In January 2005 someone posed the following question to me:
How come the Book of Mormon, which traces its genesis before the Exile, mentions “Satan” and possessions by demons, and the like? The concept of a single malelovent being, Satan in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, was a post-Exilic concept, according to scholars such as Elaine Pagels and the like, and so were possessions by demons. Is there any evidence of belief in a single malevolent being and possession by demons, consistent with the Book of Mormon text, before the Exile?
The following was my quick, off-the-cuff answer. How would you have responded to this query?
You ask an excellent question. The theology reflected in the OT, at least as we have it today, reflects a monistic view prior to the Exile; that is, both good and evil come from God. (The developed view, that there is a demigod in opposition to God who is responsible for evil, probably reflects Persian thought, which was highly dualistic.) The Hebrew word satan does appear in pre-Exilic OT passages, but usually with the definite article ha-, which means it should be rendered “the satan.” It was not originally a name of a person, but a description of a role. The satan was the obstructer, the adversary, the accuser. The satan was a son of God and a part of the heavenly court, and he fulfilled a role rather like a divine prosecuting attorney.
In the BoM, some passages alluding to Satan and the devil are fairly generic, and could refer to pre-Exilic conceptions, but others do seem to posit a personalized embodiment of evil, which is the later conception.
One possibility is that we lack adequate evidence for this transformation, and that it began earlier than customarily thought. Lehi flourished just at the tale end of the pre-Exilic period, so we’re not talking about a lot of years’ difference here.
Another possibility is that Lehi came to this view by his own intuition or revelation. Again, it is not that far removed from the general development of the later view.
A third possibility is that at least some of the BoM passages have been Christianized. This could have been done either by Mormon/Moroni (except for passages in the Small Plates, which Mormon/Moroni did not edit) or by Joseph Smith. I personally accept this third possibility.
It was very common for ancient Jewish texts to be Christianized by later Christian copyists, redactors and translators. To see numerous examples, consider James Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.
I realize this perhaps is not the common “sunday school” understanding of things, but it is the explanation that to me makes the most sense.