#292. Who comes forth against Balaam as a satan: an angel of Yahweh OR Yahweh himself? (Num 22:22, 22:32 vs Num 22:32)


I throw this one out there for its provocative effect—to allow us to think about the relationship between 3 figures as they were depicted and understood by ancient Israelite scribes: Yahweh, Yahweh’s angel, and satan (literally without definite article, ‘an adversary’).

Although the Balaam story is pretty clear and adamant about the fact that it is Yahweh’s angel (malak) who comes out as “satan” or an adversary against Balaam, a case could be made, especially noting the pronoun “me” at the end of verse 32—“for the way was pressing upon me”—that here as elsewhere in the Hebrew canon, the identities between Yahweh and his angel are often blurred.

For example, the angel of God in Jacob’s dream identifies himself as “the god of Bethel” (Gen 31:11-13), and the angel in the burning bush identifies himself as “the god of your fathers” (Ex 3:2-6). Similarly, an angel of Yahweh or Yahweh himself is variously accredited with bringing the Israelites up out of Egypt (e.g., Num 20:16), and as we shall see in the forthcoming contradiction El was also accredited with this!

At any rate, it is important to note that “Satan as a proper noun is a feature unattested in the Hebrew Bible” (Levine, Numbers 21-36, 155). It is, like many religious ideas, a later creation that served to answer specific cultural and/or historical concerns endemic of a later time period. But it needs to be stressed, Satan as a proper noun, as a being apart from Yahweh and adversary to Yahweh is a later creation (see below).

How then was this satan figure conceptualized by Hebrew scribes? And contrary to what may appear shocking to later Christian readers, how is it that these scribes can comfortably depict Yahweh and/or Yahweh’s angel assatan“?

There are a number of texts in this collection of ancient Near Eastern literature that we call the Hebrew Bible which presents the idea or belief that Yahweh presided over a divine counsel or assembly (or was part of that divine assembly himself; see #27). The best known examples come from the literature of the Psalms where this divine counsel is explicitly portrayed as a plurality of divine beings, literally “gods” (elohim). Thus Psalm 82:1 speaks of the “congregation of God,” or literally El, who are also later identified as “gods” themselves, “children of the Most High.” This same assembly of “the sons of God” (again El specifically) is also mentioned in Psalms 29:1-2 and Psalm 89:6-7, and in the latter are referred to as “the assembly of the holy ones” (v. 7). Outside of this corpus of literature, both Jeremiah 23:18 and I Kings 22:19 speak of a heavenly “assembly of Yahweh,” where Yahweh is envisioned sitting on his throne with his angelic host beside him. And finally, Job 1:6 and 2:1 present the “sons of God (elohim)” assembled before Yahweh, among whom satan is identified as one of the divine counsel (cf. Zech 3:1). That is, these passages specifically identify satan as a god among these “sons of God”!

The majority of occurrences of satan in the Hebrew Bible, however, are used to speak of a military “adversary.” So that in 1 Kings 11:14 and 11:23 Hadad and Rezon are each spoken of as “an adversary” to Solomon (cf. 1 Sam 29:4).

There is an interesting use of satan in 1 Chronicles 21:1 that will play into our list of contradictions for this 4th century retelling of the earlier historical narratives found in the books of Samuel and Kings. Here, in 1 Chr 21:1, we read that “Satan arose against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” But this is the later perspective of an event told very differently in the earlier 9th-8th c. book of Samuel. There, in 2 Sam 24:1, we read that it was Yahweh in his anger who incited David to do this!

So the various roles and functions that Yahweh played in these earlier texts—see also:

Should evil befall a city and Yahweh has not done it? (Amos 3:6)

I am Yahweh and there is none other; I fashion light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil. I am Yahweh who does all these things! (Isa 45:6-7)

—were partitioned and separated out in later Judaism so that this satan took on these now seen as undesirable traits of Yahweh by these later religious thinkers. Eventually he became the Satan of later Christian thinking. But again, no such concept or “Satan” existed in the Hebrew Bible!

William Propp (Exodus 1-18, 354) summarizes this progression as follows:

In most of the Hebrew Bible, God plays the role later Judaism reserves for Satan. Ha satan ‘the Adversary’ first appears in early postexilic writings as an officer in Yahweh’s angelic court entrusted with presenting human behavior in the worst light (Zech 3:1-2; Job 1-2). But when Judaism encountered Zoroastrianism, Persian dualism evidently attracted thinkers troubled by Yahweh’s role in creating evil and misfortune. Beginning in the Persian period, various spirits—Belial, Mastemah, Asmodai, Sammael, the Evil Impulse, Satan—assumed the task of seducing humanity toward evil and launching attacks against individuals. For example, although it is Yahweh who tempts David into sinfully ordering a census (2 Sam 24:1), a later retelling (1 Chr 21:1) makes the instigator Satan. Similarly, while it is Yahweh who attacks Moses in Ex 4:24, in Jubilees 40:2, the adversary is Mastemah. Even the command that Abraham sacrifice his son (Gen 22:2) is, according to Jubilees 17:15-16, Mastemah’s doing.

