When most modern readers picture Satan, or Lucifer, the image they envision is not based on any Biblical description but is based on Milton’s description from Paradise Lost. They think of the image of an angel who has been cast out of Heaven because in his pride he sought to question God, who has the audacity to set up his own kingdom, amongst the fiery lakes. It is a picture of an arrogant creature, an evil creature, who despite it all, makes the reader sympathetic to his cause. This, however, is not the same creature that is present in The Book of Job. While he carries the same name, the Adversary, Satan, as he is most often referred, is not shown as being in opposition with God, but rather is part of the court of heaven and acts as God cannot. “There is no suggestion of a fallen angel filled with rebellion and hatred of God” (Caldwell 32) in The Book of Job, rather the Adversary is a prosecutor, in God’s divine court of justice.
In The Book of Job, the only description we have of Satan is that he is the Adversary. The reader is then left with two things with which to define him: his relationship to the court of heaven and his actions. Although he only appears twice, in Chapter One and Two, both his relationship and his actions tell the reader much of his character, and none of it is in keeping with a modern reader’s view of Satan. The concept of Satan as an adversary is not unique to The Book of Job; it can also be seen in I Samuels 29:4 and in Numbers 22:22 (Caldwell 32). By looking closely at the Adversary’s role in The Book of Job, the reader must reconsider some basic conceptions about the text and define the Adversary’s role within it. The first step in understanding his role is to look at the name the Adversary is given: Satan. In Hebrew, the name means ‘accuser’, with relation to legal terminology. Satan was at first a term, and not a proper name. It meant to accuse, to be hostile or one who was the accuser (wikipedia). Looking at verse 6, this etymology changes the meaning of the introduction of the Adversary. Instead of the interpretation “and the Adversary, Satan, was there among them” where Adversary is the title and Satan is the name, the true interpretation is the reverse, with the archetypal name Adversary embodying what he does and Satan as the title for the job the Adversary performs. This interpretation changes how the book is meant to be read. The Adversary is no longer a character acting against God, in a battle for Job’s soul, but rather is acting in concert with God’s will on a mission that is ordained by God. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament angels “that have evil tasks are not themselves thereby evil, since God is the author of evil (Amos 3:6). And they are merely his executives.” (Caldwell 32) The Adversary is the adversary of evil men, not God, and thus stands as a prosecutor, ready to accuse men who seek evil and evil ways. As Caldwell states, “It is the duty of the Adversary to challenge and test the good.”
The Adversary has two main relationships in this passage that help define him and give the reader clues as to how he is meant to be viewed: his relationship with the court of heaven and his relationship with the Lord himself. Within the court of heaven, he is on equal standing: there is no phrasing or word choice that indicates that he is an odd presence as the court is convened. Instead the text reads “The day came when the members of the court of heaven took their places in the presence of the Lord, and the Adversary, Satan, was there among them.” It is not stating that the presence of the Adversary was an oddity, but rather a commonplace event such as calling roll in the Senate, and noting that the Senator of North Carolina was present. This sense of belonging changes how a reader accepts the role of the Adversary in the rest of The Book of Job. The Adversary is a part of the court: working under God’s will and, therefore, contained under certain rules. This verse characterizes
“Satan as a member of the divine council who watches over human activity, but… searching out men’s sins and appearing as their accuser. He is, therefore, the celestial prosecutor, lawyer who sees only iniquity; for he persists in his evil opinion of Job even after the man of Uz has successfully through his first trial by surrendering to the will of God, whereupon Satan demands another test through physical suffering”
The Adversary’s role in the heavenly court still confuses the reader due to the differences in translations. Robert Sacks uses a different translation than the Oxford Study Bible:
6One day the Sons of GOD came to present themselves before THE LORD, and The Satan came along with them. 7”Well,: said THE LORD to The Satan “where have you been?” “Oh,” said The Satan to THE LORD wandering around Earth. I just went down there for a stroll.” 8 Then THE LORD said to The Satan, “Did you happen to notice my man Job. There is no one like him on Earth. He is a simple and straightforward man, a GODFEARING man and one who turns away from evil.” 9 Then The Satan answered THE LORD and said: “What, do you think that Job fears GOD for nothing? 10 Haven’t you been protecting him and his house, and everything that he has? You have blessed all of his labors, and everything he owns is spreading out all over the land. 11 But just reach out your hand to take it away and he will curse you to your face for sure.”
