🔼The name satan: Summary
- Adversary, Opposition, Resistance
- From the noun שטן (satan), adversary.
🔼The name satan in the Bible
The qualities and character of the creature popularly known as satan are almost all debatable. He is thought to be a cherub or ex-cherub but there's very little proof of that, and he's been expelled from heaven (Job 1:6, Revelation 12:9). We know that he led an insurrection, but it is highly unlikely that his following is organized in the way that God's following is organized (and we'll go into the why of this below). Suffice to say that satan poses no threat to God and is certainly not an equal counter-pole.
Christ's victory over satan at his resurrection is a victory obtained for mankind; there is no indication that God and satan ever came to blows personally. Satan is not omnipresent and not omnipotent or omniscient. He has no ability to create, and indications are myriad that, despite folklore, he is not even able to govern or manage any kind of realm or dark kingdom of sorts. We'll go into the obvious reality of dark kingdoms below, but these are human kingdoms, governed by humans who act as satan's agents — again despite folklore, Christ requires no vicarious "replacements on earth", but satan does, simply because satan has no other claim to physical reality. And the best part is that, since satan embodies lawlessness and chaos, his agents don't even agree among each other, which is why satan's empire is unstable and will eventually fall apart (Matthew 12:26).
Nothing that is commonly ascribed to satan (darkness, fire, evil) actually belongs to satan, as everything belongs to God; the entire world (Psalm 24:1), and all souls (Ezekiel 18:4). And believe it or not: even the name Lucifer does not belong to satan. And neither do the laden words θηριον (therion), beast, διαβολος (diabolos), slanderous, and δρακων (drakon), dragon. Likewise, the famous number 666, the number of the beast, does not belong to satan, as it is "a man's number" (Revelation 13:18).
Even the "name" satan isn't a personal name but a common Hebrew noun — namely שטן (satan), see details below — that means adversary or "whatever opposes", and is literally applied to anything that opposes whatever. The first two times this noun occurs in the Bible, it describes the angel of YHWH as he "positioned himself as satan" to Balaam (Numbers 22:22, 22:32). The third time this noun occurs, it describes young David (1 Samuel 29:4). Then it describes Abishai, son of Zeruiah (2 Samuel 19:22). Then whatever (non-existing) adversaries on king Solomon's every side (1 Kings 5:4). Then Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:14). Then Rezon, son of Eliada (1 Kings 11:23, 11:25). In the New Testament, our word describes Peter (Matthew 16:23).
The word satan means: whatever or whoever opposes and for whatever reason. It's a general term, not a specific name, and the idea of an anthropomorphized and personalized satan is a remnant of the pagan pantheon that always included some evil or trickster god. It has no place in monotheism.
The literary function of satan (= whatever opposes) is the trying and hence actualizing of the potential of God's creation. But when that's been achieved (John 19:30), satan is out of a job (Revelation 20:2). Satan's job was (is) to see if God's creation would (will) break, until it can't break anymore and it's perfect. When creation is perfect, it will no longer be opposed by anything or anyone, and the literary character of satan can retire.
Meanwhile, and here's the rub, it's God who creates, and God who directs his creation toward perfection, and God who opposes and corrects any off-roading.
In the Book of Job — which is a brilliant review of the main religions and philosophies of the ancient world — satan is still allowed an audience with God and God renders him a specifically limited authority to try Job. Satan goes at it and doesn't cross the line, and perhaps this is why satan is not rebuked in the Book of Job. Instead, in the conclusion of Job's story it reads, "...they consoled him and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought on him" (Job 42:11). Likewise, in 1 Samuel 16:14 we read: "Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him".
The prophet Isaiah says it this way: "I am YHWH, and there is no other! I am the One forming light (אור, 'or) and the One creating darkness, making שלום (shalom, wholeness) and רע (ra', evil, = brokenness, the absence of wholeness). I am YHWH who does all these" (Isaiah 45:7).
🔼Something versus nothing
Despite rumors to the contrary, darkness is not the opposite of light but the absence of it. Darkness is the absence of light and not the presence of something else. Likewise, cold is the absence of heat, not the presence of something else. Ignorance is the absence of wisdom, not the presence of something else. Chaos is the absence of order, not the presence of something else. Hate is the absence of love, not the presence of something else. Just because we have a word for it, doesn't mean there's something there.
