24 May 2014

A Return to the Question of Satan

A couple of events this week led me back to explore the topic of Satan.

I have admitted earlier in this blog my difficulty in really believing in the Evil One--or at least with the certainty that many of the Lucifer-wielders seem to have for him.

Two events this week brought Satan back to light and led to some interesting new takes on the subject.

First, at a Bible study this week, a group leader resorted to Satan to prove a supposition that cannot be supported by the Bible: in this case it was the erroneous belief that Paul and other early Christians didn't worship on Sunday, among other days.

"The Devil wants us to believe," he began. My blood began to boil. "It's all part of Satan's plan." I wanted to walk out. This was a blatant logical fallacy--as if I made decisions or interpreted scripture with any care what some made-up entity really wants!

Later, a friend posted on Facebook a question about  atheists and Satan. Two brushes with the Evil One in one week. I took to Google to figure out the term for "a person who refuses to believe in Satan."

The answer I found was "atheist."  An atheist, I learned, rejects any form of the divine, whether good or evil.

This is hard for me to stomach because I believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God. I'm not an atheist. But I want to live a life that follows God's will, not one that is led around by the fear of some demonic entity or hypothetical satanic plot.

One thing that I have learned about Satan is the fact that he wasn't invented by the Jews but by the Persians in their fascinating, dualistic, Zoroastrian religion--a religion in which fire battles darkness, good battles evil. The first Jewish writers to describe Satan in the Bible were the Second Isaiah and Ezekiel, who wrote following the Jewish Exile to Babylonia. By Christ's time, Satan had been fully incorporated into Jewish theology.

Let's go deeper into how Satan developed over the 1200 or so years that the Bible was written down:

  • The first mention of Satan is just ten chapters from the end of the Old Testament, in Zechariah 3.1-2. "The Lord said to Satan, "The lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem...." Zechariah wrote between 520 and 480 BC, following the return of exiled Jews by the Persian emperor, Cyrus.
  • While the role of accuser had been portrayed earlier in the Old Testament (Job 1&2, Psalm 109.6), the timing of Zechariah's prophecy--and Jesus' later invocation of Satan (Matthew 4.10)--is significant: a generation of Jews had been exposed to the Persian/Zoroastrian god, "Ahriman."
  • A great example of the evolution of Satan in the Old Testament is the comparison of an obscure event from the reign of King David. The first, in 2 Samuel 24.1-9, describes a census that David took of his able-bodied fighting men in the year after his victory over Absalom in a civil war: "Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.'
  • The same story appears in 1 Chronicles 21.1. Only in this version, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel."
    • Both selections describe the same story. David's census is seen as an act of hubris (and probably sets up the kingdom for the onerous tax regime that would divide it a generation later).
    • In the earlier version, God incites David to take the unpopular census, in the second version it is Satah/Ahriman.
    • The writings come at different points in Israel's history, however. 2 Samuel dates to 920 BC, around the reign of David's son, King Solomon. 1 Chronicles dates to the time of Ezra, a contemporary of Zechariah and an apparent Satan-believer.
    • In another similar post-exilic tale in 2 Chronicles 18, "a spirit came forward [in council before the Lord], and said, "I will entice [Ahab.]"

    In Zoroastrian theology, Ahriman opposed the power of Ahur Mazda, creating a dualistic world of good vs evil, in which human beings were the pawns of far-more-powerful spirits of darkness and light. A later belief system, Manichaeism, originating with a Persian mystic named Mani, synthesized Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism into complimentary accounts of cosmic conflict between good and evil.

    I decided to go further back into the Bible to find an Evil One that I could believe in. It wasn't hard at all. Once I started searching, I found the answer in the most obvious of all locations: the First Commandment.
    "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20.3)
    This scripture best explains how I understand the working of evil in the world--and believe me, I don't have to look very far from my own spirit for evidence of evil.

    It is not Satan that scares me. It is "other gods" that compete for my attention. It isn't an invisible demon sitting on my shoulder that makes me sin--it is my devotion to the god of Knowledge, the evil spirit of Sport, and others. And it is not the love of knowledge or the Cincinnati Reds that is wrong, but when these 'gods' rise above God in my adoration.

    It might help to paraphrase the teaching of Paul to prove my point:
    "But God chose the foolish gods of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak gods of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly gods of this world and the despised gods--and the gods that are not--to nullify the things that are...It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption (1 Corinthians 1.27-30, emphasis mine)

    I live in a nation--a Christian nation, no less--full of "other gods:" the god of the Gun, the god of Celebrity, the god of Politics, and gods of Sport, Violence, Sexuality, Nationalism--the god of Profession, no less!

    I myself am drawn to many of them, but I am drawn to God above all, and I seek to live a life that puts Him above these other gods, Satan or no Satan.

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