The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job

scotty_in_hell.jpgThe appearance of “Satan” in virtually all English translations of the book of Job befuddles me since it is very clear that Satan was never in the book of Job to begin with! While almost every English translation of the book of Job will refer to “Satan” in the first couple chapters of the book, there is scholarly consensus that this is certainly not what the Hebrew original is referring to!

In the prose prologue to the book of Job we are introduced to “the satan” (‏השטן‎) who is among the “sons of Elohim” (‏בני האלהים‎) (1:6). It is pretty clear that this passage isn’t referring to “Satan” (i.e., the king of demons) since the Hebrew noun “satan” has a definite article. The biblical text refers to “the satan”, not “Satan.” Personal names in Hebrew (as in English) do not take the definite article. I don’t go around referring to myself as “The Tyler” — and if I did, people would think I was weirder than they already think I am.

In the Hebrew Bible, the noun “satan” (‏שטן‎) occurs 27x in the Hebrew Bible, fourteen of which are found in the first two chapters of the book of Job. Of the remaining thirteen times, seven instances occur with clear reference to a human adversary. Take, for example these passages from the NRSV:

But David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should today become an adversary [satan] to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” (2Sam 19:22)

But now the Lord my God has given me [Solomon] rest on every side; there is neither adversary [satan] nor misfortune (1Kings 5:4).

Then the Lord raised up an adversary [satan] against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the royal house in Edom (1Kings 11:14).

Other examples of satan referring to human adversaries include 1 Sam 29:4; 1Kgs 11:23, 25; and Ps 109:6. The other five occurrences appear to refer to some sort of celestial or angelic adversary. The “Angel of Yahweh” (‏מלאך יהוה‎) is referred to as “an adversary” (satan) to Balaam in Num 22:22 and 23, while the book of Zechariah mentions “an adversary” that accuses the High Priest Jonathan in the presence of the angel of Yahweh (Zech 3:1, 2 [2x]). Like the passages in Job, virtually all English translations render “the satan” (‏השטן‎) in Zechariah as “Satan” (see KJV, RSV, KRSV, NIV, NASB, etc.) even though the articular noun is not being used as a personal name. The one exception to this longstanding traditional translation is found in the NJPS where it translates “ha-satan” in Zechariah as “the Accuser” and in Job as “the Adversary.” The usage of the related verb stn (‏שטן‎), “be hostile to, accuse,” parallels the noun, though of its six occurrences, only one refers to the work of a celestial being (Zech 3:1); the others are actions attributed to human adversaries (Pss 38:21; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29).

The only passage in the entire Hebrew Bible where satan may refer to “Satan” as the fallen leader of demonic forces is 1 Chronicles 21:1, where satan (significantly without the definite article) incites King David to take an ill-fated census. This passage is also an interpretive crux historiographically, since it parallels 2Sam 24:1 where Yahweh incited David to take the census. Evidently, the Chronicler had theological problems with Yahweh inciting the census and then punishing David for taking it, and therefore made the change in his text for theological reasons (alternatively, the Chronicler’s Hebrew text of 2Samuel may have already contained the change, since the evidence of 4QSam-a suggests the Chronicler may have had a different text). While I still lean towards the traditional understanding of this passage as referring to “Satan,” I should note that most recent commentators have moved away from this understanding and have proposed a human adversary or an angelic adversary akin to Job and Zechariah.

When we turn to the book of Job, then, we do not find the full-blown figure of Satan. Instead, we find a celestial being who is part of Yahweh’s divine council, i.e., one of the “sons of Elohim”, who functions in the book of Job as a heavenly adversary. More specifically, in the book of Job, the satan fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. In this respect, the NJPS translation as “the Adversary” is perhaps the best possible.

The development of “the satan” into “Satan,” i.e., the evil arch-enemy of God, seems to have occurred primarily after the Hebrew Bible, perhaps under the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism (although this is debated). Whatever the influence, when we turn to Second Temple Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch or the DSS, we find a far more developed angelology/demonology. This is continued into the New Testament where you find a full-blown (albeit not systematic) angelology and demonology.

What I find interesting is why virtually every modern English translation continues to render “the satan” in the book of Job as “Satan,” despite the fact it has a long historical pedigree (facilitated no doubt by the LXX, Targums, and Vulgate, among others). True, the NRSV (as well as a few other English translations) has a footnote providing an alternative understanding (“the Accuser; Heb ha-satan“), shouldn’t it really be the other way around? While it doesn’t surprise me that the more conservative Christian translations have kept the traditional rendering as “Satan,” it does surprise me that translations such as the NRSV has perpetuated such a traditional understanding.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the figure of “the satan” in the book of Job is not sinister; he does question the motives behind Job’s fear of Yahweh, but he is not the “Satan” found in the New Testament. There is significant theological development from the time of the Old Testament through the Second Temple period to the New Testament and beyond. But in our translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament I think it is very important to translate (as mush is possible) the original meaning of the text, rather than a later theological interpretations/developments (and yes, I recognize all of the pitfalls surrounding the language of “original meaning,” but I think you know what I mean). In the same way translations shouldn’t import the notion of the Trinity into the Hebrew Bible, nor should they import a more developed demonology into the Old Testament.