Light is substantial; light is a thing. Darkness is not substantial; it's not a thing. Darkness is literally nothing. And just because we have a word for it, doesn't mean it's a thing. It has a name, but it's really nothing.
Light comes from a source, carries information, comes in colors, gives warmth and life. Darkness does not come from a source, does not carry information, does not come in hues, and does not give anything. The sun radiates the light of day but there is no anti-sun that radiates the darkness of night. There is no source of darkness and darkness is neither polarized nor centralized, which means that there is no singular embodiment of darkness or evil or ignorance.
Of course there is evil, but there is no Evil One. There is adversity, but there is no Adversarious One. There is disorder, but no Captain Chaos. There is wilderness, but no King of the Jungle. There is darkness but no Dark Lord. There is ignorance, but no Ignoramus Rex.
The saying goes that satan's biggest trick is to make people believe that he doesn't exist. But that is pseudo-pious nonsense. Satan indeed hides in people's ignorance, but that's no trick of his: it's the only place where he can exist with some degree of implied realism: satan is "real" where two or three gather in his name — satan is only real where one person speaks earnestly of the "evil one" and someone else nods in solemn confirmation. Without those two, satan has no stake in reality. The "trick", however, is entirely God's, and God's bigger trick is to reveal, through wisdom, that satan has neither substance nor reality in a mind governed by wisdom (Revelation 20:10).
The personified "satan" is of a similar essence as the personified Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly in the Book of Proverbs, Mammon in Matthew 6:24, Eve or "the mother of all life" (what we moderns call the biosphere), and entities like the Rosy-Fingered Dawn of Greek mythology. It's a literary gimmick, like an archaic adjective everybody has long forgotten. Sin was said to crouch at Cain's door (Genesis 4:7), but that doesn't mean Sin is some kind of physical beast. The prophet Balaam engaged his donkey in a conversation (Numbers 22:28-30). Similarly, Solomon speaks of a locutive bird (Ecclesiastes 10:20), and Isaiah of singing mountains and hand-clapping trees (Isaiah 55:12). These are certainly not instances of journalistic realism.
🔼Lord of Flies
The name Beelzebub means Lord of the Flies, which is obviously a joke name because flies acknowledge no governance. Its opposite is Deborah, which means bee, and which is the feminine equivalent of Dabar, which means Word (in Greek: Logos). An individual bee seems not all that different from an individual fly, but their societies show that bees and flies are truly nothing alike:
Bees have a house, flies don't. Bees have a language, flies don't. Bees harvest flowers and help them procreate. Flies harvest excrement and carcasses, and help them decay. Bees produce honey from nectar (which plants make from sunlight). Flies produce nothing but the spread of disease. Bees nurse their offspring. Flies abandon their offspring, which makes all flies orphans. Bees have organization, specialization, society and community, codes of conduct and a queen. Flies have none of that. Flies are not organized, have no community, and are not specialized. Flies are essentially a cloud of living dust. There is no Lord of the Flies. It's a joke name; a term of derision.
Intuition may suggest that flies are more free than bees, but that's only believed by people who also believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to do with religion, and somehow competes with all other unverifiable (and unfalsifiable) dogmatic systems in the world. This is nonsense. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the knowledge of the mechanisms of created reality (see Romans 1:20 relative to Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 2:3, but also Ephesians 3:19, 1 Corinthians 13:2 and Philippians 4:7) and is the big brother of science (1 Kings 4:33, 1 Thessalonians 5:21). The only competition the gospel has is with ignorance, which is not the opposite of wisdom but the absence of it.
The difference between a herder of sheep and a herder or pigs is that a shepherd walks ahead of the flock and leads the sheep to where they willingly go, whereas a pig herder walks behind the herd and drives them to where they don't want to go. Sheep are guided; pigs are driven. Sheep don't comprehend the considerations of their shepherd, yet they are clever enough to follow him to grassy pastures and fresh water. Sheep grow wool without willing it, and support an economy they have no knowledge of. Pigs don't produce wool, don't know their herder, and spend their whole lives struggling against a fate they can't avoid. Sheep are free. Pigs aren't.
