The Devil You Know

“Balaam and the Angel,” painting from Gustav Jaeger (1836).

For all of Torah’s miracles large and small, the story of a talking donkey who sees an angel is perhaps Torah’s most magical and childlike narrative. In its words lurks a profound secret that touches (and challenges) the core of our adult sense of good and evil, right and wrong.

Parshat Balak is named for a king who sends his mystic holy man, Bilam, to curse the ancient Israelites en route to the Land of Promise. God doesn’t want Bilam to go, and sends a series of mishaps for Bilam’s journey. Bilam stubbornly insists on fulfilling Balak’s command, so God uses diversions to turn Bilam’s heart – not to curse the Jews but to bless them.

Our story picks up in Num. 22:22, “God’s anger was kindled because [Bilam] went, and God’s angel positioned himself in the way to inhibit him.” First only the donkey Bilam was riding saw the angel, sword in hand. The donkey turned aside: Bilam hit the donkey, so the donkey squeezed himself against a wall and crushed Bilam’s foot. Bilam hit the donkey again, so she dropped and trapped Bilam. After Bilam hit her a third time, the donkey spoke to Bilam (that’ll get his attention!) and lo, Bilam saw the angel in his way. Bilam’s eyes, heart, journey and mission instantly transformed.

Remember Torah’s words: “God’s angel positioned himself in the way to inhibit [Bilam].” In Hebrew, Torah’s word “inhibit” connotes “redirect” or “be adverse.” Torah’s word is לשטן – to Satan.

Yes, that Satan – a word today connoting the devil, evil, God’s foil, Superman’s Lex Luthor – the opposite of angelic.

shutterstock_87086534The original Jewish Satan, however, is no such thing. God’s angel stands against Bilam to redirect him for good according to God’s plan. That’s the original Jewish Satan – an angel of divine redirection. Centuries later, Satan re-appeared as God’s loyal prosecutor, as in the Book of Job – still standing against, but for a holy purpose. This loyal prosecutor, in turn, became in Greek diabolos (“accuser”), whose legend evolved into the Christian understanding of a diabolic devil thwarting God, let loose by the Fall of Man in the sin that sullied humanity’s mythic pristine state in the Garden of Eden. Islam, in turn, narrates in the Qur’an the one angel (Iblis, or Satan) who refused to bow before Adam in the Garden: God expelled Iblis from heaven, and Iblis vowed to oppose God by tempting souls and populating “hell” with them (Qur’an 7:11-18). These Christian and Islamic views of Satan came full-circle into medieval Judaism, which absorbed them in midrashim imagining Samael (Satan) as the snake who tempted Eve (Sforno Gen. 3:1), a bad boy who tempted Noah to drink (Genesis Rabbah 36:3; Midrash Tanchuma, Noach), and a guardian of gehinnom (“hell”). The devil of pitchfork infamy was born.

The Satan of Jewish thought, however, is not the “devil” but God’s angel who blocked Bilam’s way on a journey opposed to God’s will – the holy power of divine redirection, things that don’t work because they shouldn’t, blocks appearing on roads we shouldn’t travel. Rashi, the medieval commentator, called Bilam’s Satan an “angel of mercy,” come to redirect Bilam from sin (Rashi Num. 22:22).

The Jewish idea of Satan invites us to surrender our egoic sense of stubborn control to ask: Does an obstacle suggest a higher purpose for my journey? Does a roadblock mean I shouldn’t travel this road? How might it feel to see the confounding opposition in our life as a malach (angelic messenger) whose message I need – maybe precisely because I don’t want it? How might it feel to have my eyes opened to see this profound cosmic reality hiding in plain sight?

Satan doesn’t ask us to retreat automatically from challenge – but does ask us to open our hearts, minds and eyes to the possibility of divine redirection for good. That’s the kind of “devil” we all ought to know.

Dedicated to students in my ALEPH Ordination Program intensive summer course on Jewish angelology in the textual and mystical traditions.

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