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Who Is the Satan?

On Michael S. Heiser's dogmatic interpretation of "the satan" and why he is almost certainly wrong.

Christian theologian and Old Testament scholar Michael S. Heiser is brilliant and refreshing. His work on expounding and popularizing rabbinical scholar Alan F. Segal’s “Two Powers of Heaven” has done a great deal of good for the Kingdom. He demonstrates how ancient orthodox Judaism held to, what he calls, a “binitarian” view of God prior to the advent of Christianity. Worship was for God alone, but the Angel of the Lord in human form also accepted worship, which blurred the lines between the two quite a bit (cf. Joshua 5:13-15). This was a natural doorway for Israelites to accept Jesus as the Christ and worship the Christ as God, given that Jesus identified himself in Mark 14:61-62 as this second power or ‘cloud rider’ of heaven from Daniel 7:13 (cf. Acts 1:9; Revelation 1:9; Exodus 23:20-23). It was a special status reserved for Yahweh alone (Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 68:32-33,104:1-4; Isaiah 19:1). A progressive revelation of God would later reveal the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who is identified in the New Testament. Kudos.

That being said, sometimes he doubles down to die on very small hills, for reasons I don’t quite understand. One of those hills is the identity of “the satan” mentioned in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3. In his wildly popular and thought-provoking book, The Unseen Realm, he argues that this Satan cannot be the same Satan mentioned in the NT by rule of Hebrew grammar: It is not a personal pronoun.[1] If this was truly the Satan (or the Devil) of the NT, which is his proper name grammatically in Greek, why then does the Hebrew text use the definite article “ha” before his name so that it reads “the satan”. He attempts to argue that we do not call people “the Mike” or “the Michael”, so why would the text do so? It is not a proper name, it is a title. Therefore, the Satan cannot be Satan. In fact, Satan of the NT is not even mentioned in the OT, it is a later intertestamental development, which is why the NT authors refer to the serpent of Genesis 3 as Satan but not the OT authors.[2] And because of this interpretation, he also adamantly rejects the plausibility of the traditional view that Lucifer was Satan’s original name prior to his fall. But I think this is a gross inflation of hermeneutical power and too cavalierly dismisses the classical understanding of how a fallen angel, who many theologians identify with Lucifer, became Satan.

Unlike humans who name their children after things that sound nice, or perhaps after a family member, culture, or heritage, and can have personal meaning as well, that is not quite God’s prerogative when He creates or changes a name. The meaning of a Godgiven name indicates something about who you are as a person or your role in the greater context of God’s plan, it is an expression of one’s identity in relation to God. The significance of name meaning cannot be understated. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul, He named Hosea’s children as a prophetic judgment against Israel and then renamed them to show His mercy, and He chose the Messiah’s name to be Jesus, to name a few examples. The meaning of a name is important to God.[3]

Heiser rightly points out that Satan is not a proper name but a designation, title, label, or epithet that means “adversary,” “challenger” or “accuser”, which he suggests means “prosecutor”. This adversarial designation is likened, in his words, to a job description, it “speaks of an official legal function within a ruling body—in this case, Yahweh’s council.”[4] Notice also that the word devil in Greek means virtually the same, “accuser,” “slanderer,” attacker,” or literally “to throw across” (cf. Ephesians 6:16). The symbolic connotation with both labels is in a legal sense, where the Devil or Satan is throwing accusations against humanity in a proverbial court of law. But this doesn’t support his case. If Satan fell, which Heiser believes he did in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:14-15), and as do I, then his previous name that bore his identity and the true meaning of who he was, given to him by God at birth, would be meaningless from that point onward. Whether his name was “Lucifer”, which means “shining one”, or was another name altogether is beside the point right now. The point is that Satan’s original name meant something else before his fall and would need to change. So, he would be given a new title: The Adversary.[5] His name would be forever changed. Heiser even acknowledges that the label Satan was slapped on him after the fact, but he does not take in account how a title can become a proper name.

Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.

Job 2:4-5

Here’s a contemporary example. You may know the name Ted Kaczynski, but most people know him as the Unabomber. His original identity has been stripped in the greater contextual culture for an iconic media epithet that better suited his trademark identity as a domestic terrorist: A lone bomber who planted fear across the United States for nearly 20 years, killing and injuring many. Despite who he was, he became the Unabomber. His former self, whom his parents raised and loved, had proverbially died when the first bomb was detonated. Even as a title, everyone still knows the Unabomber is not his actual name from birth. Theologian and New Testament scholar Kenneth Berding also acknowledges this, as well. “Even if we grant that ha satan in Job is a title rather than a name, this does not necessarily entail that the being referred to is a different being from Satan. In Germany in the 1940s, someone who spoke of the Führer (German title for “Leader”) would have been employing a title rather than a name to designate Adolf Hitler, but that doesn’t necessitate that the speaker was referring to two different entities.”[6] As a rule of thumb: The story determines the grammar, the grammar does not determine the story.