A sheep follows the shepherd the way a child learns to speak. Both imitate, but neither knows what might come of it. The gospel is like a language within which one can express oneself in any which way one wants. The "freedom of speech" that is so proverbially important in our modern day and age is contingent on all speakers submitting themselves to the rules that govern the language. If nobody adheres to the rules, the language doesn't work (or even exist, because all language is consensus) and there is no freedom of speech. If everybody adheres to the rules, the languages works, and everybody can freely express what's on their hearts. In Galatians 5:1 Paul writes that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free (implying that the very purpose of the gospel is freedom; also see Luke 4:18), but the kind of freedom that is referred to is not the anarchy of flies — because flies are utterly bound by chaos, muteness, darkness and lawlessness — but the freedom of bees: freedom-by-law, or ελευθερια (eleutheria).
Unity comes from unity. Law comes from a law-giver. Freedom comes from a liberator. Salvation comes from a savior. Disorder, lawlessness, captivity and damnation are the absence of order, law, freedom and salvation, but not the presence of something else.
Reality exists by merit of the permanence of natural law. Reality exists because natural law cannot be violated. But natural law comes about in precisely the same way as language. Like language, natural law is not an absolute thing but a consensual thing, not an external thing but an internal thing (Deuteronomy 30:14, Luke 17:21, Romans 2:15), distilled from the very depths by the many interactions of freely operating elements that gravitate toward a shared reality that none of the elements would ever want to oppose. Any object, process, natural or human structure that tries to exist in defiance of natural law (and specifically the second law of thermodynamics), will experience opposition and certainly will eventually fall apart. That's not because of some destructive anti-god but because of the constructive Creator who has produced a natural law that cannot be violated, and which will destroy anything that tries to exist in opposition to this natural law. A permanent existence in a state of eternal bliss can only exist when this existence is dynamic (i.e. alive) and in synchronicity with the natural law that governs it all.
These things may seem rather alien, particularly to people who are used to the pagan bi-polar and polytheistic reality models of most modern religions. Because these models are so pervasive in our world, satan has a much larger and romantic and defined role in general culture than in the Bible. The Bible, namely, is mono-polar and monotheistic and does not support the dualistic idea that the realm of darkness eternally battles the realm of light. Satan is not God's counter-pole. The outer darkness is not centralized.
🔼Pyramids, clouds and the second law of thermodynamics
In Israel, anybody who operated out of professional sovereignty — i.e. anybody without a human superior, who worked directly for God and answered only to God, namely any king (1 Samuel 10:1, 16:3, 1 Kings 19:15), high priest (Exodus 28:41) or prophet (1 Kings 19:16, Isaiah 61:1) — was anointed into office (rather than crowned or sworn in or something like that). The Hebrew verb for this is משח (mashah), to anoint, from which comes the noun משיח (mashiah), "anointed one" or Messiah. That means that any sovereign who was anointed into autonomous office, every king, high priest or prophet was Messiah. And although all differed in function and temperament, all of them were equal in their sovereignty. All Messiahs are equally sovereign, and agree only on and in God.
The Greek equivalent of this important Hebrew verb is χριω (chrio), to anoint, from which comes the familiar noun χριστος (christos), an "anointed one" or Christ. That means that a Christ is someone (anyone; see 1 John 2:20) who operates out of sovereignty, who answers only to God and who is entirely free to act and wholly responsible for his (her) own life and actions.
The Word of God — which, very roughly, is the Operating System of the whole of created reality, which existed before created reality, out of which reality sprang and which keeps reality forever together (Colossians 1:16-17) — has interacted with mankind's conscious intellect since Abraham (specifically since Genesis 15:1). This Word attained human form in Jesus Christ (see for a much more detailed look at this complicated process our article on the Passion of the Christ), but Jesus Christ was the first-born of many to come: a Tribe of Christs, a.k.a. the Body of Christ (see our article on Stephen for the details of this).
Before Jesus, the Word was real yet pre-incarnate. In Jesus, the Word was incarnate in one man. After Jesus, the Word is incarnate in the Body of Christ, which is a Tribe of Christ(s), or a Beehive of Christ or a Flock of Sheep of Christ: consisting only of sovereigns, who answer to God alone, and in a freedom that comes from the mastery of natural law. Anyone who opposes the sovereignty of any of God's anointed, who demands obedience to anything other than God, and obviously anyone who claims to "replace" Christ, is Antichrist. (The claim to replace Christ on earth is in itself a ridiculous proposition; aspiring Christ-replacers should start small and try first to replace all earth's water or vitamins or gnats, and work their way up from there).
