Bible Study, New Testament, Old Testament, Tanakh

Satan & Scripture

This momentary president’s son said a dumb thing on Twitter: “Likelihood of Nancy Pelosi praying for Trump is about the same as the likelihood of Satan running around quoting the Scriptures.” And this got both Theology and Theology-Adjacent twitter worked up because Junior displays an unsurprising unfamiliarity with any part of the Bible — Hebrew or Christian.

One response that really interested me was this: “The Serpent quotes Scripture in Genesis 3, so he doesn’t even have to wait that long.”

I am MADLY in love with this tweet because there are several kinds of grappling we get to do. In brief:

1) Is the serpent Satan?

2) Is the serpent quoting scripture, or just quoting God?

3) Is Satan evil?

So let’s get started.

1) Is the Serpent Satan?

Maybe! But that’s not always how the serpent in the story was understood. For the early Israelites, there would be no connection of Serpent/Satan. Genesis is written–roughly; dating the Bible is tough am I right ladies?–somewhere between 900-700 BCE.

There are some scholars who connect the serpent in Genesis with the Hebrew word/concept יֵצֶר הַרַע (yetzer hara) — which is sort of man’s innate inclination to do evil. Most importantly, the serpent in Genesis is a Jewish idea that is appropriated by Christians. Christians believe that man’s inclination to do evil is a side-effect. Early Jews realized that people are just sometimes terrible.

The serpent as a personification of Satan is a Christian invention, and the idea behind Original Sin. But this is really only true for orthodox Christianity. The Gnostics–whom I love dearly–saw the serpent as a deliverer of Wisdom, connecting it with Sophia (σοφία).

(The Gnostics are very complicated about God, and Jesus, and some developed this idea that the trinity is God, Jesus, and Sophia (wisdom) rather than the Holy Spirit — and that Wisdom is the wife of God.)

2) Is the Serpent Quoting Scripture?

This has nothing to do, really, with theology, and more to do with how we read a text. I’m of the mind that the serpent is ::not:: quoting scripture in Genesis 3, because in the moment the serpent is speaking, scripture doesn’t exist yet.

(Oh, by the way, for #2 we’re going with the orthodox Christian idea that the serpent is synonymous with Satan.)

In the New Testament/Christian Bible, however, Satan definitely quotes scripture, specifically in places like Matt 4:6, where Satan is quoting from Psalm 91:11-12. But it’s interesting to think about the evolution of Satan as a character in the Bible.

3) Is Satan Evil?

For the Jews, “satan” is more of a job title. The sâtan’s (ha-satan) job is to be an adversary to test humans. The satan’s big scene is in Job, where he is under God’s employ. It’s generally agreed that Job is the oldest piece of writing in the Hebrew Bible.

It’s usually dated to the 2nd millennium BCE — so by the time we get to the Gospels, written in the 1st century CE, ha-satan has gone through a pretty extensive evolution. By the time Christians are writing their gospels, ha-satan has become Satan, and is the source of evil and the primary antagonist of God. Elaine Pagels’s book, “The Origins of Satan,” is an incredibly useful book if any of this interested you at all.

And that’s it for today.

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