Word Odyssey: Giving the “Devil” His Due

Last week’s Word Odyssey was on the origins of God, so this week I’m giving the devil his due.

I’m going to start with that mysterious character Lucifer. We think of Lucifer as an archangel, God’s right hand man, who got too big for his britches so God cast him down—and who we now identify with Satan. But that’s not how Lucifer got his start.
Lucifer began as a reference to the King of Babylon in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Isaiah sarcastically refers to the King in his heyday as the morning star, the brilliant son of dawn, who like everyone else dies sooner or later. The Latin translation of “morning star” is “lucifer”, which literally in Latin is bringer of light. You can see this root in the Spanish word “luz”, meaning light.

The only other time the word “Lucifer” is used in the original 4th Century Latin translation of the Bible—called the Vulgate, which later became the official Roman Catholic version of the Bible—is in the New Testament, where the second letter of Peter uses “morning star” as a metaphor for the spirit of the Lord rising in your heart. The King James version of the Bible adopted the use of Lucifer to refer to the King of Babylon in Isaiah, but modern versions dispense with it and use morning star or day star instead.

So how the hell did Lucifer come to be a proper name, identified with a fallen archangel and Satan? The Book of Revelations mentions angels who were cast down from heaven, but doesn’t name names. But people love to interpret the Bible, find meaning in it, and give it their own spin. A couple of influential early Christian writers thought that the fallen angel must be Lucifer. The story caught on and kept getting passed down. In Dante’s Inferno, Lucifer is identified with Satan and cast down to hell. Then Milton, in his famous 17th Century epic Paradise Lost, used Lucifer as an alias for Satan, and was also cast down to hell. The story stuck. The Book of Mormon continues this tradition, referring to Lucifer as a spirit child of God (along with Jesus), but who rebelled.

This is all muddied by the fact the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, which was then translated into Greek, which was then translated into Latin, which was then translated into English; then, English translators tried translating from the Greek, while others translated from the original Hebrew. And some of these translators couldn’t help but add a little color to Bible stories.

And that’s more or less how we’ve come to picture Satan as that grotesque, evil dude lording over hades. The Hebrew word “satan” meant “adversary” or “accuser”. Sometimes the Bible uses satan with these normal meanings, and sometimes it refers to a guy who is testing the Hebrews’ faith in God. In the Book of Job, Satan is a member of God’s council. When God brags about how God-fearing Job is, Satan says of course he is, you’ve given him a great life, lots of cattle, many wives and children. I bet if you took those things away, he’d turn on you in a minute. So God tells Satan to go down, make Job’s life miserable, and we’ll see. Of course, Satan does wreak havoc on Job’s life, so it’s easy to understand why he got a bad reputation, but in that story he’s not actually the devil.

That happens in the New Testament, where Satan is used as a synonym for devil. Devil is a Germanic translation of Latin “Diablo”, meaning diabolical. Latin got it from the Greek word meaning “slanderer.” Sometimes the New Testament uses devil as an allegory, but sometimes the “devil” is given supernatural powers—God’s adversary, who is tempting people into sin. And if you sin, the devil might lure you right down into hell.
Now, is the devil a demon? Hmmm…..that’s a tough one. Demon is from Greek, where it referred to an evil spirit that was above humans, but didn’t really rise to the level of the gods. A demon just kind of floated around tempting people or making them do bad things. Most cultures have the same kind of character. Many Native American stories have a wily trickster who has the same kind of mission as the Greek demon. Christian tradition typically describes demons as evil angels, who can tempt or possess people—and can be cast out, which is how Jesus often cures illnesses in the New Testament. So maybe they can be called cousins or compadres of Lucifer and the devil.

Why the devil is commonly depicted today with horns, a pitchfork, a pointy tail and a tight red suit—well, that’s a story for another day.