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Context in Biblical Interpretation and Ministry

Dennis Bratcher

The topic of Satan or the Devil has generated more than a little acrimony (to use a mild word) in the Church. Several years ago I got into trouble (of the kind that can only happen in the Church world) with several high profile pastors and two General Church leaders by making the simple, and demonstrably factual, statement that there is no devil in the Old Testament, since there is no word "devil" in Hebrew.

I have never made any public statement on the existence of the devil as a personal being. My experience has been that in most venues of the Church, no matter what opinion is expressed such a statement would immediately create opposing sides in a debate.  In most cases that is not helpful for mutual understanding or profitable communication. On the other hand, I have suggested that we carefully consider some aspects of the topic beyond the accretion of many centuries of dogma and pop theology (Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth is not a good theology text). At stake is an important aspect of how we understand Scripture and how we deal with our own cultural and intellectual assumptions.

Below is a very limited selection of those aspects. There are other factors to consider as well involving detailed exegesis of specific Old Testament texts, the Old testament cultural and historical milieu and its relationship to understanding biblical Hebrew, inter-testamental history, the development of Rabbinic biblical commentary in the Mishnah and Gemara (the Talmud), first century Jewish history, the culture of first century Rome, New Testament Greek and its cultural context, and careful exegesis of individual New Testament passages apart from a larger dogma, as well as the developing history of the early Church, medieval theology, the influence of medieval art and literature on theological ideas, and the influence of the Enlightenment, expressed in both rationalism and empiricism, on theological thinking.  In other words, this is not a simple topic in which biblical verses from specific translations can be quoted to settle all questions (it's absolutely amazing to me how many people argue this topic without ever considering the original biblical languages and what the texts actually say).

Satan in the Old Testament

So, just some things to think about, limited to observations from Old Testament texts:

1. There is no devil in the Old Testament. There is no word in Hebrew that corresponds even remotely to what the idea of the devil means in modern religious culture. That is a fact of the Hebrew language, as well as valid statement concerning ancient Israelite culture.

2. There are no demons in the Old Testament. There is no word or group of words that correspond to the idea of demons in modern religious culture. (See Demons in the Old Testament)

3. The Hebrew word satan (pronounced sah-TAHN) cannot be directly equated to what the idea of the devil or Satan mean in the modern world, or even in first century Judaism.

a. The Hebrew term satan occurs in the Old Testament 26 times, in only eight contexts: Num 22:22, 32; 1 Sam 29:4 and its parallel 1 King 5:18; 2 Sam 19:23; 1 Kings 11:14, 23, 25; Zech 3:2 (2); Psa 109:6; 14 times in Job 1-2; and 1 Chron 21:1.

b. The term is normally translated [NRSV] "adversary" (Num 22, 32; 1 Sam 29:4/1 King 5:18; 2 Sam 19:23; 1 Kings 11:14, 23, 25) or "accuser" (Psa 109:6). In most of these cases it is clear that it is a human being that is referenced, as in 1 Kings 11:14. The verbal form of the word, which only occurs a handful of times, means "to be an adversary to" or "to oppose" (note Zech 3:1).

c. The term is customarily translated as "satan" 18 times but in only three of those contexts: Job 1-2, 1 Chronicles 21:1, and Zechariah 3:1-2. It is a translation decision based on a range of factors that determines to translate "satan" rather than "adversary" or "accuser."

d. 1 Chronicles 21:1 has a parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24:1. In 2 Samuel it is God who incites David to take the census, while in 1 Chronicles it is the satan who does so. Since 1 Chronicles is a later editing of the Samuel-Kings tradition, it seems obvious that Chronicles changed the referent from God to the satan, which suggests on some level that the two were interchangeable. At the very least it challenges the notion that the satan was seen in anything close to modern popular notions of the Devil or Satan.

e. In the Job passages, it seems evident that the satan is one of the sons of God (usually translated "heavenly beings," Job 1:6). That is, in the context of the narrative in which God is portrayed as a high king with attendant servants (sons of God), the satan is part of the royal entourage in the service of the king (God). For discussion of the meaning of "sons of God" see Sons of God and Giants.

f. In the Balaam story of Numbers 22, the word satan is translated "adversary." Here, the adversary is a messenger of God who opposes a prophet, reflecting much the same idea as Job 1-2. Again, it is a translation decision not to translate the word as "satan" here.

g. Zechariah 3:1-2 demonstrates a similar context as Job 1-2, in which a servant of God is challenged by an adversary. The main difference in Zechariah is that rather than a test as in Job, God immediately defends the accused, reflecting a common theme of post-exilic literature.

