Sheol and the afterlife

The Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) doesn’t have a hell. At least, it doesn’t have a place where the wicked go to be tormented when they die. There is not even a hint that some people go to heaven at death, while the rest go to ‘the other place’. In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible everyone, good or bad, goes to the same place at death, to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The word sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated into Greek as hades, and into English as either “hell” or “the grave” (although there is a tendency for more modern translations to leave it untranslated and transliterated as Sheol). However, the way the ancient Israelites thought of sheol was considerably different to the way later Christians often think of hell. 

Everyone goes there. According to the Hebrew Bible everyone goes to the same place at death. When news came to the patriarch Jacob that his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37: 35). Using parallelism typical of biblical poetry David described his deliverance from death at the hands of his enemies in terms of being rescued from Sheol:

For the waves of death encompassed me,
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me. (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Interestingly, he thinks of death in terms of destruction rather than conscious existence in an afterlife. Perhaps even more surprisingly Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) even asserts that animals and humans share the same fate: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccl. 3:19-21).

Sheol is not a place of punishment.

In a long speech in which he longs for his own end, Job describes death this way:

But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come. (Job 14:10-14).

There are a few important things we should note from this speech. First, Job describes death as a place where he could hide from God’s anger, not as a place where he would experience wrath or punishment. Second, he describes death as a place of sleep (see more about this below). Third, in the last lines of the extract above there is a possible hint of resurrection (there is a more familiar possible reference to resurrection in Job 19:25-26, although I have explained earlier that I personally don’t see any evidence in this text that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death). However, the Hebrew word חליפתי (“my renewal” ESV or “change” KJV) could mean that Job is looking for some kind of relief (so ESV footnote).  There isn’t necessarily a sense of “renewal” or resurrection in the Hebrew word, which simply means “change” in the same way we could speak of a change of clothes. The NJPS translates this as “my replacement”, in the sense of a soldier or servant carrying on with their duties until their watch or shift ends when they are replaced by another.

God is there. I sometimes hear people describe hell as a state of being seperated from God, rather than a physical location. But this is not how the writers of the Hebrew Bible understood sheol. A Psalm attributed to David makes the confident assertion that God is everywhere, even in sheol!

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 138:7-8)

Satan is never associated with Sheol in the Hebrew Bible. In popular culture hell is ruled by Satan. Somewhat surprisingly the Hebrew Bible nevers links Sheol with Satan, and, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the only time the New Testament mentions hell (hades) and the devil together is when it describes both the devil and hell being destroyed together in a lake of fire: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10, 14). According to this text the devil does not rule hell: he meets his end, together with hell, in a lake of fire. And hell isn’t a lake of fire: on the contrary, hell is destroyed in a lake of fire. Puzzling imagery indeed, and one which deserves more attention. (There is a similar reference in Matthew 25:41 to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” but see my short post here.)

Sheol is for sleeping. The New Testament refers to death as sleeping and the image is almost certainly drawn from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Bathsheba describes David’s death as the time “when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers” (1 Kings 1:21). The New Testament draws on this terminology in a speech by Paul: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). Earlier in the same book of Acts is a speech by Peter, and both speeches refer to a Psalm attributed to David:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10).

In the speech by Peter he quotes this Psalm and says “David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34). He was firmly of the view in the Hebrew Bible that everyone, good and bad, go to the same place at death, to sheol, and that not even King David went to heaven.

You believe in one God? Good, so do the other gods.

I recently read an interesting article by Dale Martin in the Journal of Biblical Literature which asked the question “When Did Angels Become Demons?” (JBL 129, no. 4 [2010]: 657-677). Martin analysed six different words in the Hebrew Bible which were translated into δαίμων  or δαιμόνιον in the Greek translations (and then into ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ in English). Martin argues that “Ancient Jews used δαιμόνιον to translate five or six different Hebrew words.  In the ancient Near Eastern context, those words referred to different kinds of beings … What they have in common, nonetheless, is that they all were thought of as gods – in fact, as the gods other people falsely worship: the gods of the nations” (662). He analysed other relevant material including 1 Enoch, Jubilees and the Qumran documents and made the point that in these materials “we find no equation of fallen angels with Greek daimons” (670).

