Relevant Verses: Genesis 3, Revelation 12
Leading Question: Is the idea of the “Cosmic Controversy” or the “Great Controversy” unique
The theme for this quarter, “Preparation for the End Time,” has deep roots in Adventism. But in contrast with much Adventist practice, the official study guide includes these powerful words in the Introduction, words that we must constantly keep before us as proceed with our study this quarter: “Not only do we not know when the end – climaxing with the second coming of Jesus – will come, we don’t need to know. We need to know only that it will come, and that when it does, we must be prepared.”
Keeping those words in mind will allow us, even force us, to take a fresh look at many of the topics included in our study for this quarter.
But now let us focus on our leading question: Do Adventists have a special claim on the concept of a “Cosmic Conflict” or a “Great Controversy”?
Both John Milton and more recently, C. S. Lewis, have built their faith edifices around the idea of a cosmic conflict. One of my favorite quotes relating to that conflict comes in Lewis’ description of the role of “prayer” in the conflict. His essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, concludes with these sobering lines (pp. 10-11):
Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.
It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”
Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, be-[10-11] yond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.
Question: What biblical passages are central to an understanding of the conflict?
The story in Genesis 3 of sin’s origin on earth, and the narrative of its climax on the cross in Revelation 12 are central to the idea. A host of other references are closely linked to the narrative, including the tantalizing passages in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 which hint at the origin of sin in the heart of Lucifer before sin made its appearance in Eden. But for practical purposes, our discussion here will focus on Genesis and Revelation.
Question: Why is the story of the Conflict not laid out with greater clarity in Scripture?
Another quotation from Lewis is worth noting here, a quote from the anguished narrative
of his tussle to regain faith after his wife died, A Grief Observed (1961):
My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. – Grief, IV.15
Sin has so thoroughly clouded our ability to understand truth and its application to our lives, that it often unfolds gradually and in ways that may puzzle or even startle later generations. The history of Satan is one of best illustrations of that gradual unfolding. Christians are so accustomed to seeing the serpent as an explicit reference to Satan, that it can come as a shock to realize that Revelation 12:9 is the first passage in Scripture to make that identification explicit.
Along the way, then, we will also be puzzled by God’s command to Moses to exalt a bronze serpent in the wilderness as a focal point of “salvation” from the bite of the poisonous serpents in the wilderness (Num. 21:6-9). And those who are familiar with the writings of Ellen White could be further surprised by the bluntness of the biblical record: “then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (Num. 21:6, NRSV). Ellen White takes some of the sting out of the story by re-interpreting the narrative to say that the Lord “permitted” the serpents to sting them: “As the protecting hand of God was removed from Israel, great numbers of the people were attacked by these venomous creatures” (PP 429).
Ironically, it is the very history of Satan in the Old Testament that would grant Ellen White the privilege of making that kind of re-interpretation, though she was most likely unaware of how it happened. The story of David’s census, for which he was severely punished, is told twice in Scripture, in 2 Samuel 24 and in 1 Chronicles 21. The earlier account in Samuel is almost incomprehensible to us, declaring that it was the Lord who “incited David against them.” Then God punished him for it! By contrast, Chronicles states that it was Satan who did it.
The short explanation of that contrast lies in the historical setting of ancient Israel who was always tempted to worship other gods. So Israel’s God took steps to prevent them from worshiping Satan as an evil deity. The nuanced version of that narrative in Scripture is remarkable, for the very first command in the decalogue does not prohibit other nations from worshiping their gods. It only speaks to Israel: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3, NRSV). When the status of Israel’s God, Yahweh, became secure – towards the end of the Old Testament – then the very last book of the Old Testament could clearly say that it was Satan, not Yahweh, who made David number his people.
What is so surprising for us is that Satan, as a supernatural being opposed to God, is only explicitly mentioned in three Old Testament books/contexts: Job 1 and 2, Zechariah 3, and 1 Chronicles 21, as noted above. All three of these books were either written or canonized toward the end of the Old Testament period. Both Job and Chronicles are included in the third section of the Hebrew Bible (Writings). Zechariah is in the second (Prophets) but is a post-exilic book, written after the destruction of Jerusalem. Most scholars say that Job is probably the most ancient book in the Old Testament reflecting the semi-nomadic era of Abraham. Its Hebrew is challenging with some 100 words appearing only in Job and nowhere else. Most likely an inspired writer added the “Great Controversy” setting in the prologue (Job 1 and 2). There is no trace of Satan in the remaining 40 chapters. Thus only the author and the reader know anything about Satan. When Job himself needs to vent his emotions, he directs his wrath toward God, a challenging suggestion for us when we struggle with undeserved suffering.
What this all means for the Adventist understanding of the Great Controversy is that several passages that figure prominently in our understanding of the Great Controversy, are interpreted that way much later than the original authors. In the history of interpretation, it is several centuries into the Christian era before Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are interpreted in terms of Satan.
And today, Evangelicals still quarrel with our Adventist understanding of Azazel in Leviticus 16 as referring to Satan. But confirmation of the Adventist perspective is reflected in this intriguing quotation from T. H. Gaster in the article on Azazel in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), who offers this interpretation of Azazel as one of three possibilities:
It is the name of a demon inhabiting the dessert. This view is adopted by most modern commentators, and is anticipated in Enoch, where Azazel appears as a ringleader of the rebel angels, who seduces mankind. Against it, however, stands the fact (strangely overlooked) that in no other culture are scapegoats offered to demons. Indeed, in view of the very fact that sin and impurity are unloaded upon them, they can be (and are) used only as vehicles of elimination, but not of propitiation.
The Adventist interpretation sees Azazel representing Satan, the one who bears responsibility for sin. Could he thus be seen as a means of elimination, but not of propitiation?
Question: How does Revelation 12 highlight the role of the cross in the great controversy?
Adventists are so accustomed to think of the war in heaven as a primeval event, that to think of the war continuing in heaven until the cross can be a startling insight. Yet that is the obvious reading of Revelation 12. Here are the crucial lines:
7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”
Clearly the great divide took place at the cross. The war is not yet over, but the decisive battle has been won. Highlighting the cross in that way links up with Ellen White’s striking statement: “At the cross of Calvary, love and selfishness stood face to face. Here was their crowning manifestation.” – Desire of Ages (1898), 57.