Perhaps a better way to explain this identity phenomenon, rather than comparing angelic identities to the way we casually employ names grammatically, is to utilize examples that rest outside the scope of everyday life. It seems to me that mythical archetypes may better suit the scope of the problem. Consider this example from modern mythmaking: The Joker. Of unknown origin, or rather veiled by a plethora of fabricated origin stories, the Joker is void of a normal identity and a personal pronoun, and his deranged cocktail of madness and cruelty has stripped away any opportunity of gaining it back. Like Satan, he is not the man he once was even if he did go by his birth name, or even if he did retain some resemblance of his former self, as Satan, too, disguises himself as a “shining one”, a messenger of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). No one knows the Joker’s name or who he was prior to wreaking havoc, causing chaos, and corrupting the good. He is evil incarnate, an agent of chaos and corruption. This is manifest by his perverted self-referential sense of humour that is isolated to himself alone, an iconic visual balance to Batman’s fear tactics to protect the goodness, justice, law, and order. Like Satan again, the Joker is also a designation with the definite article, it is the title given to him, and rightfully so. He now embodies this new archetype, it is truer to his character, it is meaningful. He is the Joker. And because he is this new persona, having lost his old identity, over time he would become known and referred to as, simply, Joker. Joker is a personal pronoun.

Furthermore, in Numbers 22 the word satan is also used to describe the Angel of the Lord’s opposition to the pagan prophet Balaam. Here, the angel of the Lord is described “as an adversary” (le satan) (vv.22,32). The term le satan seems to suggest that the definite article ha was needed to distance the special bearer of the word Satan from the ordinary usage of the word itself. Just as ‘a joker’ is certainly a term or figure of speech, ‘the Joker’ is identity specific. The title, then, serves as an identity marker, especially in the absence of a proper name.

Can this same principle of progressive identity not apply to Satan, as well? What exactly is the problem with Satan having then losing the definite article? We may even see this progression in Hebrew, too. Notice that the definite article ha is missing from 1 Chronicles 21:1, a text written much later than Job. Satan is a proper name, here. It is a personal pronoun.[7] The classical doctrine of Satan need not be criticized, especially so drastically as to declare it false.

Alexandre Cabanel, “The Fallen Angel” (c.1847). Oil on canvas.

It doesn’t hurt, it helps.

I suspect that he may believe this would weaken a pillar of his divine council/rebellion narrative (which, I believe, deserves a tremendous amount of credit). However, I do not believe it does. While Heiser employs a weak argument that the lack of a personal pronoun means the Satan of the OT is not the same person as the NT, by arguing that we do not call a person “the Michael”, and also finds no trouble designating Michael a well-known figurehead status like “the friend”, as if it were a special title or relationship status, in this he sort of misses the bigger picture. Consider that the definite article differentiates one member of a certain class from other members of the same class, and this is so even with the heavenly hosts. As Heiser pointed out himself, there is a big difference between an angel of the Lord and the angel of the Lord, just as there is an immeasurable difference between the Elohim known as Yahweh or God and an elohim meaning a god, angel, or spiritual being (Psalm 82:1). Yahweh is the God of gods, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The definite article can be used to identify something special about this particular adversary. Therefore, depending on this Michael’s specific role or status in this household, we could very well call him “the Michael”, say, if there were many more Michael’s in the house, many adversaries in heaven, but this one Michael specifically is worth noting. He stands above the rest. Perhaps he plays a central role that only God knows about, considering he is to become or already is the ringleader over the divine rebellion. Therefore, the Satan can very well be Satan with no damage done to his divine council/rebellion proposal. He is the Satan, the Devil, the challenger of God, the adversary of Christ (Genesis 3:15).

If God changed Lucifer’s name to Satan (if indeed it was Lucifer), He used the Hebrew word adversary to emphasize his new status or relation with Himself. With the definite article before his title, the authors of Scripture, then, are suggesting, if not, highlighting it is not just any adversary but the adversary of God/man, the first recorded rebel in history: the serpent of Genesis 3.[8] This is particularly plausible given Heiser’s proposal, that the language God used to judge the serpent in Genesis 3:14-15 indicates that the serpent was, in fact, a divine being, and that Genesis 3 is to be interpreted through a divine council lens, which he argues was the original, default ancient interpretation[9]. Now consider that Lucifer, the shining one, fell from the sky like a flash of lightning (Luke 10:18), and later swept one third of angels with him in his divine rebellion (Revelation 12:3-4). Lucifer loses his proper name and becomes the Satan, which then becomes his new identity, Satan, leader of the adversaries (Matthew 12:26). He is still the adversary in both contexts. Heiser need not double down on this notion that the Satan cannot be Satan. Rather, all that need be argued is that the Satan mentioned in Job and Zechariah may not be the Satan or Devil of the NT. We would do well not to be too dogmatic here, and in doing create new traditions at the expense of old ones.

The Satan is a villain.