Martin commented on Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 (105 in the Hebrew Bible) where the Hebrew שדים shedim (from the same root as shaddai) is translated “demons” in many English versions. The writer noted that ‘in the ancient Near Eastern context, the word sedim is related to the Assyrian sidu, which referred to the great bull statues in front of the Assyrian palaces, sometimes depicted with wings. According to some modern commentators, the word שד originally meant simply “lord” and served as a divine title like “Baal” or “Adonai”. It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding people, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods.’

As an aside, on the connection between shedim and shaddai it’s possible then that when God said to Moses “I was known in the past as אל שדי El Shaddai, but now …” (Exodus 6:3) he was in fact putting an end to the common use of a term for him which could easily be confused with Canaanite gods, and was substituting this for a distinctive name (the tetragrammaton). Poetical books like Job and Psalms (where shaddai occurs again) tend to use archaic language (in the same way that in English archaic terms might be used in poetry but not in conversation), so it’s really not surprising that the writers might employ an archaic name for God like El Shaddai, for no other reason than that it’s “old” and therefore sounds “nice” in poetry. For similar reasons some people tend to use the King James Version because they like the niceness of the archaic language, rather than for its accuracy.

So, coming back to the shedim as ‘demons’, the Greek words occur fairly frequently in the synoptic Gospels and a handful of times in the Fourth Gospel, but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament. There is a small cluster of occurences in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 where Paul argues “that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (ESV). The context is a Paul’s answer to a question about “food offered to idols” and it seems pretty clear that he is using δαιμόνιον in the same way the Septuagint translators did as the equivalent of שדים shedim, that is, as a reference to a pagan god.

This brings me to a really interesting use of the word in James 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (ESV. The NIV has “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”) James quotes the shema – the creed of Israel and the foundation of Jewish monotheism – “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But his next statement is puzzling: “it is good that you believe that, but the demons also believe, and shudder”. Christian commentators sometimes interpret James as meaning that the demoniacs, or demon-possessed, also believe but this doesn’t work for the simple reason that there is a perfectly good word for “demon-possessed” in Greek (δαιμονίζομαι) and Mark and Matthew both use it.

But what if James is using “demon” in the same way that Paul and the Septuagint translators did? His meaning would then be “You believe that there is one God. Good! But even the pagan gods believe that!” In other words James is playing a clever trick with the shema and saying that even the gods of the nations believe the creed of Israel, that there is one god, and therefore doctrinal distinctives are not enough to make believers stand out from the crowd. He introduced this line by saying ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ For James it is not what one believes (faith) that matters but what one does (works) that makes them distinctive.

But doesn’t this make James contradict himself? “You believe that there is one God – even the pagan gods believe that.” Exactly! James is using humour, an ironic twist, to make his point. Much of this letter seems to be commentary or reworking of Jesus’ sermon on the mount so it’s not surprising that James used the same kind of humour which was also typical of many of Jesus’ sayings and stories. However, it would be odd if this was the only use of humour in the book. Indeed, I think we find confirmation of it in a smattering of other places in the letter of James where we find a kind of humorous irony. For example:

  • “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (1:23-24)
  • ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’ (2:15-16)

I might be wrong, but I think it’s worth further exploration.

Angels and Princes in Daniel 10

In the prologue to the final vision of the book of Daniel (chapters 10-12) Daniel saw “a man clothed in linen”. The “man” in Daniel’s vision is sometimes assumed to be Gabriel (based on Gabriel’s appearance in chapters 8 and 9) but the man is not actually named here. “If Daniel knew it was the Gabriel he had seen earlier, surely he would have named him here” and “we would expect the description to be in chapter 8 when he first appeared to Daniel”.[1] Some elements of Daniel’s encounter with this “man” are puzzling. The man said “the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia”. Who is this “Prince of Persia”? Later there is a reference to the “prince of Greece” (v. 20) and “Michael, your prince” (v. 21) and “Michael the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). The suggestion is often made that these three “princes” are patron-angels. Michael certainly has that role here (“who has charge of your people”) and he is also referred to as one of the seven archangels in 1 Enoch 20:1-8. What we have here in Daniel 10 then may be a conflict between the visionary man and the patron angel of Persia, with the patron angels of Greece and Israel also becoming involved. There are two other texts which may suggest celestial beings may represent or rule nations:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders [Or territories] of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. [Compare Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Israel]. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 ESV).

