Book Review: The Birth of Satan

T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley present us with a synopsis of the history of Satan within the Judeo-Christian tradition in their concise book The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots. For the Biblically illiterate, the brief synopsis format is welcome.  They cover in under 200 pages what some authors spend 300 or more to discuss, and give the reader a lot of information to digest, not including the lengthly collection of endnotes.  Well…lengthly for a 170 page tretise.

The book begins with a brief introduction to the Bible, covering dates and authorship and content, after which they discuss the nature of God in the Old Testament.  According to Wray and Mobley, the God of the Old Testament is sort of schizophrenic.  In one moment He is benevolent and loving and in the next He is wrathful and hateful.  As a result of this contradiction in God’s character, the authors claim, people began to attempt to explain the existence of bad things in the world by removing God from being the instigator of them.  They need a scapegoat so to speak, which leads them int their discussion of Satan in the Old Testament.

According to the authors, Satan plays only a small role in the story of the Old Testament.  If he is an entity at all, he moves in and out of the story, acting the part of a tester.  His basic role is to, under guidelines set by God Himself, confront faithful people and test their resolve.  At other times, though, “satan” is just another word for an individual who stands in the way.  But Satan as we understand Satan is not found here.  According to the authors, this is a later development, and is the result of their assertion in the next chapter.

The authors then claim that the image of Satan that began to develop throughout the Old Testament period, and which culminated during the intertestamental period, was heavily influenced by other culture’s myths and stories about why evil exists in the world.  They compare the Judeo-Christian Satan to various evil gods in Greek and Persian myths and epics.

But even then, Satan is not fully evolved.  It is during the intertestamental period that he is found in all his evil glory.  During this time, the Jews were dispersed.  There were failed attempts to regain their land.  A messiah had yet to appear.  And the people needed hope.  So a form of literature arose known as apocalyptic.  In these allegories, the powers that be are under the control of the Devil, an evil entity that acts as the antithesis of the good and benevolent God.  It is this Satan that is found in the New Testament and that we know and fear today.

They then speak briefly on the topic of hell, making the case, pretty convincingly, that our picture of hell comes more from the works of Dante and William Blake than it does Scripture.

They close with an essay on why Satan matters.

I thought the book was too short.  They did a good job summarizing the information and making it accessible, but for a topic such as this, I thought it needed at least 250 pages.  I didn’t feel that it did justice to the authors they gleaned their information from.  I was also disappointed that the book didn’t cover more information that I didn’t already know.  I guess, though, that shows how lucky I was to have had the professors that I had in college.  My Old Testament Professor exposed us to information of this nature during his class, saying that we would come in contact with it someday.  And he was right.  But I still feel cheated.  In 170 pages, I only found 2 chapters remotely interesting, and those were the chapters on the intertestamental period and the one on hell.  Everything else was the same old stuff that seems on the surface to call into question the authenticity and authority of the Bible.  It can easily be read as a mockery of the Christian view of Satan, and for that reason, I do not feel that it should be read by anyone other than the most discerning.

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