Michael Heiser has done some good academic work during his career as an Old Testament scholar, and I will not hesitate to draw upon his insights in the future. But his view of the heavenly being labeled ha satan (Hebrew for “the satan”) in the book of Job is probably wrong. What I intend to communicate in this post should not be viewed as a general criticism of all of Heiser’s work, nor do I mean to engage his publications broadly in what is after all only a blog post (nor have I read all that he has written). Rather, this post should be viewed as one student of the Bible analyzing and gently criticizing one particular idea that has been widely disseminated by another student of the Bible. Such critique is necessary if we who love the Bible are to “handle accurately the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Heiser (along with some other recent Old Testament specialists) claims that the character designated as ha satan (הַשָּׂטָן ) in the book of Job is not the same being we know as Satan or the devil in the New Testament. In his very popular book, The Unseen Realm, Heiser asserts that ha satan is a title (not a name) that means “adversary,” “prosecutor” or “challenger.” He claims that the title “speaks of an official legal function within a ruling body—in this case, Yahweh’s council.” He adds about ha satan, “He is, so to speak, Yahweh’s eyes and ears on the ground, reporting what he has seen and heard.” Heiser claims that ha satan is “not a villain. He’s doing the job assigned to him by God.” In other words, ha satan is a member in good standing among God’s various heavenly attendants, and functions in a role that is something like a prosecuting attorney (pages 56-58).
What arguments does Heiser present for this alternative view of “the adversary” in Job?
1. Heiser asserts that personal names in Hebrew do not include a definite article ha (“the”). Thus, in Job, ha satan cannot be a name, but must be a title.
Even if we grant that ha satan in Job is a title rather than a name, this does not necessarily entail that the being referred to is a different being from Satan. In Germany in the 1940s, someone who spoke of the Führer (German title for “Leader”) would have been employing a title rather than a name to designate Adolf Hitler, but that doesn’t necessitate that the speaker was referring to two different entities.
2. Heiser comments that the book of Job does not connect ha satan to the serpent of Genesis 3.
This is an argument from silence. There is no particular reason why the author of Job would need to make this connection.
3. Heiser correctly notes that in most instances where the word satan shows up in the Hebrew Bible, it doesn’t refer the devil.
True, but his comment is largely irrelevant to the question at hand. All but four of the passages in which satan appears are in reference to a human who stands somehow in an oppositional relationship to another human, which makes those passages immaterial to the question of the nature of the spiritual being labeled ha satan in Job.
4. Heiser claims that since later Jewish writings (that is, after the time of the Old Testament, but before or near the time of the New Testament) portray Satan as a non-human entity opposed to God and God’s people, this demonstrates that conceptual development in the direction of viewing Satan as a single God-opposing spiritual being occurred during the centuries after Job 1-2, Zechariah 3:1-2, and 1 Chronicles 21:1 were written.
Which is more likely? That dramatic conceptual development occurred, to such a degree that later interpreters fundamentally misinterpreted the satan character in Job, Zechariah and Chronicles? Or that later Jewish documents inherited and echoed an interpretive worldview already seminally present in Job, Zechariah, and Chronicles and added to that conceptual base? In other words, is it not more likely that the non-human satan character was and always had been an evil spiritual being opposed to God and his deeds and that later documents reflect and develop that reality?
So far I have only negatively responded to Heiser’s assertions. Are there positive arguments that satan in Job is, as the traditional view claims, an evil angel opposed to God, his people, and his work? Here are five reasons for the traditional view.
- Satan appears to challenge God in Job 1:9-11 and 2:4-5. The tone of the challenge sounds different to me than the questioning of righteous sufferers such as one might encounter in the lament Psalms (and which usually conclude with an assertion of trust). I doubt that a heavenly being in good standing with God could throw around such an accusation without losing his standing in God’s court.
- Satan attacks an innocent person in Job 2:3 (cf. 1:8). In the traditional view of Satan, God sometimes permits Satan to do evil deeds even to righteous people because God has greater purposes that he intends (Luke 22:31; 2 Cor 12:7). But in this newer view, God would have to be viewed as more directly complicit in the evil attacks against someone whom the book of Job describes as “blameless” and “upright” (Job 1:8; 2:3).
- In Zechariah 3:1-2, a passage that parallels Job 1-2 in many ways, the Lord calls out Satan with these words: ‘The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!’” These words of rebuke are not the words one would expect to hear God speak toward a valued and upright member of his heavenly staff.
- The Apostle Paul (who quotes from Job elsewhere, see Job 41:11 in Rom 11:35 and Job 5:13 in 1 Cor 3:19) appears to include a literary and conceptual allusion to Job in his comments about his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7, all the while viewing Satan as an evil angel. (Notice in this regard the repeated use of the word angelos in Job 1-2; “flesh” in Job 2:4-5; the “sting” of LXX Job 2:7; the shared theologies of suffering; and, of course, the use of the word “Satan.” I will flesh out all of this and more in an upcoming academic book on Paul’s thorn in the flesh.)
- Perhaps most importantly, Satan (also called the devil) is viewed as an evil angel opposing the work of God throughout the New Testament. This is clear in the Gospels (e.g. Matt 4:1-11; Mark 3:22-26; Luke 10:18; John 13:27), in the writings of Paul (e.g., Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14), and in the book of Revelation (e.g., 2:24; 12:9; 20:2, 7). Of this final group, Rev. 12:9 identifies the dragon of Revelation as one-and-the-same being as the serpent, who is also the devil, who is also Satan.
Regarding this final point, Old Testament scholars who are methodologically committed to bracketing the New Testament while doing Old Testament theology might be forgiven for affirming this alternate view of the satan character in Job, but it is much more difficult for a Christian student of the Bible (such as I) to proceed in a similar manner. Heiser (and other writers who promote this view) isolate the New Testament authors—Jews who were so steeped in the Old Testament that they quote from it hundreds of times, allude to it hundreds more times, and exhibit hundreds more echoes reverberating throughout—from the writings of the Old Testament.
The traditional view of Satan as an evil angel opposing the work of God in the book of Job is more likely than the alternative view of Michael Heiser and others who promote similar views.
- Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015). Two other recent books that draw similar conclusions (albeit with individual nuances) are John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology: Reading the Biblical Text in Its Cultural and Literary Context (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019) and Ryan E. Stokes, The Satan: How God’s Executioner Became the Enemy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019). To find others who hold similar views, consult Stokes’s footnotes. I chose to focus this post upon Heiser because of his popularity.
- The four passages where the satan is used in reference to a non-human being are Job 1-2, Zech 3:1-2; 1 Chron 21:1; and Num 22. The last of these (see verses 22 and 32), where the angel of the Lord is described “as an adversary” (le satan) is not a title at all, but rather describes the oppositional action that the angel of the Lord is about to take against the pagan prophet Balaam. It should be observed, however, that in Zech 3:1-2, the angel of the Lord is a different entity from ha satan. Notice also that the definite article ha is missing from 1 Chron 21:1.
- Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 98 n. 85 comments, “The Christian theologian, who works with a tota scriptura that includes the NT witness, need not hesitate to identify the figure of Job 1 with that of 1 Chronicles 21 with that of Matthew 4.”