“Over every nation he set a ruler. But Israel is the portion of God.” (Sirach 17:14-15)

Neither of these texts specifically refer to patron-angels but the “sons of God” in the DSS and LXX readings of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are understood to be angels. The reference in Sirach is to a “ruler” set over each nation, and could only be understood as a reference to angels if the Deuteronomy text is read as a deliberate intertextual link (which is possible considering both texts refer to Israel as the Lord’s/God’s portion).

1 Enoch 10 also has a conflict between angels, with the angel Raphael binding the angel Azazel, the angel Gabriel destroying the children of the Watchers, and the angel Michael  binding the angel Semjaza and his associates. Revelation 12 has a war in heaven with Michael and his angels fighting against Satan. Revelation is almost certainly alluding to 1 Enoch. Do we have a similar celestial conflict here in Daniel 10?

The Hebrew word translated as “prince” throughout Daniel 10 is שַׂר sar a word often translated as “leader” or “commander”. The Hebrew term שַׂר used more than four hundred times in the Old Testament, carries the following meanings: captain, leader (Num.21:18; 1Sam.22:2); vassal, noble, official under a king who functions (a) as a ruler or counsellor (Gen.12:15; 1Kings20:14–17), (b) the sovereign or magistrate of a region (2Chron.32:31), or (c) the ruler of a city (Judg.9:30; Neh.7:2); commander (Gen.21:22,32); head of a group of people, that is, an official  (Neh.4:10; Ps.68:27 [28,Heb.]; Dan.1:7–11,18); one who carries a certain religious responsibility (Ezra 8:24,29; Isa.43:28);or a person in an elevated position (Ps.45:16[17,Heb.]; Isa.23:8). The common denominator in these diverse uses is the concept of “one who commands.”[2]

The Septuagint translates this with a word carrying a similar meaning. “The LXX diverges more markedly from the MT at the references in 10.13, and 20 to ‘the prince of Persia’ … and ‘the prince of Greece’ … [T]he terminology of the LXX translation differs in that these princes of Greece and Persia are seen as … ‘leaders/commanders’ … its referent is almost inevitably to political or military leadership. In Daniel it translates שַׂר in the list of officials in 3.2. It translates שַׂר three other times in the LXX (1 Kgs 29.3-4; 1 Chron. 11.6; 2 Chron. 32.21), and each time the context is secular.”[3] “The choice of vocabulary in the LXX suggests that the Greek translator regarded the Princes of Persia and Greece as human figures, and so interpreted an ambiguous Vorlage in a particular direction.”[4]

It is interesting that “nothing is made of the battle among the princes in the message that follows in chapter 11”.[5] Their appearance in the prologue to the vision is almost incidental. Several scholars, including William Shea, hold that the “prince of Persia” was one of the political authorities in Persia who opposed the reconstruction of the Jewish temple. Shea writes, “If one looks for an earthly human prince of Persia in the 3rd year of Cyrus, there is one specific candidate for that historical position: Cambyses, the son and crown princeof Cyrus… This is the one interpretation which takes cognizance of both (a) the potentiality for interpreting the word ‘prince’ as a human being, and (b) the actual political situation that obtained in the 3rd year of Cyrus. In my opinion, therefore, Calvin was correct in this identification.”[6]

There is a strong case, in my opinion, for Shea’s view that these “princes” are human political or military leaders. The “prince of Persia” would most likely be Cambyses who was a co-regent with Cyrus, making sense of the plural “kings of Persia” (v.13). Daniel 10:1 calls Cyrus the “king of Persia” while Cyrus was apparently known as “King of Babylon” and appears not to have used the title “king of Persia” for himself.[7] The recurrence of the expression in verse 13 in the plural “kings of Persia” is a significant detail and probably refers to the co-regency of Cyrus and Cambyses. While Cambyses is here referred to as “prince of Persia” both Cambyses and Cyrus are designated “kings of Persia”, consistent with the crown prince being a co-regent.

Cambyses’ opposition to national cultic temples is well documented by Shea, and it is significant that the Jerusalem Temple was not rebuilt during his reign. Daniel’s “mourning” occurred during the same twenty one days time-frame that the visionary man “struggled” with the prince of Persia, and may very well have been due to Daniel’s knowledge of some local political event (perhaps a delegation from opponents to the temple rebuilding in Jerusalem). It is possible then that the matter which concerned Daniel was the same matter that occupied the angel.

