Where is Satan in the Old Testament?

Note from the Editor: One of the main reasons we as an organization are so concerned about disease is because of the questions it poses about God. If God is who we say he is (i.e., all good and all powerful), why is there so much disease in the world? The answer we like the most points to Satan as the root cause of much disease and suffering. We find this answer to be biblically compelling and logically valid. (See here, here and here.) But what do we do with the numerous scripture passages that attribute suffering to God’s judgment or his mysterious will? (See here and here.) Another related question is, if Satan is behind much of the evil and suffering in the Bible, why is he almost invisible in the Old Testament? Below is an interesting take on the subject from Brad and Dorothee Cole.

Palmyra: Temple of Baal -  Stijn Nieuwendijk / Flickr

Palmyra: Temple of Baal - Stijn Nieuwendijk/Flickr


From Old to New

By Brad and Dorothee Cole

Our brief survey of the Old Testament revealed a deeply rebellious time in which God’s chosen people were only occasionally interested in following the true God and were more often attracted to the cruel gods of the other nations—deities that demanded human (even child) sacrifice, and in which the worship experience involved temple prostitutes, fertility cult worship, extreme cruelty, and snake veneration. In this context, what we see in the Old Testament is God shielding the people from the full revelation of a great Adversary:

The nations surrounding Israel were polytheistic, worshiping many gods. In a polytheistic culture, the good things are attributed to the good gods, bad things to the evil ones. And those evil deities could be so volatile that humans were constantly brewing up incantations and magic rituals to placate them. . . . The great danger for Israel lay in the temptation to worship Satan as another god. So rather than just forbidding magic and incantation, God went a step further and claimed full responsibility for both good and evil. . . . As a result, throughout most of its pages, the Old Testament portrays God as the active agent in all things. God is the one who causes everything. Satan simply drops from sight until the very end of the Old Testament. . . . Indeed, only three passages in the entire Old Testament are explicit in their reference to the “Satan” who was God’s great adversary, and all three passages were either written or canonized toward the end of the Old Testament period (Alden Thompson, Servant God [Loma Linda, CA: Loma Linda University Press]).

Out of mercy, God veiled Satan and met the people where they were. He did not open up to them the potential dangers of worshiping His antagonist, but instead made Himself out to be the only viable divine power who would either bless them if they were faithful or curse and bring ruin to them if they were unfaithful. “If you obey the LORD your God . . . he will make you greater than any other nation on earth. . . . But if you disobey the LORD your God ... all these evil things will happen to you: The LORD will curse your towns and your fields” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 15-16).

Much of the book of Deuteronomy is filled with blessings and curses—all at the hands of God. In most of the Old Testament, God does both, including bringing punishment down to the third and fourth generation for the sins of the parents (Exodus 20). “I create both light and darkness; I bring both blessing and disaster. I, the LORD, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

There is, however, a progressive unfolding of reality throughout the Old Testament. For example, in Ezekiel 18 God makes it very clear that, despite the words in the Ten Commandments, He does not punish the children for the sins of the parents. It isn’t until the New Testament, however, that everything is fully turned on its head. The promise for obedience in the New Testament is not blessing in this life, but rather persecution (Matthew 5). Those who are stoned in the New Testament are not the rule breakers, but rather those who are faithful to God. And, most important for our discussion, the Devil is the roaring lion who destroys in the New Testament, not God.

In the Old Testament, God is usually dealing with immature people just as parents deal with immature children—with rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad. Through Jesus, God calls His people to grow up. With maturity comes a greater understanding of our complex universe and the God who created it all.

This material was excerpted from Brad and Dorothee’s Bible study, Truth, Love and Freedom Bible Study Guide.

Drs. Brad and Dorothee Cole work as neurologists at the Loma Linda VA hospital and teach neuroscience and neurology education at Loma Linda University (LLU).  Brad and Dorothee also edited Servant God, a multi-authored book about God’s character. 

Posted on May 26, 2015 and filed under Blog, Fourth 30.