The Identity of the Serpent in Genesis 3 (Part Two: Satan in the Old Testament)

This is part two of a three-part series: Read part one, “Interpretation of Genesis 3”

Satan in the Old Testament

The Old Testament contains three direct references to Satan, each presents him as the supernatural enemy of both God and humanity (Job 1-2; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1-2).[1] The following synopsis of these three passages will demonstrate numerous parallels between the serpent of Genesis 3 and these three descriptions of Satan in the Old Testament. Furthermore, each of the above-listed passages will be used to bolster the final conclusion that the serpent and Satan are to be understood as the same person.

Satan in Job

In the book of Job, Satan is portrayed as both accuser and assassin. Acting as the accuser, Satan questions the supremacy of God by suggesting that the pinnacle of his creation—humanity—only worships Him because of His protection and blessings. Furthermore, Satan questions the character of Job by definitively stating that Job’s wisdom and righteousness are not sincere and simply mask his self-interest, which will be manifested when what he treasures is removed.[2] In response to Satan’s challenge, God allows Job to serve as a test case to resolve both the challenge to God’s preeminence over creation and the question of man’s commitment to God.[3]

Furthermore, Satan is portrayed as a tyrant whose goal is to inflict pain and suffering on humanity. The early chapters of Job reveal that Satan, in some sense, has the ability to exercise authority over such things as sickness, theft, and natural disasters that can cause death to humanity.[4] This authority, however, falls under the sovereign rule of God who permits Satan to carry out evil on the person, property, and family of Job. Unlike Job’s companions who believed that the source of his trials was God—who they believed punished sin with affliction—the author portrays Satan as the source of pain and suffering. Throughout Job’s ordeal, Satan strips him of his wealth, makes him severely ill, kills his children, and turns his wife against him.[5] Thus, revealing that it is Satan who inflicts suffering upon humanity.

The similarities between the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan of Job are numerous.  First, both the serpent and Satan question the character of God (Gen 3:1-5; Job 1:9-11).[6] In Genesis 3 the serpent depicts God as a willingly withholding his best from mankind (3:1-4) and in Job, Satan again questions the relationship status of God and man (1:9). Like the serpent in Genesis 3, Satan is bent on creating a wedge between humanity and God in Job. In both cases, the evil character seeks to break the fellowship between the two parties by inciting the one against the other.

The second similarity in Genesis and Job is that both the serpent and Satan are presented as the enemy of humanity. In Job, Satan presents himself before God stating that he had been roaming the earth (1:7). God responds by asking Satan if he had noticed his servant Job (1:8). Satan’s reply portrays him as the enemy of humanity as he attacks the character of Job, claiming that his relationship with God is contingent upon God’s protective hand (1:9-11). In similar fashion, the serpent of Genesis 3 appears to be on a mission to prove that humanity will turn its back on God.

The third parallel in the accounts of Genesis and Job is that both the serpent and Satan play the role of tempter. In Genesis 3, the serpent is clearly bent on tempting humanity to question the goodness of God. Likewise, Satan in Job is determined to be vindicated in his indictment against Job. He will destroy everything that Job values to cause him to curse God. In the end, however, God’s sovereignty over creation is demonstrated as Job refuses to curse Him. Both Genesis and Job portray God as completely sovereign, meaning no creature can act independently of God’s will. Thus, like Satan in Job who had to request permission to act, the serpent in Genesis (if it was Satan) had to first receive permission to tempt the woman.

These similarities in the two accounts cannot be easily dismissed. In addition, if Moses is the author of both books, it is reasonable to believe that both accounts are based on the same worldview.[7] The argument that the Old Testament authors did not view Satan as either vital in the events of human history or as an adversary of God is both unconvincing and short-sighted.[8]  Even more convincing is the belief that if Moses authored (or at least compiled and edited) both accounts, then a well-developed idea of Satan appears very early in ancient Hebrew theology. Although a fuller picture of the nature and work of Satan is revealed in the New Testament, an understanding of Satan as an accuser and adversary of God’s people is present in the early stages of the Old Testament.[9]

Satan in 1 Chronicles

Like the serpent in Genesis and the adversary in Job, the Satan of 1 Chronicles 21:1 is actively involved inflicting harm upon humanity.[10] In 1 Chronicles 21, the king, who represents Israel, is the target of Satan’s cunning work. His goal, like the serpent in Genesis 3, is to cause humanity to doubt the sufficiency of his creator’s provision. According to Arnold, “The writer of 1 Chronicles reaffirms Satan’s activity as tempter,” and as “Israel’s adversary.”[11]

genesis 3 serpent part twoApplying the analogy of faith to interpret 1 Chronicles 21, consideration must be given to 2 Samuel 24:1, which is its parallel passage. In 2 Samuel 24:1, God—in his anger against Israel—prompts David to take a census of the people.[12] Concerning the same event, however, the author of 1 Chronicles writes that Satan incited David to take a census of the people. If like the author of 2 Samuel, the author of 1 Chronicles only stated that God incited David to count the people, then David would have been presented as a passive puppet and not responsible for his sin.[13] On the other hand, the author of 1 Chronicles may have assumed that his audience already understood the sovereignty of God in the affairs of humanity, and felt no need to mention God in David’s sin. These two accounts, which may appear to be contradictory, affirm two undeniable truths in the same historical event. First, that God is sovereign over all human affairs. Nothing, neither good nor bad, can happen without Him being both aware of and permitting it to happen. Also, together these passages reveal that while God permits temptation, he is not the author of sin. According to the Apostle James, no one is to accuse God of tempting him to do evil (1:13). After analyzing both texts, the interpreter can conclude that God, in his anger over Israel’s sin (2 Sam 24:1), allowed Satan to tempt David to trust in the strength of his nation by taking a census rather than having complete faith in the Lord.

