Thousands of years ago, something went wrong in the scorching desert sands. A religion was born whose adherents split their god like an atom, and the fallout has been scorching our souls since that day. Just what were the first monotheists worshiping? What is lurking in the Holy of Holies? It may not be what you think. Shall we peek behind the forbidden curtain?
In ancient Judaism there was no entity acting as an independent and malevolent force opposed to god (YHWH). Originally, the Hebrews’ god possessed both good and evil qualities, and was seen as responsible for both. The devil as we know it did not yet exist, but developed gradually due to contradictions within the singular character of the Hebrew divinity. To oversimplify, it became too theologically complicated to have both good and evil wrapped up in the same divinity, so a gradual separation was made until the figure of an independent devil emerged. Nonetheless, Satan and his demons are virtually absent in the Old Testament. Instead, we have satans (plural and non-specific) who appear as an integral part of the divine court.
The satan of Job, for instance, is more properly seen as an “adversary” only, not a fallen angel but one who is divinely sanctioned to test man. Though it is an oversimplification, it is helpful to see this early figure as a sort of prosecuting attorney. His role slowly evolved into that of the more modern devil due in part to the Greek Septuagint (the pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament), which translated “satan” as “diabolos.” In the Septuagint, we read that a “diabolos,” prompted by envy, first brought death into the world as either the serpent or Cain (the translation is unclear). From this point, it was easy for the reader to imagine a devil in the Garden of Eden, though there is no such specification in the text of Genesis itself.
The formation of a distinctly malevolent entity began, however, well before the translation of the Septuagint. A striking example of this can be found in the fourth century BC translation of II Samuel 24:1 in which David is ordered, by god, to take a census, something that same god had expressly forbidden him to do. It seems god was looking for an excuse to punish the Israelites, and so he commanded their king to break a divine command. An audience familiar with the originally dual nature of the Hebrew divinity would understand this, but by the fourth century this had become an unfamiliar and confusing notion. So, when retelling the same story in I Chronicles 21:1, the same words are used with one critical exception–the text was changed to state that it was Satan who told David to take the census, thereby freeing God from a troubling contradiction.
Despite stories like this, Satan’s character was not necessarily seen as negative in pre-Christian Judaism. He worked with God to obstruct human activity, sometimes for the better. He is sent by god to obstruct, yes, but in the case of Balaam, for instance, this is a positive task. In Numbers, Ballam disobeys God and goes where he was instructed not to go, but the satan was sent to obstruct his path, thus protecting Balaam from harm. The satan even chastises Balaam for beating his donkey who’d rightly turned from the blocked path. Thus, in Numbers, the satan is a beneficent figure.
Confusing? It gets worse. Come back next week for part two.
1] Russell, The Devil, 174. See also Amos 3:6 and Isaiah 45:7.
 Pagels, Elaine. The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. [not a biased title at all…smirk] Vintage Books, 1996, xvi.
 “Diabolos” comes from the verb “diaballein,” meaning to oppose. See Henry Angsar Kelly, The Devil, Demonology, and Witchcraft (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Books, 1974), 14.
 Russell, The Devil, 203. See also Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 17.
 Pagels, 39-41.