Tag Archives: satan

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Jesus As Literature

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those overly-familiar gospel episodes that reward a fresh reading with open eyes. In terms of history and theology, this is one of the more difficult passages to analyze. Questions abound: who is meant to have witnessed and recorded this event? Is this a pale description of a spiritual or psychological experience, or a literal throwdown between Jesus and an embodied “devil”? Was this some kind of legal gauntlet that Jesus had to pass to prove himself the son of God, or just a dramatic manifestation of his anxiety and doubt?

Those are all fascinating questions, but they lend themselves largely to speculation. Approached as a work of literature, on the other hand, the text has much more to offer. This is a carefully and creatively composed piece of storytelling with many observable features which provide structure and impart meaning. All three of the synoptic gospels offer a version of this episode, while John’s gospel omits it. I’m going to focus on Matthew’s version and its appreciable literary form.

Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus Wanders in the Desert

The opening chapters of Matthew present the birth and early life of Jesus as a series of fulfillments and echoes of the story of Israel. Each episode is ordered and detailed to invoke elements and themes from Genesis and Exodus (and from Talmudic expansions on those stories): Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, flees to Egypt with his family. There are dreams and intrigue with kings and diviners, and Jesus passes dramatically through a body of water at his baptism. Then here, in chapter 4, he wanders the desert in an ordeal that lasts “forty days and forty nights,” and next he will go up on a mountain and talk about law.

So what is Matthew’s agenda in casting Jesus in a remake of Exodus? In a general sense, of course, he wants to establish Jesus a true Jew and Israel’s true Messiah. But the significance of the temptation story in particular is best understood if we pay attention to the details. The short text can be broken down into five units; an introduction, three temptations, and a conclusion. Each of the temptations includes a specific allusion to a text from Exodus and a rebuttal from Jesus that quotes Deuteronomy 6. Here’s the broad outline, with more details below:

  1. Introduction (Matthew 4:1-2): Jesus fasting in the desert
  2. Temptation 1 (Matthew 4:3-4): Stones into bread
    1. Reference: Exodus 16:3 (“bread”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:3
  3. Temptation 2 (Matthew 4:5-7): Throw yourself down
    1. Reference: Exodus 17:2,7 (“to the test”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:16
  4. Temptation 3 (Matthew 4:8-10): Bow down
    1. Reference: Exodus 32:8 (“bow down”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:13
  5. Conclusion (Matthew 4:11):  The devil left him

Like the Israelites those millennia ago, Jesus is “led” into the desert where he faces three specific temptations that his ancestors also faced there. But where they failed, grumbling and rebelling, Jesus is faithful and true. And his source of inspiration is Deuteronomy 6, the defining expression of Jewish identity and belief. He essentially defeats the devil with Judaism.

Now let’s consider the actual temptations in a little more detail:

Temptation 1: Magic Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)

The identity of Jesus’ adversary in Matthew’s text is rather slippery. He is first called “the devil,” but usually just “the tempter,” and eventually Jesus calls him “you satan!” Whoever or whatever he is, the tempter begins by challenging the “famished” Jesus to turn some stones into bread to nourish himself. Jesus answers with his first quote from Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to keep you alive, you actually live on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” (Deut 6:3)

This temptation involves the miraculous provision of dirty bread. For the Israelites (in Exodus 16 and following) God provided manna, and the temptation was to hoard or grumble or otherwise fail to appreciate the provision. For Jesus the circumstance is different but the temptation is the same. He is dared to exploit his privilege in order to instantly gratify himself rather than staying hungry and continuing to trust in divine providence.

Temptation 2: Go Jump Off a Cliff (Matthew 4:5-7)

Next the tempter takes Jesus up onto the temple mount and dares him to jump off, so that God might “command his angels” to come down and save him (a quote from Psalm 91). Jesus rebukes him with another Deuteronomic comeback: “You mustn’t put the Lord your God to the test!” (Deut 6:16)

This is another reference to Exodus, specifically Exodus 17 where the Israelites demand a miracle and Moses responds with a similar warning about putting God “to the test.” (Exo 17:2) But the Israelites intensify their protest and Moses capitulates in an incident with his staff and a rock that will see him banished from the promised land. The temptation here is not just ingratitude but a complete lack of faith manifested as a demand for religious signs and proofs, an exchange of reason and trust for insecurity and superstition. For Jesus the choice is between triumphant religious spectacle or quiet humanity, and he chooses the latter.

