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When it comes to the devil, we must first disabuse ourselves of the mythology that has overlain the concept. Evil is not a reality, it is an unreality. It has no being of its own. It is not real in the same sense that God is real or as theologians might say, it has no ontology. It does not exist in and of itself. The devil, or I should say, the concept of the devil has a history. Jeffrey Burton Russell has written four major books (Devil, Satan, Lucifer, and Mephistopheles) that demonstrate that the concept of the devil is one that develops over time.
The idea of an agent of evil was first introduced into the history of ideas around 800 B.C.E, in Persia by Zoroaster. Zoroaster was a reformer of religion and taught that there were two competing principles, one of light, the other darkness; one was a good god, the other a bad god. These two principles were in an eternal battle. Sometimes in human history, the good god had the upper hand, at other times the evil god seemed to be winning. Back and forth this struggle between the gods went, playing itself out in the arena of human affairs. This principle lies behind the oriental notion of yin and yang, and of karma as well. When the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C.E., they encountered this way of thinking.
Judaism also needed to account for evil in the world. In the Jewish traditions prior to the exile (found primarily in Torah), evil was a purely anthropological datum, that is evil was a purely human phenomenon. The story of the serpent in Genesis 3 shows that the man, the woman and the satan are all part of a matrix focused on the problem of desire. The talking serpent in Genesis 3 is a mythical figure. Snakes don’t talk. When we look at Genesis 3 in a future post we shall see how the snake is a metonym for desire. The important thing here is that the serpent is not some fallen angel in the guise of a snake. There are no traces of the Enoch myth in Genesis 1-3.
It was during the time of the exile that the first creation narrative was produced (Genesis 1:1-2:4). Everything about this creation was good; all seven days were beautiful in God’s sight. There is no evil in this creation story, in fact the story (or myth) is in distinct contrast to the myths espoused by the Babylonians whose gods needed and used violence to beget the creation. The Creator in the first creation story created all things with a word, that is, without violence, and that is what set apart this story from that of the cultural myths of origin from the surrounding civilizations. In my book The Jesus Driven Life I even said that this first creation story is not so much about beginnings as endings; in God’s creation all things end up as “tov, tov”, very good!
In the post-Exilic era, as this Persian dualism was imported into Jewish thinking a certain type of language and literature came into being that sought to explain the problem of evil in the world which we know as apocalyptic. This way of thinking divided the world into two ages, this age and the age to come. The way to account for evil in the world was to say that this age was evil and ruled by an evil power while the age to come was ruled by God.
The second creation narrative was another attempt to tell the story of the creation but this time, rather than express a hopeful vision, the author of the second creation story beginning in Genesis 2:5, seeks to also explain why there is trouble in the world. Notice that there is no seventh day in the second creation narrative. Why is that? Because everything after that is the sixth day: Adam/Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, Babel. The second creation account names the real problem of evil, it is not abstract. Over and over again the problem of evil is named as violence. Violence is a human issue, not a divine problem. When we are able to recognize this, when we are able to shoulder the burden of our predicament on our own shoulders and not blame it on another worldy “being”, we will have come a long way toward understanding an essential part of the satan. The satan is violence, violence is satanic and both are human.