be blamed for their misfortune. But once God was elevated to supreme and then the only god, the problem became vexing: Was God unfair? With help from the Persians, Jews came up with an answer: Satan.

First Temple Period (700-586 B.C.E.): Satan the lawyer

In the early books of the Bible, which were written roughly in the First Temple period, there is no Prince of Darkness, just demons called se’irim. Some had names, such as Belial and Azazel, but none reigned supreme.

We do find the word satan in these early biblical books, but they do not refer to a demon. Rather, “satan” is just a proper noun denoting an adversary in a martial or judicial setting. For example, a foreign king opposing the king of Israel was said to be a satan:

And the Lord stirred up an adversary unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (1 Kings 11:14).

Clearly, the Bible does not have the Prince of Darkness in mind here, but rather a man of flesh and bone.

It is true that the Bible also refers to supernatural beings as being satans. For instance, in the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, God becomes angry and sends an “angel of the Lord” to stand “in the way for an adversary against him [Balaam]” (Numbers 22:22). In this case too, we are not talking about Satan with a capital S, rather just an unnamed messenger of God doing the Lord’s bidding, as an adversary.

Early Second Temple Period (530-450 B.C.E.): Devil the Bob

By the time the Book of Job was conceived, apparently in the early Second Temple period around 2,500 years ago, we can see a slight movement towards the development of Satan as an evil being. But he still isn’t Satan with a capital S. The book itself is an essay on the problem of evil, probably written in response to the destruction of Judah and the Temple.

Job, we are told, is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil,” yet he faces terrible calamities. Why?

Job’s troubles are attributed to the work of ha-satan, that is, “the adversary,” and not, as the English translations insist, Satan with capital S. The word satan in Job could not be a name: in the Hebrew original it is always preceded by “ha,” which is equivalent to the English word “the” (this would be equivalent to saying “the Bob”). Thus satan in Job is “adversary,” just as it was in the earlier books of the Bible.

Yet the Book of Job does not refer to just any adversary but to “the adversary.”

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and the satan came also among them” (Job 1:6).

“The adversary” is a member of God’s heavenly council, who says he had just returned “from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” God asks him what he thinks of Job, but being a kind of prosecutor, the satan says that Job is only being good because he is being rewarded for it. He convinces God to test Job’s piety with a deluge of disasters.

A similar image of ha-satan, the satan as heavenly prosecutor, can be found in the Book of Zechariah (3:1-10), which is also believed to date from the early Second Temple period. In it, where Joshua the high priest is put on trial and accused by “the adversary.” The Lord acting as judge rebukes him and sides with the “Angel of the Lord” who acts as the priest’s defense attorney.

גוסטב דורה / Gustave Doré

Late Second Temple Period (450 B.C.E.-70 C.E.): My name isn’t Legion, it’s Mastema

The one and only time we find Satan used as a proper name in the Bible is in the Book of Chronicles. He appears in revisions of the books of Samuel and Kings, the Book of Chronicles, probably dating to the late 4th or early 3rd centuries B.C.E.

When rewriting the story of King David calling a census in 2 Samuel 24:1, where it says ““And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah,” the Chronicler switches out the Lord for Satan:

“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1).

He is no longer ha-satan, the adversary, but Satan.

This is roughly the point at which the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, and the noun satan was translated into the Greek word diábolos, which means “one who slanders, accuses.” The Greek word eventually made its way into English as “devil”.

This is also roughly the same period that the Book of the Watchers and the Book of Enoch were written. While these books were not incorporated into the Hebrew Bible, they were popular at the time – over 2,000 years ago, and reflect the views of at least some Jews in the late Second Temple period, including those living in Qumran who painstakingly made many copies of these books.

These deuterocanonical books contain a horde of evil demons and they have a leader, the chief evil spirit, but he is not called Satan. In the Book of the Watchers, he is called Mastema. That name is almost certainly etymologically related to the noun satan.

But in the Book of Enoch, this figure is called Samyaza, which might mean “(he) saw my name.”

In addition, Hebrew literature from this period also refers to demonic figures named Belial and Samael. All these names refer to the same basic idea, a chief demon, who opposes God and heads a group of fallen angels who spread evil throughout the world.

Where did Jews of this period get the idea that there is a chief demon responsible for all that is evil?

At one level, inventing a chief demon was a logical evolution of the conception of God that took shape in this period. If God is all-powerful and utterly good, how could bad things happen? He couldn’t be responsible, so some other being must be to blame, a kind of anti-God perhaps.

But Jews apparently didn’t come up with this idea on their own. They seem to have picked it up from their Persian overloads, who ruled over the entire Middle East from 539 to 330 B.C.E. The Persian religion Zoroastrianism envisioned the universe as a battle ground between to opposing supreme gods Ahura Mazda, the “wise lord,” and Angra Mainyu, the destructive spirit.”

After the Temple (After 70 C.E.): Evil Superman

In the year 70 C.E., Roman soldiers commanded by Vespasian destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple, to punish the Jews for (unsuccessfully) rebelling.

The period after the destruction of the Temple  was a critical one  in the formation of both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

The books of the Christian Bible abound with references to Satan, as he was imagined in Judaism in the late Second Temple period. For example the Gospel of Mark says of Jesus:

And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him” (1:13).

Within Christianity, Satan evolved into the Antichrist, God’s antithesis, who is behind all that is evil. He is the master of Hell, as everyone knows from popular culture.

Not so in rabbinic Judaism, at least not at first. Rabbinic literature of the Tannaic period (70-250 C.E.), namely the Mishnah and the Tosefta, hardly ever refers to Satan. It seems as if the rabbis rejected the full-blown image of the devil as he appears in the Book of the Watchers and the Book of Enoch, books they did not admit into the canon.

But this retreat in the Evil One’s status was temporary. Come the Amoraic period (250-450 C.E.) Satan reemerged in Jewish literature – the Talmud, and more prominently in the Midrashic literature, where he is blamed for pretty much every nastiness that took place in the Bible, from David sinning with the married Bathsheba to the Binding of Isaac (i.e., for sacrifice).

In the Jewish literature of the rabbis, Satan is portrayed as a singular being who lures men into sin, and as prosecutor in the divine tribunal, trying to convince God to mete out harsh penalties. He is said to been a powerful angel, able to fly and assume the shape of men, women and animals.

This devil was often called Ashmedai or Asmodeus, a name deriving from a Zoroastrian evil demon, or Samael, a demonic entity also mentioned in the gnostic literature found in Nag Hammadi (a collection of early Christian and gnostic texts discovered near the Egyptian town of the same name in 1945.) In the Talmud he is conflated with the Angel of Death and the Evil Inclination.

Still, despite Satan appearing quite frequently in the Talmud and Midrashic literature, mainstream medieval rabbis did not dwell on him, or discuss methods of combating his malevolence. This would become the domain of Kabbalistic literature, especially the Zohar, written in 13th century Spain.

The Zohar expands on the character of Satan, which it calls Samael. It provides him with a wife, the evil spirit Lilith, and a set of demons which do his bidding.

Obviously, this worldview required different methods of fighting Satan, Lilith and their minions. This was achieved chiefly by reciting spells and sporting amulets.

The view of Satan and his demons as actual beings was criticized by more rationalist streams of Judaism and most prominently by Maimonides, the sage who lived in the 12th century. Over time, as Judaism advanced to the modern period, this rationalist view prevailed and Satan and his minions were interpreted, at least in mainstream Judaism, in more metaphoric ways: they emblemize the evil inclinations which man carries within him, and cause him to stray from the path set for him by God.

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