What follows is a chapter from Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God, “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” It provides additional material on the role of Satan in the Old Testament:
Chapter 3 “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?”
Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (1988, 1989, 2000, 2003, 2011)
Available from www.Amazon.com and www.adventistbookcenter.com
Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. – Genesis 3:1
If the suggestion developed in the last chapter is correct, it would be quite appropriate to say that God created a good world, but let it go wild. If he is a freedom-loving God, his creatures must have the right to rebel, in spite of all the tragic consequences that can come from such a course. But then God seeks to win his creatures back. He meets them where they are and seeks to draw them step by step along a better path.
All that sounds fine – until I actually turn to the Old Testament. There I find descriptions of God’s activity that make me very uncomfortable. At first sight, some of the incidents seem to suggest that he is not a freedom-loving God after all, but is quite arbitrary. Let’s note some of the more disturbing problems.
In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the biblical account says on more than one occasion that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 7:3; 9:12). Now that sounds like something much more appropriate to Satan than to a good God. Why would God want to harden a man’s heart, setting him on a self-destructive course which would also bring others to ruin? Taken at face value, the words present a real problem for those of us who claim that God is good.
A story that is perhaps even more curious is found in 2 Samuel 24. It deals with a census ordered by King David. Although the biblical story does not offer an explanation, David was apparently keen to find out just how large an army he could field, an act that would have been seen in that era as stemming from wrongful pride. Even his crusty general Joab knew such a course to be wrong (2 Sam. 24:3), but David went ahead. According to the story in 2 Samuel, even though David belatedly confessed his sin, the Lord announced to David through the prophet Gad, that punishment was on the way, though David would have the “privilege” of choosing the mode of punishment. All that seems a bit strange to us, but the most difficult part of the whole story is the introduction which explains God’s role in the incident: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them saying ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’” (2 Sam. 24: 1). Then as noted above, the Lord punished David for his act (2 Sam. 24:10 ff). Now how could a good God actually incite a wrong act which that same God would then proceed to punish? From our point of view the story is inexplicable.
Moving to a slightly different type of incident, we could list numerous examples of God’s stepping in and directly administering punishment. We might be more comfortable with a view which says that God allows the sinner to receive the punishment which his sin merits. Why does God have to wade in with his own scorpions and serpents? Does not sin bring its own punishment? One example should be sufficient to illustrate the point. Numbers 21 describes one of Israel’s repeated rebellions. Rather than providing a picture of a God who reluctantly allows his people to flaunt his protecting care, to be pummeled about by the harsh realities of life, the biblical writer gives us a quick glimpse of the anger of the Lord: “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people so that many people of Israel died” (Num. 21:6). This type of description has led some to conclude that the Old Testament God is indeed arbitrary: “If you don’t do it my way, I’ll send out my serpents to bite you.” Some Christians react against such a picture, while others actually use these very passages to shore up an authoritarian view of religious life: “Don’t ask any questions. Do it because say so.”
Now in each of the examples noted above, if I simply take the words at face value without placing the incidents in a larger framework, the resultant view of the Old Testament God can be a harsh one indeed. That is why it is so important to develop the overall framework within which we can interpret the Old Testament. In the last chapter I suggested that the great degeneracy evident in the Old Testament is to be understood against the background of a great cosmic struggle between good and evil. That the universe may be more secure in the end, God provides the freedom necessary for evil to develop. The process is slow and dangerous when viewed from a human point of view and it seems as though God is taking great risks with his reputation. But the end result is the vindication of God against all the accusations of his Adversary.
Yet even if one accepts that type of framework within which one may interpret the Old Testament, one of the great surprises in the actual reading of Scripture is the very poor publicity which the Adversary receives in the Old Testament. In fact, if I were in his place I think I would complain rather vigorously. There are hints of his activities in such places as Genesis 3 and of course in the book of Job, but if you really make a careful search of the Old Testament, specific references to the demonic, to Satan, or the Devil are very sparse indeed. As a matter of fact, a concordance will reveal only three passages in all of the Old Testament where a specific demonic being named Satan appears: Job 1-2, 1 Chron. 21:1, and Zech. 3:1-2. Traditional Christian theology assigns a fairly significant role to Satan, and he certainly is quite prominent in the New Testament. Why then does he have such a low profile in the Old Testament?
Before exploring the possible reasons for Satan’s infrequent appearance in the Old Testament, we need to take a closer look at the Old Testament word for “Satan.” The English word “Satan” is in fact a straight transliteration of the Hebrew word Satan. And though the word normally suggests to us a supreme evil personality, Satan with a capital “S,” the earlier Old Testament usage applies the term to any “adversary” or “accuser.” For example, when Solomon turned away from God, “The Lord raised up an adversary (satan) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (I Kings 11:14). The RSV has translated the Hebrew word satan as “adversary”and it clearly refers to a human being. Likewise, when the Philistines went up to battle against Israel, a number of the leaders were reluctant to have David join them, even though he had been living in their midst: “Lest in the battle he become an adversary (satan) to us” (1 Sam. 29:4). So David could turn into a satan! But perhaps the most fascinating use of the word is in the story of Balaam. There the angel of the Lord opposed Balaam and “took his stand in the way as his adversary (satan)” (Num. 22:22). Thus the biblical writers could apply the word satan to Hadad, an enemy of Solomon, to David, and to the angel of the Lord. But in each of these incidents the word simply means something like “adversary” as most of our English translations indicate.
In the later use of the term, biblical writers begin to think of a supreme Adversary, the Satan with a capital “S,” representing the great opponent of God. But many Bible scholars hold that even in the three Old Testament passages where the Hebrew word satan clearly refers to an individual superhuman adversary, the English word “satan” should still be written with a lower case “s.” The seeds of the New Testament understanding of Satan are clearly there, but Satan’s supreme status as chief of all demons is not yet really clear.
Now when we cite evidence suggesting that the Old Testament understanding of Satan developed gradually, we need to remind ourselves that God has not given all truths to all men at all times. If Old Testament people have fallen far from God, then we must not expect everyone everywhere to have the same understanding. The Old Testament was written over a long period of time and this is reflected in the way that the various writers describe God’s activities. A single event may be described by two later writers, both quite removed in time from the original event. The emphasis and interpretation of each writer will reflect his own special circumstances and, at times, two accounts may even appear to be contradictory. But if we make the necessary adjustments for time and place, we can discover the underlying harmony that is important for understanding God’s activities. Perhaps the best examples of differing emphasis and interpretation is provided in the comparison between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles in the Old Testament, and in the comparison of the gospels in the New.
