The first supernatural satan in the Hebrew Bible: Numbers


1.1) The first supernatural satan in the Hebrew Bible: The Angel of Yahweh and a talking ass


It may come as a surprise to some of the readers of this book that there is no devil, Devil, or Devil in the Book of Genesis.  The interpretation of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden as the Devil is one of those retro-fittings of past data with later ideas that I noted in my Preface.  Later on, we will see some of the ways in which this transformation occurred.  When we look at the beginning of Genesis with unblinkered eyes, we see that there is no creation or fall of Angels, but only a very clever talking Serpent (let’s give him a capital letter, however, because he is clearly unique).

At the end of the account of Adam and Eve, however, we do hear that “Cherubim” are placed to the east of Eden, with a flaming sword between them, to block the way to the Tree of Life.  But these Cherubim seem very lifeless, and perhaps only Sphinx-like statues are meant.  When Cherubim are alive, as in the Book of Ezekiel, they are not Angels but rather work-animals of the Heavenly world, like the horses that pull celestial chariots and serve as mounts for Angels.

Further on in Genesis, before the story of Noah gets going, we are told of Sons of God who mated with human women and produced the heroes of old (Gen. 6.1-4).  In later literature, as we will see, these Sons of God will be identified as Angels called Watchers, who violated their function of watching or guarding and fell into sin and were punished.  This is the only historical fall of Angels mentioned in the Bible.  It is recalled again only in the New Testament, in the Epistle of Jude and the Second Epistle of Peter.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis, telling of the creation and the Flood, are not referred to in the rest of



the Old Testament, and they have the look of a “prequel,” that is, an introduction written later.  In other words, another retro-fitting, but one that is actually built into the Bible.  The rest of Genesis, beginning with the story of Abraham, is, on the contrary, constantly recalled in the later books.  It is here that the term “angel” is first used.  It is a functional term, malak in the original Hebrew, meaning “messenger” or “emissary.”  It appears in the Greek Septuagint as angelos (actually aggelos), but in the Latin Vulgate either as angelus or nuntius, depending on whether the translators interpreted the original text to be speaking about a supernatural or a human emissary.

Angels don’t always give an actual message in the Book of Genesis, but it can safely be said that they do always “make a statement.”  This holds true even of the many Angels who go up and down the ladder in Jacob’s vision.  Here the Angelic statement is merely to serve as backdrop to Yahweh himself, who speaks directly to Jacob (Gen. 28.12-16).  Multiple messengers appeared earlier in Genesis, when three men visited Abraham to tell him that his wife would conceive a son.  At first, it appears that all three are Yahweh, or represent Yawheh (Gen.18.1-21), but then it seems that one is Yahweh and the other two are identified as “Angels” (18.22; 19.1).

Something similar seems to happen with the mysterious “Messenger of Yahweh” (Malak YHWH), who keeps shifting between being a spokesman of Yahweh and being Yahweh Himself.  One of his most interesting appearances comes in the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, or Pentateuch.  Genesis ends with Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Exodus deals with Moses leading their descendants out of Egypt into the desert of Sinai, while Leviticus and Numbers tell of their life in the desert.  In fact, the Hebrew name of the Book of Numbers is, “In the Wilderness.”

When the Israelites camp on the plain of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho, the Moabites seek protection against them by proposing to hire a free-lance prophet named Balaam.  The Moabite king,



Balak, sends envoys to him, asking him to come back with them to Moab and pronounce a curse on the interlopers.  In answer, Balaam responds that he must first consult with God—who is referred to under his main two names of Yahweh and Elohim.  He tells them, “I will bring back word to you, just as Yahweh speaks to me.”  Then Elohim comes to him (presumably in a dream) and asks who these men are.  Balaam responds that they are Moabites who wish him to curse the newcomers from Egypt.  Elohim tells him not to go, because these people are blessed, Balaam accordingly tells the emissaries that Yahweh has forbidden him to go with them.  When the Moabite emissaries come a second time, Balaam says that he will seek further instructions from Yahweh, and this time Elohim tells him to go with them, but to do only what he tells him to do.  Thereupon Balaam saddles his jenny (she-ass) and sets out with the Moabites (Num. 22.1-21).

At this point, scholars perceive a different hand at work in the text, but they cannot agree upon its vintage.  Some say that the first half of the chapter is by the Elohist (the hypothetical author who favors the name Elohim for God), and from verse 22 onwards it is the account of the older Yahwist (who, of course, usually refers to God as Yahweh), though in fact, as I have just noted, both divine names appear in the first half of the chapter, and the same is true of the second half.  One reason given for assigning the second half to the Yahwist is that it features a talking animal, like the Serpent in Genesis 3 (but, as I noted above, there is good reason to think that the Serpent story with all of the surrounding chapters has nothing to do with the Yahwist, but is a more recently composed part of Genesis).

