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Constructive criticism of The Unseen Realm #2: who is ha’satan?

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4 minutes to read In which I offer a friendly critique of some elements of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm—in this instance, his comments in chapter 8 on Satan.

Some very gnarly problems arise in Unseen Realm when Mike moves into the questions of perfection, freedom, predestination and foreknowledge, starting in chapter 8 (“Only God Is Perfect”) and continuing to the end of Part 2. There are several issues in this section, but the first is fairly unrelated to the others, so I’m going to deal with it quickly here, and then start canvassing the more philosophical problems next time.

Basically I think Mike’s treatment of the satan character in Job is very one-sided. While it is certainly true that translations take unjustifiable liberties in translating the Hebrew title of ha’satan (ha means “the”) as the proper name Satan, it is equally true that there are serious reasons to believe this character is indeed the serpent. Using his name in Job is a theologization, rather than a translation—but it is a theologization with plenty of biblical support.

Now, I think Mike’s point about the broader meaning of the term ha’satan is important—though I don’t know if it has any real value in this kind of book. But my issue is that he simply asserts that ha’satan is not the devil.

Here’s the problem: even though it is certainly possible that ha’satan is not the devil, Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 both speak of “that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan”. Now, going by the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, which examples of the word “satan” in the Bible is John likely to have in mind? Mike himself notes that most times the word clearly does not refer to the serpent, but to some other adversary. But this being the case, surely ha’satan in Job is the prime candidate for John’s allusion.

Mike claims that “[t]he satan in Job 1–2 is not a villain” (loc 939). But this seems to be purely on the dubious assumption that ha’satan is a standard court official in the ANE. Now, even if this fact is true (and Mike does not document that it is), there is obviously no reason to imagine that the serpent could not fill such a role. Even if it is a role usually filled by lower-ranking bureaucrats, that doesn’t preclude the serpent from taking it on.

Moreover, Mike simply ignores the narrative evidence in Job itself. In fact, the entire story corroborates that ha’satan is a grade-A jerkface. He appears to be highly malevolent, killing dozens of people and horribly afflicting Job, all in the hope of proving a point to Yahweh. What does it take to identify him as the villain, if not such actions? Presumably Mike doesn’t have trouble identifying the villains in movies, yet most of them are not nearly as bad!

There are also intertextual clues in Job that this is indeed the serpent. Firstly, Job 1:6 is plausibly both equating him with the sons of God, yet also differentiating him from them. This would support Mike’s own theory that the serpent was a member of this group in Eden, but was cast out. Secondly, when God asks where he has come from, he says he has been “roaming on the earth, and walking up and down in it” (Job 1:7). Mike himself is fond of pointing out that Ezekiel 28:17 and Isaiah 14:11 show the serpent being thrown down onto or into the earth; and 1 Peter 5:8 observes that our adversary (which in Hebrew is satan) the devil prowls around (roaming) like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. The parallel imagery makes it hard to imagine that Peter didn’t have Job 1:7 in mind.

I know that Mike thinks early Genesis was either written or heavily redacted in Babylon, so I suspect some of his comments on Job presuppose that its author wouldn’t have known Genesis 3. While I agree that some of early Genesis is polemical against Mesopotamian religion, and may have been updated in Babylon, with small additions being made, I find the skepticism about general Mosaic authorship extremely unimpressive because it simply ignores the excellent evidence that the creation account itself is polemical against the three major creation myths prevalent in Egypt around the time of the Exodus. See Genesis 1–2 In Light Of Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths for a worthwhile summary.

None of this means we should translate ha’satan as a proper name in Job—or even necessarily that Job’s author had a clear idea of who this character was. But the cumulative case from later Scripture that this is indeed the devil is not exactly flimsy—so when Mike asserts that it isn’t, without making any kind of positive case of his own, or interacting with the reasons I’ve given, it comes across like he is either being very careless, or that he has an ax to grind.

Neither tend to endear him to the reader as an authority whose other assertions can be trusted. And that is unfortunate.

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