Digression: Can angels do evil?

He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels (Psalm 78:49 KJV)

“Evil angels” is an accurate translation of מלאכי רעים. “Messengers of evil” is probably even better. Whoever they are, the important thing to note is that God sent them so they acted as his agents. Is that what is happening in the Book of Job? Is ha-satan, the Adversary or the Prosecutor, the agent (and angel) of God sent to inflict suffering/calamities/evil?

When we are first introduced to ha-satan in the Book of Job he comes before God together with “the Sons of God” (a term which Job later uses to describe angels). There is nothing in this story to suggest he is unwelcome there. It appears that he’s one of the angels. Satan is given God’s permission to test Job, and the things he afflicts on Job are later said to be God’s doing. In other words, what Satan did he did as God’s agent. The Adversary in Job is almost certainly an angel but not necessarily a ‘fallen’ one. He is called a ‘Son of God’ (and Job says elsewhere that the Sons of God were present at creation), forms part of the council of heaven and acts with God’s permission. At the end of the book Job has to offer sacrifices for his three friends and they are condemned for their judgment of him – but not Satan. He doesn’t get a mention at the end and isn’t condemned.

It’s also possible that the Satan of Zechariah 3 may be an angel. The Satan that caused David to take a census (1 Chron 21:1) is called “the LORD” in the parallel account in 2 Samuel 24:1, so the Chronicler’s satan may be an angel as well (and angels as the agents of God are called God or the LORD elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible).

In the Hebrew Bible God’s sovereignty was such that He was responsible for everything: good and evil.

  • I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 KJV)
  • For thus saith the LORD; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them. (Jer 32:42 KJV, or “As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them” NIV).
  • Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good: and all the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine, until there be an end of them. (Jer 44:27 KJV)
  • Though they are driven into exile by their enemies, there I will command the sword to slay them. I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” (Amos 9:4 KJV)
  • Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lam 3:38 NIV)

In the Hebrew Bible God is the cause of disease, destruction, and death.  But it seems that he does these things “at arms length” and operates through his agents/angels. The Hebrew Bible also recognized the existence of a ‘spirit realm’ and although some spirits did ‘evil’, they were sent by God to do his work. Thus King Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you” (1 Sam. 16:15). In some texts angels are regarded as ‘imperfect’ (such as Job 4:18 where Eliphaz says “God places no trust in his servants”, and “he charges his angels with error [KJV has ‘folly’]”). Psalm 82:7 even suggests that some angels (אלהים) will be destroyed because of their ‘partiality’ and goes on to say that because of this they “will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler” (v. 7). This suggests that they may be able to act independently, but perhaps that’s a subject for later discussion.

In the New Testament we find Jesus at the Last Supper saying “”Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). This is somewhat similar to the Job frame-story. In the Job account we have Satan appearing among the “Sons of God” and God granting permission to him to test Job. In Luke we find Satan asking God (or perhaps Jesus) for permission to test the Twelve, and the implication is that his request had been granted. This suggests that Satan still had access to heaven, as he did in the Job story, and that his task was to test the faithful. Interestingly, in the Fourth Gospel there is a record of Jesus’ prayer later on that same night of the Last Supper. In it he prayed for his disciples and said: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Is “the evil one” in the Fourth Gospel the same as “Satan” in Luke?

There are other hints in the New Testament that the first Jewish Christians had an understanding of Satan which was similar or identical to the one I have proposed here as the role of ha-satan in the Hebrew Bible: the Prosecutor in the heavenly court. Jesus once referred to a woman with a serious disease as “this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years” (Luke 13:16). Paul wrote of a certain man that the church should “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5) and of Hymenaeus and Alexander that “I have handed [them] over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). Satan in these latter texts does the sinners a service in that he teaches them not to blaspheme and saves their spirit on the day of the Lord. It seems his role is to “do evil, so that good may come”. Then Paul mentioned his “thorn in the flesh” saying it was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor 12:7) to lead him to a greater appreciation of God’s grace. These texts all suggest that to the early Jewish Christians Satan was an angel who did evil, but so that good would ultimately come.

But what about the texts that suggest Satan is a “fallen angel”?  To explore that would be to digress, although I’m already digressing (somewhat necessarily) from Job. As much as I’d love to digress from this digression and explore the role of the devil, or satan, in the New Testament and Christian literature I will return in my next posts to the Book of Job. Perhaps I’ll come back later to look at the idea of Satan as a fallen angel.

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