One compares this with the Oxford Study Bible:
6The day came when the members of the court of heaven took their places in the presence of the Lord, and the Adversary, Satan, was there among them. 7The Lord asked him where he had been. “Ranging over the earth,’ said the Adversary, ‘from end to end.’ 8The Lord asked him, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets his face against wrongdoing.’ 9 ‘Has not Job good reason to be godfearing?’ answered the Adversary. 10‘Have you not hedged him round on every side with your protection, him and his family and all his possessions? Whatever he does you bless, and everywhere his herds have increased beyond measure. 11But just stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and see if he will not curse you to your face.’ 12‘Very well,’ said the Lord. “All that he has is in your power; only the man himself you must not touch.’ With that the Adversary left the Lord’s presence.
(Oxford Study Bible Chapter One, verses 6-12)
Sacks’ translation differs in significant ways. Sacks refers to the court of heaven as “the Sons of GOD”. This translation is ambiguous and does not depict the courtroom aura that is meant. If the reader is to understand the job of the Adversary, then it is necessary to set up what court would try and convict evil men. Sacks’ translation lacks this. While Sacks does employ the title “The Satan” which is true to the definition of the name, meaning “accuser”, Sacks neglects the reference to the Adversary which is crucial to understanding the Adversary’s role. Unless the reader is familiar with Hebrew, the individual assumes that The Satan is the creature of Milton’s imagination and does not see the nuances associated with the name. Sacks does convey that The Satan is subservient to God, as The Satan is included with “the Sons of God when they present themselves before THE LORD” (Sacks 4) however, Sacks’ phrasing implies that The Satan just happens along “and The Satan came along with them,” versus him having a given place in the proceedings. Again, Sacks ignores the legal implications to the language. Finally, perhaps the greatest error with Sacks’ translation is the tone with which he has The Satan address God when discussing Job. He has The Satan say
“What, do you think that Job fears GOD for nothing? 10 Haven’t you been protecting him and his house, and everything that he has? You have blessed all of his labors, and everything he owns is spreading out all over the land. 11 But just reach out your hand to take it away and he will curse you to your face for sure.”
This phrasing is confrontational and leads the reader to think that there is conflict between God and The Satan. It is as if Sacks is deliberately phrasing the translation so that it supports the idea that there is a wager between God and The Satan. The Oxford Study Bible instead states
9 ‘Has not Job good reason to be godfearing?’ answered the Adversary. 10‘Have you not hedged him round on every side with your protection, him and his family and all his possessions? Whatever he does you bless, and everywhere his herds have increased beyond measure. 11But just stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and see if he will not curse you to your face.’
This translation has the Adversary, pardon the pun, playing devil’s advocate. He is supplying a reason for why Job appears so godfearing and is offering God a way to truly test Job’s piety. There is no confrontational tone the Adversary is simply acting according to his job, accusing men. The Adversary, as with any good prosecutor warns God of making a judgment based on circumstantial evidence. The Adversary would rather have clear proof, which is why he suggests the second test of Job. Because most readers will probably not read the Bible in original Hebrew, it is important that the translators stay faithful to the text, for simple phrasings and word choices can alter the entire meaning.
