Tuesday 28 August 2012

Samael vs. Satan

Chapter 28 of Radiance, with its vision of Divine Justice, raises the question of Jewish views of Satan, especially as compared to Samael or Ashmedai. While in my story, Satan is a member of the heavenly court not the Sitra Achra, in the tradition things aren't quite so simple.

So what can we say about Jewish views of Satan, and how do they compare to Samael and other more obviously villainous characters from Jewish mythology?

In Hebrew, words are generally built out of three letter roots that are then conjugated in different ways to produce multiple meanings. The three base letters of Satan are שטן which means to oppose or to be an adversary against.

Now the Bible uses the root of the Satan 4 times in reference to some kind of divine being, in Numbers 22, Zechariah 3, Job 1-2 and 1 Chronicles 21. But to understand these references we should bear in mind that the word is also used for human characters (for example 1 Samuel 29) - because in the human sphere, the word Satan has two distinct but related uses, one is a military opponent, and the other is a more formal court prosecutor.

Its the use of Satan as a formal court prosecutor that really interests me, an aspect that is really played up in Zechariah 3 and Job 1-2, where Satan seems to be a role that angels sometimes play in the divine court, rather than the personal name of a particular creature. 

6] One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. 7] The Lord said to the satan, ‘Where have you come from?’
The satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going to and fro on it.’
-Job 1

Here the satan is definitely a figure that human beings might have reason to fear - after all, it is the satan that causes all the misfortunes that befall Job, the loss of all his wealth, the death of his family, the disease that strikes him. Yet for all that, the satan in Job seems to be one of the angels, and apparently under God's control - something even clearer in Zechariah 3.

The Evolution of Satan
 Reish Lakish said: Satan, the Evil Inclination, and the Angel of Death are one and the same.
 -Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 16a.

By the time of the Babylonian Talmud, completed by some point in the 6-7th century, Satan has become a particular character and far more overtly evil. The quote from Reish Lakish, in a section of the talmud devoted to explaining the first section of Job, exemplifies this rabbinic view of Satan. That he is a real figure, who is the source of our desire for evil and is one and the same as the angel of death (elsewhere identified as Samael).

A Tanna taught: [Satan] comes down to earth and seduces, then ascends to heaven and awakens wrath; permission is granted to him and he takes away the soul.
 -Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 16a.

But nevertheless Satan remains part of God's order of the universe, still needing God's permission to take the souls of human beings. The Talmud never really embraces Satan as a source of evil, since everything comes from God, and even Satan, as much as we seek to avoid his attentions, is part of that divine plan. Thus we learn in the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah 9:7, that while the good inclination is judged 'good', the evil inclination is considered 'very good'.

Rabbi Eleazar said: "after [Tamar's] proofs were found, Samael came and removed them, and Gabriel came and restored them."
 -Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 10b

By contrast, Samael comes across as a rather more evil figure. The quote from Sotah, discussing the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, has Samael deliberately trying to sabotage the union of Judah and Tamar, which ultimately produces King David and thus the Messiah himself. Samael's actions seem to be the work of an evil agent, deliberately acting against God's will and plan, requiring the angel Gabriel to make it right again.

While both Satan and Samael are variously identified as the angel of death, and sometimes identified as being one and the same, they seem to embody different aspects of our relationship to death. Satan embodies a view of death as a necessary, perhaps even good, part of creation. We may not like it but we recognise that death is part of life. Meanwhile Samael as death might represent a view of death as an intrusion into God's divine plan, a destructive, evil force that we cannot easily reconcile with God's love for us. Samael is death as an evil, Satan is death as a troubling good.

The Emanation of Evil
I shall now teach you a wonderful innovation. You already know that evil Samael and wicked Lilith are like a sexual pair who, by means of an intermediary, receive an evil and wicked emanation from one and emanate to the other.
 -Treatise on the Left Emanation, 13th Century

An early kabbalistic work, the Treatise on the Left Emanation is a detailed, complex study of the nature and origin of evil in the world, embodied by Samael and his bride Lillith, who manifest the left side, the side of evil (just as the word sinister is derived from the Latin for left), the side of division. In the vision of the Treatise the Leviathan is the link between Samael and Lillith, joining their energies together.

Thus Samael is deeply embedded in the left side, the Sitra Achra, where Satan is absent.

Next Steps
The next question is how the two characters are depicted in the Zohar and later kabbalistic thought, but I think I've written enough for now. Maybe I'll write a follow up after another section of Radiance.

Thanks for reading, let me know what you think.

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