Another idea, favored by the disciples of Frank Moore Cross at Harvard, is that it’s the Yahwist who is writing the first part, and a later writer from the time of the Babylonian Captivity who adds the part about the donkey.  This latter author is known by the cumbersome name of “the Deuteronomistic Historian,” but we’ll call



him “D.H.” for short.  This would put the composition of the story around 560 B.C.1

At all events, the story continues:  “Balaam’s departure aroused the wrath of Elohim [or “the wrath of Yahweh”—both readings occur], and the Angel of Yahweh stood in the road as a satan against him” (Num 22.22).  This is a momentous occasion.  God has opposed the actions of men before this, but now, for the first time, He, or his Angelic manifestation, is characterized as an adversary, a satan.

However, the Divine opposition does not go smoothly.  As I noted, Balaam is riding on his jenny, and two of his servants are accompanying him on foot.  But only the jenny can see the satan standing there with sword in hand.  She swerves off the road and goes into the field, whereupon Balaam starts to strike her, turning her back onto the road.  By the time that the jenny and Balaam are on the road again, it has narrowed, with vineyard walls on both sides.  The jenny swerves again, and scrapes Balaam’s foot against one of the walls, and Balaam strikes her again.  Then the Angel of Yahweh goes farther ahead and takes his stand in an even narrower part of the road.  When the jenny sees that there is no way to turn aside, she simply lies down with Balaam still on top of her.  Now Balaam’s wrath is fully aroused, and he takes his staff to her in earnest.

Finally, Yahweh gives the jenny the power of speech, and she tells Balaam, “What have I done to you, to make you beat me these three times?”  Balaam, showing no surprise at the sudden speaking ability of his favorite ass, replies, “Because you have made a fool of me!  If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now!”  The jenny replies, “Am I not your ass, which you have ridden all your



life up to this very day?  Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way?”  Balaam can only respond, “No.”

Then Yahweh revises the strategy of appearing only to the ass and not to Balaam, and so He opens Balaam’s eyes.  Balaam suddenly sees the Angel of Yahweh standing in the road, sword in hand, and he scrambles off the jenny and prostrates himself on the ground.  The Angel says, “Why have you struck your ass these three times?  I have come out as a satan, to stop your journey, which is displeasing to me.  The ass saw me and turned away from me three times and saved your life.  If she had not done so, I would have killed you and let her live.”

Balaam responds, “I have sinned—but it was only because I didn’t know that you were standing there to meet me.  So if it displeases you, I will go back home.”

The Angel of Yahweh replies, “No, that’s all right, go with the men, but speak only what I tell you to say.”

So Balaam continues on with the emissaries of King Balak, but his encounters with the Divine now are not with the Angel of Yahweh, but, as before, with Elohim or Yahweh Himself.

It is hard to avoid seeing humor in this episode, even though there seems to be little place for humor in the rest of the Bible.  My retelling of the story has highlighted the amusing element, perhaps, but Biblical exegetes are generally agreed that it is there.  The OAB commentators even see a touch of humor later on, when King Balak says to Balaam, “What have you done to me?  I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them!” and especially in Balaam’s response:  “Must I not take care to say what Yahweh puts into my mouth?” (23.11-12).

If it is D.H. who has intervened here, his use of “satan” is paralleled in other writings that have been attributed to him, specifically, the Books of Samuel and Kings.  When David is in the service of the Philistines, the Philistines fear the he will return to the Israelites and become a satan to them (1 Sam. 29.4).  Later, when he takes over as king, David rebukes some of his followers for acting like a satan to him.  They do this by urging him to put Shimei to death rather than



forgive his offenses against him  (2 Sam. 19.22).  When Solomon takes over as king, he rejoices that there is no satan against him (1 Kings 5.4).  But later on, we are told, Yahweh becomes angry with Solomon because of his sins and raises up a satan against him in the person of Hadad the Edomite, and then Elohim raises up another satan against him, this time Rezon son of Eliada (1 Kings 11.14-25).

But when the same author (if we concede that it is the same) tells of a non-human opponent of King Saul, he does not use the term “satan” but rather refers to him as a “Troubling Spirit.”  We read, “Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and a Troubling Spirit from Yahweh tormented him.”  Again:  “Whenever the Troubling Spirit from Elohim came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the Troubling Spirit would depart from him” (1 Sam. 16.14-23).

