There are some troubling and morally disturbing stories in the Bible. Among these is the account of Job. In it, Yahweh (Lord Sabaoth in icons) plays an abhorrently cruel game with one of the “sons of God” called “The Accuser,” using human lives as pawns.
Here is a remarkably intricate icon. If we look at the abbreviated Vyaz title inscription —
ЖИТИЕ ПРАВЕд[НОГО] IОВа — ZHITIE PRAVEDNOGO IOVA
МНоГОСТРАд[АЛНОГО] — MNOGOSTRADALNOGO
— we see this icon represents Житие Праведного Иова Многострадального/Zhitie Pravednogo Iova Mnogostradal’nogo — “[The] Life of Venerable Righteous Job [the] Much-suffering.” That is, of the Old Testament eponymous character in the Book of Job.
The Hebrew text relates:
“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and the Accuser also came among them.” (Job 1:6)
“The Accuser” (or “Adversary” — ha Satan in Hebrew) — later became a proper name — “Satan.” The Greek Septuagint translation — the Bible used by the early Christians — presents it like this, with an interpretive rendering:
Καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἡ ἡμέρα αὕτη, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἦλθον οἱ ἄγγελοι τοῦ Θεοῦ παραστῆναι ἐνώπιον τοῦ Κυρίου, καὶ ὁ διάβολος ἦλθε μετ᾿ αὐτῶν.
“And it happened on that day, and behold, the angels of God appeared before the Lord, and the Devil came with them.”
The game is set up like this:
“And Yahweh said to the Accuser, ‘From where have you come?’ And Satan answered, ‘From roaming on the earth, and from walking up and down.’ And Yahweh said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a man perfect and upright, and one that fears God (ha Elohim) and avoids evil?'”
The Accuser replies essentially, “Sure, of course he fears you. But that is because you have protected him and made him very prosperous and wealthy. But take all that away, and he will curse you to your face.”
Yahweh basically replies, “He is in your power. Go and do to him whatever you want, just don’t harm him physically.”
At the very top of the icon, we see “the Accuser” as he was later understood in Christianity as Satan — the Devil — a very dark, winged figure with a tail, standing before Lord Sabaoth (God the Father), who is seated on his throne in heaven
The Accuser gets to work right away.
First, Job’s oxen and asses are stolen, and his servants killed.
Then fire falls from heaven and burns up Job’s sheep and his shepherds as well.
Job’s camels are stolen, along with more servants.
Then a great wind arises, collapsing the house in which Job’s seven sons and three daughters are, killing them all.
Faced with all this, Job ritually laments, but does not blame God.
The icon depicts Job’s herds and servants here and there, and at lower left the house collapsing and killing all his children.
So Job goes from being very wealthy, as shown here —
to losing all his possessions and his children.
The Accuser returns again to Yahweh, who once more asks if he has seen how great God’s servant Job is. The Accuser says basically, “Sure, but that is because you have not harmed him physically.” So Yahweh tells Satan to go and afflict Job’s body, just not to kill him.
The Accuser — empowered by God to test Job — then covers Job’s body with sores. Job takes to sitting on a manure pile outside the city. His wife, now reduced to poverty, comes to him and tells him to curse God and die. But Job will not.
Much of the Book of Job is taken up with long and rather tedious — though at times poetic — monologues as well as dialogues between Job and three friends who all give their opinions on his situation and how he should react.
The long tale ends with Job acknowledging the horrible things God has done to him, but nonetheless not cursing God, saying essentially, “Well, that’s God for you — he does what he wants, and his actions are incomprehensible, so who am I to complain?”
Thus Yahweh wins the bet with the Accuser, and once more he gives Job herds, flocks, and servants, and he even gives him seven more sons and three more daughters to replace those he has (though the Accuser) killed. So Job is back to being wealthy, with lots of new children to give him descendants.
It is an odd ending, and given the vagaries and uncertainties of interpreting the Hebrew text, some think that Job finally repents of thinking God unjust, while others think he still considers God completely unfair but nonetheless will not curse him, and so is rewarded with replacement of his lost possessions (as if new sons and daughters somehow make up for the old being killed, not to mention the dead servants and animals).