The Roman Republic was governed by a senate of learned freemen, who debated anything they wanted, and who could be addressed or even joined by any freeman who so chose. That situation tragically destabilized and the Republic went up in smoke. In place of it came the Empire, which was not governed by a body of autonomous senators but by one single emperor, who commanded absolute obedience. The first to do so was Augustus, the original Antichrist, the first true Vicar of Satan.
The Body of Christ is a perfect republic. This is why Christ destroys all dominion, authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:24). The most essential buzz-word in the Body of Christ is freedom. The most essential buzz-word in the Body of Antichrist is obedience. There are always more people obedient than folks to be obedient to, which inevitably leads to a pyramidal structure with at the top one supreme ruler to whom everybody ought to be obedient but who himself has no master and who wafts his vapid decrees (which are essentially fantasies) down the imperial tube for all to follow. That inevitably leads to a kind of royal psychosis, via which the king begins to believe in his own divinity. Since no one is allowed to challenge the beliefs of the pyramidal top, the supreme ruler of a satanic empire will inevitably spin into madness, until some other nut is brave enough to knock him off, and takes his place and becomes mad himself.
To keep the whole idiotic structure stable, obedience has to be controlled by police and army, and enforced by all sorts of punishments, mind control and social engineering. In general, the closer one sits to the bottom of the pyramid, the less value one has and the more one suffers. That inevitable leads to opposition, and will always result in destabilization and ultimately demise.
An empire that is based on obedience will always generate opposition (Matthew 12:25). That's a chicken-and-egg situation: you can't have obedience if there isn't disobedience and thus opposition. This is how you can tell you are in a satanic situation: when there is opposition. The opposition is what signifies a satanic (=oppositive) situation.
So no, even though Hebrew literature sometimes personifies general principles (like Lady Wisdom, Lady Folly, Mammon), not even in the Book of Job is Mister Opposition a lanky red guy with a pitch fork and horns coming out of his head. Satan is opposition of any sort, righteous or not. And he's not any of the sides, but resides in the fact that there are sides. It's opposition that marks an imperfect society; a perfect society is not opposed, neither by people nor by animals nor by spirits nor by natural laws. A perfect society cannot possibly be destabilized because there are no forces that oppose it.
A godly humanity encounters no opposition, neither from within nor from the universe and its everlasting laws. That is why there is no satan in the New Jerusalem; there is no opposition. The most essential buzz-word in a godly humanity is autonomy: total individual freedom and thus complete personal responsibility. A humanity like that is formed like a cloud, which explains the many cloud-metaphors in the Bible and particularly the New Testament (see our article on νεφελη, nephele, cloud).
Our modern world is still mostly formed according to Roman ideals of centralization, with its masters, slaves and its endless competition, but the Internet and blockchain technology is allowing great billows of human energy to escape the rigid pyramid and form clouds of freedom over it. It's on these clouds of decentralized human freedom that the free will meet their Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17, Revelation 1:7, Matthew 26:64). And this Lord is not a Master but the human embodiment of the natural laws that describe the most fundamental property of the universe, namely freedom — the bee-kind of freedom, or freedom-by-law.
🔼Etymology of the name satan
The name satan, שטן (satan) is identical to the noun שטן (satan) meaning adversary:
The familiar noun שטן (satan) means adversary and in the Bible this word mostly does not denote some archetypal Evil One. Instead our noun refers to anyone or anything (including the Angel of the Lord) that aims to prevent something or someone else from its or his proper or intended course, irrespective of whether that course is good or bad, or whether the opposition is good or bad.
The derived verb שטן (satan) means to be an adversary; to obstruct or lay in the way. Noun שטנה (sitna) denotes a kind of written or formal notice that aims to stop a certain proceeding; something like a modern Cease And Desist notice.
It's unclear where our noun comes from, but candidates are: the verb שוט (sut), to swerve or fall away, or the verb שטה (sata), to turn aside. It may even have something to do with the verb שתן (shatan), to urinate.
For a meaning of the name satan, NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads Adversary. Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names does not translate.