My church-going best friend of my youth introduced me to the idea of Satan.
She was terrified. I was fascinated. This week’s parashah gives us the chance to rethink what the word “satan” means according to biblical tradition. The word actually originates in Jewish literature, derives from Hebrew and appears throughout the Tanach and rabbinic literature. In this portion, Balak, we find the single reference to the word in the Five Books of the Torah.
Balak was the king of Moab and had witnessed the Israelites’ devastation of the Amorites in his region. Fearing the same fate for his own people, he called on one of his soothsayers, Bilam, to utter a curse over the Israelites in the hopes of weakening his enemy so he could overcome them in battle.
Bilam originally refused to do Balak’s bidding since he believed in the God of the Israelites. But then he decided to go to the Israelites, and at this point in the text his motives are uncertain. Perhaps his intent was still to obey God, or maybe Balak’s request for him to curse the Israelites (and the promise of great riches if he obeyed) finally was wearing him down.
Either way, it seems that God didn’t fully trust him to keep to his word. When Bilam was on his way, God placed a “malach Adonai,” an angel or messenger of God, in his path as a “satan,” often translated as “adversary” (Numbers 22:22).
At first, he didn’t see the angel, but his donkey did, refusing to pass it on the road. Assuming his ass was being stubborn, he struck it until the donkey, in one of the most fantastical verses in the Torah, opened its mouth and spoke, admonishing Bilam’s violent behavior.
Finally, Bilam also was granted the ability to see the angel, who told him to continue on his journey. But he was to serve only as the mouthpiece of God. So Bilam did go to see the Israelites, but instead of cursing them, he blessed them with God’s words, “Mah Tovu,” the liturgy that to this day opens our synagogue services.
Who, or what, is “satan” in this story? This earliest reference runs contrary to the more popular modern understanding of Satan as the king of the underworld, the root of all evil that leads people astray. In our portion, satan is not a personified entity, a particular angel with a permanent function, or even a noun. It is merely a way to describe that which quite literally blocks the path.
In fact, the earliest definition of “l’satan” or “liston” probably meant “to obstruct or oppose.” Rashi comments that the entity who stopped Bilam in his tracks was an “angel of compassion,” sent to keep him from sinning. This version of the word certainly is different than the one we have come to know in Western thought, and we have centuries of Jewish and Christian literature to thank for the contemporary notion of Satan as the feared (or worshipped) archenemy of God.
But in the Torah, there is no image of a satan who represents evil, tests our belief or plays the trickster, leading people astray. In Numbers, this angel actually blocks Bilam’s path to help him stay true to it. Bilam is powerfully and compassionately reminded not to betray his own best intentions.
How can this reading remind us of our core values when facing a decision? Imagine if every time we were about to violate some deeply held personal tenet, an angel of compassion would gently remind us to choose the more personally genuine path.
When we fall away from ourselves, when we feel out of touch with who we are, we are more likely to make decisions that can hurt ourselves or others. Perhaps this angel of compassion is outside of us; or maybe it is an internal mechanism, like our conscience, reminding us to live up to a vision of ourselves we respect.
Who or what in your life helps you stay on your desired path? Hopefully, if an angel of compassion blocks our way, we will recognize it, reconnect with our deepest selves and listen.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at email@example.com.