Mormonism’s Satan and the Tree of Life: Part 2 (Job and the OT)

(Part One here.)

The “satans” of the Old Testament

Some elements of the LDS characterization of Satan find fascinating analogues in the Old Testament, particularly in the story of Job. In Job, as in Mormon accounts of the premortal councils and the Fall, God grants astonishing liberty for the testing of his children. In all cases, God’s work is not frustrated. For Job, his trials lead ultimately to the fountains of divine wisdom; in the Fall, Satan’s efforts to forever limit the progress of Adam and Eve do not succeed, and instead play perfectly into God’s hands, roundly advancing His beneficent purposes.

The Hebrew noun satan is related to the verb satan. The precise meaning of the verb is difficult to render in English, but it is generally understood to lie somewhere between “to accuse,” “to slander,” and “to be an adversary.” The term satan is applied as a title to human or heavenly figures who either block the way of the wrongdoer, act as agents of divine judgment, or who act as accusers. It therefore has an ambivalent moral sense: acting as an agent of God is “good,” whereas slander—accusing falsely— is universally “bad.”  Such satans are emphatically not stricto sensu reducible to the Devil as commonly conceived today.

In the book of Job, “the” satan has been “roaming the earth” (doing what, we are not told). God brings Job’s perfect righteousness to the satan’s attention, but the latter is not impressed, accusing God of divine patronage. In order to test the satan’s assumption that Job does not fear God for nothing, God grants the satan the power to disturb Job’s life, to “prove” him. He is allowed to act independently, but only with God’s permission and within strict limits of what he can and cannot do. The satan presented to us in Job, it seems, was a necessary (if unloved) part of God’s governance of the earth. There is nothing in Job to suggest that “the satan” is the Devil in his classic Christian guise.

In contrast to the focus of Old Testament accounts, the New Testament, other early Christian writings, and some Jewish pseudepigrapha create a more sharply delineated character sketch of the Devil. These descriptions depart to a degree from the emphasis of these ancient satans, and stress the role of Satan—here given a proper name—as God’s cosmic enemy and adversary of mankind in portrayals that depict him as the ruler of the world and the prince of a host of evil spirits and demons. Eventually, these New Testament concepts came to dominate Christian thought, and the idea of an adversary as a necessary member of God’s retinue was deemphasized, if not forgotten.

Intriguingly, Joseph Smith’s Satan retains the basic biography of early Christian thought while at the same time renewing lost aspects of a “Jobian” role. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that the satan of Job is somehow an exact equivalent, or indeed any equivalent of Satan as understood by Latter-day Saints. Importantly, Mormonism claims to offer new light on old passages, none of which are considered by Latter-day Saints to be inerrant or representative of the totality of God’s truth.

Indeed, recognizing the divine sanction enjoyed by the Old Testament satans places the evil of Satan in stark relief, motivating further reflection to determine more precisely what makes him an enemy of God in Mormon eyes. If nothing more, such a discussion serves both to illuminate the fluidity in which the concept of a tempter has been held in the past and also to highlight the echoes of earlier theologies that one so often sees in Joseph Smith’s work.

In the next section, we explore some of these contributions in more detail.

Comments

  1. Picking up on a comment made on the previous post, I think orthodox Mormon theology compels Mormons to believe in a literal Satan. Not only do you have 2 Ne. 28: 22 and a myriad of canonical accounts of Satan’s individual reality, I don’t think it works to say that the seeds of evil within man mean that no external devil is needed. Do we not also have the Light of Christ, and yet few would deny the reality of the Holy Ghost as an “extra” prompt?

    (Not that I am saying you have to believe in Satan, only that it’s not an easy claim to make in orthodox circles.)

    As for the Old Testament satans, as the above suggests, they seem to enjoy a more “Mormon” role, and yet the puzzle remains: what does Satan do that makes him an enemy to God?

    N.B. “Of course, this is not meant to suggest that the satan of Job is somehow an exact equivalent, or indeed any equivalent of Satan as understood by Latter-day Saints.”

