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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

By T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley
Palgrave Macmillan,
211 pages, $24.95
How the devil evolved

Reviewed by JERRY RYAN

The authors of The Birth of Satan, T.J. Wray of Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and Gregory Mobley of the Andover Newton Theological School, Andover, Mass., define their target audience, method and goal at the outset of the book: They are writing for Christians and Jews, for believers as well as for those who are simply curious about Satan. The Bible will be treated like any other piece of literature and submitted to historical criticism. Wray, a Catholic, and Mobley, a Baptist, want to show how and why the notion of a personified evil creature evolved from the biblical writings. The authors are straightforward and have put together a very accessible study of Satan’s origins -- albeit with a few repetitions and some overlapping, perhaps inevitable in a coauthored book.

As they point out, many elements were involved in the gradual shaping of the idea of a malevolent force actively opposed to the unique God. There was the shaky monotheism of early Israel, sure of the mighty tribal God but ambivalent about the divine status of the gods of its neighbors. Moreover, the God of Israel had a “social life” in the sense that he had his heavenly “court” made up of the ill-defined “sons of God,” as they were known in Hebrew. These “sons of God,” mentioned in the Book of Job, were heavenly beings who conveyed God’s messages or executed his judgments.

In the measure in which Israel’s monotheism became absolute and of universal scope, another problem presented itself. If there was but one true God, creator and cause of all things, this God must be schizophrenic. This is the God who, in revealing something of himself on Mount Sinai, declared that he was “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin -- yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon their children and their children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

It is the problem that has haunted humanity for millennia: How can a just, good and merciful God be the cause of evil and destruction? The eventual answer was to pose a source of evil, a created liberty independent of God, building on the ancient traditions of the heavenly court and the “sons of God” while incorporating elements from the cosmologies and mythologies of neighboring peoples. Many of the characteristics of our popular conceptions of Satan as a hoofed, tailed, horned monster are, in fact, borrowed from Near Eastern mythological figures and refined in later literature, art and folklore.

The postscript to the book bluntly asks the question the reader had in mind from the beginning (and which was probably the reason for buying the book in the first place): Is Satan real? Within the scope of the book, the answer is consistent and correct; the authors say that “whether Satan is to be taken as a metaphor, as a symbolic or literal being, Satan is real in the sense that evil is real.” The biblical stories about him stress that evil did not exist in the beginning and will no longer exist at the end, that God will ultimately triumph. To postulate Satan as the origin of evil is “a contrivance, an incomplete idea” because Satan himself has to be explained. “Why did God allow him to rebel, operate and torment?” Evil itself remains a mystery.

As objectively correct as this answer might be in its context, it strikes me as unsatisfactory. It is true that evil cannot be “explained.” Yet we know instinctively that there is something out there that does not like us, which is antithetical to our idea of God and which could only be a created liberty. I find it curious that the authors make no mention of the core Christian “story” that the answer to the mystery of evil was given in the redemptive Incarnation. God himself, the only Pure One, becomes personally involved, becomes Emmanuel, God with us, suffers the consequences of evil and takes upon himself the sins of all, “becomes sin.” He who is life and the source of all life not only died the death of the body, he descended into the depths of hell, into the “second death,” into the heart of evil and despair and destroyed death from within -- for there where life has entered, death can no longer exist. This is the harrowing of hell, the answer of God’s compassion to the problem of evil, given in the ultimate silence of the holiest Sabbath. A God who was the cause or even the indifferent spectator of the chaos and agony of his creation would be a monster. Christian writer Léon Bloy has this remarkable phrase: “God did not sense himself truly God until he was crucified.”

One of the disadvantages of a book like this that abstracts from faith and treats the Bible “stories” like any other stories is the sentiment of futility with which it leaves the reader. Moreover, in treating the Bible accounts as mere stories, the authors permit themselves a certain flippancy that at times seems forced and out of place. If this is all there is, then a certain scholarly curiosity might be satisfied. The core question remains unanswered.

Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer living in Chelsea, Mass., and has worked more than 20 years as a janitor at the New England Aquarium.

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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