Now as far as Satan’s role in the Old Testament is concerned, both Jewish and Christian writers have assumed the presence of Satan in many biblical incidents even though the original account without Satan and the later interpretation with Satan can be very useful. One writer has simply chosen to define the role of the demonic, while the other has elected to focus on the omnipotence of God.
If, however, the demonic is indeed a force to be reckoned with in life, the existence of the Devil cannot depend on whether or not a given writer mentions him. Either Satan has been at work in the history of this world or he has not. Without question, traditional Christian doctrine assigns a definite role to Satan. Hence the pertinence of the question: Whatever has happened to Satan in the Old Testament?
DANGERS OF EMPHASIZING THE DEMONIC
As a first step in answering that question, perhaps we could ask about the possible dangers that might arise in a primitive society from an emphasis on the demonic. By looking at various primitive cultures where the demonic plays a much more visible role, we can discover some interesting implications. Pagan religions are often dominated by fear. By definition, demons or evil deities cannot be trusted, so primitive people took all manner of superstitious precautions to protect themselves from the demonic. In ancient Israel, however, the use of magic and consultation with ‘wizards that peep and mutter’ was strictly forbidden (cf. Lev. 19:31; Isa. 8:19). Israel’s. God could be trusted. Such trust, however, was not possible when the authority of demons held sway.
From a more strictly theological point of view, an active awareness of the demonic runs the risk of developing into polytheism or dualism. Ancient Israel emerged from a thoroughly polytheistic society in Egypt. Had God chosen to highlight the role of a satanic figure, the condition of the people could have made dualism, if not polytheism, a likely threat to the purity of the faith that God was seeking to establish. Thus the wording of the first command at Sinai may be more significant than a superficial reading might suggest: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Note that in this instance, God does not expressly deny the existence of other gods. He simply asks that Israel worship him exclusively. Other passages in Scripture greatly ridicule the worship of other gods and the worship of idols (cf. Deut. 29:16-17; Is. 44:9- 20), but the evidence from the Old Testament is that the people in general had a difficult time focusing their attention on the one true God. Even when they were right with him, the threat of neighboring deities was a real one. Thus, for practical reasons, God treated Israel very much as a wise father might treat a young son if the two of them were to set out on a jaunt through the woods. To warn a small lad of wildcats, bears, and snakes, could be quite unsettling. So the father simply says: “Trust me. Whatever happens, I will take care of it.”
That is very much what I see happening at Sinai and in much of the Old Testament. The first great step that God asked Israel to take was: “Worship the one God who brought you out of Egypt.” The knowledge about Satan would have to come later when their faith was more stable. And this late appearance of Satan seems to be precisely what we find in the Old Testament, for as we look at the three Old Testament passages where a specific Satan is mentioned as God’s opponent, in each case, the passage appears in a book that was either written or canonized late in the Old Testament period. But the question of early and late and the matter of canonization requires at least a brief explanation before we proceed.
CAN WE DATE OLD TESTAMENT MATERIAL?
Any attempt actually to date Old Testament material is fraught with difficulty, for the Old Testament books themselves give very little direct information about the time of writing. The only clear-cut dating material comes from the prophetic books where specific prophetic oracles are often assigned to the reign of a specific king (e.g. Jer. 25:1; 26:1; 27:1). But a great many of the Old Testament books remain anonymous. In some cases earlier stories are retold, as when the book of Chronicles retells some of the stories from Samuel and Kings. But how do we know that Chronicles is retelling the stories of Kings and not the other way around? That is particularly a problem for the uninitiated reader who happens to be reading in Kings and finds references to the “Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah’” (cf. 1 Kings 14:30). In this particular instance a more careful reading of the books of Kings and Chronicles clearly suggests that Kings comes before Chronicles and that the “chronicles” mentioned in Kings are official court records, not our book of Chronicles in the Old Testament.
One of the more helpful ways at arriving at early and late for all of the biblical books, at least in a very general way, is to look at the canon of Scripture as held by the ancient Hebrews. Where the indications of the time of writing are slim, the place of a book within the canon can be enlightening. That term “canon,” however, also requires at least a brief explanation.
In its early usage, the word “canon” simply means “rule” or “norm.” With reference to Scripture it means those books accepted by a particular community as authoritative, the books providing the norm or rule by which the community chooses to live. Other books may be held to be just as “true” and in some cases just as “inspired,” but for reasons that are seldom known to us, the community did not accept them as canonical, that is, as permanently authoritative. Presumably there are sayings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Paul and of Jesus which did not find their way into our Scriptures, but are just as true and just as “inspired” as the ones which did, or at least the early recipients of those words would have held them just as true and just as “inspired.”
Protestant Christians generally accept the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments as their canon. Roman Catholics accept certain of the so-called Apocryphal books in addition. The Jewish believers accept only the thirty-nine Old Testament books (twenty-four by their reckoning), and even within those books the Jewish community sees different levels of authority, depending on the section in which a book appears. And that is the part that is of particular interest to us.
A New Testament reference actually identifies the three major sections of the Hebrew canon: “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (Luke 24:44). The process by which God worked among his people to designate particular books as “Scripture” is one that will always remain mysterious. We must simply admit that the Spirit led the community of God’s people to recognize certain books as containing the word of the Lord in a way that would be enduring for all time. The Old Testament canon was certainly complete by New Testament times as Luke 24:44 suggests. Furthermore, scholars would generally assign the following, dates for each of the three sections: 400 BC for the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy); 200 BC for the second section, the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea- Malachi); and 100 BC for the third section, the Writings (designated in Luke by its largest book, Psalms: Ruth, Ezra to Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Chronicles). These dates are really just educated guesses; the canonization of the various sections may have been complete earlier or later, but for our purposes it is significant to note that canonization took place in three steps and that it took place over a period of time.
It is also important to remember that canonization is not particularly concerned with authorship. A book may have been written long before it was canonized or a book may tell a story that happened many centuries before the book was finally accepted as canonical. At least the process of canonization gives us some guide as to when the community was willing to accept a particular book as authoritative for all time.