If this post as piqued your interest, you may be interested in some of the following books:

  • Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons by Sydney H. T. Page (Baker, 1994; Buy from or ). [This is a well-researched and well-balanced biblical-theological examination from a somewhat conservative Christian perspective from my colleague at Taylor Seminary]
  • An Adversary in Heaven: Satan in the Hebrew Bible by Peggy L. Day (Harvard Semitic Monographs; Scholars Press, 1998; Buy from or [This is an academic study of the satan in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.]
  • The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1989; Buy from or [This is an engaging academic look at the development of the figure of Satan in connection with the ANE combat myth]
  • Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible edited by Karel van der Toorn, et al (2nd edition; Eerdmans, 1999; Buy from or [This is a comprehensive academic reference dictionary that will give more more than you ever wanted to know about angels, demons, and deities]

For recommended commentaries on the book of Job, see my Old Testament Commentary Survey. If you are interested in the further development of the figure of Satan, see Phil Harland’s excellent series of posts on the “History of Satan.”

This entry was posted in Old Testament, The Book of Job, Translation Theory, Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job

  1. Jim Getz says:


    What do you think of Elaine Pagel’s view that “Satan” is a key word for in-house (Jewish) sectarian fighting?

  2. FWIW, Iyov suggests we need to have boxing gloves handed out when we get our Bibles. I wouldn’t be too sure about any dualism in the NT either. We are not into a who’s-the-worst-god scenario. We do not wrestle with simple things.

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  5. Glenn says:

    The Bible makes it very clear that we have one, and only one, accuser before the throne of God and that is Satan. As such, unless you trying to claim that we have more than one accuser before the throne of God, it leaves just the one conclusion; the accuser in Job is Satan.

  6. James says:

    RE: “Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons by Sydney H. T. Page (Baker Academic, 2004)”

    I don’t think that book was published by Baker Academic in 2004. It may have been published (by Baker Books?) ten years earlier. Check the info in your copy?

  7. Derek Brown says:

    [NB – Page’s book was published by Baker Books (& Apollos), which is not exactly the same as Baker Academic]

    I appreciate your post, as much of the evidence for a person figure of Satan in the OT is often misunderstood. However, I have two observations related to your entry. First, I would want to be careful in distinguishing (the) Satan’s role as either a mere advocate or the personification of all evil. For while the linguistic evidence does favour your argument, the lack of clarity surrounding the dating of the development of Satan as a personal cosmic figure is unclear. Thus it might be too much to suggest a sharp dichotomy here, esp. given the evidence from 1 Chron as you indicate. Might there be something of an overlap here?

    Second, your argument might lead some to say the same of (the) Satan in the NT, where—at least in Paul—the noun “Satan” has the def. article in all but one reference (2 Cor 12:7). Surely for the writers of the NT Satan was indeed a personal figure. Both the linguistic and wider conceptual evidence would suggest this to be the case.


  8. Hey James… thanks for catching my slip up; it is 1994, not 2004. My copy is at my office. I put Baker Academic based on Amazon.

    I appreciate your comments Derek. There may well indeed be some overlap; the problem does come down to a number of things including dating. The possible dates for the book of Job are bewildering. In addition, the 1Chron 21 passage is highly debated, so while I tend to favour the traditional view, I wouldn’t use it as a foundation to build a theory of the development of satan.

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  10. Rhett says:

    Glenn hit the nail on the head. The “Accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night” is “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan.” It’s pretty straight forward… and doesn’t require a lot of mental or linguistic gymnastics.

    After all, how many “Accusers” can appear personally before God in heaven, also roam around the Earth looking for someone to accuse or destroy, and then use various spiritual and supernatural power to manipulate enemy troops to kill people and pillage property from a particular person, drop lightning or fire from heaven on particular people to kill them, and use a whirlwind (tornado) to blow up a particular house and kill everyone inside it, then cause a terrible disease to strike one targeted person.

    Sounds like a malevolent, powerful, supernatural enemy to me, a particular evil personage, not some generic or nameless “accuser”… and clarifying that this “Accuser” in Job is in fact Satan (the Devil, the Great Serpent, the great dragon) doesn’t seem like much of a reach. All of the Biblical evidence makes it clear who the accuser in Job is. There is nothing “Mysterious” about it at all.
    1 Peter 5:8
    Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
    Chapter 12
    9The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. 10Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.
    Chapter 1
    6 One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the LORD, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. 7 “Where have you come from?” the LORD asked Satan. Satan answered the LORD, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.”
    Chap. 1 All right, you may test him,” the LORD said to Satan. “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So Satan left the LORD’s presence.
    13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger arrived at Job’s home with this news: “Your oxen were plowing, with the donkeys feeding beside them, 15 when the Sabeans raided us. They stole all the animals and killed all the farmhands. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
    16 While he was still speaking, another messenger arrived with this news: “The fire of God has fallen from heaven and burned up your sheep and all the shepherds. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
    17 While he was still speaking, a third messenger arrived with this news: “Three bands of Chaldean raiders have stolen your camels and killed your servants. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
    18 While he was still speaking, another messenger arrived with this news: “Your sons and daughters were feasting in their oldest brother’s home. 19 Suddenly, a powerful wind swept in from the wilderness and hit the house on all sides. The house collapsed, and all your children are dead. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
    Chap. 2
    So Satan left the LORD’s presence, and he struck Job with terrible boils from head to foot.