What is interesting about Sacks is that his commentary on The Book of Job does not seem to fit with his translation. In his commentary on Chapter One, he makes a point to reference the other instances of “Satan” or “being a satan” from Numbers and gives a detailed explanation as to how this term refers to an angel performing an activity. He also references The Book of Samuel, where the “term is used for a man whose original intention seems to be directed toward another’s good, but whose actions, nevertheless turn out to be otherwise.” In The Book of Kings, “A Satan” refers for “the leaders of the nations who, unbeknownst to themselves, become God’s way of chastening His people.” Sacks argues that these examples, as well as ones from The Book of Chronicles, The Book of Psalms, and Zecharaia that the Satan in Job is not really any of these previous roles. Sacks then makes several interpretive leaps that are not supported by the text. He states that Satan believes mankind to be incapable of being pious and just and that The Satan manipulates events (stacks the deck if you will) so that Job will fail. The inference is not that Job is evil, but rather that The Satan wants him to be found so. This interpretation is not supported by the text. He says that “By the end of the book we shall leave The Satan not because he arouses our hatred, but because we will have seen a richer way.” This statement seems in contrast to the rest of his argument that sets The Satan up as the antagonist. Sacks seems to be saying that The Satan is unimportant because of this “richer way” yet there is no clear explanation of what exactly this “richer way” is or how it relates to the tale. While Sacks’ commentary is interesting for his deconstruction of Hebrew phrases, his translation is flawed and his interpretation of Job is too conflicting to be of much use to anyone. (Sacks 80-86)
The Adversary is portrayed as a necessary part of God’s plan, performing a necessary job: that of an accuser, who acts as a prosecutor where humankind is concerned. He is not shown as having any power of his own, or of rebelling against God; rather he “requires the permission of God, which he may not transgress. He can not be regarded, therefore, as an opponent of the Deity; and the doctrine of monotheism is disturbed by his existence no more than by the presence of other beings before the face of God” (wikipedia). The role of the Adversary, despite what a modern reader might think, is not the antithesis of God, but rather, an active member of the court of heaven who has a specific role within that realm. His relationship with God is one of subordination. The Adversary is not placed above God, or any other member of the court of heaven. While he may be given certain special, there is no clue in these passages that these powers in any way or make him a threat to God’s power.
The Adversary’s actions support that he is working with and not against God. In Chapter One, Job loses his livelihood when “God’s fire flashed from heaven, striking the sheep and the shepherds and burning them up” and “The Chaldeans, three bands of them, have made a raid on the camels and carried them off, after putting those tending them to the sword”. He also suffers when a messenger reports that “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking in their eldest brother’s house, when suddenly a whirlwind swept across the desert and struck the four corners of the house, which fell on the young people. They are dead”. Yet looking at these verses, it is unclear how many of these actions can be laid at the feet of the Adversary. The loss of the sheep comes from “God’s fire”, and the Adversary of Job lacks the powers described here. There is also no indication that he would use a power that was named as being God’s and not his, there is no evidence here of such arrogance from this characterization of Satan. Looking at the other two events, it is possible that the Adversary could prod the minds of men to attack another and that he could create a whirlwind, although that seems like a power that would belong only to God. The evidence of the text offers no explanation but simply tells us that the Adversary did not have a hand in the first event and probably orchestrated the last two. What is important though is that the Adversary targets Job because he has been instructed by God, thereby only fulfilling his position as an accuser.
