The Devil We Know | Sojourners

The Devil We Know

The devil's evolution in Judeo-Christian history: absent, messenger, adversary, evil commander, and metaphor.
Image via /Shutterstock.

As a ten-year-old suburbanite, I saw a black dog stumble through the cul-de-sac without a collar and named him “The Devil.”

I remember a couple years later deciding I was wrong — that the devil was bearded, gendered, nocturnal, and afraid of my prayers.

I think about the devil differently now. I think less about bearded imps and more about the incarnations of evil I see around me: racist shootings, the disrespected bodies of women, dusty nukes.

The devil has evolved and morphed throughout Judeo-Christian history as well, going from absent, to messenger, to adversary, to the evil commander in an eschatological battle, to metaphor, to the Broadway sock puppet described in Stephanie Sandberg’s “Devils We Know” (Sojourners, July 2015). In many ways, the devil’s role in scripture is as changing and fascinating as the devil’s role in pop culture.

God as devilish

In the early Hebrew Bible scriptures, Satan is not so much a separate entity so much as the dark side of God — sort of like Bruce Banner hulking out in a violent, theological way.

In the earliest scriptures, God gets all the credit for natural and supernatural disasters — even when it’s embarrassing. In Exodus 12:29, God struck down all the newborns in the land of Egypt after hardening the heart of Pharaoh, causing “a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” God’s power, rather than God’s love, is what’s emphasized.

But as the way of life of the Israelites changed, their way of looking at evil evolved. Biblical scholars argue that as the Israelites became less like conquering wanderers and more like a settled nation, their Lord became less of a wild conqueror as well. So, whereas before you see God giving a battle cry to “not let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16), later conceptions of God’s treatment to non-Israelites were more benevolent: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … I will bring to my holy mountain …for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7).

Devil as messenger of God 

The devil starts to emerge as an advocate most clearly in the Book of Job, when Satan insists that Job is only a devout good guy because of all of his blessings. So Satan, wanting to test the faith of Job, asks God if he can take away those blessings: his wealth, his good complexion, and his children.

Yes, this was all Satan’s idea to begin with, and yes, Satan was the one who carried out the dirty deeds. But God was still calling the shots and giving the permissions.

A side-by-side look at a similar story in Exodus and Jubilees, a non-canonical book often considered a second century B.C. rewrite of the material found in Genesis and Exodus, can help to further illustrate the historical distancing of God from evil. In Exodus 4:24, Yahweh meets Moses in the desert intending to kill him (no, really, it’s true — the verse says, “the Lord met him and tried to kill him.”). In Jubilees, however, the blame has shifted away from Yahweh and toward Mastema, a Devil figure that meets Moses in the desert to kill him.

The devil vs. God

Qumran literature and apocalyptic literature, like the above passage from Jubilees, set the stage for the dualistic relationship between God and Satan — and Satan’s minions, the demons, that we read about in the New Testament.

Casting out demons is a way for Jesus to reclaim the earth from the devil, or Beelzebul, bringing about the Kingdom of God (Matthew 12:28). To explain how critical it is that he exorcize demons to weaken the devil’s control over the would-be house of God, Jesus offers a metaphor: “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man?” (12:29).

With this metaphor, we’ve come a long way from God’s violent battle cry in Joshua. No longer is God commanding the death of foreign men, women, and children. Now God is exiling demons from the bodies of gentiles and Jews alike.

Demons vs. Jesus

Christianity further estranges and separates the devil and the Lord. The Gospel writers present a God who is not just in opposition of the devil and evil, but who is at war with the devil and evil. And the fight is orchestrated and controlled by the devil and the Lord, but fought by the demons and Jesus.

And the demons have researched their enemy well, often knowing Jesus by name and rank (son of God) before ever carrying out formal introductions. But that doesn’t stop Jesus from sending demons out of a tormented body and into a pack of soon-to-be-drowning pigs (Luke 8:26-33). After all, this is war, and every exorcism is a battle. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts contain at least 48 references to exorcisms in association with Jesus and his disciples.

Many biblical scholars consider the exorcisms of Jesus and his disciples to be part of a two-part cosmological battle: the first stage was played out through the exorcisms of Jesus during his one- to three-year ministry, and the second stage of Satan’s defeat was predicted to occur at the end of time (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

So what now?

At one point or another, every person of faith must confront the issue of theodicy, or how both a loving God and undeniable evil can exist in the world. And as we wrestle with these questions, it’s important to consider: Is the devil a metaphor? A leader of literal demons? Or just a scapegoat for the mistakes of our own free will?

God only knows.

But I do know this — how we confront evil and injustice is more important than what we name it.

Jenna Barnett is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @jennacbarnett.

for more info