Satan in the Book of Job

The Book of Job is largely poetry (I’ll return to this in a later post). The speeches of Job, his three friends, and the LORD, are all in poetry. These speeches – the bulk of the book – are ‘framed’ by a Prologue and Epilogue which are in narrative prose.

The Prologue to Job (part of the frame story) has several ‘scenes’, alternating between a divine council (probably in heaven, although this is not explicitly stated) and corresponding events on earth. In the first scene the sons of God (translated as “the divine beings” in the JPS Tanakh) present themselves before the LORD and “the Adversary came along with them” (Job 1:6 JPS). Translators differ about how to translate השטן. The JPS Tanakh translates this as “the Adversary” while most English translations transliterate as “Satan”. The JPS Tanakh is preferred for three reasons: (a) it is a translation rather than a transliteration; (b) it captures the definite article which is present in the Hebrew but omitted in translations which transliterate as Satan (the Satan would be better); and (c) the capitalised transliteration, Satan, suggests that this is a proper noun, the adversary’s name, while the JPS capitalised translation, the Adversary, makes it clear that השטן is a title, rather than a name. “In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character.”[1] Some commentators and translators, while similar to the JPS Tanakh in translating rather than transliterating, prefer the Prosecutor[2]. Hereafter I will follow the JPS Tanakh and use the translation “the Adversary” (unless quoting).

After introducing the main character and describing his piety the frame story describes an assembly of the בני האלהים “sons of God”. The JPS Tanakh interprets this as “divine beings” while the New International Version (NIV) interprets as “angels”. Later, the sons of God are mentioned in the poetic section of Job, in a creation account.[3] While it is a rare term in the Hebrew Bible, both the JPS Tanakh and the NIV have undoubtedly interpreted correctly and a heavenly ‘angelic’ council is intended. There are similar Biblical descriptions of the heavenly court elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and it has been suggested that the use of common phrases for “characteristics of the ‘heavenly council’ in the Mesopotamian, Ugaritic and ancient Israelite texts” categorise these as “type scenes”[4]. Psalm 82:1 refers to a “divine assembly” where אלהים (“God”) stands בקרב אלהים “among the divine beings” (JPS). Psalm 89:6-8 (5-8 in most English translations) has a variety of terms for the heavenly assembly which parallel the Ugaritic texts[5]: קהל קדשים “assembly of holy beings”; בני אלים “divine beings”; and סוד־קדשים “council of holy beings” (JPS). In Daniel 7:9-10 the prophet has a vision of “the Ancient of Days” surrounded by “thousands upon thousands” and “myriads upon myriads” who attend him and sit in court. The Biblical description of the heavenly court which parallels the Job frame-story most closely is in 1 Kings 22:19 where the prophet Micaiah “saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven [כל־צבא השמים] standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (ESV). In this account the LORD enquires of his council “who will entice Ahab?” In Micaiah’s story ‘a spirit (lit. the spirit הרוח) came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him”.’ The similarity with the Job frame-story is striking as in both stories a divine being deals with a human as a consequence of a dialogue in the heavenly council (perhaps suggesting that the writer of the Book of Job was familiar with the views of the Deuteronomistic Historian, and may even have been responding to them.[6]) “It is easy to recognize, in their modus operandi, the virtual identity of “the Spirit” of this passage [1 Kings 22] and the Satan of the Book of Job. But in Kings, the Spirit is an extension of God’s own personality” and perversely invokes qualities “which could not with propriety be attributed directly to God.”[7]

“Whether the Satan [in the Job frame-story] is a regular member of the council or an unexpected visitor is left ambiguous”.[8] While some scholars regard the Adversary as an intruder, it is clear that he had access to the heavenly throne and likely that he was counted among the members of the divine council.[9] In Job the Adversary’s role is not malicious or evil. Rather, he “seems to hold the office of a prosecutor intent on establishing justice”[10] and Habel argues that, in fact, the whole of the Book of Job is a legal metaphor.[11] Pagels observes that “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants.”[12] In Job he is “subject to God’s control and was used by God to accomplish his purposes” and there is “a pronounced emphasis on his subordination” to God.[13] Habel even suggests that as God himself raises the subject of Job’s piety ha-satan may be verbalising the LORD’s “own latent misapprehensions”[14], an idea which is shared by Wilson who understands ha-satan to be “the alter ego” of the LORD.[15] The Adversary in Job does not play the role of a ‘tempter’. In the dialogues between the LORD and the Adversary in the two scenes set in the heavenly council, it is the LORD who initiates the dialogue and asks the Adversary what he thinks about Job. This raises the question about Job’s motivation in serving God. If God rewards worship with prosperity then perhaps Job is worshipping God in order to be prosperous. In other words, God’s policy of rewarding faithfulness is flawed. The Adversary is in fact challenging God’s policies rather than human behaviour[16]; he isn’t acting maliciously against Job. He is the LORD’s adversary, not Job’s. “If God is testing Job, one could just as easily argue that hassatan is testing God”.[17]

If I’m reading this correctly and what we have in the Prologue is drama and not history, then it is possible that rather than being an actual divine being the Adversary was a dramatic character who articulated the LORD’s own doubts about Job’s piety.