If this interpretation is correct then Daniel 10 has nothing to do with celestial battles between the patron angels of nations, and has no relevance for understanding the wars in heaven in 1 Enoch 10 and Revelation 12.


[1] Gowan, D.E., Daniel, (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001, 143

[2] Stevens, D. E., “Daniel 10 and the Notion of Territorial Spirits,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157: 628 (2000): 410-431, 413, citing Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Leiden: Brill) 1995, 1350-53

[3] Meadowcroft, T. J., Aramaic Daniel and Greek Daniel: A Literary Comparison, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press) 1995, 253

[4] Meadowcroft, 254

[5] Gowan, 2001, 144

[6] Shea, W. H., “Wrestling with the Prince of Persia: A Study on Daniel 10,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 21 (1983), 249. The reference to Calvin is to John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Daniel (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 2:252

[7] Collins, J.J., Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 1993, 372

Satan in the New Testament (3): The Devil and his angels

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  (Matthew 25:41 ESV )

This verse could mean:

(a) “… the eternal fire which has been prepared to receive the devil and his angels”; or

(b) “… the eternal fire which has been prepared for use by the devil and his angels”

H.A Kelly  comments on this verse: “This means either that Devil and his angels are destined to be punished for their own bad deeds, or that they are to be the punishers of the bad deeds of human”. He says the idea of Satan being in charge of eschatological punishment is deducible from a passage in Enoch 53:2-5 where the angels of plague are preparing the chains of Satan “for the Kings and Potentates of this earth in order that they may be destroyed thereby”.

There is a similar statement by Jesus elsewhere in the same Gospel that angels are involved in the work of judgment [2]. In the parable of the ‘tares’ (Matt 13:39-49) the angels have a role not described elsewhere: “The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. … The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers … So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous .” We should note of course that in this story they are “his angels” i.e. the Son of Man’s. A striking similarity is the fact that in this parable the angels cast the tares into “a furnace of fire”.

The expression “the devil and his angels” implies that these angels are in submission to the devil. It is clear from other Scriptures that the devil is in submission to God, and needs God’s permission in order to test the faithful. If the devil exercises the function of God’s Tester, a kind of heavenly Prosecutor, then the angels in submission to him could be described as both “his angels” and as the Son of Man’s angels. Could Matthew 25:41 then mean that the devil and the angels under his control are given the job of disposing of those rejected at the Judgment?

 

[1] Kelly, H.A., Satan: A Biography (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 92

[2] Matthew records several of Jesus’ sayings about the Son of man coming with the angels (16:27; 24:31; 25:31).

Satan in the New Testament (2)

The ‘fall’ of Satan

Luke has a pericope which has Jesus sending out 70/72 disciples to the the towns and villages he was to visit. On their return these disciples reported to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name”  (10:17). Jesus responded by saying “I saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven” (v18).

Was Jesus referring to an event which he witnessed in the past? If so, the big questions are “what” and “when”? In the context it would be odd if Jesus was thinking back to an event 4000 years before which gave rise to ‘demons’ (which is how the Book of Enoch interprets Genesis 6:1-8). From what we’ve seen in the Book of Job it would also be odd if Satan was allowed back in the Court of Heaven after he had “fallen”.

It appears from the context that Satan’s fall began with the mission of the disciples as it was Jesus’ immediate response to the report that “even the demons are subject to us in your name”.  If so, his words should be understood as meaning “I am seeing the defeat of Satan in this”. “Heaven” need not be a literal place, at least not in this context. It could be Jesus’ way of saying that Satan has fallen from his position of power. There are two ways we could read this:

  1. “I saw Satan fall from heaven, like lightning” or
  2. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning from heaven”.