  11. Hey Rhett,

    Thanks for your comments. I think you misunderstood what I was arguing to some extent and we also differ in some significant methodological ways.

    I am arguing that the book of Job, **in its original historical and cultural context**, does not refer to a full-blown figure of capital “S” Satan. This would be parallel to the fact that the Old Testament does not have an understanding of hell, but instead paints a picture of a shadowy underworld called “sheol” where both the righteous and the wicked go; or that the Old Testament has no conception of the Trinity (of course, in that example, nor does the NT). When you look at the Hebrew Bible and interpret it in its historical and cultural world, it does not have a very developed demonology. Thus, from a historical perspective, quoting the New Testament is meaningless, since that comes from a later period and only shows us how the early Christians understood certain passages in the Old Testament. If you wanted to look at how the figure of “satan” developed historically, then you would look at Second Temple Jewish literature as well as the New Testament and beyond. From a theological perspective you can understand this development under the rubric of “progressive revelation” if you like, but either way you do have a development.


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  17. David Bisman says:

    Thankyou for the post. I have shown it to many Christian friends. I am a Jew who has studied Christian Theology (challenging for me but moreso for my teachers I think). This issue has been a bugbear of mine for some years… and not just regarding the satan. Christian translators have declined to translate certain Hebrew words in certain places to (IMO) strengthen accepted Christian doctrine. Unfortunately this leads to a terrible lack of clarity as to what our shared Scriptures actually say. This means that interfaith dialogue is often frustrated by us talking about the same texts but from such different perspectives that we talk past and not to each other.

    There are things in Scripture which challenge both Jewish and Christian received doctrine and by confronting the Scriptures as what they are and not what we want them to be we can wrestle with God and so BE Israel. Becoming better Jews and Christians respectively.

    Shalom from Dunedin, New Zealand

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  21. “Personal names in Hebrew do not take the definite article”.

    A grammatical search in Accordance verifies what you say, but only because it does not consider our instances in Job to be an example of a personal name. If you want another example, one equally contentious, then how about “the Qoheleth”? Despite the fact that this word is given the definite article in some verses, other verses would appear to be utilising it as a personal name. You can argue that it is definitely not a personal name (as some do) on the basis of the fact that it sometimes has the definite article, but this is circular logic.


  22. Rex says:

    Is the presence of the article so important?

    The provided translation for Job 1:6 appears to contain the following equivalencies:

    bni e·aleim = sons-of the·Elohim
    e·shtn = the·adversary

    Curiously, the given translation capitalizes “Elohim” even with the article: “the·Elohim”.

    There also appears to be an extended equivalency in the first chapter of Job. As far as Job was concerned, it seems that “Elohim” (without an article) whom he was “fearing of” in verse 1 is the same as “Yahweh”, who claims Job as “servant-of·me” in verse 8.

    The “sons-of the·Elohim” presented themselves before “Yahweh” in verse 6. The article in “sons-of the·Elohim” doesn’t seem necessarily instructive to me. English uses “helper words” to make sentences sound better without necessarily changing the meaning of any of the other words. Are there also “helper words” in written (if not spoken) Hebrew? Is such the case for the article in “sons-of the·Elohim”? If so, might it not similarly be the case in “e·shtn = the·adversary”?

    Referring to oneself as “The Tyler” would sound weird to native speakers of English. But so does the “servant-of·me” in a literal translation of Job 1:8.

    The same Strong’s number, 430, is used for “Elohim” in Gen 1:1 and for “the·Elohim” in Job 1:6.

    Strong _did_ bother to catalog every English helper word, yet apparently made no distinction between “the·Elohim” and “Elohim”. Does this indicate that the presence or lack of an article with a proper name in the Hebrew text may be more stylistic than substantive?

  23. Hey SImon,

    I’m not sure the use of Qohelet in Ecclesiastes is parallel since we are not quite sure of what it is; is it an anagram? an epithet? etc.

    What I find interesting is that “STN” does become a personal name in later usage. Perhaps as early as 1Chron 21:1 where it doesn’t have the article.

    Putting aside the issue of the definite article, there really are no texts in the Hebrew Bible that clearly talk about a chief bad guy demon. The snake in Genesis is not Satan (at least not according to the Hebrew Bible; that the NT and early Christianity interpreted it in that manner is another issue altogether), nor do Isa 14 or Ezek 28 talk of the Devil. You have to wait until some of the Second Temple literature like Enoch before you get a more developed demonology.

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