[1] Pagels, E., The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1996), 39.

Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985) p.89 also notes that ha-satan “is not the personal name Satan but a role specification meaning “the accuser/adversary/doubter”.”

[2] For example, Good, E.M., “The Problem of Evil in the Book of Job”, in: L.G. Perdue and W.C. Gilpin (eds), The Voice From the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992): 50-69, 52

[3] In Genesis 6:2, 4 when the text refers to the ‘sons of God’ the Hebrew is בני האלהים  with the definite article prefixed to אלהים. However, in the creation account in Job 38:7 we find  בני אלהים  without the definite article. In the frame story (Job 1:6; 2:1) the Hebrew text has the definite article as in Gen 6. A similar term בני אלים occurs in Psalm 29:1 and 89:6 where אלים is probably a poetic equivalent to אלהים. In personal correspondence with University of Sydney Assoc. Professor Ian Young, Dr Young suggests that ‘the definite article is quite a late comer to the Semitic languages, not being attested before 1000BCE.  Thus it is one of the features that can be left out in poetic, “archaic” style.  My suggestion is therefore that they are just two versions of the same thing.  Compare the difference between ELOHIM and HAELOHIM in Gen 5:21-24.  Ancient readers thought this significant, HAELOHIM=the angels; ELOHIM=God.’

[4] Kee, M.S., “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Vol 31.3, 2007. pp. 259-273, 259

[5] Heiser, M.S., “Divine Council” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 113

[6] Kelly, H.A., Satan: A Biography (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21

[7] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 202

[8] Habel, 1985, 89

[9] Walton, J.H., “Satan” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 715

[10] Habel, 1985, 89

[11] Habel, 1985, 54

[12] Pagels 1996, 39

[13] Page, S.H.T., “Satan: God’s Servant” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Sep 2007; 50, 3, 449

[14] Hable, 1985, 89

[15] Wilson, L.S., The Book of Job: Judaism in the 2nd Century BCE: An Intertextual Reading (Maryland: University Press of America, 2006), 62

[16] Walton, 2008, 716

[17] Wray T.J. and G. Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 64

4 comments on “Satan in the Book of Job

  1. Well done Steve and I look fwd to reading more about Job . You are as incisive and erudite as always .
    Mostly agree with u — esp Job is good theatre . Except I think every event really happens although it is dramatised Jesus said scripture cannot be broken . — so each event though dramatised is true — but that is probably what u meant . Unlike worldly theatre which may bear no resremblance to truth . . Maybe the kids wern`t killed just the messenger thought so .
    Not sure God misapprehends anything — He often is just checking us out .
    Agree with you re “ the adversary “‘ not sure I fully understand how that works yet — just know God is in control .

  2. Stephen Cook says:

    Thanks for the feedback Colin. I hope to post some thoughts over the next few days about the historical basis for the Job ‘play’ and how it may have come about, and some more about the heavenly Prosecutor. Stay tuned 🙂

  3. Jen says:

    Very thought-provoking, I am enjoying this blog already!

    “If God is testing Job, one could just as easily argue that hassatan is testing God”. (quote from Wray/Mobley)

    One could also just as easily argue that God is testing hassatan. You have mentioned a couple of times that it was God who initiated the dialogue with Satan… and it seems very much as if it is God goading Satan, rather than Satan goading God (at least, at first). What would God’s motivation be in starting this provoking dialogue?

    You raise the interesting concept of God having doubts about Job’s piety; by this do you mean ‘angelic doubts’ or ‘Father doubts’?

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Jen, “One could also just as easily argue that God is testing hassatan”. One could. I think there are several clever twists in the frame-story. You’re right that the LORD goaded ha-satan and that ha-satan, until this point, was simply minding his own business (whatever that business was – and the Book of Job does not offer any ideas about it. It seems to me that when ha-satan answered the question “From where have you come?” with “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it” he wasn’t giving an answer at all. It is similar to the way we might say “here and there”, a euphemistic way of saying either “minding my own business” or “nothing much”.)

      So when the LORD asserted that ha-satan “incited” him it may very well have been the other way around: the LORD incited ha-satan. A nice dramatic twist.

      Wilson (The Book of Job: Judaism in the 2nd Century BCE: An Intertextual Reading, 2006) argued that ha-satan represented and articulated the alter-ego of the LORD. He sees “God” (elohim) as having two ‘sides’: (1) the LORD, and (2) ha-satan. The dialogue in the heavenly court is a dramatisation of how God weighs up what to do about Job in particular, or about rewards, punishments and suffering in general.

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘angelic doubts’ and ‘Father doubts’. Care to elaborate?

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