  2. Again, I would recommend looking at JSJ’s view of possession as he elaborated it in sermons in 1842-1843. He is pretty clear that a) Satan is being punished, apparently for fighting against the grand council, and b) the punishment is the lack of a body which he seeks to contravene by inflicting his dark spirit on the bodies of weak human hosts. The way Smith’s 1840s theology unfolds, one infers that Satan’s crimes long antedate the Garden of Eden narrative. This is not Milton really, despite apparent similarities.

  3. smb,
    We do indeed look at embodiment…

  4. This is cool, thanks Ronan. I was thinking over the break someone (with far more expertise than I), needed to flesh out how JS’s satan differed from the biblical and extrabiblical satan.

    Someone mentioned it in the other thread, but how does the thesis concerning satan being imported from Zoroastrianism fit here? I haven’t read Elain Pagels, but doesn’t she essentially argue that Judaism borrowed Satan?

  5. David,
    That is certainly the belief of many scholars.

  6. Speaking of being before Adam:

    And it came to pass that Adam, being tempted of the devil—for, behold, the devil was before Adam, for he rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power; and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency; And they were thrust down, and thus came the devil and his angels” (D&C 29:36-37)

    A comparable account is given in Moses 4:1-4 and also in D&C 76:25-26. Most of this seems unprecedented in the Bible. Exceptions include Jude 1:6 and possibly Isaiah 14:4-20.

  7. Have others challenged that thesis? Or would that just end up being a theological, rather than a textual/historical, debate?

  8. And its hard to know how much of the book of Job that can be interpreted literally–most scholars believe that Job was a fictional character whose story is meant to be allegorical and pedagogical. For that reason, reading the Satan in the Job story can be instructional for insight into the ways the ancient Israelites saw such a figure operating in opposition to God, but perhaps not in a strictly literal sense (Satan probably wasn’t literally “roaming the earth”, he probably didn’t literally sit around talking with God about which souls he could test or torment, etc.)

  9. I’m not going back over all the comments on the other thread, but how does Nephi’s concept of “necessary” opposition mesh with statements outside of Biblical sources? I’m not sure if there is anything else I’ve read that is more direct in its assertion that Satan is “necessary” – not just convenient, but actually required.

    (I’m not arguing that it means Satan has to be a literal personage. I just wonder if there are other traditions that teach opposition in ALL things that directly and clearly.)

  10. #9,

    I think this goes back to the idea that perhaps God needed a Satan like figure to properly test his spirit children. I have read those verses in Nephi as well and thought the same thing.

    I would like to see what Ronan thinks as well about the idea that Stan was “required”.

  11. #9: I think the argument in 2 Ne 2 only makes sense as a metaphysical argument, e.g. righteousness is only a meaningful concept because of the possibility of sin, if there was no possibility of sin, the concept of righteousness would be meaningless.

    The alternative way to interpret it requires ex nihilo creation, where an unembodied God contemplates whether or not to create good and evil out of nothing.

  12. Satan’s efforts to forever limit the progress of Adam and Eve do not succeed, and instead play perfectly into God’s hands, roundly advancing His beneficent purposes.

    It appears to me that Mormon theology would tend to support the idea that Satan knew exactly what he was doing in that instance, and was only surprised that God would take exception to his behavior.

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I’m not arguing that it means Satan has to be a literal personage”

    I think it is inevitable that ideas eventually become embodied in a being which epitomizes them. The ideas of Eternity attract us, and through the gospel process we come to epitomize them: we become Eternal. The idea of evil predates Lucifer (or, better, the ideas that coalesce around evil) waiting for someone to find them, or think them. Evil is never finally defeated because even if every being in the universe repudiated them, they would still exist as a possibility which would eventually emerge.

    Whether or not the devil came up with them on his own, discovered them studying reality or had them whispered to him by some more basic source is a question that disturbs me a great deal, and always comes back to me. ~

  14. #9 Ray:

    …Satan is “necessary” – not just convenient, but actually required

    While I have no references, I would argue that Satan is necessary. Personally, I did not previously believe in “pure” evil — an evil with no regard to imposing arbitrary pain and suffering.

    Now I believe that such things exist.

    I guess I feel that I have “grown up” — moved from childhood to adulthood. It really does change one’s perspective. If you think about the argument that “the ends justify the means” then the existence of such evil might justifies tremendous pain and suffering to get to a worthy end.

  15. I can hardly imagine an argument for a “necessary” devil. Does anyone really think that people require an external tempter to lie, cheat, and steal? Or that temptation would cease to exist if Satan did?

  16. #15 Mark D. :
    Ironically, you make the perfect case for the necessity of “pure” evil. People lying, cheating, and stealing may be evil, but it hardly justifies what we go through in this existence.

    The pure evil that I am describing has full access to “miracles” — and that allows threats such as “do X or I will hurt person Y” and then carry them through — repeatedly. And there is arguably an ability to do much more evil, once the veil is lifted, and the evil is no longer constrained by a body.

  17. I’m totally willing to entertain the possibility that Satan exists and that some people have witnessed him, even though I agree he isn’t necessary.

    But, one thing that troubles me about positing a Satan is that I feel that we might occassionally risk projecting human-caused problems unto him. Satan can risk becoming a symbolic scapegoat for us, and thus prevent us from fully acknowledging our agency or complicity in social evils. I just don’t see how it is useful for us humans to believe in his existence, since all that Satan allows us is the opportunity to blame him – thus hiding our agency, which of course was his plan all along :)

  18. Ronan: interesting so far, I’m looking forward to your conclusions.

  19. Tony D, I don’t think anything justifies what we have to go through. Evil is intrinsically unjustifiable.

    The real problem here is the conception of divine omnipotence. It causes all sorts of thorny problems for those who maintain it in an absolute sense.

    I would say, for example, that if God had the absolute power to prevent the devil from exercising any influence on us tomorrow, and refrained from doing so, that he would be negligent in his refusal.

    The alternative idea, that there is some sort of value in evil influences over above those that are the common (and self inflicted) lot of mankind, leads directly to the suggestion that there is some sort of divine subsidy for evil, which I find alternatively ridiculous or abhorrent.

    Maintaining the principle that God has sufficient power to accomplish his stated objectives without necessarily having the power to accomplish them all tomorrow avoids such exceedingly dubious propositions.

  20. Mark,

    Evil is intrinsically unjustifiable

    We can agree to disagree. Still, I would suggest that evil can fall into many different categories — many of those categories have a real justification (anger, lies, …).

    I have no problem with omnipotence. I see evil as a choice that God allows — like my earlier point in the previous thread about “kill 2 vs. kill 10″ having a “good” answer that is “evil”. (And I believe that there is an implied cost to using omnipotence to change that question to include kill none. Omnipotence can include a value system.)

    And I should add that I appreciate your thoughts on this. We each approach this issue with different experiences.

  21. Tony D, I am saying that evil is unjustifiable by definition. If evil were justifiable it wouldn’t be evil, but rather a net good.

    By the way, an action that reduces the number of people that die from ten to two cannot generally be considered to be the same as the action that causes the ten to be in danger of dying in the first place.

  22. I like your parallels with the Satan of the OT, NT, and the Restoration. In all, there is definitely a “hero’s journey” motif being played out, i.e., a period of time in the wilderness, a great confrontation, an overcoming of that confrontation, and an eventual triumph. In Moses 1, we see Moses on the mount, seeking for God, facing off with Satan, and coming off conquerer. In the gospels, Jesus goes to the wilderness for 40 days, contests against Satan, and is victorious. Joseph Smith, in the wilderness of religious confusion, has the same experience in the sacred grove. Even outside of our tradition this is played out. Sidhartha Guatama (the Buddha)left his palace seeking enlightenment. While sitting under the bodhi tree, he encountered Mara, the temptor, who attempted to entice him with the lusts of the flesh. Overcoming this, the Buddha developed the 4 noble truths and the 8-fold path that leads to enlightenment. Again, as with your first post, Satan plays a role as a facilitator for greater growth and development.

  23. Eveningsun says:

    SteveS writes, rather too gently, that “it’s hard to know how much of the book of Job that can be interpreted literally.”

    Actually, this is not hard to know at all. None of the book is to be interpreted literally. It marks itself as a story immediately and in many ways: the stylized opening (basically, “Once upon a time there was a man…”), the use of sacred numbers (7 sons and 3 daughters, 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels), Job’s absolute perfection, etc. These are not the hallmarks of realism or historical narrative–they’re ways of signaling, “Hey, this is fiction.” To read Job literally, as millions unfortunately do, is utterly perverse.

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