The text of Job is rather stylized and repetitious, but it has given English literature — through the King James translation — some notable quotes, among them:
“Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (5:7)
“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” (13:15)
” I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” (19:20 — adapted as the title of a Thornton Wilder play)
Herman Melville’s great and dark novel Moby Dick also borrows a line near its end, applying it to Ishmael, the only survivor of the crew of the whaling ship Pequod. It is repeated four times in Job 1 by messengers who come to tell Job of the terrible catastrophes that have befallen him:
“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
There is yet something to consider. How did the Accuser — sometimes rendered as Adversary — one of the “Sons of God” in Job — come to be later known as Satan, “the Devil”? This was a development over time. In the Hebrew Bible, he is usually called “ha Satan” — “The Accuser/Adversary,” — describing what he does rather than being used as a proper name. He was certainly not the cosmic opponent of God that one later finds in the New Testament.
Satan — the Devil — appears gradually over time as the functions of Yahweh — the Old Testament god — become divided. Originally Yahweh was the one who caused both good and evil, so there was no place for a cosmic opponent:
“I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am Yahweh.” (Isaiah 45:7)
“Is the trumpet blown in a city and the people are not afraid? If there is evil in a city, has not Yahweh done it?” (Amos 3:6)
This view eventually raised the same problem discussed in Job: God (Yahweh) as the source of both good and bad — doing both good and evil, according to whim. This problem of how Yahweh could be both good and evil — like a dysfunctional father — seems to have bothered people, because over time the Bible texts take this split personality and divide it between two beings — Yahweh and Satan. We can see this by examining two accounts of the same event, one earlier, one later.
In 2 Samuel 24:1 we read:
And again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (This refers to a census of the people, which it was considered wrong for David to number; so Yahweh is inciting David to do an evil deed.)
The later (by centuries) account of the same event in 1 Chronicles 21:1, however, says:
“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.”
So in the earlier account, the angry Yahweh incites David to take a census of Israel and Judah. But in the later account, the inciting of David is done by Satan, now used as a proper name (Satan, not “ha Satan“).
We find the earlier used of the term satan as meaning an adversary in 1 Samuel 29:4:
“But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him, and the commanders of the Philistines said to him, “Make the man go back, that he may return to his place where you have assigned him, and do not let him go down to battle with us, or in the battle he may become as an adversary [le satan] to us”
The first time we find mention of an adversary (satan) who is not a human is in Numbers 22:22-35, the very peculiar tale of Balaam and the talking ass. In it, the prophet Balaam is riding his ass, but the ass refuses to continue on the path because it is blocked by an angel of Yahweh standing with drawn sword:
“But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the Yahweh took his stand in the way as an adversary [le satan] against him.” (22:22)
The ass sees the angel, but Balaam does not, so he repeatedly beats the ass — who finally says,
“What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Then Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” The ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”
Here is an image of Balaam and his ass and the angel — a detail from a 14th century “Jesse Tree” fresco in the Dechani Monastery in Serbia:
A very strong influence on Hebrew belief concerning the change from Yahweh as the source of both good and evil to a cosmic conflict between a good God and an evil Satan was likely Persian Zoroastrianism, which appeared around 600 b.c.e. In it, God (called Ahura Mazda) is all good; the evil in the universe comes from Ahriman, his supernatural opponent. Not surprisingly, both Job and Chronicles are dated to roughly the same period as the popularity of Zoroastrian belief.
To make a long story short, the evolution of Satan as a cosmic opponent takes a big leap during the period between the Old and New Testaments, and by the time we get to the New Testament, we find Satan as the very embodiment of evil, with demonic minions in his service. In the Apocalypse (Revelation of John), we find mention of a heavenly war in which Michael and his angels fight against the Dragon and his angels, and the latter are defeated and cast out of heaven. In Christian belief, the Dragon is read back into the Old Testament as far as the Creation of Adam and Eve, where he becomes the serpent who tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit — though originally the serpent was just a clever walking snake, who as punishment for tempting Eve is made to crawl on his stomach instead of walking:
“And Yahweh God said to the serpent, Because you hast done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:14)
Thus Satan — the Devil — the Dragon — the Serpent — becomes an integral part of Christian theology, instead of just the “Accuser” or “Adversary” he was originally in Hebrew thought.