Now let us return to the three Old Testament passages which mention Satan and look at them in the light of the statement made earlier, namely, that the books in which these passages occur were either written or were canonized towards the end of the Old Testament period. A comment on each passage might prove helpful.
SATAN AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
1 Chronicles 21:1 Of the three passages, this one is in some ways the most important and interesting because it is part of the retelling of the story of David’s census mentioned at the beginning of this chapter (2 Samuel 24). Not only is Chronicles in the third section of the Hebrew canon, but it is also the very last book in the Hebrew Bible. Hence it contains the very last interpretation of Old Testament material. And, in fact, the book of Chronicles is just that, a final interpretation of the period of the monarchy. In the course of retelling that story, the biblical writer makes a startling modification to the story of David’s census. The earlier account said that the LORD (Yahweh) was responsible for the census, but in Chronicles, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1). The inspired writer now sees that an Adversary was responsible for the evil deed, and not the Lord, a remarkable difference indeed.
Now if we are too concerned about harmonizing biblical accounts, we may miss the significance of this passage, so let us pause just a moment to consider the implications. There is a sense in which both passages can be seen to be true. If God is truly all-powerful, then he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Both the author of Chronicles and the author of Samuel would most assuredly agree with that. But whereas the earlier author was still operating with the view that the Lord is the active cause of everything, the later writer sees evil events happening with the permission of the Lord, Perhaps an illustration can clarify the point: instead of taking whip in hand to punish the children for munching green apples, the Lord allows them to receive the stomach ache which is the appropriate reward for eating forbidden fruit. And there is quite a difference in those two approaches.
I am much more comfortable with the way that 1 Chronicles tells the story, but I must also recognize the implications of the story as told in 2 Samuel, namely, that the Lord was willing to assume full responsibility for evil. Perhaps the reason was, as suggested above, his pastoral concern for his people. And if the Lord was willing thus to portray himself as responsible for evil, then suddenly we have a handle for understanding a whole group of problem passages in the Old Testament, including the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the sending of the serpents. There is a sense in which the Lord is still responsible for all that happens; but now I have a biblical basis for saying that he permits instead of causes evil, even in those passages where he is actual described as causing it.
Now some may be uncomfortable with this approach and might suggest that I am putting my own interpretation on the words instead of taking the Bible “just as it reads.” I will admit that I have put an interpretation on the biblical account. Upon reflection, we would probably all admit that every single word in Scripture, in fact, every word everywhere, must be interpreted, No word or sentence has meaning by itself. It is always read by a person with a particular background and infused with particular meaning. That is why “father” can mean something quite different to me from what it does to someone else. When I hear the word “father.” I think of my Dad and have a very positive picture. But someone with a cruel father would see things quite differently.
So we must interpret Scripture. We have no choice. That is why the Christian admonition to approach Scripture always in the attitude of prayer is so very important. If I do not seek the Lord and ask him to guide me into the knowledge of himself, I will certainly misinterpret and misapply Scripture. When I come to interpret his Word I must use all the mental machinery that I can muster, but whether or not I use that machinery in the proper manner depends on my vision of God. It is not a question of faith or reason, but rather, whether or not I will choose to use my reason faithfully.
Now my reason tells me that there is a difference between 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. The more I have reflected on that difference, the more significant it has become. As a matter of fact, you could perhaps “blame” this entire book on those two verses. At least it would be safe to say that these two verses provided the catalyst for the method of interpretation which I am suggesting in the book. That was why I said earlier that, of the three passages which mention Satan in the Old Testament, 1 Chronicles 21:1 is the most significant one. That was a personal testimony.
Zechariah 3:1-2 This passage requires only a short comment. Although the book of Zechariah is in the second section of the Hebrew canon, the book itself provides the information which allows us to say that it was one of the very last of the prophetic books. In fact, it was written well after the close of the Babylonian exile. In this passage, Satan appears as the adversary of Joshua. The setting is evidently a judgment scene; the Lord rebukes the Adversary, restoring Joshua to right standing. Hence the passage provides a helpful illumination of the cosmic antagonism: the Lord is for us; the Adversary is against us. In the end, good triumphs as the Lord rebukes the Adversary and restores his people.
Job 1:6-12;2:1-7 These verses in Job are certainly the best known of all the Old Testament passages which mention Satan. Scripture nowhere tells us who wrote the book of Job or when it was written, More traditional Christian writers have often tended to adopt the dominant Jewish tradition about the book, namely, that Moses was its author. Actually, Jewish speculation about the book was wide-ranging. When the rabbis discussed the question of when Job lived, they propounded suggestions that ranged all the way from the time of the great patriarch Abraham to the post-exilic Persian period and the time of Esther. In fact, the rabbi who suggested that Job was a contemporary of Esther used a clever piece of logic which is likely to elude anyone who has not been immersed in rabbinic logic: Job lived in the time of Ahasuerus because the book of Job says that Job’s daughters were the fairest in all the land. When was the time of fair women? The time of Esther. Therefore, Job lived at the time of Esther. [See the Babylonian Talmud: Baba Bathra 15b, English translation by the Soncino Press London.] Perhaps it is not difficult to see why the tradition of Mosaic authorship seemed more convincing.
Regardless of who wrote the book, it appears in the third section of the Hebrew canon, suggesting that it was not accepted as authoritative until very late in the biblical period. The story itself bears every mark of being a most ancient one and perhaps it was the very mention of Satan that proved a hindrance to its general acceptance since Satan is not explicitly mentioned in the Law, and only once in a late prophetic book. Yet you will notice that Satan actually makes a very limited appearance even in the book of Job, a point which merits further comment.
One of the fascinating aspects of the book of Job lies in the fact that Job himself, his wife, and his friends, apparently know nothing of the satanic attack; at least there is no evidence for such knowledge in the book itself. Furthermore, when Job begins to realize the seriousness of his problem and when his friends attempt to needle him into repenting of his sins, sins which were non-existent from Job’s point of view, Job argues with God, not with Satan. He clearly sees God as the author of his difficulties (cf. Job 16:7-17; 19:6-13). Even in one of the passages where Satan does appear, God says to Satan: “You moved me against him, to destroy him without cause” (Job 2:3). So in the book of Job, the figure of Satan makes only a very cautious appearance. God is still responsible for what happens, and all the primary actors in the drama see God as all in all.
