The Strange Theory of the Egyptian Origin of Satan

A few years ago, I began hearing it claimed that the biblical character of Satan originated from the god Seth of Egyptian mythology. I came to discover that this claim is being popularized by the well-known clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, which gives me the impression that many people have at least heard of the claim.

I don’t know where Peterson got the idea that there is a direct Seth / Satan connection, as he hasn’t cited the origin of this claim in any of his presentations that I’ve seen. I was able to trace the claim to an article titled ‘Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights, and the Constituent Elements of Experience’, which Peterson published in 2006 in Brill’s Archive for the Psychology of Religion. On page 170, there is a clause stating that the Egyptian god Seth “…turns into Satan as mythology develops through the centuries,…” No citation is given in defense of this statement. In a lecture uploaded to Peterson’s Youtube channel in 2017, Peterson says: “Seth is a precursor to Satan, etymologically.” Again, no elaboration.

Video uploaded to YouTube by Jordan B Peterson (skip to the 6-minute mark for the quote above)

Is there any merit to Peterson’s claim that there is a linguistic and narrative provenance of the biblical Satan in the ancient Egyptian god Seth? To answer this, we need to dig a little into the Hebrew Bible’s description of Satan.

As it turns out, there is no individual named ‘Satan’ at all. In the Hebrew Bible, there are a handful of references to an individual (or perhaps individuals) identified as the adversary (Hebrew: השטן), a word that is sometimes translated as ‘Satan.’ However, as the term appears in these biblical texts, it is usually preceded by the definite article (i.e., ‘the’) which indicates that we are dealing with a title, not a proper name. (This distinction also holds true in English; you wouldn’t refer to me as “the Chet”, would you?).

Furthermore, the Hebrew language is built on triliteral roots, which in simple terms just means that most words tend to be based on 3 consonants. The root from which the noun ‘satan’ (שטן) is derived (ś-t-n) appears to mean something like ‘adversary’ or ‘opposer.’ For example, in the book of 1 Kings, we read the following:

“And Yahweh raised up an adversary(שטן) against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite. He was of the royal house in Edom.”

1 Kings 11:14

Here we see that a “śatan” or adversary could be a human being, such as Hadad the Edomite. This 3-letter Hebrew root (ś-t-n) can also form a verb meaning ‘to oppose’ (see Zechariah 3:1) and there is even a derivative noun with the abstract sense of ‘accusation’ (שטנה — this noun happens to be morphologically feminine, which is often the grammatical gender used to express abstract concepts in Hebrew. See Ezra 4:6). All of this is to show that ‘Satan’ is not a proper name of an Egyptian character that was copied into Hebrew mythology. The word for ‘Satan’ in Hebrew does not come from the Egyptian god Seth but rather comes from a triliteral Hebrew root that has developed much like other Hebrew words.

However, there are a few pericopes in the Hebrew Bible where the term śatan refers to a supernatural being, which, as I previously mentioned, are not using śatan as a name. The title ‘the adversary’ (HaŚatan) is applied to a member of Yahweh’s heavenly council, and either refers to a role that was performed by one particular divine being or an office that could be occupied by various members of Yahweh’s council (for more on the multiplicity of divine beings that make up Yahweh’s council, see my post The Many Gods of the Bible). In the first chapter of the book of Job we read about an occasion in which the adversary is present in the divine council:

“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and the adversary(השטן) also came among them.”

Job 1:6

It isn’t clear from the proceeding narrative that the adversary is some sort of evil villain. It is entirely possible that challenging God was actually the adversary’s job within the heavenly council, just as other deities were guardians, messengers, etc. In fact, in the book of Numbers, an angel of Yahweh is sent to act “as an adversary” directly on God’s behalf, preventing the prophet Balaam from traveling with the princes of Moab:

“But God’s anger was kindled because he(Balaam) went, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand in the way as his adversary(לשטן).”

Numbers 22:22

The important thing to recognize is that ‘the śatan/adversary’ is a title derived from a generic Hebrew noun, and is in no way etymologically connected to the Egyptian proper name ‘Seth’. This is problematic to Peterson’s claim because later Jewish writings (including the New Testament) clearly get the idea of Satan from the Hebrew Bible rather than Egyptian mythology, so the only way there could be a connection is if the Hebrew Bible had adopted the idea from Egypt—which is not what happened. To be sure, there was certainly Egyptian influence on the ancient Israelites, as seen in the Ark of the Covenant, which has parallels in the Egyptian sacred barks (see my post Egyptian Origin of the Ark of the Covenant), but the Jewish/Christian idea of Satan is simply not an example of this. (There is some evidence that the idea of Satan as a fallen angel and enemy of God found in later Jewish and Christian religions might have been influenced by Persian religion; see here).

To be sure, the relationship between Egyptian and Israelite mythology isn’t Peterson’s area of expertise, so it is not to be expected that he will get everything correct when exploring such topics. You should be aware of this, and be careful not to take everything he (or any other non-specialists in the relevant literature) says as representing the academic consensus on a given topic.

[All Bible verses are taken from the ESV, but with ‘the LORD’ substituted with the divine name ‘Yahweh’, and ‘Satan’ substituted with ‘the adversary’ to better reflect the original Hebrew]

Bibliography

Day, Peggy L. An Adversary in Heaven – Satan in the Hebrew Bible (Scholars Press, 1988).

Peterson, Jordan B. “Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights, and the Constituent Elements of Experience” Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 28 (2006): 135-180.

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