Where is Satan in the Old Testament?

[Author’s note: I’m playing around with some features in Google Docs, namely the EasyBib Bibliography Creator, Bible Verse, and Docs to WordPress add-ons. Consequently, this post is going to look a bit more like an academic paper than usual. Let me know what you think!]

The "character" of Satan, via Disney's Fantasia

The “character” of Satan, via Disney’s Fantasia

If you spend any time at all in academia–or with pseudo-academic skeptics–inevitably you will run across a discussion on the “evolution” of the “character” of Satan. The basic formula usually comes down to the claim that Satan in the Old Testament is more like a prosecuting attorney, and only becomes elevated and vilified as the enemy of God in the intertestimental period (the four hundred years separating Malachi and Matthew). The skeptic is quick to jump on this supposed change in characterization as evidence of a major change in the Bible’s narrative, and therefore of its human–rather than Divine–origin.

That pre-supposes, of course, that the being we commonly call Satan isn’t really found in the Old Testament, at least not insofar as being portrayed as the enemy of God and his people.

At first glance, that would seem to indeed be the case. Other than a few references in Numbers 22, Job, 1 Chronicles 21:1, and Zechariah 3, Satan is nary to be seen. Furthermore, in 1 Chronicles, it’s possible that the verse simply means, “Then an adversary”–that is, a human foe–”stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel” in preparation for a normal, physical war, thus moving David to want to number his own forces. Likewise, Numbers 22:22 describes the angel of Hashem as being “an adversary” to Balaam–as in 1 Chronicles, the Hebrew word satan is a description rather than a name. That leaves only the Job and Zechariah references, and those are pretty darn vague about whether Satan is the bad guy or not.

But as it turns out, the Adversary (HaSatan) is quite active in the Hebrew Scriptures; he’s just going under a different name: Baal.

Apparently they had Baal action-figures back in the day.

Apparently they had Baal action-figures back in the day.

The first mentions of Baal are found in the names of people and places (Gen. 36:38-39; Exo. 14:2, 9), but his first mention as a god is in Numbers 22:41, in the story of Balaam. (Interestingly, this chapter also contains the first instance of the word satan in Scripture; perhaps this is a remez, or hint, to us.) Balaam is an interesting figure, as the text clearly identifies him as a prophet who communes with Hashem (vv. 8-9). Though later rabbinic material identifies him instead as a sorcerer, the New Testament presents him as the archetypical figure of one who knew the truth but fell away for material gain (2Pt. 2:15, Jude 11, Rev. 2:14). Even so, when he goes to curse Israel, he specifically does so “from the high places of Baal.” This is best understood in the light of the pagan beliefs of the day, in which each of Israel’s neighbors recognized an original uncreated High God, but worshipped lesser gods alongside him, and often instead of him. To a pagan like Balaam, utilizing the high places of Baal, thought to be the viceroy of El (God), to call upon El would not have seemed unusual.

Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel of course was turned into blessing instead, so he proposed an alternate route of cursing Israel to Balak, his employer: Aware that Hashem had taken Israel to be his peculiar people who would worship him alone among all the “gods,” Balaam suggested that Balak send beautiful women to entice Israel into worshipping Baal instead (Num. 25:1-5, 31:16). The attempt was very nearly successful, with only the zeal of Phinehas turning back God’s resultant wrath (Num. 25:11). However, while Hashem did not destroy Israel for her sin that day, the worship of Baal would continue to be a snare for many centuries to follow. Practically from the moment of Joshua’s death, Israel began turning aside and worshiping Baal and Ashtoreth.

