Who, or what, is Satan?
The original Hebrew term satan is a generic noun meaning “accuser” or “adversary”, which is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to refer to ordinary human adversaries as well as a specific supernatural entity. The word is derived from a verb meaning primarily “to obstruct, oppose”. When it is used without the definite article (simply satan), the word can refer to any accuser, but when it is used with the definite article (ha-satan), it usually refers specifically to the heavenly accuser: the satan.
Ha-Satan (with the definite article) occurs 13 times in the Masoretic Text, in two books of the Hebrew Bible: Job ch. 1–2 (10 times) and Zechariah 3:1–2 (three times).
Ha-Satan appears 10 times in the Book of Job. In the text, Job is a righteous man favored by Yahweh. Job 1:6-8 describes the “sons of God” (bənê hāʼĕlōhîm) presenting themselves before Yahweh. Yahweh asks one of them, “the satan”, where he has been, to which he replies that he has been patrolling the earth. Yahweh asks, “Have you considered My servant Job?” The satan replies by urging Yahweh to let him torture Job, promising that Job will abandon his faith at the first tribulation. Yahweh consents; the satan destroys Job's servants and flocks, yet Job refuses to condemn Yahweh. The first scene repeats itself, with the satan presenting himself to Yahweh alongside the other “sons of God”. Yahweh points out Job's continued faithfulness, to which the satan insists that more testing is necessary; Yahweh once again gives him permission to test Job. In the end, Job remains faithful and righteous, and it is implied that the satan is shamed in his defeat.
Ha-Satan appears 3 times in the Book of Zechariah.
Zechariah 3:1-7 contains a description of a vision in which an angel shows Zechariah a scene of Joshua the High Priest dressed in filthy rags, representing the nation of Judah and its sins, on trial with Yahweh as the judge and the satan standing as the prosecutor. Yahweh rebukes ha-satan and orders for Joshua to be given clean clothes, representing Yahweh's forgiveness of Judah's sins.
Satan (without the definite article) is used in 10 instances, of which two are translated diabolos in the Septuagint, and “Satan” in the King James Version (KJV):
The word “satan” does not occur in the Book of Genesis, which mentions only a talking serpent and does not identify the serpent with any supernatural entity.
The first occurrence of the word “satan” in the Hebrew Bible in reference to a supernatural figure comes from Numbers 22:22, which describes the Angel of Yahweh confronting Balaam on his donkey: “Balaam's departure aroused the wrath of Elohim, and the Angel of Yahweh stood in the road as a satan against him.”
In 2 Samuel 24, Yahweh sends the “Angel of Yahweh” to inflict a plague against Israel for three days, killing 70,000 people as punishment for David having taken a census without his approval. 1 Chronicles 21:1 repeats this story, but replaces the “Angel of Yahweh” with an entity referred to as “a satan”.
Some passages clearly refer to the satan, without using the word itself.
1 Samuel 2:12 describes the sons of Eli as “sons of Belial”; the later usage of this word makes it clearly a synonym for “satan”.
In 1 Samuel 16:14-23 Yahweh sends a “troubling spirit” to torment King Saul as a mechanism to ingratiate David with the king.
In 1 Kings 22:19-25 (and mirrored in 2 Chronicles 18:19-21) the prophet Mi'caiah describes to King Ahab a vision of Yahweh sitting on his throne surrounded by the Host of Heaven. Yahweh asks the Host which of them will lead Ahab astray. A “spirit”, whose name is not specified, but who is analogous to the satan, volunteers to be “a Lying Spirit in the mouth of all his Prophets”.
During the Second Temple Period, when Jews were living in the Achaemenid Empire, Judaism was heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Achaemenids. Jewish conceptions of Satan were impacted by Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian god of evil, darkness, and ignorance. Before this time the concept of Satan as an evil force capable of opposing God had never been considered.
From Zoroastrianism, the idea of Satan as an opponent of God and a purely evil figure seems to have taken root in Jewish pseudepigrapha (anonymous, non-canonical and non-authoritative works) during the Second Temple Period, particularly in the apocalypses (during which time Satan would ultimately lose the 'battle' and would be punished by God).
Although these ideas had always been rejected by mainstream Judaism they were popular among many of the messianic and apocalyptic movements during the Roman occupation.
The Book of Enoch, describes a group of 200 angels known as the “Watchers”, who are assigned to supervise the earth, but instead abandon their duties and have sexual intercourse with human women. The leader of the Watchers is Semjâzâ and another member of the group, known as Azazel, spreads sin and corruption among humankind. The Watchers are ultimately sequestered in isolated caves across the earth and are condemned to face judgement at the end of time. The Book of Jubilees retells the story of the Watchers' defeat, but, in deviation from the Book of Enoch, Mastema, the “Chief of Spirits”, intervenes before they are all sealed away, requesting for Yahweh to let him keep some of them to become his workers. Yahweh acquiesces this request and Mastema uses them to tempt humans into committing more sins, so that he may punish them for their wickedness. Later, Mastema induces Yahweh to test Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice Isaac.
The Second Book of Enoch, also called the Slavonic Book of Enoch, contains references to a Watcher called Satanael. It is a pseudepigraphic text of an uncertain date and unknown authorship. The text describes Satanael as being the prince of the Grigori who was cast out of heaven and an evil spirit who knew the difference between what was “righteous” and “sinful”. In the Book of Wisdom, the devil is represented as the being who brought death into the world. The name Samael, which is used in reference to one of the fallen angels, later became a common name for Satan in Jewish Midrash and Kabbalah.
In the Septuagint, the Hebrew ha-Satan in Job and Zechariah is translated by the Greek word diabolos (slanderer), the same word in the Greek New Testament from which the English word devil is derived. Where satan is used to refer to human enemies in the Hebrew Bible, such as Hadad the Edomite and Rezon the Syrian, the word is left untranslated but transliterated in the Greek as satan, a neologism in Greek.