4. The word satan normally appears without a definite article in Hebrew. This does not imply a proper name or a title, only that the term is not specific, "an adversary." In other places, consistently in Job, the word has the definite article, the satan, which does implies a title or function, the adversary, rather than a proper name. Since there are no capital letters in Hebrew, it is a translation decision to make a word a proper name (including words like God and Spirit; note that the word "god" is usually a plural form in Hebrew).

5. In all places in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word satan is left in English translations as Satan, which implies a proper name and is generally capitalized in English, the word can be translated "adversary" or "the adversary" without any loss of meaning of the text.

6. All three texts in which satan is translated as Satan are generally recognized to be late (post-exilic) Old Testament writings. This suggests that the satan is a developed concept within Israelite religious culture, arising during the exile.

7. A further development of the concept of the satan can be tracked within inter-testamental literature, as well as the Talmud.

Reflections on Scripture

There is a lot more to consider. However, here are some reflections that arise from these limited aspects.

Within the Old Testament, God was the only source of life and the arena in which humans existed. While the Israelites went through a process from polytheism through henotheism to monotheism, they maintained the belief that God was central. Many of the prophets argued that other gods are worthless and have no power to influence human existence. As such, God alone was responsible for human testing (Gen 22, Exod 16:4, Deut 8:2), an idea needing further clarification later (James 1:13).

Using the imagery of Ancient Near Eastern Kingship, I would suggest that the idea of the satan as a servant of God made its way into Israelite thinking as a way to distance God from the testing, yet without introducing a second deity. That is the function of the Heavenly Council and Sons of God that appear in many places in the Old Testament.

The conceptual framework of Dualism, which understood the world in terms of opposing forces of good and evil, often in other contexts in terms of dueling deities, were a later development in Israelite thinking. This dualism was likely introduced as a conceptual model from Babylon during the exile, and reinforced by contact with Greek Platonism. By New Testament times Judaism tended to use dualistic constructs to express how they viewed the world. Yet, this manner of expression does not and should not be taken as some sort of ontology, how things really are.

From such a dualistic framework, there is little question that New Testament Jews talked about a Satan or Devil that was responsible for all sorts of evil in the world. That does not necessitate projecting ontology onto those means of expression, nor does it require us to think that first century Jews "believed in" the devil or Satan like many moderns insist on doing.

Is the Devil real? Absolutely! But that needs a lot more consideration and nuance than assuming that such a statement is pure ontology and therefore can be used as a filter through which to read every biblical text.

Reflections on Cultural Viewpoint in Ministry

All of this leads to further reflection, especially as related to ministry in an increasingly global Church.  These are really more questions for consideration, with a final observation.

One major question emerges in this brief look at the satan in the Old Testament: to what degree do we consider, or do we project, our own context onto what we consider reality or Truth?  How does our location within a specific time and place influence what we assume to be true, how we process received traditions and new experiences, and how we talk to others about those things?

An axiom in scientific research is that the presence and location of an observer influences what is observed. That is, the observer is always a part of what is being observed. The same principle is considered in areas like psychology, sociology, and even linguistics, that context influences how we view the world as well as how we express experiences, ideas, and what we understand to be true. If that is valid for us, would it not also be valid for ancient Israelites and first century Christians?  This leads us to consider the degree to which we allow for such context when we read Scripture, or how we respond to those with very specific assumptions about the nature of reality, or how we talk to others about God in a diverse milieu.

One of my more interesting, and highly valued, interactions with students was in a biblical seminar at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. The seminar was composed of students, most of whom were pastors, from diverse regions of Africa, from South Africa and Namibia to Kenya to Côte d’Ivoire. In the course of that seminar, they almost unanimously agreed that people in the West do not have a proper understanding of the spiritual forces of evil in the world. The students were very sincerely concerned that because of Western Christians' history of the Enlightenment they are at risk spiritually by neglecting attention to demonic power and the Devil. I have heard similar although less impassioned comments by students from Botswana and Swaziland.