Temptation 3: Bow Down (Matthew 4:8-10)

Finally, Jesus’ devil takes him to a “very high mountain,” where they survey the “magnificent kingdoms of the world.” “I’ll give them all to you,” he says, “if you’ll bow down and worship me.” Jesus must have been listening to the audiobook of Deuteronomy on his phone that morning, because he is ready with one more quote: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!” (Deut 6:13) The devil leaves him.

Here is an allusion to the famous incident in Exodus 32 when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and within five minutes the people below are “bowing down” to worship a fertility idol in the form of a golden calf. For the Israelites, this was simply the temptation to return to the glamorous and expedient type of local religion to which they had been accustomed. For Jesus, the temptation is to embrace the glamorous and expedient type of power and glory afforded by the empires and kingdoms of the world. To this day, political and military power are the only way most humans can imagine anything resembling justice to be accomplished. But Jesus knows there is a better way.

The Big Picture: Jesus the Good Jewish Human

Most readers of the New Testament, missing the literary clues and references, have imagined that these trials were unique to Jesus and his heavenly vocation as savior and messiah. But Matthew’s point seems to be that these three temptations – instant gratification, superstition, and power politics – are all common. They are common to Israel and common to humankind. What makes Jesus extraordinary is his transcendent response to these universal temptations, grounded in humility, faith, and an ongoing trust in divine goodness. Matthew is inviting his Jewish readers to place their trust in Jesus, the true Israelite and the true human. He portrays Jesus as “one of us,” which ought to make his goodness all the more relevant and inspiring.


Isaiah 14 and the Real “Lucifer”

It’s not unusual that people disagree about the interpretation of a Bible text. It is very strange, however, that a biblical inerrantist might argue for a meaning which contradicts what is on the page. Yet this happens with some frequency. Here is a case study from personal experience.

Classic Western Christianity reads Isaiah 14 as if it narrates the story of Satan (the angel “Lucifer”), his rebellion, and his fall from heaven. Verses 12-15 in particular might seem to tell the whole story, presented here in the King James Version for maximum impact: Continue reading

The Opposing Forces in the Universe

The great opposing forces in our universe are not good and evil. Not moral conformity and moral failure. Not peace and war. Not belief and disbelief. According to a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible, they are forgiveness and accusation.

Through his life and teaching Jesus revealed a God who is unconditionally forgiving. The God represented and embodied by Jesus is not angry or conflicted or two-faced or withholding like so many religious visions of deity. He is a loving Father (or Mother – the Bible uses this metaphor too!). Jesus called for moral reform and repentance, but never under the pretense of an angry God out for revenge. His primary rhetorical targets were powerful accusers and abusers, not their victims. In fact, he embraced and forgave “sinners” freely while denouncing those who bullied and condemned them in the name of religion. God’s character, God’s posture, according to Jesus, is endlessly forgiving and compassionate toward the bungled and the botched. Continue reading


It’s (Never) Bible Clobberin’ Time

Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons typically do so on the basis of six short Bible passages. These have come to be known as the “clobber verses,” authoritative biblical injunctions believed to decisively end all debate and discussion regarding sexual identity. The passages in question are Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10. None of them actually says “being gay is a mortal sin,” but they all give the sense of unequivocal disapproval or prohibition of some manner of same-sex practice. The meaning of each text has been and will continue to be researched and debated, and I think that is appropriate and important. But that’s not what this post is about. My point is that “Bible clobberin’” is an irresponsible and specious way to engage with both Bible and neighbor. Here’s why it’s wrong, no matter what the verses say.  Continue reading


Three Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

OK, so the headline isn’t fair. More and more Christians are educating themselves in the origins and contexts of the Bible, and no one can pretend to have any special secret knowledge that isn’t readily available to anyone. At the same time, in mainstream American Christian culture, these words (and many more) are often locked into unhelpful, non-biblical settings that obscure their true depth of meaning. These concepts are long overdue for some clarification. This isn’t “everything you know is wrong!,” I simply offer a few educated considerations.

1. Angel

What We Hear: Thanks in large part to the imagination of medieval Europe, most people in the western world today envision angels as shimmering, winged Caucasians who live up in the clouds. When our English Bibles say, for example, that “an angel” or “the angel of the Lord” appears in a narrative, we immediately picture a flying Osmond in bleached robes. Some Christian traditions teach that there are classes of angels, like archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, each with different stations and privileges. Clarence Odbody, AS2.

