Who is “Satan” in Job?

In Job 1:6 we read, “One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.”

Most translations have something similar but will include a marginal note for “Satan” noting that the Hebrew word means “accuser” or “adversary.” One exception is the new Common English Bible which reads, “One day the divine beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Adversary also came among them.” The marginal note on “Adversary” says “Heb hassatan.”

John Walton, in his new commentary on Job, has an extensive discussion on the identity of this being. He translates the word as “Challenger.” He begins by observing that “every time this word occurs in Job, it is preceded by the definite article (haśśaṭan). This is strong evidence that śaṭan is not a personal name, because the Hebrew does not put a definite article in front of personal names. We might alternatively understand the word to indicate the office or function of the individual so designated.” (65)

Next to consider is “what this designation conveys about the role of the Challenger.” The word is used as both a verb (“to accuse” see, Pss. 38:20; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29; Zech. 3:1) and a noun (1 Sam. 29:4; 2 Sam. 19:23; 1 Kings 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25; Ps. 109:6) and is applied to both humans and celestial beings (Job 1-2 [14x]; Zech. 3:1-2 [3x]; also Num. 22:22, 32; 1 Chron. 21:1). Walton says that this “should lead us to revisit an assumption that is often carried blindly into the Old Testament, namely, that the technical term always applies to the same supernatural being, a single śaṭan. Such an assumption is easily refuted by the fact that Numbers 22:22 and 32 refer to the angel of the Lord serving as a śaṭan. So unless we posit that the Challenger in Job is the angel of the Lord, we must conclude that a variety of beings can serve this function. This means that the appearance of an individual with this function does not give us a specific identification of the individual.” (65-66)

Walton goes one step further and says we must consider the possibility that the Challenger “is not intrinsically evil.” (66) He explains,

“The Challenger, therefore, does not necessarily imply some flaw in God or in Job. Some infer that the Challenger relishes the opportunity to strike at Job. The text does not attribute to God or to the Challenger any personal emotional response to Job’s tragedy, God carries more responsibility for striking Job than the Challenger (implied in 1:12 and 2:3), and both lack any sympathetic response. It is arbitrary, therefore, to assume that the Challenger enjoys Job’s sufferings, while God sadly endures it. There is no expression of glee, there is no diabolical chuckle. Nothing personal, Job…there is a major philosophical issue on the line that supersedes individual circumstances.” (66-67)

Walton concludes that “we are not in a position to claim that the Challenger in Job should be identified with Satan as we know him in the New Testament. One cannot make the claim that they act the same way. In fact, there is little if any overlap between their two profiles. This does not prove that they are not the same individual, it merely reduces (if not eliminates) the basis for claiming that they must be equated. The profile of the Hebrew śaṭan in the book of Job does not answer to the same description as the Christian view of Satan in the New Testament. While the pictures are not contradictory, and they may even be complementary, we cannot consider them homogeneous.” (67)

In the “Bridging the Contexts” section Walton discusses the “theological issues” surrounding the identity of the Challenger. Here he discusses other uses of the Hebrew word śaṭan in the Old Testament. Furthermore, he discusses two passages which Christians often say allude to or refers directly to Satan: Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-19.  On the former passage Walton notes that “[n]either Calvin nor Luther supports the idea that Isaiah 14 refers to the fall of Satan.” (79) He quotes Calvin in particular who wrote, “The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it should refer to Satan, has arisen from ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians.” (79) Walton briefly discusses those who appeal to sensus plenior to support finding Satan in the passage but finds it unpersuasive. On the Ezekiel passage Walton says, “Finally, as suggested at the beginning of our discussion of Isaiah 14, the Old Testament nowhere portrays Satan as a fallen being. Therefore, the fact that Ezekiel 28 refers to a fall would not suggest to the Israelite reader that the author was metaphorically invoking the fall of Satan for comparison to the fate of the king of Tyre. Is there, then, any single datum in Ezekiel 28 that parallels information known about Satan in the Old Testament? I see none.” (81) There is much more to Walton’s case but for the sake of brevity (this post is already long enough) I will leave to the reader to see the commentary for his full argument.

I find Walton’s discussion to be lively, rigidly Biblical and ultimately persuasive. It is an fine example of the scholarship provided by the NIV Application Commentaries. He concludes his discussion with some important observations and asking some questions which will no doubt ruffle a few theological feathers.

“In terms of our doctrine of Satan, the study here is only the beginning of a much-needed investigation, including a renewed assessment of the ontology and nature of Satan. Is it possible that more of the Old Testament profile needs to be adopted as the backdrop for the New Testament profile? Is Satan less an immoral opponent of God and more an amoral agent, an instrument of God in a fallen world? How much of Satan’s portrayal in the ancient world accommodates Greco-Roman cultural views? How much demonology of Hellenistic Judaism imported from Assyria and Babylonian rather than from the Old Testament? These await careful study by those who maintain a strong doctrine of Scripture but are willing to reexamine traditions that may have insufficient scriptural basis. (86)


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, John Walton. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Who is “Satan” in Job?

  1. Fine! Just ruin my cherished traditions and presuppositions that I’ve been taught by the Church since day 1!!

    Seriously, I so very much appreciate John Walton for making us think long and hard and, though bringing much into question, his love for the text is evident.

    Thanks, Louis, for once again challenging God’s Church to consider God’s text for God’s glory!


  2. Pingback: Was Job Afflicted by Satan? « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus)

  3. Pingback: Koinonia Book Give Away – John Walton’s Commentary on Job « Baker Book House Church Connection

  4. Clay Knick says:

    No wonder you like this so much! I’ve ordered it. Good stuff.


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