Judaism & Satan

by Jonathan Vankin
Satan, ruler of Hell, does not appear in Judaic texts

Satan, ruler of Hell, does not appear in Judaic texts

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The Satan that we all know and fear, the one who turns up in movies like "Rosemary’s Baby," is a character from Christian lore. In Christian eschatology, Satan, aka Lucifer, is an actual being, the ruler of hell, cast out of heaven by God. He’s the embodiment of evil, engaged in a never-ending constant battle with God. But Satan exists in Judaism, too, in very different form. In Judaism, Satan is not a character as much as a concept.

Satan as the Obstacle to a Virtuous Life

In Judaism, a “Satan” is an obstacle that we face as we attempt to lead a moral, virtuous life. The obstacles can be internal. When we suffer from self-doubt or battle against temptation, we are facing our own personal Satan. Satan could also come in the form of another person. Whatever has the power to steer us away from faith in God and our responsibility to carry out tikkun olam (healing the world) counts as a Satan.

Satan in the Old Testament

Actually, Satan appears as a physical being in the Jewish Bible, but only twice. His biggest role comes in the Book of Job. Satan’s function in the story is to cause God’s most faithful servant, Job, as much suffering as possible. He does so with God’s full approval. They’ve made a bet, about how much misery Job can take. Satan also gets a brief mention in the second-to-last book of the Old Testament, Zechariah, where he stands at God’s right hand. In Zechariah, he serves as an accuser, pointing out to God where men have gone wrong.

Other Mentions of Satan

Satan is often identified with “Lucifer,” the “morning star” who was cast out of heaven by God. But the Old Testament never says that they are one and the same. That identification came later, with Christianity. Several mentions of an “adversary” in the Old Testament have come to be identified with Satan, however, as has the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Again, these identifications are all matters of interpretation. But in the Judaic sense of a Satan as any obstacle that leads away from the righteous life, any of these mentions does indeed refer to Satan.

Satan is Powerless Without God

Even in Job, Satan has no power of his own, except the power that God allows him. There is no war between God and Satan in Judaism. Satan is God’s servant and God rules, without any competition. He created Satan with a specific purpose, to test his subjects’ worthiness as well as to carry out his judgments. It is impossible in Judaism to “sell your soul to the devil” because Satan can do nothing without God. There is no such thing in Judaism as an autonomous “devil,” which means that redemption is always possible for anyone who truly wants to serve God.

About the Author

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.

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