The Satan

How God's Executioner Became the Enemy

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Ryan e. Stokes
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdman's Publishing
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Satan, Ryan Stokes’s recent introduction to the development of the Satan-figure in Jewish and Christian tradition, proves to be a broad introduction suitable for undergraduates or lay-persons that simultaneously contributes substantively to the scholarly conversation. Stokes breaks fresh ground in a field long left fallow. The work is both broad in scope and careful in its exegetical decisions.

Stokes, a Christian biblical scholar, does not limit himself to the impossible feat of describing the development of the figure of Satan within the confines of the Christian biblical canon. He includes important works of Old Testament pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) that function as significant mile markers on the journey towards the “Christian Satan,” but he does mark the canonical New Testament as his terminus in this introduction, owing in part to the questions he poses.

The author asks how the satans of the Hebrew Bible (HB) became, over time, “The great dragon . . . that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9)? His answer makes up the remainder of the book. By identifying the earliest traditions about satans/Satan and carefully tracing the developments and trajectories of these traditions, Stokes produces a compelling narrative, or biography, of Satan’s life.

Stokes makes the provocative claim that “in the Hebrew scriptures, it is the book of Job that reflects the most developed understanding of the Satan, whom this work credits with attacking a righteous person” (xix). This view cuts against the grain of a longstanding consensus that Job represents a later development of biblical tradition about the Satan. Stokes summarizes the traditional, three-stage narrative:

  1. Numbers 22, the story of Balaam’s encounter with the “angel of YHWH,” is the earliest text to speak of a heavenly satan figure. This text uses the Hebrew noun śāṭān not as the name Satan but as a word for the function of “adversary” that this figure performed. This angel was God’s agent rather than his adversary.
  2. The traditions preserved in Job 1–2 and Zech 3 represent a secondary phase in this development by using the term with the definite article—haśśāṭān (“the satan”)—to refer to a specific figure in God’s divine court. This figure functioned as the divine accuser or prosecutor of the wicked.
  3. The final step is preserved in 1 Chr 21, where the Chronicler uses the noun śāṭān without the definite article, rendering it a proper name. This explanation held sway because it was understood to resolve a problem of theodicy in 1 Chronicles: by redacting 2 Sam 24:1 to read that “Satan” rather than “God” incited David to take the census, the Chronicler removes God from the sphere of evil or temptation (cf. Jas 1:13). Thus, HB scholarship understood the development of the figure of Satan as an independent figure who tempts God’s people for their destruction.

Stokes turns this narrative on its head and questions whether even the earliest texts about “Satan” have been properly understood. Much like his understanding of Satan, Stokes attacks this characterization of the satan. A satan is not an accuser for the writers of the HB. Rather, a satan is an attacker or executioner. Stoke argues that the common denominator in texts like Num 22, 1 Chr 21, Zech 3 (read alongside Ps 109), and especially Job is that the satan attacks or injures the affected party in some way. On this point, Stokes is persuasive. 

The remainder of the book is given over to Stokes’s narrative of the development. In contrast to the traditional development, Stokes argues the process was more complex and less linear. Many differing ideas about Satan existed simultaneously. Both Chronicles and Numbers have a satan, while Zechariah and Job present the Satan (221), but no passage in the HB speaks of “Satan, God’s adversary.” It is not until the Book of Jubilees and the Enochic Book of Watchers (BW) that a series of developments towards the Christian idea of Satan as enemy of God take place. These pseudepigrapha portray a complex devil-figure.

In Jubilees, it is the Prince (of) Mastema, a title/name that recurs in the DSS as well, who functions both as a punisher of evildoers and as chief of the misleading spirits and opposes Israel. In both Jubilees and BW, evil spirits become responsible for human sin, while other contemporaneous documents (e.g., the Epistle of Enoch, Sirach) hesitate to attribute sin to supernatural beings. No such hesitation exists for the apocalyptic community behind the DSS, who attribute the cause of human sin to diabolical supernatural beings of various names, including Melchiresha, Belial (see 2 Cor 6:15), and the Angel of Darkness.

In these texts, the diabolical figures have become adversarial. When one arrives at the New Testament (NT), one finds in Satan a figure who tempts humans to sin and opposes Christ and the churches but that also retain the traditional image of the Satan as God’s agent who attacks evildoers. For the NT authors as a whole, the Satan—Stokes usually keeps the article, claiming that whether the Greek ho satanas reflects a proper name remains ambiguous—is a supernatural figure who opposes God, Christ, and his followers and is destined for judgment and destruction.

By way of assessment, this volume is an outstanding example of distilled thinking and scholarship that can reach beyond the guild of biblical studies. Stokes proves a reliable guide, and I recommend this book to all interested in the subject. The book could also serve well as a textbook for undergraduates or seminarians. As with any monograph, one may quibble with some of Stokes’s limitations—why stop at the NT canon?—or his exegetical judgments about particular passages—does the Chronicler really perceive no problem with God inciting David to take the census? However, Stokes’s work is a valuable contribution to a discussion long stagnant and will no doubt serve as a new basis of discussion for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel B. Glover is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and early Christianity at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
September 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan Stokes is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Tandy Manuscript Research Center. 


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