I think the root problem with Heiser’s argument is that the satan of Job is not painted in a negative light. He claims that this Satan is “not a villain”[10] but God’s eyes and ears on the ground fulfilling his obligation as a prosecuting attorney. As if this is, somehow, normative in God’s kingdom to have one member in society play the blame game on everyone who crosses his path. If this were true, it makes you wonder: Satan is the adversary of whom, then? The name is meaningless otherwise. Despite the name meaning, the Satan’s accusatory role is not looked upon fondly in Scripture, not in flat or positive light. In fact, according to Revelation 12:10, Satan “accuses them [saints] day and night before our God”, and in Zechariah 3:1-2, the Lord rebukes him for doing so. Notice, here, in Zechariah that the definite article ha is present, and God rebukes his accusations. Why is the Satan being rebuked for doing his job?

Another problem with this proposal is that this Satan is working for God to get Job to slander God’s name–––it is his job! Cheap pun not intended. Consider the apparent hypocrisy, here; even though God would later command Israel, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7), God is also working a side gig with angels of destruction to purposely get innocent people to slander Him? (Job 1:8,2:3) Would a good person desire a “blameless” and “upright” person to blaspheme God’s name? To this, we must consider the archangel Michael when contending with Satan over the body of Moses, “he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” (Jude 1:9) In other words, Michael would not even condemn Satan – who is already condemned – so he would not tread into God’s sovereign territory and commit blasphemy. How could Michael, then, push someone else to curse God? Satan, however, has no problems with encouraging sinful, blasphemous, slanderous behaviour. All in all, it doesn’t seem to add up very well from what I can tell. God just sounds directly complicit in the proliferation of blasphemy if this was the case.

Not only that, but the Satan appears to directly challenge God’s assertion about Job, and he is overly presumptuous about it; he is convinced that Job will slander God’s name, in the future tense, when he is done with him. “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11) When God permits Satan to be his hand of destruction, Job does not respond in the way Satan desires, so he returns to God and wagers him again, but this time for his life, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 2:4-5) I think it is fair to say anyone who demands “skin for skin” shouldn’t be trusted! He either has too much skin in the game or no skin to lose. If anything, the immediate context of Satan’s interaction with God portrays him as a slimy, arrogant rogue who desires people to slander God’s name. And God is simply using his own corrupt desires against him. Kerning is right on this point again. “In the traditional view of Satan, God sometimes permits Satan to do evil deeds even to righteous people because God has greater purposes that he intends (Luke 22:31; 2 Cor 12:7).”

This new view of Satan that Heiser proposes, alongside John H. Walton and Ryan E. Stokes, does not resolve a theodical difficulty or solve a problem in our theological tradition, nor is it necessary to hold for any particular reason I can think of. To me, it is altogether unwarranted.

Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.

[1] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 56-58.

[2] Anon., “Luke 10:18: I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven – Dr. Michael Heiser” Bible Nerds (YouTube Channel). Published on March 29, 2021.

[3] In the case of spiritual beings, these are not ordinary flesh and blood who can produce offspring and give them names (Mark 12:25). Spiritual beings appear to be agents of meaning, their name seems to be synonymous with their identity like a signet seal.

[4] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 56-57.

[5] The challenger or adversary of whom, you may wonder? Well, presumably, of God and/or man. This is typified in Job 1:9-11 and 2:4-5 when his whole task is to get Job to slander God’s name.

[6] Kenneth Berding, “Why Michael Heiser is Probably Wrong about Satan in the Book of Job”. Biola University: Talbot School of Theology Faculty Blog. Published on February 24, 2021.

[7] Heiser recognizes this to be the case, but he struggles with a supposed contradiction with 2 Samuel 24:1 if the traditional view were true. To call it a contradiction is a stretch, in my view. It may be difficult, but not contradictory. That being said, his concern is understandable.
Michael S. Heiser, “The Absence of Satan in the Old Testament”. Published on February 1, 2010.

[8] While Heiser attempts to argue that the author of Job does not connect ha satan with the serpent of Genesis 3, he pushes too far in saying that it cannot be the same person. But, as Kerning notes, this is an argument from silence. There is no special reason why the author would need to make this connection in the context of Job. Yet, if consolations are due, the definite article indicates that we should pay attention to who this adversary is. This would be especially pertinent, too, if Job is indeed the oldest book in the Bible after Genesis. Furthermore, Heiser also seems to believe that it cannot be Satan because he was casted out of the divine council to earth as a consequence of his rebellion in Genesis 3. But in Job 2:2, God asks the Satan, “From where have you come?” And he responds, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it”. Long story short, Satan is casted down to the earth to oppose mankind, and perhaps God’s decision to create them, but he is still accountable before God because he is divine being, hence his appearance in the divine council in Job.

[9] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 73-82.

[10] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 57.

• Paul Evans, Divine Intermediaries in 1 Chronicles 21: An Overlooked Aspect of the Chronicler’s Theology. Wycliffe College.