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 as “satan“?
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.