Satan in the book of Job? Nope!

One of my pet peeves is when Bible translations seem to base their translations on tradition or theology rather than the biblical text. One glaring example of this is found in the prologue to the book of Job where virtually all English translations render “the satan” (‏השׂטן) as capital-s “Satan” (Job 1:6, 7 [2x], 8, 9, 12; 2:1, 2 [2x], 3, 4, 6, 7).  Despite some major problems with this translation, you will find it in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB, among others.
No Satan

In the Hebrew text the term “satan” (‏שׂטן) has a definite article attached to it (i.e., it is “the satan”), and thus is not a personal name.  The actual word means “adversary” and is used to refer to human adversaries as well as celestial ones. For example, in 1Kings 11:14 it is used to refer to a human opponent: “Then Yahweh raised up a satan against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (see also 1Sam 29:4, 2Sam 19:22; 1Kgs 5:4, 11:23, 25; Ps 109:6). Now, in the book of Job, “the satan” is clearly a celestial adversary. He is, after all, portrayed as one of the “sons of elohim” (‏בני האלהים) in Yahweh’s heavenly court (Job 1:6; the notion of a divine assembly is found throughout the HB: 1Kgs 22:19-22; Psa 82; Isa 6:1-8; 14:13; Gen 1:26).  This does not, however, mean that this figure is the chief demon, aka the Devil, found in later Jewish and Christian theological traditions. You would search in vain in the Hebrew Bible to find a fully developed angelology or demonology.

In the book of Job, this figure fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. As such, a fitting translation would be “the Adversary” or the like. This, by the way, is what the NJPS translation has, and as such wins my coveted “Translation with Integrity Award”! (As an aside, the NJPS is a truly beautiful Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible that has the novelist Chaim Potok as its literary editor.)

The problem with rendering the Hebrew text with “Satan” is that the typical reader will read into the text all the theological and cultural meaning that it has come to signify in later times. But that is not what it means in the book of Job.   Even more problematic is that such a translation will likely obfuscate the legal metaphor that holds the book together (in this regard see Habel’s superb commentary; Buy from Amazon.caBuy from

So that is my pet peeve for today (or at least one of my many!).

Also of interest may be my previous post along the same lines: The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job

This entry was posted in Hermeneutics, Job, The Book of Job. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Satan in the book of Job? Nope!

  1. John N says:

    Great post. I was wondering though–is your only criterion for not viewing Satan as a proper name the presence of the article? My Hebrew is rusty, but I know in Greek that the article is used quite often with proper names, which we see untranslated. E.g. “the Jesus.” I wouldn’t suggest that we have a fully developed view of Satan hear at all. But it is certainly possibly that biblical writers following the book of Job fill in the gaps with reference to this entity…

  2. In response to John, it is a feature of Greek that proper names take the definite article, but it is not a feature of Hebrew. The only instance that I can think of in which a proper noun (acc. to some major translations) takes the definite article is הקהלת = “the Qohelet”, or “Ecclesiastes”. As for (the) Satan, however, this name turns up without a definite article in Psalm 109:6 and, more significantly, in 1 Chronicles 21:1. Tyler, you mention the first of those two verses, and I would disagree with you as regards how you seem to be reading it (I would take it as a personification of all things adversarial, rather than one accuser out of many), but I am interested in the fact that you didn’t mention the second. If Satan is most definitely not a proper name in the Hebrew Bible, then how are you reading 1 Chronicles 21?

  3. Pingback: Hexaplaric Titles for “Satan” in Job « LXX Studies

  4. Paul D. says:

    Perhaps God was acting as David’s adversary in 1 Chronicles 21:1, since the very same story in Samuel portrays God as the one who causes David to take a census.

  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Yes! Tyler is exactly right! Though, I'm not sure I agree that the legal metaphor holds the book together #fb --

  6. Hey Simon, thanks for responding to John regarding the use of the Hebrew article. I didn’t mention 1Chron 21:1 since it is special case as you know. There the definite article is not used and traditionally it has been understood as the first clear reference to capital-s “Satan” in the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, most recent commentators on 1Chronicles tend to move away from this traditional understanding. I am not so sure a move away is required. Sounds like I need to write a blog post on it! 🙂

  7. Tylor says:

    I can appreciate that a Hebrew/Jewish reader of this text would be confined to limiting their understanding of this figure as just “the adversary”. But, wouldn’t viewing “the adversary” as Satan or one of his minions be obvious from a Christian perspective?

    One can appreciate understanding how the text would have been understood by its original audience, and that is definitely the first step in understanding any text from the OT. But I don’t think Christians should end their ultimate interpretation of any OT text based on purely Hebrew/Jewish interpretation.

    It would be like interpreting Sam Gamgee’s character after only reading the first few chapters of LOTR. Does not knowing the whole story help shed some light on the ambiguities of his earlier character?

    Maybe the best way to go in a Christian translation would be to say “the adversary” but with a footnote saying this is traditionally believed by Christians to be an early view of Satan?

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  9. Note sure if I got “all exasperated”, but thanks for the link.

    I think your suggestion, Tylor, is good. Although I wonder if suggesting that this is Satan suggests something about the realia of the text that may be problematic (if the events of the prologue actually “happened”, then what does it teach about God? That human lives are expendable to prove a point to Satan?)

  10. Theophrastus says:

    Chaim Potok was not the literary editor of the NJPS edition.

    Chaim Potok was named the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society from 1965-1975, but the NJPS translation first started to appear in 1962, and it was not completed until 1982 (and not printed in a single volume until 1985).

    Chaim Potok was a later addition to the Kesuvim translation team (which originally consisted of Moshe Greenberg, Jonas Greenfield and Nahum Sarna; later expanded to include Saul Leeman, Chaim Potok, Martin Rozenberg, and David Shapiro.)

    Chaim Potok was also the editor of the “peshat” commentary section of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s official Chumash (Pentateuch) Etz Hayim.


    I cannot agree with your assessment of the NJPS because it does not follow the Hebrew as closely as other Jewish translations (such as Buber-Rosenzweig’s, Fox’s, or Alter’s translations). Even more serious, there are serious stylistic differences among the translation philosophies of the Torah (Pentateuch), Neviim (Prophets), and Kesuvim (Writings).


    However, I do agree with your assessment that the satan in Job (and in Jewish thought generally) is quite different than “Satan” in medieval and contemporary Christian thought. To distinguish the satan from the Christian/Greek “Satan” I usually take care pronounce then name of the satan with pointed Sephardic accent: the sa-TAHN. (Despite my usual practice of sticking to an Ashkenazic accent.)

    Your analogy of the prosecuting attorney is an excellent one — since the prosecuting attorney still reports to the Judge.


    Finally, I can commend to you Robert Alter’s recent translation of Job. I am quite sure that you will prefer it greatly to the NJPS translation.

  11. Thanks for the info on Potok, Theo. I still like the NJSP and recommend it to my students since most of my students come from Christian backgrounds… and most of the translations they read are part of the Christian English translations from KJV to TNIV. The NJPS gives them a different take on things. That being said I will certainly take a look at Alter’s translation of the wisdom books. I love and have used his translation of Genesis in my courses before.

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