Originating from Within Factionalism

I started Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan.

In what I have read so far, Pagels chronicles the development of Satan within the Hebrew Bible.  In Numbers 22:22, the angel who stands in the way of Balaam and his donkey is called Balaam’s Satan, or adversary.  Here, a Satan is an instrument of God, not an adversary against God.  In the Book of Job, the Satan is a kind of “roving intelligence agent” (Pagels’ words) spying on people on God’s behalf; while the Satan in Job takes on more of an adversarial role (i.e., he incites God against Job), he still works for God.  According to Pagels, it was during Israel’s post-exilic period that Satan became more adversarial, one who was believed to cause division and destruction, apparently without a redemptive purpose.  In Zechariah 3, Satan is one who seeks to obstruct God’s agenda in post-exilic Israel.  For Pagels, Satan comes to serve a sociological purpose within the factionalism of Israel—-to affirm one side (the returning exiles) and to stigmatize the other (the Jews who remained in Israel during the exile and did not care for the returning exiles’ restoration project).

Pagels’ focus is on the sociological function of Satan within the context of factionalism—-between post-exilic Jews, and also between Jews and Christians.  On pages 48-49, Pagels refers to three stories about the origins of Satan.  The first story is the one that many of us heard: that Satan was an angel who rebelled against God.  The second story is based on Genesis 6 and highlights the angels who left heaven, mated with human women, and produced demonic giants who polluted the earth.  The third story appears in the apocryphal Life of Adam and Eve (14:3), and it presents Satan as refusing to worship Adam because Satan thought that he was more glorious than the newly-created man.  Pagels contends that these three stories have something in common: they depict Satan, not as an outsider, but rather as an intimate enemy—-one who came from God’s ranks.  For Pagels, this would fit Satan playing a role within Jewish factionalism, in which people from the same people-group were hostile to one another, as intimate enemies.

I’ve only read fifty pages of this book so far, so my criticism may be nullified as I read on.  But I wish that Pagels cited the primary sources for the story that Satan was an angel who rebelled against God.  She says that such a story was based on Isaiah 14, but there’s no evidence that the rebelling being there was considered to be Satan, per se.  There were ancient Near Eastern stories about a deity trying to elevate himself within the pantheon, and Isaiah 14 could be referring to that sort of thing, not so much the sort of story that we encounter in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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