When used as a proper name (ba’al in Hebrew also means, “lord,” “master,” and even “husband”), Baal is usually identified with the Aramaean weather-god Hadad or Adad.[1] Like all the Canaanite gods, he was considered to be a son of El, but because he was believed to bring the winter storms that were so vital to life in that region (unlike Egypt or Mesopotamia, which were watered by mighty rivers) he was the de facto head of the sons of El and the most revered deity in the Canaanite pantheon. Even today, the Arabs use the word ba’al to describe farming done without the aid of irrigation, depending only on rainfall.[2] Since he was associated with the coming of the rains, Baal was considered to be the one who rode on the clouds,[3] again a title tha that the Bible gives in truth to both Hashem (Jdg. 5:4; 2 Sa. 22:12; Job 22:14; Psa. 18:11f, 78:23, 97:2, 104:3; Jer. 10:13; Nah. 1:3; Zec. 10:1) and his Messiah (Dan. 7:13; Mat 24:30, 26:64; Rev. 1:7). The Biblical references to the Baals in the plural (Ba’alim) or to local Baal-figures (e.g., Baal-Peor or Baal of Peor) are not meant as individual gods, but as local cults or idols to the one Baal.

Kinda looks like the sterotypical image of Zeus in your textbooks, doesn't he? There's a reason for that.

Kinda looks like the sterotypical image of Zeus in your textbooks, doesn’t he? There’s a reason for that.

In the Baal Cycle the story is told of how Baal became chief of the Canaanite pantheon and of his striving with his brothers Yam (the Sea) and Mot (Death). After an initial setback, in which Yam temporarily defeats Baal and is consecrated as king of the gods (possibly an echo of the Flood, told in a uniquely Canaanite fashion[4]), Baal defeats Yam with two maces forged by the smith Kothar-wa-Khasis (“Skillful and Wise”). In the Baal steele recovered at Ugarit, on the other hand, Baal is shown holding a mace in one hand and a thunderbolt as a spear in the other, suggesting that his real weapons are thunder and lightning–as apropos for a storm god. However, he is not able to so easily defeat Mot, and is in fact portrayed at being in fear of Death incarnate and eventually slain by him. However, El has a dream in which Baal returns and after a second battle on Mt. Zaphon that draws to a stalemate, it is announced to Mot that El has given kingship to Baal, and Death cannot defeat him again. As a result, Mot comes to fear Baal and reveres him as El’s appointed king.

The story of Baal being devoured for a time by Mot is not simply a symbolic representation of the summer or winter, but seems to hearken back to a time when the land was sterile due to drought, specifically for a period of seven years.[5] This story, mythological and pagan as it is, gives us several key insights into the Ugaritic / Canaanite theology that the Biblical prophets contended with. First, it admits that Baal, though first in the hearts of the people of Canaan, was not the supreme God, but received his kingdom on the earth only at the sufferance of El, a name that is used nearly 250 times in the Bible of the true God, the Eternal Creator. Second, it admits that Baal apart from El was not able to defeat Death. We saw in the previous chapter that all of the ancient pagan religions admitted the existence of a High, Father God above their gods that they nevertheless did not give their greatest devotion to. It establishes a close, though adversarial relationship between Baal and the Sea and Death, which will be shown to be important shortly.

There are numerous passages of Scripture that are written specifically to refute the claims of Baal. For example, Psalm 29 was originally written as a hymn of praise to Baal, but was co-opted by David to praise Hashem instead.[6]

In 1935, H.L. Ginsberg proposed that Psalm 29 was originally a Phoenician hymn which had found its way into the Psalter. In support of his hypothesis, he noted several aspects of the psalm which suggested to him that it had been composed initially in honor of the storm god, Baal; he drew upon the Ugaritic texts to substatiate his hypothesis. . . Today, although debate continues on the details of the hypothesis, almost all scholars agree that Psalm 29’s background is Baal worship, as portrayed in the tablets from Ugarit.[7].

The claim of Baal to be the god of the storm, of thunder of lightning, comes to a head in 1 Kings 17-18, where Elijah, the prophet of Hashem, first demonstrates the true God’s power over the rains which were supposedly the domain of Baal (17:1; cf. Jas. 5:17, Rev. 1:6), and then challenges the prophets of Baal to summon “fire” from heaven: that is to say, lightning (1Ki. 18:24). In every way, Elijah gave up the advantage to the prophets of Baal–and yet it was Hashem who proved himself in fire from heaven, fulfilling David’s’ Psalm that it is Hashem who is revealed in the voice of the thunder.