The Adversary’s second and last action against Job is often read as a personal attack against Job, but it is simply another form of test to see whether or not Job is a “godfearing” man. Having endured the loss of his livelihood and his sons and daughters, the Adversary argues that any man could withstand such losses, but it is the personal effect that shows the true man. As any good prosecutor would, the Adversary seeks absolute proof that Job is what he appears to be. God obviously agrees that Job must be tested in this way because his response to the Adversary is not that Satan has gone to far, or that Job is being punished beyond measure, rather “4The Adversary replied, ‘Skin for skin! To save himself there is nothing a man will withhold. 5But just reach out your hand and touch his bones and is flesh, and see if he will not curse you to your face.’ 6The Lord said to the Adversary, ‘So be it. He is in your power; only spare his life.’” Again, the significance of these declarations is that the Adversary is acting under God’s orders and that the Adversary devises the test not out of malice, but in order to test Job’s character. The author illustrates the dutiful nature of the role when he readies Job to confront his own faith and God, and then he disappears. As Caldwell observes, “He is a servant who knows how to disappear when his work is done. When Job’s “friends” arrive there is no need of Satan.” (Caldwell 32)
The final clue to how the Adversary is meant to be viewed can be found in the repetition of dialogue between God and the Adversary in both of Satan’s appearances: in Chapter One “7The Lord asked him where he had been. “Ranging over the earth,’ said the Adversary, ‘from end to end.’ 8The Lord asked him, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets his face against wrongdoing.’” And in Chapter Two “2The Lord enquired where he had been. ‘Ranging over the earth’, said the Adversary, ‘from end to end.’ 3The Lord asked, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets him face against wrongdoing.” The rhythm of this dialogue suggests to the reader that this is a ritual form of greeting between the two, and the word choice informs the reader that the Adversary’s regular job is not in fact to prosecute a single human male, but rather to roam the earth looking for men of evil so that Satan might accuse them. The phrasing God uses, -- “Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets him face against wrongdoing”-- is important because it suggests that since the Adversary does not present a man to be accused, that God has found one for him, one that warrants special consideration. The ritual repetition of this phrase leads the reader to believe that this event has occurred before. This motif supports the fact that this is a job that the Adversary not only performs often, but that the whole system of choosing a man, the accusation, and the punishment is an old one and has a special place in God’s design.
All of this argument so far is based on what is stated in the text, but one may also glean information by what is not said. There is no physical description given of the Adversary. All of a modern day’s reader’s images of cloven hoofs and horns actually comes from the pagan pantheon, not the Bible. While these images are interesting, the more important omission is any statement from God about the Adversary. There is not a single commentary. At no point does God express any emotion towards him. As with so much of the text, the reader is left to infer what he/she can. Many critics have concluded that the God and the Adversary make a bet for Job’s soul, but this premise actually conflicts with the text. The Adversary works under God, and there is no evidence that a bet of any kind is made, yet this wager is mentioned in most modern scholarly interpretations of the tale. In this case, the omission is used by scholars to infer an event that is not supported in any way in the text. Perhaps the biggest omission is the Adversary himself from the rest of the story. He is only present in these two chapters, and once he has prepared Job for his final test (the arguments with his three friends and his confrontation with God), he is gone. If the Adversary were meant to be seen as a character in opposition to God, or in competition with God, it would be natural to assume the Adversary would be included in the rest of the book. If, as many critics claim, there is a wager for Job’s soul, one would assume the Adversary would await the results to see if he won. It is important to remember that what The Book of Job does not say about the Adversary is just as revealing as the Adversary’s actions and his relationships with God and the court of heaven.
By viewing the Adversary as a true member of the court of heaven, fulfilling a purpose set down by God, an entirely new interpretation of The Book of Job must be made. The interpretation that Satan is fighting against God for Job’s soul no longer works, nor does the more modern slant, such as can be seen in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B or Robert Sacks’ commentary where Satan and God are betting on Job’s soul. Instead, it is necessary to view the Adversary as a part of God’s plan, an attorney with a very detailed and precise job. The reader must shift his/her focus away from the image of a rebellious angel who is also cocky and arrogant, the type now so often seen in modern literature and film. Rather, the reader must understand that in order to interpret The Book of Job, he/she must first see that the Satan of Job is in fact an honored member of heaven, performing perhaps God’s greatest work, challenging and testing the righteous, as any good prosecutor would.
Caldwell, William. “The Doctrine of Satan: I. In the Old Testament.” The Biblical World, Vol. 41, No.1. (Jan., 1913), pp.29-33.
Sacks, Robert. The Book of Job with Commentary: A Translation For Our Time. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999.
“Satan.” Wikipedia Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 15 July 2006. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satan>