In looking a little more closely at the two passages where Satan does appear in Job, we must recognize how important the structure of the book is for its interpretation. The book of Job consists of a prose prologue (1-2) and a prose epilogue (42:7-17). In between is the poetic body of the book, consisting of a lively dialogue between Job and “friends” (3-31), a monologue by the young man Elihu (32-37), followed by the divine response out of the whirlwind (38-42:1-6). In the prologue there are five separate scenes, three depicting Job’s situation on earth, interspersed with the two heavenly scenes where Satan and God discuss Job’s integrity. Taking away scenes two and four, the ones where Satan appears, leaves the world scene as Job saw it. Only the addition of these two scenes gives the setting of the cosmic struggle between God and his Adversary, between good and evil. As is the case with every disaster scene in the earth, the causes and responsibility for the events are terribly difficult to untangle. We sometimes suffer because we deserve to, but often the troubles seem so undeserved. The book of Job attempts to provide some framework for handling the problem: a cosmic struggle in which the very character of God is under attack. We have already seen some evidence thus far in our discussion as to just how significant the cosmic struggle is for the method that I am suggesting one should use in approaching the Old Testament. The forces of evil must have their day in court if God is going to win in the end.
Before moving on to further implications of the disappearance of Satan from the Old Testament, I would like to comment just briefly on those passages in the Old Testament which do not explicitly mention Satan, but which have been interpreted within the Christian community as applying to Satan: Genesis 3; Isaiah 14:12-15; and Ezekiel 28:11-19.
In Genesis 3, an unbiased reader will strongly suspect the animosity which exists between the serpent and God, pointing in the direction of a full-fledged Adversary relationship. But the serpent figure is, in fact, an ambiguous one in the Old Testament. The serpent attack recorded in Numbers 21 is successfully warded off by Moses’ raising a brass serpent, the later symbol of the opponent of God! There is even evidence to suggest that the people began to worship this serpent; thus it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).
The first clear identification of the serpent as Satan in Judeo-Christian writings does not come until Revelation 12:9. There there is no doubt: the Dragon, the Serpent, the Devil, and Satan are all one and the same. Considering the strong role that the serpent plays in Christian interpretation, it is perhaps surprising that his identity is never really clarified in the Old Testament. An explanation might lie in the fact that in Egypt, the serpent is both a symbol of a good deity and of an evil one. The biblical writers thus could not really develop the serpent motif without raising the specter of dualism or something worse.
Turning to Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19, we find two passages which share several similar characteristics. Both passages have been applied to the “prehistory” of Satan and both appear in prophetic oracles or “taunt-songs” against heathen kings. Isaiah 14 is directed against the king of Babylon; Ezekiel 28 is directed against the prince or king of Tyre. Modern scholarship has been very much intrigued with the parallels between these passages and similar passages in the literature of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Two general conclusions can be drawn from the research done on these passages. First, that the parallels in pagan cultures are striking indeed; second, that the prophets themselves are speaking of the historical enemies of Israel, not of the supernatural realm. The supernatural appears only by way of analogy. In other words, most modern scholars would say that these prophetic oracles would not have been understood by an Old Testament audience as describing Satan. That conclusion seems to be verified by the fact that the first clear application of the Lucifer passage, Isaiah 14:12-15, to Satan, was not made until the time of Tertullian, a church father who died in AD 240.
The history of the interpretation of Ezekiel 28:11-19 is less clear, for the passage has been applied not only to a supernatural being, but to the first man as well (cf. RSV), a problem of interpretation which stems from ambiguity in the original text. In any event, the application to Satan was apparently not made until several centuries into the Christian era.
The question naturally arises: is it legitimate to apply these passages to Satan when such was apparently not the intent of the original author? That is a difficult question to answer, for within the Christian tradition, an interpretation has often been drawn from a biblical passage which was clearly not the one intended by the original writer. A second meaning may have been implied but that is quite a different matter from saying that such a meaning was the one intended by the original writer. Nevertheless, as long as we do not use a second application to obscure our study and understanding of the author’ s original intent, such second meanings can be useful. Certainly if we choose to stand within traditional Christianity we must be willing to admit that such secondary meanings have been very popular within the Christian community, and to a certain extent, we must be resigned to such an approach even if we aren’t very happy with it. But the problem has been that such traditional interpretations have often obscured or even replaced the original meaning. I actually suspect that the vehemence with which traditional Christian positions are sometimes attacked is a direct result of Christian reluctance to admit the first meaning of the text. Thus, one of my concerns as I write this book, is to show that it is possible to stand within a conservative Christian tradition and still be able to read the Old Testament for the purpose of discovering its most likely original meaning.
But after admitting that the original intent of Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 was probably not to outline the pre-history of Satan, I still suspect that Satan is lurking somewhere in those passages. Connected with that suspicion is the probability that the prophets have apparently borrowed from cultures other than their own. We must make it clear, however, that prophets are free to “borrow” whatever they choose and from wherever they might wish. It is the final product that is the result of the divine inspiration, not the bits and pieces. Yet even if that is the case, what right do we have to suspect that pagan religions had bits and pieces of a sort that could be used? That is where I think we ought to take the events of Genesis 3-11 more seriously. Whatever mankind may have originally known about the cosmic struggle would have certainly made its way into pagan cultures and would have come in a distorted fashion to that line of patriarchs which retained the slender thread of the knowledge of the true God. Suddenly, here in prophetic literature, bits and pieces of that cosmic struggle begin to appear, but in a way which does not threaten God”s first concern, the development of faith in him as the one true God. Certainly Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 do define the issues of the cosmic struggle, namely, that selfishness and pride are the supreme distortion of the will of God and lead inevitably towards full opposition to God himself. The personality of the Adversary, however, is certainly well hidden behind the mask of his quite human proteges. Perhaps, then, the primary criticism of the Christian usage of these passages stems from the impression that has often been given, that these passages must have clearly outlined in the Old Testament audience the knowledge of God’s Adversary. Within the context of the approach of this book, I would say that such a knowledge was still too hot for the Old Testament to handle; it had to come later.