Baal being a storm god also links him to the Adversary (Satan) in the book of Job, who uses “fire of God . . . from heaven” (lightning; 1:16) and “a great wind” (likely a tornado; v. 19) to destroy Job’s flocks and children. The attacks of the Sabeans in v. 15 and Chaldeans in v. 17 also fit with Baal, a warrior god, and his violent consort Anat. It is quite likely that Job was adapted from an earlier story regarding a contest between El and Baal which was adapted and edited, perhaps during the reign of Solomon, to remove the direct references to Baal and deal with the problem of evil and suffering from a uniquely Israelite perspective.

Jebel al-AqraaOne of the titles of Baal was Zebul, “the prince.” In 2 Kings 1:6, Elijah the Tishbite mockingly changes this title to Baal-Zebub, “Lord of the Flies,” essentially calling Baal a dung heap that his followers fly to. This title carries over in the New Testament, as we shall see in a moment. He is also known a Baal-Tsaphon for his holy mountain north of Ugarit which is today known as Jebel al-Aqraa, in the far northwestern corner of Syria. The word Tsaphon became the Hebrew word for “north,” as in Isaiah 14:12-14:

12 “How  you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star (Heylel),  son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!

13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north (Heb. Tsaphon);

14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High (Elyon).’ (ESV)

In fulfillment of Heylel’s/Baal’s desire, the Ugaritic writings give the title Aliyan / Elyon to Baal rather than to El, though acknowledging that Baal received his throne and his house from El, and that Baal was created while saying of El, “Indeed our creator is eternal, Indeed ageless is he who formed us.”[8]

Cows-of-Bashan-with-Mount-Hermon,-tb032905276-bibleplacesBaal actually claimed two sacred mountains: Tsaphon (or Tsaphanu) in northern Syria, and Hermon in northern Israel (Jdg. 3:3, 1Ch. 5:23). The name Hermon comes from the Semitic word charem, which means something devoted to a god, a devotion that may mean destroying it so it can never again be used for common purposes (Lev. 27:28f, Deu. 7:26). Renowned Orientalist and Biblical scholar Edward Lipinski has argued that both Tsaphon/Sapan and Hermon were originally mountains dedicated to the worship of El, but which Baal co-opted:

El was earlier venerated as the patron of navigators on Gebel el-Aqra’, the ancient Mount Sapan [Tsaphon], which became subsequently the mountain of the Storm-god Ba’al. It does not seem, nevertheless, that this mountain was ever conceived as the Mount of divine Assembly. This quality was instead attributed to Mount Hermon, at least from the Old Babylonian period on, so that, in the second half of the IIth millennium and in the Ist millennium B.C., we must deal with at least two Semitic Olympus.[9]

We’ve already looked at the significance of Bashan and Israel’s conquest of it, but to quickly sum it up:

For the ‘Canaanites’ of Ugarit, the Bashan region, or a part of it, clearly represented ‘Hell’, the celestial and infernal abode of their deified dead kings, Olympus and Hades at the same time. It is possible that this localization of the Canaanite Hell is linked to the ancient tradition of the place as the ancestral home of the rpum. The Biblical text also recalls that “all Bashan used to be called the land/earth of the Rephaim” (Deut 3:13 [NEB]), an ambiguous wording that could equally be translated as “the ‘hell’ of the Rephaim”.[10]

Baal had a special relationship with the race known in Scripture as the Rephaim, who dwelt in Bashan: “Mythological fragments not belonging to the Baal Cycle have increased our knowledge of this side of the god. Baal is called with the epithet rpu (Rapi’u), ‘healer,’ (cf. Hebrew rope). Dietrich & Lorenz have shown that Baal is called rpu in his capacity as leader of the rpum, the Rephaim. . . Baal is their lord in the realm of the dead, as shown by the circumlocution zbl b’l ars (‘prince, lord of the underworld).”[11]

It is this title of Baal, Baal-Zebul or “Baal the Prince,” which links him to the NT Satan:

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said,  “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said,  “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”

25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul,  by whom do  your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is  by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then  the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or  how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. (Matthew 12:22-29, ESV)

Yeshua outright calls Satan by his ancient name and title, Baal-Zebul, in this passage. The importance of this has generally been overlooked due to the slight variant spelling (which actually was done to avoid saying Baal’s name: cf. Deuteronomy 12:3 and Hosea 2:17). He also agrees with the Pharisees that Baal is the prince of the demons, aka the Rephaim or Rapum, exactly as described in the Ugaritic texts. This also fits well with the description of the Devil as being “the one who has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14) and “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in  the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2).