What I call here a “troubling” Spirit is usually called “evil,” but I dislike the word “evil” on general grounds, because it has been so infused with later philosophizing (more retro-fitting) that it suggests a fathomless iniquity.  Even though “evil” is an adjective, like “good,” and “yellow,” and, as we all know, adjectives have no separate existence except in a subject, we turn “evil” into a noun, and then we make it an abstraction (“all evil”) and then a personification of “Evil,” which in turn often changes into a real person.  And guess who the real person is?  None other than Satan.  The existence of evil is in effect taken as a self-contained argument that there must be a Principle of Evil in the person of a person, to counterbalance the Supreme Good, God.  Moreover, to use “evil” in the present context, referring to the Spirit who performs Divine missions against King Saul, is especially inappropriate, since it attributes iniquity to God Himself.  We will discuss this subject again, in connection with the title “the Evil One” as a name for Satan, in the chapter on the Gospels, specifically on Matthew (chap. 4.2).

In another passage of the First Book of Kings, D.H. reports the vision of the prophet Micaiah concerning yet another non-human opponent, this time of Ahab.  (Remember the story of Ahab?  After



becoming king of Israel he married the foreigner Jezebel, who introduced the worship of Baal, and together Ahab and Jezebel caused all sorts of trouble.)  Once again, “satan” is avoided in favor of “spirit.”  D.H. says:

Hear the word of Yahweh:  I saw Yahweh sitting on His throne, with all the Host of Heaven standing beside Him to the right and to the left of Him.

And Yahweh said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead?”

Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before Yahweh.

He said, “I will entice him.”

“How?” Yahweh asked him.

He replied, “I will go out and be a Lying Spirit in the mouth of all his Prophets.

Then Yahweh said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed.  Go out and do it.”

Micaiah concludes, “So you see, Yahweh has put a Lying Spirit in the mouth of all these your Prophets.  Yahweh has decreed disaster for you.”  Ahab’s response to this alleged revelation of the Divine scheme is to slap Micaiah on the face and ask, “Which way did the Spirit of Yahweh pass from me to speak to you?”  This was apparently meant as an unanswerable come-back, but Micaiah has a response:  “You will find out” (1 Kings 22.19-25).

Another noteworthy passage of D.H. is his account of the sons of Eli, whom he calls “sons of Belial” (1 Sam. 2.12).  Belial is the personification of Perdition, that is, the total loss that comes with death, and it is found used in this sense a couple of dozen times in the Old Testament.  Later, the term is used in ways that has made it possible to interpret it as a synonym of Satan (see chap. 2.2-3, 3.3).

One final example.  The Book of Numbers is so called because at the beginning Yahweh orders Moses to take a census of the Israelites.  But in an isolated story at the end of the Second Book of Samuel



(chapter 24), Yahweh arranges another census to be taken by David, but He holds him blameworthy for it.  First we read, “Again, the Anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah” (2 Sam. 24.1).  After he does so, David says to Yahweh, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done.  But now, O Yahweh, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly” (2 Sam 24.10).

Yahweh, through the mediation of the prophet Gad, offers David three choices of punishment:  three years of famine; three months of defeat by his enemies; or three days of pestilence.  David chooses the last option, and Yahweh sends plague on Israel, killing 70,000 people by the hand of an Angel.   But when the Angel is about to attack Jerusalem, Yahweh relents and says to him:  “It is enough; now stay your hand” (2 Sam. 24.16).  The Destroying Angel is now identified as the Angel of Yahweh.  David sees him near the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and he begs Yahweh to spare his sheep, since he alone has sinned, and to let His hand be against him alone.  Thereupon, following instructions from Gad, David buys the threshing-floor and offers holocausts and sacrifices of well-being.  Yahweh accepts his supplication and the plague is averted (2 Sam. 24.25).

This is a very odd story, and it was found so by the author of Chronicles, who, as we will see, relieves Yahweh of the charge of “entrapment” by supplying a satan—or Satan—to instigate the census (1 Chron. 21.1).  But he keeps the sword-bearing Destroying Angel, who could just as easily be called a satan as the Angel of Yahweh described above, who comes with a sword as a satan against Balaam.

So far we have seen that in the Old Testament the term malak or angelos (emissary) can be used of both human and supra-human figures, and the same is true of another common word, satan (adversary).  We found only one case in which a supra-human figure was called both angel and satan, namely, the just-mentioned Angel of Yahweh who comes as a satan against Balaam.  Other such supra-human figures, specifically, the Troubling Spirit who afflicts Saul and the Lying Spirit who deceives Ahab, could well have been called Angels and satans,



but they are not.  In the next section, we will see a satan who is not called an Angel but (by implication) a Son of God.


1.1    1Representing the Harvard school of thought on “D.H.” (the Deuteronomistic Historian) is Brian Peckham, History and Prophecy:  The Development of Late Judean Literary Traditions (AB Reference Library, 1993).  A collection of essays on the question is Those Elusive Deuteronomists, ed. Linda S. Shearing and Steven L. McKenzie (Sheffield, 1999).

                I recommend also The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (1992), and the Anchor Bible commentaries on individual books (all published by Doubleday).  There are, of course, many other reputable Bible commentaries, which are listed in the AB volumes.