The word 'satan' is being used and heard as if it were a name. How could it be rendered in a way not distracting from its actual meaning of opposition and enmity?

The texts where this is an issue are the following:


2 Answers 2


The lexical meaning of the noun שָׂטָן śāṭān in biblical Hebrew is "adversary" or the like. It occurs 27x in 23 verses in the Hebrew Bible. In most instances, it is clear this it is best translated by the word "adversary":

  • in Psalm 109:6 it clearly refers to a hostile person;
  • in the Samuel/Kings references, it refers to human opponents of Israel or its monarchs;
  • in the Balaam story (Numbers) it refers to a divine messenger opposing (acting as an obstacle to) Balaam's mission.

That leaves two occurrences in Zechariah, and 14 occurrences in Job. (We'll come to the last one in 1 Chronicles in a moment.) As OP notes, some of these are traditionally translated as "Satan", that is, as if śāṭān were a proper name rather than a common noun. This is a mistake. In each of the occurrences in Job and Zechariah, śāṭān appears with the Hebrew definite article: haśśāṭān = "the satan" -- but names in biblical Hebrew do not take an article, so these occurrences must be a title, not a name. But it is rarely so translated in English Bibles (for e.g. Job 1:6) as "the Adversary" or "the Accuser", although this is demonstrably its meaning.

There is one verse left for comment: 1 Chronicles 21:1. In this late text, "Satan" incites David to take a census, by contrast with the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24:1, where the LORD has this role. Here, śāṭān appears without the article ("anarthrous" is the fancy term), and uniquely in the Hebrew Bible is plausibly -- indeed, almost certainly -- to be handled as a proper name, not a common noun. It is the first such occurrence, and thus a milestone text for the developing tradition.

Of course the powerful impetus of later tradition, in which "Satan" is regularly a name,1 exerted a strong influence to interpret the "cosmic" characters in Job and Zechariah also in this way. This is clearly an anachronism, though. Apart from the 1 Chronicles text, the rest of the occurrences of śāṭān in the Hebrew Bible are best translated by a gloss like "adversary" or "accuser".


  1. See on this the work of Jeffrey Burton Russell, and the Satan volume in particular.
  • 3
    "Satan" is his title and his name, the same way Adam is the title (הָֽאָדָ֛ם -- the man) and name (אָדָ֑ם -- Adam/man) of the first man God created.
    – user6503
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 2:49
  • 3
    Regarding the use of the article (and your link that ultimately goes back to Gesenius 125d): what of his qualification in 126d-e, unique appellatives and individuals of a class, in which he mentions Satan, i.e., the Adversary? This would seem to match Christ's usage in the gospels
    – ScottS
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 1:10

I believe the best way to render the word into English (or any language other than Hebrew) is to transliterate as ha-satan or satan. Transliteration would more accurately convey the original text and alert the reader to the different forms which were present in the original language.

A similar situation occurs in the New Testament:

Saying, I am Alpha and Omega (α καὶ τὸ Ω) ... (Revelation 1:8 KJV)

Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The first letter could be translated as "a" but translating the last letter is problematic since the last letter of the English alphabet is "z" for which there is no Greek letter.

The only way to accurately convey the meaning of the first and last letter of the alphabet into English is transliteration. When a reader encounters "alpha" and "omega" they can understand the meaning even though technically what is translated is not in English.

Likewise, reading ha-satan or satan would accurately convey what is found in the original language (two different words) without creating the appearance it was written as a proper name.

This is not to say satan could not now be a proper name as the Bible records people undergoing a name change to reflect a new character or condition. Transliteration is just a way to leave that up to the reader to decide if that is the meaning one should have when reading the Tanakh.

  • I just corrected the verse reference, but the Greek of the NA-28 is τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, with the first spelt out. Apparently the name ὦ μέγα (distinguished from ὂ μικρόν) was not yet invented at the time of the writing.
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 13:25

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