First of all, in doing a quick search of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, we find a remarkable difference. In the Jewish bible (Tanakh), we find three separate references to Satan (the book of Job is considered one reference because it is one continuous story). However, in the New Testament, a book 1/3 the size of the Hebrew bible, we find 35 references to Satan. If we add the word “devil” to the search, we get an additional 32 references in the New Testament. In total, a search using different euphemisms for Satan leaves us with well over a hundred references. So, the first thing we need to understand is that in Judaism, HaSatan is not a main focus of our relationship with HaShem (G-d). Whereas, Christianity almost seems preoccupied with him.
This applies only to passages referring to Satan as a proper name – the angelic being. The word Satan is actually used many times in the Tanakh, and it means an adversary, obstacle or stumbling block.
Besides the shear pre-occupation with Satan, we find another very major, fundamental difference between the Jewish understanding of Satan and the Christian understanding of him.
In Christianity, Satan is an enemy of G-d, an opposing force, and something very bad. In Christianity, Satan has a level of power that is considered almost equal to that of G-d. In the Christian bible (2 Corinthians 4:3-4), Satan is called the god of this world. However, in Judaism Satan is an agent of G-d, created by G-d for a specific purpose, and something very good. Satan is simply an agent of G-d, just as all the other angels are simply agents of G-d. This is why we frequently see passages where the author appears to interchange G-d and an angel (leading to the often erroneous Christian concept of a christophony).
If we take a look at Isaiah 45:7, we see that Hashem is the creator of everything, as the text says, “bringing forth light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil, I am G-d who does all these things.” In the Jewish bible, everything is under the jurisdiction of G-d and under His power – all forces, even evil forces. Everything comes from G-d, He created everything, good and evil. That being the case, Satan is not a rival of G-d, he is a messenger of G-d and unable to do anything outside of G-d’s will.
In contrast to Christian literature, where Satan is understood to be an evil force, the enemy of G-d, in Jewish literature, he is seen as a blessing to the Jewish people. Why? Let’s consider for a moment what Satan means. As mentioned before, the word not only means an adversary, but a stumbling block or an obstacle. What exactly is an obstacle? It is something which is put in our path requiring us to overcome it. Obstacles in this life give us opportunities to stretch our muscles and to grow.
Let’s take a look at what Judaism has to say about Satan. In the Genesis account of creation, we are told that G-d saw that each day was good, but on the last day it says that G-d saw that everything was VERY good. The Talmud teaches that this refers to the Evil inclination, which it equates with the Satan. Why is this good? It is the Evil inclination that provides our passions and desires, it is the evil inclination which is responsible for not only all the evil that transpires in this world, but also for all the good. For if we did not have passions, appetites and desires, we would also have no motivation and we would accomplish very little, either good or bad in this life.
If you look at the use of Satan in the Hebrew bible, you find that as a concept, it is much more about an experience than a person, an experience where G-d has put a roadblock in front of us. This is Satan, this is an adversary. So why is this a good thing? Because if we were to go through life without ever experiencing these roadblocks or adversaries, obstacles in life, there would be no potential for virtue in the world. For if we were never tempted to do the things that we are not supposed to do, then not doing them would be of no value to us. It is only in coming up against a desire to do what is wrong and overcoming this that we grow as spiritual people.
This evil inclination, or Satan, provides friction. Can you imagine a world with no friction, no resistance? Think about a car, how does it go? It is the friction between the tires and the road that allow the car to make progress, to go forward. Now, to the tires the friction is not necessarily a positive thing, the friction slowly destroys the tire, and yet without the friction, the tire is worthless.
If there is no resistance to overcome, we have no environment for growth. When we come up against an obstacle, either we crash into it and fall (definitely a negative experience – the evil inclination) or you have to climb over it, and by climbing over these obstacles in life, we develop our spiritual muscles, so to speak. If we never exercise our muscles, we atrophy. So these forces in the world, these experiences, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable, are positive and important.
To reiterate, in the Jewish bible, everything was created by G-d, both good and evil and everything is under G-d’s control. Only one force, not two, whereas, in Christianity Satan is not under the control of G-d but is rather, a competing force against G-d. Christian theology makes Satan so powerful that he is given the title, “the god of this world.”
This sets up a situation in Christian theology whereby Jesus must come and accomplish something to help us get out of the difficult situation – to overcome Satan, since he is at war not only with G-d, but with us. However, Judaism teaches that what is to be overcome is not Satan, but the “satan” in our path, the obstacle which has been put there for our growth.
So, to reiterate, in Judaism Satan is an agent of G-d, who provides opportunities for us to grow, to respond to our passions and desires by producing things of value in this world and to become stronger spiritual people.