One thought on “#292. Who comes forth against Balaam as a satan: an angel of Yahweh OR Yahweh himself? (Num 22:22, 22:32 vs Num 22:32)

  1. A few observations: if the statement, ““Satan as a proper noun is a feature unattested in the Hebrew Bible”, then the book of Job and Zechariah, not to mention Isaiah or say, Ezekiel—none of them belong in the “Hebrew” Bible.

    Job (“the persecuted; the repentant one”) gives us the first example of the name, the proper name of the angel who attacks, resists, opposes, (is an) adversary, withstands. “The Adversary” is his title, and one of his attributes. Another is “The Accuser”. ‘ha satan’ in Hebrew. In the book of Job ‘ha satan’ (Satan or if you go literally “the satan”) is depicted like a prosecuting attorney. After the opening scene describing Job’s character and his life on earth, the narrative switches and explains everything to the reader, including the fact that Job knows nothing about the “trial” he is going through. Eloheem, God is the Judge and ‘ha satan’ is not a god, he is an angel trying to convict Job and besmirch God, and within this context is how the proper name and the being behind ‘ha satan’ is addressed in heaven where this narrative takes place in the first chapter.

    The fact that ha satan wanted to be above El (God) when his status as an angel was different (and so was his name) is revealed in the book of Isaiah. Satan started out as, “Lucifer, son of the morning”. In Hebrew ‘heylell’ is translated into ‘Lucifer’, the proper noun coming from a root which depicts the idea of boasting, raving clamorously, foolishly; to stultify; to feign madness, or to rage. “How you have fallen from heaven, O star (Lucifer) of the morning, son of the dawn! Isaiah 14 describes the insolent and defiant willfulness of this one magnificent being who wanted to be a god and replace God— he who was not a god but was this highest of all the creation of YHVH Eloheem. Starting in verse 12, with five “I will” declarations of insurrection against God: beginning with “I will ascend to heaven” (v 12) to the last “I will make myself like Elyon” (The Most High) at the end of verse 14.

    A parallel passage describes the arrogance and the likely reason for Satan’s self-glorification “to shine, to make a show, to boast” which is also included in the understanding for the Hebrew definition of his original name, Lucifer. In Ezekiel 28 we read, “You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of Eloheem. You were the anointed cherub who covers. You were on the holy mountain of Eloheem; you walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. Every precious stone was your covering; the ruby, sardus, topaz and diamond, beryl, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold was prepared for you on the day you were created. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created,UNTIL INIQUITY WAS FOUND IN YOU (emphasis mine).

    ‘Thus says YHVH Eloheem, ‘You had the seal of perfection (lit. ‘the one sealing a pattern’) full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. But because your heart is lifted up and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of Eloheem, although you make your heart like the heart of Eloheem, you were internally filled with violence, and you sinned. Therefore I have cast you as profane from the mountain of God and I have destroyed you, O guardian (covering) cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your splendor. You became filled with violence. I cast you to the ground. I put you before kings, that they may see you. By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries. Therefore I have brought fire from the midst of you; it has consumed you, and I have turned you to ashes’, (ref: Malachi chapter four, especially the first three verses),’ON THE EARTH’, (emphasis mine),’in the eyes of all who see you. All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have become terrified and you will cease to be forever.”

    And as Isaiah says in the last verse in the last chapter of his book of 66, “Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against ME. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

    This more detailed description of ‘ha satan’s rich investiture (Genesis 2:12) reveals his exalted privilege as an angel once guarding (covering) God’s throne, as later, lesser cherubim guarded Eden after the fall of mankind and exile from the Garden (Genesis 2:24). Satan in the Garden of Eden (“I placed you there. You were on the holy mountain of God… 28:14). The chapter that goes into more detail about ‘ha satan’s eventual punishment and the immediate one for his agent, the serpent, is found in 3:14,15

    Jesus’ use of Isaiah 14:12 to describe Satan’s fall in Luke 1:18 and the reference to Revelation 12:8-10 and the ultimate eternal destruction in chapter 20 of this last book ties the Bible perfectly together; not only with the aforementioned last verse in Isaiah which hints at why ‘ha satan’ is permitted to test the righteous and the unrighteous and as a tool that YHVH uses in HIS sovereignity, but also gives us a hint at just exactly what may have happened within the first and second verses of the Bible. Genesis 1:1 and what happened between this verse and verse 2.

    But before we go there, the third chapter of Zechariah remains. The legitimacy of this book, this particular chapter and that of the chapter of the Book before the Book of Revelation, the one written by Jesus’s half -brother, Judas, or Jude—and whether “in these books” ha satan is “unattested to”, remain to be explored…

    Genesis 3

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