If we follow the second reading (which is how the Greek literally reads, although unpunctuated) it would suggest that Jesus didn’t necesarily say that Satan fell from heaven, but rather that his fall was “like lightning from heaven”. There’s a difference. If this reading is correct then Jesus was comparing Satan’s fall to lightning, perhaps suggesting it was (or would be) speedy, visible or dramatic, but not necessarily saying he literally fell out of heaven. Even if a literal fall from heaven was intended, the context would almost certainly dictate that this was a vision of a future event. Jesus may have been recounting a vision where He ‘saw’ Satan’s fall, an event which would find its ultimate fulfilment in the Last Judgment. Incidentally, this was also the way John (in The Revelation) described his visions: “I saw …” In the exorcism of demons Jesus therefore saw Satan’s defeat, not a previous ‘fall’ from heaven.

It is also possible that Jesus was alluding to his second wilderness temptation (the second temptation in Luke’s account – the third temptation in Matthew), where Satan says that all the kingdoms of the world, with their authority and glory, have been given to him (Lk 4:7). Satan claimed to have “all authority”, yet in the sending out of the 70/72 Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over the “power” of the Enemy (v. 19), in anticipation of “all authority in heaven and earth” being given to Him (Matt 28:17-18).

As Jesus’ disciples exercised authority over diseases and demons, the instruments of the Tester, so Jesus was saying that the Tester’s authority would end suddenly. If so, we see here the beginning of Satan’s fall – his real power had been broken – although his final defeat would be yet future.

We also shouldn’t miss the interesting intertextual link in Luke 10:15 where Jesus said “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to hades”. This appears to be a direct quote from Isaiah 14:13-15.

13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.  (ESV)
The allusion to the Isaiah text about the fall of “Lucifer” (or, the Day Star [Isa 14:12], identified as the King of Babylon in Isa 14:3) is interesting. But if so, he was actually saying that Capernaum, not Satan, would fall like the Day Star. I would be happy for someone to explore this further and tease out this connection.

If this interpretation of the fall of Satan in Luke 10 is correct, then it confirms that Jesus understood the role of the Satan in the same way as he is presented in the Book of Job, namely as an angel who acts as the agent of God in bringing evil on people.

Digression: Satan in the New Testament (1)

I mentioned earlier that I would like to explore some of the ways the New Testament and other early Christian literature refer to ‘Satan’, and the extent to which the ideas and beliefs of the first Christians about this were influenced by the Book of Job and other Jewish literature.

There is some interesting terminology in the Christian Scriptures which suggests that early Christian belief about Satan was influenced by the Adversary’s role in Job, and this may add light on how Second Temple Judaism understood the role of the Adversary. Paul (a Pharisee and disciple of Rabban Gamaliel I) wrote to the church in the Greek city of Corinth and gave instructions about a Christian who had married his father’s former wife (which in Greek law and society was neither illegal nor regarded as immoral, although contrary to Jewish and Christian sensitivities). He wrote:  “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”.[1] In another letter attributed to Paul (but more likely written by one or more of his disciples) the writer refers to two opponents “whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”.[2] Contrary to the popular notion that from earliest times Christians believed that Satan is an evil, malevolent, ‘fallen’ angel, these references reveal that Paul understood Satan to be responsible for teaching people “not to blaspheme” and for ensuring their ultimate salvation. In one case this was to be done by inflicting physical ailments, and this understanding is supported in another letter where Paul says “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited”.[3]

William Ramsay argued that “delivering to the judgement of the gods” was a commonly known invocation in Greek and Roman society against enemies and criminals whose offences and crimes were not subject to punishment by a judge. “In these invocations the god was asked or tacitly expected to punish the wrongdoer by bodily disease.  … any bodily affliction which came on the accursed person was regarded, alike by the invoker and by the sufferer, as the messenger or weapon of the god.” [4] It is likely that Paul was ‘Christianising’ or ‘Judaising’ this concept by substituting “Satan” for “the gods” and by “delivering” or “handing over” someone to Satan he was leaving their judgment in the hands of the Adversary as the agent of God.

I am indebted to Deb Hurn of Vose Seminary for steering me in the direction of Ramsay’s commentary and pointing out that ‘delivering to Satan’ is equivalent to surrendering (through prayer) an intractable and problematic person to Jesus’ personal rebuke and instruction, by whatever form that may take. There is a similar example in the Hebrew Bible in  2 Samuel 24:14 (JPS) where David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.”


[1] 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

[2] 1 Timothy 1:19-20

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[4] Ramsay, W., Historical Commentary on First Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1996 fp 1900-1), 46f

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.