This is a further—and final—response to some productive comments made by Paul K. regarding my argument about the narrative-historical method and its implications for our understanding of the kingdom of God. He argues that the gospel deals with spiritual powers as well as “socio-political forces”—he has in mind the serpent in the garden “who usurped Mankind’s rule, and the kingdom of God through his people, becoming the god of this age and enslaving humanity and keeping them in bondage”. So whereas I am proposing that it is the story of Israel and the nations that dominates scripture, he thinks that a much bigger story about God and humanity provides the interpretive framework.
I question, in the first place, whether we can make such a firm distinction between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” in scripture. It seems to me that once we get to Babel and the call of Abraham out of empire and as an alternative to empire, the whole story through to Revelation 20:10 is worked out in political-religious terms. The focus may oscillate between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” aspects of this two-sided construct, but at no point does the narrative break away from the political context, like a bird breaking out of its cage, to fly free in the open skies of an a-historical spirituality. This point was made in an earlier post, but it can be further illustrated by looking at the particular question of the role of Satan in the story.
The serpent, Satan and the story of Israel….
The serpent of Genesis 3 is not identified with Satan or the devil in the Old Testament. It is one of the beasts of the field, described merely as “crafty” (ʿārûm), which more often means “prudent” in the Old Testament (eg. Prov. 12:16, 23; 14:8) than crafty in a malevolent sense (Job 5:12; 15:5). Its action does not lead to the loss of humanity’s sovereignty—at least, God’s instruction to Noah to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth and the affirmation that every creature will be delivered into his hands (Gen. 9:1-2) sound to me like a restatement of the original creation mandate of Genesis 1:28. Nor does it gain anything except the curse of going on its belly and of unending conflict between its offspring and the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:14-15). Peter Enns has written a helpful piece on the matter: Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: A Crafty Serpent. Moreover, I do not think this passage can be read as a proto-gospel.
When Satan does make an appearance, it is as a minor supernatural force in the story of Israel, associated especially with crisis and judgment—see my account of the rise and fall of Satan. He incites David, he impugns the righteousness of God’s servant Job, he accuses Joshua. He endeavours to subvert Jesus’ messianic calling, offering him rule over “all the kingdoms of the world” if he will worship him (Matt. 4:8-9). In response Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13—the command to worship the God who brought them out of Egypt, not the “gods of the peoples who are around you… lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:15).
Satan accuses and makes war against the churches. He is the “god of this age”, deceiving both Israel and the nations, but his power during this period of eschatological crisis has been curbed for the sake of the emerging churches, and at the end of the age, when Babylon the great is finally overthrown, he will be confined to the abyss. In other words, the contest with Satan is a struggle over the integrity of Israel in relation to more powerful and more glorious nations.
In an excellent paper given at the British New Testament conference a few weeks back Jesse Nickel argued that it was as the chosen and anointed servant of YHWH that Jesus waged the eschatological battle against Satan (cf. Matt. 12:18). He highlighted the link between Jesus’ saying about binding the strong man (tou ischurou), entering his house and plundering his goods with the description of YHWH’s restoration of Israel in Isaiah 49:24-25 LXX:
Will anyone take spoils from a mighty one? And if one should take a captive unjustly, shall he be saved? Thus says the Lord: If one should take a mighty one captive, he will take spoils, and by taking them from a strong one (ischuontos), he will be saved. And I will judge your cause, and I will rescue your sons.
The passage continues: “And those who afflicted you shall eat their own flesh, and they shall drink their own blood like new wine and be drunk.” The language is perhaps echoed in Revelation 14:20 and 16:6, but in any case, the basic narrative relevance seems clear enough: the binding of Satan in order to rescue the people of YHWH from its captivity anticipates an eventual judgment on the empire which afflicted it. So Satan is cast into the abyss immediately after the overthrow of the idolatrous oppressor Rome (Rev. 20:1-2). The outcome will be that “all flesh shall perceive that I am the Lord who rescued you, who assists the strength of Jacob” (Is. 49:26 LXX). This is how YHWH justifies himself in the eyes of the nations.
A parable about monsters and Scottish independence
While we are on the subject of serpents and in view of the chaos that may be unleashed by today’s referendum, a story told in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (c. 700) may encourage Scotland’s churches as they take on the monster-subduing task of fostering reconciliation after the vote, whichever way it goes.
Travelling through Scotland, St Columba had cause to cross Loch Ness. A group of Picts was burying a man who had been killed by a water monster while swimming in the loch. Columba nevertheless ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat so that he could cross over. The man, Lugne Mocumin, dived in and began to swim, but the monster appeared and pursued him, jaws gaping. Those who stood on the bank were horrified, but Columba raised his hand and made the sign of the cross. Calling on the name of God, he commanded the creature, “You will go no further, and will not touch the man; go back at once.” The chaos monster fled as though in terror.