The account of Satan in 1 Chronicles 21:1, when combined with the parallel account in 2 Sam 24:1, provides enough evidence to draw parallels between the temptations of David, Eve, and Job. In the aforementioned accounts, the enemy of God seeks to disrupt or question the relationship between God and man. In Genesis, the serpent attempts to cause doubt about God’s provision and sought to draw the woman, and subsequently her husband, into trusting human reason over revelation (3:1-5). Likewise, in Job 1-2, Satan is determined to demonstrate that if Job’s blessing were removed he would curse God, thereby, cutting himself off from his creator.  Finally, in 1 Chronicles 21, Satan tempts David to trust in the might of his people rather than the promises of God. Furthermore, the incident recorded in 1 Chronicles 21:1, like the account in Job, informs the reader of who is behind the perpetual temptations of the elect.

Satan in Zechariah

In Satan’s final appearance in the Old Testament, Zechariah portrays him as the accuser of the high priest Joshua. Like a prosecuting attorney, Satan brings formal charges against Joshua, claiming that his past sins disqualified him from serving as an intercessor between God and Israel. Here, like the serpent in Genesis 3 and the adversary in Job, Satan is determined to drive a wedge between God and His elect. However, unlike where he questioned Job’s righteousness, Satan does not have to question the faithfulness of Joshua; the evidence of the high priest’s sin is on full display. The biblical scholar must ask, therefore, why Zechariah would record Satan standing at the right of Joshua accusing him of what is already known by God. It possible that, like the author of 1 Chronicles, Zechariah intends to inform his audience that there is an adversary who is opposed to them as the recipients of God’s mercy. In fact, in God’s rebuke of Satan, the reader is reminded that Jerusalem is the chosen city (3:2). The adversary’s efforts, however, are in vain as the filthy garments are removed from Joshua, who acts as the representative of Israel (3:4-5).

Like the serpent who is diametrically opposed to the grace that Adam and Eve received, the Satan of Job and Zechariah is determined to obstruct the gracious relationship between God and his elect. Kenneth Barker argues that Satan, who knows the purposes of God concerning Israel (i.e., the restoration of Israel as a priestly nation), has always accused God’s people and accuses them still.[14] He goes on to say, “Satan is the accuser—not only of Joshua (i.e. Israel) but also of all believers (Job 1-2; Rev 12:10). Undoubtedly the accusation here relates to the sin of Joshua and is made in the hope that God will reject his people.”[15]

Summary of Satan in the Old Testament

A synopsis of the aforementioned Old Testament passages (Job 1-2; 1 Chr 21:1; 2 Sam 24:1; Zech 3:1-2) demonstrates that Satan is more than an obscure prosecutor or innocent agent of a heavenly council. Arnold correctly concludes that in the Old Testament Satan is “an accuser and powerful adversary against God’s people.”[16] He continues by stating, “Satan performs his hostile functions against them [humanity] by luring them into rebellion against the express will of God and by causing even physical destruction, pain, and grief.”[17]

As already mentioned, it has been suggested that the lack of references to Satan in the Old Testament demonstrates an undeveloped or elementary view of his nature and activity. One could argue, however, that explanations for David’s sin in both 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 reveal that there was a greater theological awareness than previously thought. The author of Chronicles demonstrated a thorough knowledge of history and theology. Furthermore, if he had access to 2 Samuel, his statement would reflect a theological understanding of the event that includes a knowledge of the work of the adversary in tempting God’s people. The authors of Job, 1 Chronicles, and Zechariah demonstrate that the Hebrew theologians viewed Satan as an adversary of Israel who used deception, discouragement, and even death, all in an attempt to lead them to abandon their faith in God.

Part Three: Satan in the New Testament & Conclusion

Footnotes:

[1]Clinton E. Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 62.

[2]Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 428.

[3]See also,Elmer B. Smick, Job, vol. 4, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 714 Smick believes the parallel between the testing of Job and the temptation in the Garden is that in both cases God set the stage and allowed them to be put to the test.

[4]Arnold, Powers of Darkness, 62.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Smick, Job, 4: 714 Smick contends that “the attack is on God through Job, and the only way the Accuser can be proven false is through Job.”

[7]Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), 185 Geisler provides a strong argument for Mosaic authorship of Job.  He contends that “the time, nature, and theme of the book fit with the tradition that Moses compiled the book, possibly recorded from the conversations made by Elihu.”  He argues that the events of Job take place before Moses’ day; that the words and phrases are characteristically Mosaic; the theme of suffering fits Moses’ concern for the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt; and that Jewish tradition (Baba Bathra 14b) ascribes authorship to Moses.

[8]For an example of the argument that Satan is not an evil adversary and is obscure in the Old Testament see, Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 759–61.

[9]Arnold, Powers of Darkness, 62.

[10]J. A. Thompson, 1, 2 Chronicles, vol. 9, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 161 Of the three references to Satan in the Old Testament (Job 1:12; 2:6; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1-2) only here is it written without the article.  Thompson suggests that this could mean that the term Satan is being used as a proper name.

[11]Arnold, Powers of Darkness, 62.

[12]Steven S. Tuell, First and Second Chronicles, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2001), 85.

[13]Ibid., 87.

[14]Kenneth L. Barker, Zechariah, vol. 8, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 754.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Arnold, Powers of Darkness, 62.

[17]Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: