(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.