In a different yet similar vein, I have worshipped with an almost 100% African American Gospel congregation in Washington, DC (my wife was a military chaplain). The language of power there is a dominant one, especially, given the American experience, power for deliverance and freedom. It is most often expressed as freedom from spiritual powers and the Devil.  Historically, "devil" was often a term applied to white slave owners.  I understood such language in that context and realized that it came from a particular cultural background and a particular historical experience.

To prompt theological and pastoral thinking I have often asked students what they would do if they were ministering in, for example, Haiti and were presented with a person possessed by demons. They usually concluded that it is not what one believes about the issue that is important, but rather that God can being healing through his presence and power no matter what label we give it.

All of this raises a series of important questions for the Church, even relating to how we understand the biblical texts. They are especially acute questions for ministry.

What is the relationship between culturally, socially, and historically conditioned beliefs and truths about God, us, and relationship with God that transcend such beliefs?  This is a question equally valid in biblical studies or in ministry.  Of course, we can never experience God or minister to others apart from the constraints of time, place, and circumstance, any more than we can read Scripture as disembodied Truth apart from a context. Ministry is always incarnated, as is both Scripture and theology. But it is a more pressing issue when we are dealing with "cross-cultural" interaction, especially when the cultures operate with such fundamentally different premises about reality.

Should we, or to what degree should we, consider experiences that fall outside our own experience a basis for providing insight into the "reality" of things like demons, the devil, spiritual forces, powers of darkness, etc.? I often hear or read of experiences by those in world mission that are presented as proof of some specific idea about such things. Yet, for the vast majority of Christians in the United States, for example, such experiences are far removed from either beliefs or their own experiences. A careful examination of John Wesley's understanding of the role of experience in theological method might be helpful here, especially noting his own intellectual journey dealing with "enthusiasm." Even consideration of the later Methodist response to Pentecostal influences might be helpful.

Can (or should) a person minister in a cross-cultural context yet not personally accept the basic cultural premises of those to whom s/he is ministering? To what extent do those fundamental cultural factors define theological beliefs? Is it possible (and if so to what extent) to deal with larger truths about God, us, and our relationship with God without adopting the conceptual framework within which they are experienced, received and expressed?

I have talked with those involved in world mission over the years who have made statements like, "I never believed in demon possession until I went to XX." On the other hand I have talked to Africans, Haitians, people from South America, as well as those from Asian countries like Korea who have a cultural history of spiritism, who testify to the opposite journey, that they no longer believe in a spirit world often with comments indicating a deliverance from pagan beliefs or superstition. This underlines the question of experience as proof or evidence of truth or "reality."

Can (or should) a person maintain one's own culturally conditioned beliefs and express theological truths within that framework while still allowing another framework of expression to have equal validity? Do rationalistic Westerners have to convert to believing in spiritual powers, demon possession, and a personal devil because Africans or the Bible report such experiences? Do Africans, Asians, and First Peoples need to jettison beliefs in spirits and a spirit world to accept Christianity? Pentecostal and Charismatic movements are making rapid and significant advances within such world areas precisely because their views fit within the fundamental conceptual framework of how the people see the world. Is there a larger truth about God that can encompass both conceptual frameworks without conflating either?

Personally, I think the answer to that last question is yes. While I have never made a public statement concerning belief in a personal devil, I have often made this statement: "For those who live in the power of Christ (2 Cor 12:9), they can live as if the devil does not exist." Of course that is a very Western ontological phrasing. Yet I think the truth of that statement can be applied in other contexts as, "For those who live in the power of Christ, they can live as if the spirits have no power."  That was my response to my Christian brothers in the Bible seminar in Kenya.  Finally, the issue is not getting the beliefs right. The real issue is letting God work in our lives and encouraging others to let God work in their lives as well. That is really the heart of ministry anyway.

A final thought. If it is true that those who live in the power of Christ can live as if the spirits have no power, and I think it is, then we in the Western world do not have to give much thought or consideration to the devil or spiritual forces. That is the genuine implication of "Christus Victor."

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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