Baal was not, as it turns out, a uniquely Canaanite god.

Bel (‘lord’) came to be used as a designation for Marduk [the patron deity of the city of Babylon; cf. Dan. 4:8] . . . During the period of the Middle Kingdom, if not earlier, the cult was adopted by the Egyptians, along with the cult of other Canaanite gods (S. Morenz, Agyptische Religion [RdM 8; Stuttgart 1977] 250-255). In the wake of the Phoenician colonization it eventually spread all over the Mediterranean region.[12]

A text discovered in Qal’at Gandal and dating from 292 A.D. is dedicated by a priest to Zeus Megistos . . . who is likely to be the Ba’al Hermon of the Bible. Zeus is in fact the Greek equivalent of Ba’al, the Canaanite storm-god. . . The Greeks equated Ba’al with Zeus from at least the beginning of the fifth century B.C., since Herodotus, The Histories, I, 181 and III, 158, explicitly identifies Zeus with the Babylonian Belos, i.e., Marduk. Now, this equation implies a previous identification of Zeus with the Phoenician Ba’al, since the nature of Marduk would not justify by itself an equation with the Greek storm-god.[13]

The Bible likewise identifies Baal/Satan with Zeus. The designation of Satan as “the prince of the power of the air” or “the atmospheric region”[14] would have fit well with Zeus in the minds of Paul’s audience, who knew Zeus as “the Gatherer of Clouds,” “He Who Thunders High Up,” “He Who Enjoys Lightning,” and “the Master of the Tempest.” “Zeus rains” was likewise a common Greek expression.[15] All of these appellations would have been quite comfortable to followers of Baal.

The Pergamum Altar in Berlin, Germany.  They built this in 1930.  Do you think maybe that was a sign?

The Pergamum Altar in Berlin, Germany. They built this in 1930. Do you think maybe that was a sign?

Zeus is also identified as Satan in Revelation 2:13: “I know where you dwell,  where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not  deny my faith even in the days of Antipas  my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” “Satan’s throne” in Pergamos refers to an altar-temple to Zeus which was shaped like a throne, which was discovered by the German engineer Carl Human in 1878.  (A scale model of this altar was built at the Pergamum museum in Berlin, Germany in 1930.)  On a spiritual level it was also “a reference to the cult of emperor worship, because Pergamos was a center where this form of loyalty was pledged to the emperor of the Roman Empire.”[16] The emperors, of course, claimed to be the gods incarnate, whether Augustus as Zeus or Nero as Apollo.[17]

Zeus is also associated with the “serpent of old” in the Bible (Rev. 12:9, Gen. 3). “The Diasia, ‘the greatest Athenian festival of Zeus’ (Thucydides 1,126,6) . . . took place in honor of Zeus Meilichios who had the form of a huge snake.”[18] The Hebrew word for serpent is nachash, which originally had the meaning (as reflected in the Akkadian nachsu) of “to shine” or “the Shining One.” This meaning of the word is preserved in the Hebrew term for bronze, n’choshet, a shining metal which can be easily heated to the point of glowing. This leads to the wordplay in Numbers 21:9, “Moses made a bronze serpent (nachash n’choshet),” which Hezekiah later called Nechushtan, a “piece of bronze” (2Ki. 18:4). The name Zeus comes from an older Indo-European word (Diw) which “refers specifically to the bright daytime sky, as it is derived from the root meaning ‘to shine.’”[19] Thus Zeus was both the “serpent” and the “shining one” who tempted Mankind in the Garden of Eden.