One further passage should perhaps be added here as touching on the demonic in the Old Testament, and that is Leviticus 16, the chapter that describes the ritual of the scapegoat (indicated in the RSV as the goat “for Azazel” – Hebrew, azazel). Christian interpretation of this passage has often seen both goats, the one that was sacrificed and the one that was led into the wilderness, as types of Christ. But another interpretation of this passage with ancient as well as modern support suggests that the goat led out for or to Azazel represents a demonic element. This interpretation seems to find fairly early confirmation from the intertestamental book known as 1 Enoch, for when the unknown author of 1 Enoch wished to select a name for the leader of the fallen angelic spirits, he chose the name Azazel. Now if the demonic element was indeed part of the original ritual, then perhaps here is an additional glimpse of the cosmic struggle between God and his Adversary; one goat was for the Lord and one for Azazel.
But after demonstrating just how little explicit information the Old Testament contains about Satan, we must turn our attention to the way in which the Old Testament writers handled the problem of evil in Satan’s absence. Although they would often simply attribute violent acts directly to the Lord, they sometimes softened this picture by depicting other supernatural beings as the active agents in destroying and punishing. These beings belonged to a “heavenly court” which was under the direction of God. The role of this “heavenly court” is something that we must look at more closely.
If Satan’s role is not dearly defined in the Old Testament, then we might also expect to find a description of the celestial economy which differs in some respects from the traditional Christian view which builds more directly on New Testament data. Revelation 12:9 provides the essentials of the New Testament view and the one which generally has been adopted in Christian interpretation: Michael and his angels versus the Dragon and his angels. The cosmic struggle is full-blown. In the Old Testament, however, everything must take place under the direction of the one God. Thus the “dragon and his angels” must be seen to be under divine management, though we can still catch glimpses of their misbehavior.
Perhaps an illustration from the human realm would be helpful in describing, the difference between the Old Testament view and the New Testament one, In the New Testament, the forces of good seem almost to represent a government in exile; the rulership of this world has been usurped by the dragon, the ruler of this age. The tension is deep, leading to open war, as is evident in the battleground description of Revelation 12. In the Old Testament, however, the situation would perhaps be similar to the tension between two political parties, one in power, the other in opposition. Both still operate within the one government, but the opposition at times betrays signs of disloyalty to government policy. We shall return later to the Old Testament view, but first we need to look at another aspect of the Old Testament which is quite pertinent to our discussion, an aspect which is both intriguing and difficult, the names for God.
OLD TESTAMENT NAMES FOR GOD
As Christians, we are quite accustomed to the view that there is only one God. In my own case, for instance, I was so steeped in this belief, that it was surprising and difficult for me to recognize that for much of the Old Testament period, such a view was not so self-evident. I was aware that Israel’s pagan neighbors worshiped other gods, but I had assumed that Israel clearly saw the absoluteness of the one God. To be sure, the Old Testament tells how Israel often turned aside to worship Baal; even with my “high-road” orientation, I recognized that. But what about Israel when she was right with God? How strong were her convictions then? That was the part that I found surprising. For even when Israel was right with God, she apparently tended to look at her God as the God of Israel, but perhaps not really the God of her neighbors. It is in this context that the discussion of the names of God in the Old Testament becomes pertinent.
One of the ten commandments declares that God’s name is not to be taken in vain. The later Jewish community was so serious about that command that it decided the safest course would be simply never to utter the name of God at all. That habit of scrupulously avoiding the name of God established a tradition that has continued right down to this very day even in the Christian community. Thus users of the standard English translations (KJV, RSV, NEB, NIV) always read a substitute for the actual name of Israel’s God. The story is a very complex one, but for our purposes we simply need to understand that, given Israel’s situation in a world where there were many gods, the simple name “God” was not specific enough for Israel’s God. Thus, when God instructed Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, he gave a personal name for Israel to use when addressing him, their own personal God. Most scholars now agree that this name was originally something like “Yahweh.” Some modern translations (e. g, The Jerusalem Bible), actually use this name throughout the Old Testament, adding a most interesting flavor to familiar stories. Thus when we read the Old Testament, we discover that the Philistines had their Dagon, the Moabites had their Chemosh, the Syrians had their Rimmon, but Israel had Yahweh. And Israel also clearly understood that whatever the other nations claimed or believed, she herself was to have no other gods before this Yahweh.
Our modern English Bibles deliberately avoid using the name “Yahweh,” but by a very clever method, they do make it possible for the reader to know where an original Yahweh appears in the Hebrew: wherever you find LORD or GOD (written in small capital letters), that indicates the name Yahweh in the original Hebrew Bible. When you find “Lord” applied to God (written with only the first letter capitalized), that is generally a translation of the word Adonai, a close equivalent to our English “lord” in that it can refer to God or a human being, depending on the context; any authority figure could be an adonai. As for the word “God” (written with only an initial capital), this represents the Hebrew Elohim. Elohim is like our English word “god” in that it can refer to the one true God or to false gods. But Elohim is also peculiar in that it is plural in form, so that precisely the same word could signify God, god, or gods, depending on the context. The above distinctions are important and can be quite helpful in illuminating some Old Testament passages; perhaps a diagram would be appropriate:
Usage in English Bibles – Application to Hebrew Old Testament
LORD or GOD = Yahweh, the specific name of Israel’s God
Lord = Adonai, the general for any authority figure, human or divine
God = Elohim, the general word for “god,” plural in form, but can be plural or singular in meaning; only the context determines whether it should be translated as God, god, or gods.
The name “Yahweh” as given to Moses is closely tied up with God.’s deliverance of his people from Egypt (Ex. 3:1315; 6:2-8). This name had great potential for reminding Israel of an intimate personal relationship, just as any personal name when used by close friends yields much more warmth than “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms..” Elohim could be used to refer to God and was used a great deal, but it was the name “Yahweh” that carried the personal message and was the one name that could never be misunderstood as belonging to another more ordinary god.
But for understanding the way that the Old Testament handles the problem of evil, the word Elohim is the important one. In many ways it is almost like our English word “angel,” but unlike the common use of our English word “angel.” Elohim is often used for the supreme God. In some passages in Scripture, the expression “sons of God” (Elohim) shades into the supernatural sense of “angels.” This is quite clearly the case in Job, not only in the prologue where the “sons of the Elohim” met before the Lord, Satan among them (Job 1:6; 2:1), but also in the poetic portion where “sons of God” and “morning stars” are parallel, suggesting supernatural beings who sang at the creation of the earth (Job 28:7).
