Light of the Guide Series - "Who Is the Satan?"

Wisdom from Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed by Rabbi Dr. Hananel Sari

Translated by Yehudah Barukh Ilan- Article Source

The image of the satan [1] most familiar to us is usually from the opening of Sefer Iyov. There in the first chapters he argues with HKB”H [2] regarding the personality of Iyov. Iyov was known to all as an honest and upright man, one who feared Heaven and turned from evil. So the satan maintained that all of his pious behavior stemmed from the fact that it profited him and provided him with honor and wealth, but if it were not to profit him then his true intentions would be exposed and he would commit evil acts no less than other people. And so began Iyov's suffering; suffering that came to test his integrity and his truly upright character.

Rabbenu Saadia Gaon (RaSa”G) raises the important question: “Who actually is the satan?” And he gives three possible suggestions:

The first is that it is attributed to “externals,” that is to say forces which are not of ourselves. According to those who hold this opinion, the satan is one of the angels of HKB”H, those spiritual creations that HKB”H uses to conduct His world. Reinforcing their methodology that an angel is able to be drawn into petty behavior such as jealousy and slandering a righteous person, they cite two additional passages of Tanakh wherein the “sons of God” (bnei elohim) appear to be sinners doing injustice. One is in Bereshith (6:2) where it describes the episode of the “sons of God” who came to the “daughters of men” and took wives from among them according to their desire. The other familiar passage is from the “Song of the Third Day” (Tehillim 82:6-7). There the “sons of the Most High” are described as doing injustice. RaSa”G rejects the “external” understanding of the satan, and especially the last two “proofs” which instead serve to expose linguistic ignorance since the word elohim in the Hebrew language is ambiguous and its usage goes far beyond simply being a name of the Creator. It is used many times as an appellation for people who are elevated above the nation, such as judges (see for example Shemoth 22:7-8).

The sons of judges and leaders in Parashath Bereshith allowed themselves to abuse the common people because they trusted that, due to the immunity of their high positions, the commoners would give them the members of their families that they desired. Therefore, in the following verses HKB”H became angry with human beings and it is never mentioned that He became angry with angels. Now, according to the “externals” interpretation shouldn't it still be the ones doing the sin who suffer the punishment? The severity of this interpretation, in the view of RaSa”G, is that it attributes to angels such things as jealously, competition, and so also lust and forbidden sexual relations, while all of these are defects that exist only among physical creatures that possess substance.

Another explanation, which is closer to the path of truth, views the opening story of the Sefer Iyov as a parable where the figure of the satan represents the a person's sin. This interpretation is known to us from one of the well-known Haftaroth wherein the prophet Zekharyah sees Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol from the very beginning of Second Temple era, as the satan stands at his right to oppose him (3:1-2). The Targum of Yonathan ben Uzziel explains that this was his sin that came to accuse him because his sons had married women which are forbidden to kohanim. The problem with this explanation of the satan is that it is not possible to fit it into Sefer Iyov because the book opens with a statement that Iyov has no sin whatsoever.

So RaSa”G turns to the third possibility. And according to this position the word satan does not refer to a creature but a role - the role of the accuser. Iyov had an accuser from among those who were around him; a person who, despite Iyov's good deeds, would always cast aspersions on his righteousness and the purity of his intentions. Because of the accusations of this person, HKB”H decided to bring upon Iyov a series of troubles in order to test him and to demonstrate to everyone the greatness of his spiritual level.

Maimonides' comment in the Guide to the Perplexed (III:22) is also necessary for our discussion, and in it he accepts as obvious the first statement of RaSa”G, i.e. that the narrative of the satan in the opening of the Sefer Iyov is nothing more than a parable. However, in his understanding of the essential nature of the satan, Maimonides goes in another direction entirely. RaSa”G clarifies that one of the misleading verses in understanding the essential nature of the satan is the verse that explains how HKB”H concedes to the statements of the satan with the words, “Behold, everything that he has is in your hand, only do not stretch out your hand upon him...” (1:12). The meaning of the verse seems to imply that HKB”H grants the satan a vast ability to act, an ability that RaSa”G is not ready to see indicated in this verse. The ability to act in the world exists in regard to HKB”H alone, and therefore only He is able to inflict punishment. And so the RaSa”G explains that the words “your hand” are not used here to communicate “your control” or “subject to your decision,” but rather correspond to the idea of “your will and your intention.” RaSa”G brings additional sources wherein the word “hand” is used to signify someone's will (cf. Shmuel 2:14,19; 20:21; Divrei HaYamim Beth 30:12). The guiding principle being that one should not ascribe the ability to cause things in the world to something outside of HKB”H.

Maimonides, in contrast, is troubled by another aspect that arises when discussing Iyov: How can it be that evil comes from HKB”H? Maimonides took great pains in the chapters preceding this one (III:22) to show that all of the actions of HKB”H are good and that “nothing evil comes down from Heaven” (cf. Bereshith Rabbah 1). So here Maimonides prefers to go back to the simple understanding of the passage, i.e. that HKB”H allows the satan space to act, and while He does remove His providence, He does not create evil. Even the satan itself, according to Maimonides, is not a creature made by HKB”H, but is a reference to the situation that is created by the absence of the good forces that HKB”H made and through which He influences the world (look closely at the Guide, volume III:1-11).

The exegetical method of Maimonides is more complicated and he does not present it in an explicit fashion. He reveals his position very carefully through the scattering of various hints which guide one in the right direction, but allow the reader a “vesting period” [3] before he gains access to new ideas. A number of things are stated succinctly by Maimonides, such as that the satan is so named for his central property of drawing a person to deviate [4] from the straight path and so the satan is not necessarily a person, but may be any component of reality that disrupts or misleads a person on his path (see Bamidbar 22:32 and also Melakhim Alef 11:14, 23:25).

The second appearance of the satan in Sefer Iyov (2:1-7) presents another component that is able to mislead a person. This component is not outside of a person, but rather is inside of him. Hazal hinted at this when they said, “Hu satan, hu yetser hara, hu mal'akh ha-maveth - The satan is the evil inclination is the angel of death.” And this statement is worthy of its own explanation elsewhere.

May it be His will that we know how to find a way to overcome everything that opposes and accuses us, with the help and guidance of the HaShem's Torah.

[1] The use of the English word “Satan” conjures up cultural images that are completely inaccurate and foreign to the Biblical and Talmudic usage of the word. To avoid such non-Jewish and mythical connotations, it appears here in the lowercase and usually with the definite article.

[2] HKB”H stands for HaKodesh Barukh Hu (“The Holy One Blessed is He”) and has been abbreviated throughout for purposes of readability.

[3] A “vesting period” is an amount of time that a worker must be a part of a company before he or she is granted access to certain privileges or benefits. In using this phrase, the author intends to convey that by not explicitly expressing every point of spiritual ideas, students of the Guide to the Perplexed are forced to “labor” intellectually for a period of time before they gain full access to those ideas. See Maimonides' introduction to the Guide for his views on this method of paced learning with regard to philosophical and metaphysical principles.

[4] lit. le-satot, the verb from which satan is derived.