Three BeastsMost kids learn that Zeus had two brothers: Poseidon, who took dominion over the sea; and Hades, who took dominion over the realm of the dead. Zeus / Poseidon / Hades perfectly parallels the Canaanite triad of Baal / Yam / Mot. The same relationship is surprisingly found in the Bible (Rev. 12-13) as well, with Satan the Dragon, “the serpent of old,” finally being cast down from heaven before being joined with two beasts: one from the sea, a picture of Yam / Poseidon; and one “coming up out of the earth” (Rev. 13:11) as if from its underworld, just like Mot / Hades.

Finally, let us consider the traditional Christian view of Satan: As generally taught, Satan was the greatest and most beautiful of God’s creations, and served as the Eternal Creator’s viceroy until he became proud, and fell (cf. Ezk. 28:11-19, Isa. 14:12-15). This fits in well with the understanding that Satan is simply a later name for Baal that came into employ as the Jewish prophets and teachers destroyed Baal-worship. In Ugaritic myth (reflecting northern Canaanite beliefs to about the period of the Judges), Baal was the viceroy of El and derived his kingship from El. However, by the time that the Greek city-states had reached their heights, the myth had turned far more violent, with Zeus overthrowing his father Cronus (equivalent to the Roman Saturn and the Canaanite El) and seizing the throne in his place.

Of course, the real El was not overthrown and still sits upon the throne of the universe, but the mythology of the Greeks aptly reflects the Adversary’s desires and fantasies. Ultimately, it will not be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who will be cast down into Tartarus (aka the Abyss), but the being calling himself Baal (Master) and Zeus (the Shining Lord of the Sky).



“The American Heritage Dictionary Entry: Zeus.” American Heritage Dictionary Entry: Zeus. Web. 5 Jul. 2015. https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=zeus

Dahood, Mitchell J. The Anchor Bible. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968. Print.

Editors El In The Ugaritic Texts. “El’s Abode.” El in the Ugaritic texts (1955): 61–81. Web. http://www.theology.edu/ugarit.htm

Finegan, Jack. Myth & Mystery: an Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989. Print.

Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald, Christian Gottlob Wilke, and Maurice A. Robinson. The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1981. Print.

Oldenburg, Ulf. The Conflict between El and Baʼal in Canaanite Religion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1969. Print.

“The Roman Cult Of Emperor Worship.” Reading Acts. N.p., Feb. 2010. Web. 5 Jul. 2015. http://readingacts.com/2010/04/02/the-roman-cult-of-emperor-worship/

Toorn, K. van der., Bob Becking, and Pieter Willem van der. Horst. Dictionary Of Deities and Demons in the Bible DDD. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Print.

“Ugarit.” Ugarit. Web. 5 Jul. 2015. http://www.theology.edu/ugarit.htm

Wyatt, N. The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature. London: Equinox Pub., 2005. Print.

Youngblood, Ronald F., F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1995. Print.

[1] This is the general consensus, though there is some scholarly debate on this identification. See The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, “Baal,” pp. 171ff.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal, accessed on July 5, 2015

[3] DDD, “Rider Upon the Clouds,” p. 704, cf. Isa. 14:14

[4] Wyatt, p. 301

[5] Oldenburg, p. 37; cf. Gen. 41

[6] Dahood, Anchor Bible: Psalms 1-50

[7] Exerpted from http://www.theology.edu/ugarit.htm on November 25, 2014

[8] Finegan, p. 138

[9] Lipinski; retreived from http://rbedrosian.com/Downloads/Lipinsky_Elsabode.pdf on November 26, 2014

[10] DDD, “Bashan,” p. 162

[11] DDD, “Baal,” p. 135

[12] ibid., 132, 133

[13] Lipinski

[14] Thayer’s, #109, αηρ

[15] DDD, “Zeus,” p. 934

[16] Nelson’s, “Pergamos”

[17] “The Roman Cult,” Reading Acts

[18] DDD, ibid., 936

[19] American Heritage Dictionary, “Zeus”


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