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History of the Devil

While I'm no expert in ancient Hebrew, it doesn't take a mythologist to track the evolution of the devil. And by the term, evolution, I mean just that. In the same way that cultures and religions evolve, so do ideas and perceptions.

The following thoughts germinated after reading Robert Wright's article, War on Evil where he dances briefly on a few stepping stones in history to help explain the current dichotomy Americans have over the concept of evil. But his stepping stones were recent, and I got to wondering about the evolution of this concept of evil and the devil in ancient history.

So let's jump on a couple of linguistic stepping stones.

I took a quick glance at the Bible to realize that the word "devil" doesn't even appear in the Old Testament; however, the word, "devils", does. At least in the KJV the 4 occurrences of the word "devils" comes from two different Hebrew words.

The first occurrence (Lev 17:7 and 2Ch 11:15) is the Hebrew word, saw-eer (שָ֗עִיר) and it literally means shaggy (related to a goat). Yup, there is our origin of the devil as satyr, and taken in context, it is referring to sacrificing to other gods; specifically, the goat-god Pan from Arcadia. While most of the ancient cultures of this time viewed gods other than their own as more or less equals, here is the origin of the Jewish view of referring to all other gods as inferior devils.

However, the inferiority implied in this word, may be a later projection and may have simply been a term for "other gods". As the Hebrew word that we translate as God, el-o-heem (אֳל֗הִים) is plural. We can linguistically see the early development from a polytheistic group to a culture that began to elevate their own gods to the monotheistic religions we see today.

The other occurrence (De 32:17 and Ps 106:37) is the Hebrew word, shade (שֵׁד) which, given its roots, probably originally meant devastation. But like saw-eer, this word also refers to other gods. The root of shade, is the same root as breast, swelling and fertile and may have been chosen as a reference to the gods of other lands having a sexual nature. But this is pure speculation on my part.

However, in the earliest Biblical references, there isn't a single devil… that comes later.

Satan, saw-tan (שָׂטַן), shows up relatively late in Biblical writings, and isn't really a primary character until the Book of Job (which many Biblical scholars place time of writing during the Babylonian exile). The term, saw-tan means an adversary or opponent, but at this point seems to refer more to Job's opponent than God's.

So between the Books of Moses where he isn't mentioned at all, and Job, we have the hints as to why he shows his shaggy head.

Keep in mind that it is difficult to improve upon religion. If you are too radical and make too much of a break with the past, you loose your validity. This is why each religion builds upon the shoulders of the previous. Jesus fulfills the law as does Buddha and Mohammed.

So when going from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic, you don't get rid of the stories, you re-interpret, re-define, and then re-write.

So the serpent in the Garden of Eden was originally just a talking snake. The quintessential mythological trickster. Later, we re-interpret that and swap him out for the devil. Other times we use the same word, but re-define it, like in taking the plural form for "gods" and just singularize it.

But why does a devil need to be developed in the first place?

In many mythological traditions, the "good" god has an alter-ego. Odin has his Loki, but in this Nordic case, both gods had the same surname… essentially being two faces on the same coin. Perhaps the step from polytheistic to monotheistic merges two aspects of two different gods into one god. This concept would explain why the Hebrew God hardened the heart of Pharaoh against His own words.

But how can a "good" god do "bad"? This same question is still asked: How can God, who created the universe, also create evil? The Old Testament develops an idea of an adversary who not only does bad (his original function), but begins the work of "tempting" the rest of us into badness.

The view later developed was that while God did create Satan, he was created as an angel. But this angel choose of his own will, to be bad… just like the lot of mankind. Of course, if God is omniscient, why would he have created him in the first place?

As the New Testament opens, we have a fully developed devil who tries to thwart God's work, tempt mankind, and in part, explains why God's chosen people keep getting kicked around by the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, etc.

Feel free to continue on the path of the devil's evolution from this point in Robert Wright's article.

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My theory is, a time travel accident had gone wrong in the future and sent a traveler back in time to the Garden of Eden where he crash landed and was injured. After wandering around the Garden of Eden he succumbed to his injuries rested up against a tree and died. The radioactive fallout from the wrecked time machine infected the immediate area, and a single man and woman (the belief calls them Adam and Eve) were the first to feel the effects and witness death. The tree that was damaged by the crash was now unique compared to the rest that were left undamaged. As far as the Devil, he was mistaken for the time traveler who died. The incident was scientific that became religious, the orgin of the Devil was a guess or also a coverup directly linked to the Garden of Eden incident.

—Ernest Normal Paquin
27 November 2007


Devil comes from the Sanscrit word "devas" which means "to shine"… i.e. "one who shines" as in "diva" and "divine" which have the same root.

In the Greek New Testament the word "diabolos" is used. Jerome didn't know what to make of it when translating the Latin Vulgate and changed it to church Latin "diabolus"… a meaningless bit of mumbo jumbo.

But it is from the ancient Greek root words "dia" … coming out of/as a result of" and "bolos" …"the hit/the hurt".

So a good translation would be "victim" or "survivor".

Have a nice day. Butch in Vancouver.

—David Silvercloud