THE HEAVENLY COURT
It appears that these Elohim or sons of the Elohim are members of a heavenly court. In Job, Satan was one of these “sons of God”and qualified as a member of the heavenly court even though he was clearly not a wholehearted supporter of the heavenly government. That tension within the heavenly court also occurs in other places in the Old Testament, even when the figure of Satan does not appear. Of particular interest is the story of Micaiah and the false prophets, told both in 1 Kings 22 and in 2 Chronicles 18. Let us note some of the key features.
As the story is told in 1 Kings (the Chronicles version varies little), Jehoshaphat, king of Judah (the southern kingdom) has gone north to join Ahab, king of Israel (the northern kingdom) in an attempt to regain Ramoth-Gilead for Israel from the Syrians. By reputation, Ahab ranks low as a worshiper of the true God, Yahweh, being constantly tempted by his wife’s Baal worship. But the biblical writers generally give Jehoshaphat good marks for his efforts in the service of Yahweh. Why Jehoshaphat decided to link up with the ungodly Ahab is a curious matter, but he had done so. Yet having decided to help Ahab, the king’s religious scruples began to work on his conscience. “We need to inquire from Yahweh, first,” he said. “No problem,” replied Ahab, and he summoned four hundred prophets, all of whom confidently declared “Yahweh will give Ramoth-Gilead into the hand of the king” (1 Kings 22:6).
These four hundred prophets apparently left Jehoshaphat even more uneasy, so he asked if perchance there might possibly be one more prophet. “Well, yes, there is Micaiah,” admitted Ahab. “But I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” Jehoshaphat got his wish, though, and Micaiah arrived, amidst a show of convincing visual aids by one of the other prophets – iron horns to push the Syrians (1 Kings 22:11).
With a touch of sarcasm, Micaiah told the king to go ahead (1 Kings 22:15), but Ahab caught the tone and commanded him to tell the truth. Micaiah did just that, confirming Ahab’s suspicions as to the nature of Micaiah’s prophecies, for he predicted the king’s death. For our purposes, however, what is significant is the way that the heavenly court figures in Micaiah’s reply. Part of Micaiah’s reply is couched in terms of a vision:
I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left, and Yahweh said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead?” And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before Yahweh, saying, “I will entice him.” And Yahweh said to him, “By what means?” And he said, “I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so!” Now therefore behold, Yahweh has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these our prophets; Yahweh has spoken evil concerning you (1 Kings 22:19- 23).
The parallel with Job is striking, for though the Lord is still clearly responsible for what happens, the actual performance of the evil deed is carried out by a member of the heavenly court. But, of course, there is a notable difference between the experience of Ahab and that of Job, for Job is a blameless and upright man. Such is hardly the case with Ahab, even though the specific deed which precipitated his downfall is not indicated in connection with Micaiah’s vision.
From our point of view, the charade of the heavenly court looking for some way to make Ahab fall seems a strange way for the God of the universe to carry on. But that is the beauty of a vision: God can use whatever imagery is necessary to get the point across in a particular circumstance. For ancient Israel, the scene of the heavenly court was very useful, for it maintained the view of the omnipotence of Yahweh, while allowing some of the deeds to be carried out by lesser members of his entourage. The evil spirit who misleads Ahab is not yet cast in the role of a “Satan” who is the “accuser of the brethren,” but the picture is not all that far removed from such a view.
This idea of the heavenly court is used for another purpose in the Old Testament, namely to “control” the gods of the other nations. It may be difficult for Christian theologians to visualize the gods of the other nations as something more than mere sticks and stones. Yet even in our modern era, conservative Christians can live quite comfortably with a belief in a demonic kingdom, while at the same time viewing all the gods of the pagans as nonexistent. We probably wouldn’t be quite so ready to say that the gods of the pagans were evil angels, but the Old Testament view is perhaps close to that point of view. Let us look at some of the key passages.
At the outset we need to recall a suggestion made earlier, namely, that God did not immediately set himself before Israel as the only true God of the universe. There are many passages in the Old Testament that declare that Yahweh is the only God worthy of the name. The creation account in Genesis 1 and numerous psalms declare that there is one God who made the world and all that is therein. But for the average Israelite the problem was faced at a much lower level: “You shall have no other gods (Elohim) before me.” Where do the other gods (Elohim) fit in? They are the gods (Elohim) of the other nations. Yahweh is the Elohim in Israel and for Israel; Dagon is the Elohim for Philistia, Chemosh is the Elohim for Moab, and so on. The biblical evidence for such a position is not extensive, but when brought together it provides a reasonably clear picture.
One of the most fascinating and pertinent passages is Deuteronomy 32:8-9, rendered in the RSV as follows:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of God. For the LORD’s (Yahweh’s) portion is his people. Jacob his allotted heritage.
So here is a poetic passage suggesting that Israel (Jacob) belongs to Yahweh, but the other peoples belong to the sons of God. But you will notice a curious footnote in the RSV. The standard Hebrew text which was passed down through the official rabbinical line actually reads, “he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the sons of Israel,” a reading that makes very little sense and seems rather puzzling. The Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), however, had rendered this passage as “angels of God,” instead of “sons of Israel,” leading a number of scholars to surmise that in the original Hebrew, the phrase “sons of God (Elohim)” had appeared. Apparently the devout and monotheistic scribes could not accept such an interpretation, so they modified the text to read “sons of Israel.” But when the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light., one of the more sensational discoveries was a portion of a Hebrew manuscript with this passage included. In short, the conjecture of the scholars who had looked at the Greek Old Testament was correct; the manuscript read “sons of God.” So the rendering given above by the RSV is most certainly correct and is one of the most helpful passages for establishing the Old Testament concept of the heavenly court.
Moving into narrative portions of the Old Testament, additional passages confirm the view that Israel sometimes saw Yahweh as one of the Elohim instead of the supreme and only Elohim. Judges 11:24 indicates that Jephthah, one of the judges, held such a view; at least such is indicated by his diplomatic correspondence with the Ammonites “Will you not possess what Chemosh your Elohim gives you to possess? And all that Yahweh our Elohim has dispossessed before us, we will possess.”