But Consider This: The Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel” in our Bibles simply mean “messenger,” or “one who brings tidings.” In these texts, “angels” are just people, at least in appearance, and they are usually on a mission to deliver important news. These are the “men” who visit Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, or the messenger Gabriel who comes to Mary in Luke’s nativity. These angels are never said to have wings, and usually appear in broad daylight among people in the real world.

In quite a different category we have strange creatures like seraphs (beings made of flame), cherubs (winged lions), and various “beasts” which inhabit visions and apocalypses. These beings often have wings but are never called angels. Our inherited readings of the Bible have conflated both categories into a single race of heavenly sprites. In reality, they inhabit a wide range of meanings, contexts, and genres.

2. Satan

What We Hear: Satan, or the Devil, is the personal enemy of God, the supernatural lord of evil who rules over hell, thwarts God’s plans, and tempts boys and girls to sin so they won’t get into heaven. Many Christian traditions maintain that Satan was once an exalted angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven along with his legions of demons. Most people assume that this is part of the Bible’s storyline, but apart from a few possible cryptic references, it’s not actually there. It grew out of Jewish legends, literature like the Book of Enoch, and the biblical interpretations of church fathers like Origen.

But Consider This: “Satan” in the text of the Bible is never a proper name, but always a descriptive title with a definite article: “the satan” or “the accuser” in Hebrew, “the devil” or “the slanderer” in Greek. This label is applied to many things in many contexts. In the book of Job, the accuser is one of God’s heavenly employees whose job is to prosecute and torment humans. The satan only appears a couple more times in the Hebrew Bible, as in 1 Chronicles 21 where it’s a negative spiritual influence that causes King David to make an unwise decision. (Though in the alternate telling of the same story in 2 Samuel 24, it is God who incites David to make the same decision.)

In the New Testament, “the slanderer” appears to Jesus in his desert vision quest, tempting him to abandon his earthly ministry before it begins. Jesus calls one of his closest friends, Peter, a “satan” for doubting him. In the book of Revelation, the accuser is depicted as a great red dragon which corrupts and manipulates the Roman Empire until it is defeated and destroyed once and for all. In each of these different formats and contexts, the one thing connecting all depictions of “the satan” is a spirit of condemnation and shame. Whether the satan is a singular figure, a spiritual reality, or a state of mind, it always brings accusation and oppression. It is the opposite of mercy and forgiveness.

3. Apocalypse

What We Hear: The end of the world! An apocalypse, according to its modern usage, is a cataclysmic event that brings either society as we know it or the entirety of space-time to an end. Zombies, aliens, horsemen or climate change, something inevitable is coming and all we can do is hope to survive and be on the winning side when it’s all over. When it comes to the Bible, the apocalypse will be the holy war to end all holy wars, a series of trials and battles that are already preordained to the smallest detail. There is nothing we can do to stop it from coming, but we should still accuse everyone we don’t like of hastening its approach.

But Consider This: In biblical terms, an apocalypse isn’t an event but a type of text, a genre of literature. The word “apocalypse” means “hidden,” and these texts employ visual metaphors and poetic imagination to “reveal” the hidden spiritual reality behind an earthly crisis in the author’s own time. The first biblical apocalypses (eg. portions of Ezekiel and Daniel) emerge after Israel’s exile in Babylon and later Persia. Both of these cultures produced apocalypse-style texts, suggesting perhaps that Israel’s artists and prophets were subverting the cultures of their captors and adapting them for their own purposes. And those purposes, despite the connotation of “apocalypse” today, always involved bringing hope to a people in trouble.

We might think of apocalypses as the political cartoons of the ancient Near East. They are certainly more serious and consequential, but they function in a similar way. In Revelation, the only extended apocalypse in the New Testament, Rome is satirized as a monster and a whore, while Jesus is depicted as a slain lamb. The metaphors are mixed and the images are impossible, but the coded message of hope in the face of political turmoil would have been crystal clear to its original readers. None of this precludes apocalypses from being spiritually inspired or communicating timeless truths, but it does suggest that they are products of ancient historical crises and that they will always speak louder in those contexts than in our own. And when they do speak, their true voice is one of expectation and rescue, not inevitable doom.