This view is indicated also in the story of David. When he was fleeing from Saul, he had opportunity to kill the king, but settled for his spear and jar of water. When Saul realized what had happened, he and David carried on a moving conversation – across the valley from each other – but moving nevertheless. In his appeal to Saul, David makes the following pathetic observation:
If it is Yahweh who has stirred you up against me, may he accept an offering; but if it is men, may they be cursed before Yahweh, for they have driven me out this day that I should have no share in the heritage of Yahweh, saying, “Go, serve other Elohim” (1 Sam. 26.19).
Driving David out of the land of Israel was tantamount to saying: “Go serve other Elohim. You are no longer in Yahweh’s land.”
Further hints of this view of the heavenly court appear in a most curious story in 2 Kings 3. The story describes Israel’s attack against Moab. Moab was on the run as Israel pursued them right into Moab itself. In fact, circumstances had become so bleak for the Moabites that their king felt constrained to do something drastic: sacrifice the crown prince, his eldest son. When Israel saw this sacrifice taking place, they apparently recognized that here was the supreme sacrifice that a king could make to Chemosh. But note the strange way that the biblical writer has recorded the story for us:
Then he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath on Israel and they withdrew up from him and returned to their own land (2 Kings 3:27).
The biblical writer is apparently afraid to admit that Israel had granted any kind of power to Chemosh, yet he does tell us that the army hastened back to their own land. When we put this story alongside the other passages in the Old Testament which touch on the Elohim, the conclusion becomes clear that Israel’s army was not at all sure that Yahweh was with them on foreign soil. Yahweh was Elohim in Israel, but was he also Elohim in Moab? They weren’t taking any chances and headed for home.
Another story which has a bearing on the discussion is that of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman apparently felt that it was necessary to travel to Israel if he was to be healed by Israel’s God. His testimony after his healing is remarkable, both with respect to the claims that he makes for Yahweh and for the parallel but somewhat contradictory recognition that back home in Syria Yahweh was not really in charge:
“Behold I know that there is no Elohim in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” But he said, “As Yahweh lives, whom I serve, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, I pray you, let there be given to your servant two mules’ burden of earth; for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any Elohim but Yahweh. In this matter may Yahweh pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, Yahweh pardon your servant in this matter.’ He said to him, “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5:15- 19).
Yahweh is the only true Elohim, but he is still the Elohim of Israel. Hence, some of Israel’s land must be taken to Syria so that Naaman can worship Israel’s Elohim properly, on Israel’s land.
Still further evidence for the heavenly court comes from the book of Daniel. Daniel 10 describes how Daniel prayed for divine assistance. The angelic response was delayed because ‘the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but Michael,one of the chief princes, came to help me, so I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Daniel 10:13). Daniel 10:20-21 also mentions the “prince of Persia,” who will be followed by the “prince of Greece.” Furthermore, Michael “your prince contends by my side against these.” Now without the other evidence for the concept of the heavenly court in the Old Testament, one might be tempted to see these princes as mere human rulers. Yet the figure of Michael seems to suggest that we are, in fact, dealing with the supernatural. If that is the case, then the book of Daniel also reflects the concept of the heavenly court: Michael and Gabriel on Daniel’s side against the Prince of Persia and the Prince of Greece. The tensions are deeper here, approaching the full break as seen in New Testament times, but the interesting thing from the standpoint of the heavenly court is the fact that each nation has its prince.
The crowning piece of evidence for the concept of the heavenly court is provided by Psalm 82. Without the concept of the heavenly court, the psalm is quite inexplicable, but when set against the background of the heavenly court it can be seen as a significant step towards the position which is so important to Christians, namely, that there is really only one Elohim worthy of the name, and that is Yahweh, the God of Israel.
This psalm is one of the best places to see the dual usage of Elohim as singular and as plural, for the psalm begins: “God (Elohim) has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods (Elohim) he holds judgment” (Ps. 82:1). God then proceeds to condemn roundly these Elohim for failing to establish justice. They have judged unjustly, showing partiality to the wicked and failing to give justice to the weak, the fatherless, the afflicted and destitute. Then in a glorious climax which prepared the way for the exaltation of the one true God, the psalmist quotes his God: “I say, You, are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like men, and fall like any prince”(Ps. 82:6-7).
So the reluctant members, the unjust members, the “satans” in the heavenly court, are finally brought to justice for their failures. What then is the only conclusion that can be drawn? In the words of the psalmist: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8).
No longer will Naaman have to haul his mule loads of Israelite soil to worship the one true God. Cast down are Chemosh, Dagon, and Rimmon. Vanquished are the princes of Persia and Greece, for there is one God to whom all the nations belong, the God of Israel. That, of course, is a sentiment with which Christians would most heartily agree. Although the demonic is present in the world, there is one God who is over all, above all, and the creator of all that is.
Why did it take so long for Israel to see the truth? And why did God not make it clear all along? The answer lies in the character of our God. A freedom-loving God must grant his creatures the right to rebel. Furthermore, he must allow the principle of selfishness to manifest itself clearly if righteousness is ever to gain the upper hand. As God led Israel along the path of restoration, he sought to win the hearts and minds of his people. In a world permeated with polytheism, convincing Israel that there is one true God in heaven who is God over all was no easy task and the route may seem to us to have been circuitous. But as Israel grew towards the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the principles of the great cosmic struggle began to emerge more clearly, until finally in the New Testament the issues and the key protagonists stood out in bold relief for all to see.
Nor should we overlook the significance of that New Testament climax as it is so vividly described in Revelation 12. The war in heaven and the thrusting out of the dragon is often seen only in its primeval significance, but the book of Revelation clearly sees the struggle climaxing at the cross. As the Devil is cast down to the earth a loud voice in heaven proclaims:
Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:10-11).
The cosmic struggle may have been of long standing, but regardless of when the war in heaven began, it was won at the cross. Though the skirmishes on earth must continue (cf. Rev. 12:12), the heavenly court has been purified and is now composed solely of Michael and his angels. The banished accuser is no longer one of the “sons of God.” Thus, in a sense, Revelation 12 marks the transition between the Old Testament concept of the heavenly court and the New Testament portrayal of the battle between Christ and Satan, the great struggle for the hearts and lives of me – for the rulership of this world and the universe.
Question: “Applied Historicism” is a wonderful both/and model for expanding interpretative possibilities. But how can such an approach draw in those who strongly prefer one option or the other rather than both?