The desert: inhabitants

christ+in+the+wildernessSatan. “Satan” comes from the Hebrew verb STN meaning “to be hostile, to oppose”. The noun means “adversary,” who usually is an earthling in the OT, but in 1 Chr 21:1; Job 1 & 2; Zech 3:1, 2 it refers to a heavenly being and is transliterated “Satan”.

In the LXX, the Hebrew satan was always translated by the Greek diabolos (“the slanderer, the devil”), a word that doesn’t occur in Mark.

“Satan” occurs in 5 verses in Mark.

  • Satan tests Jesus in the wilderness (1:13)
  • Jesus asks, “How can Satan drive out Satan?” (3:23)
  • And answers: “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” (3:26)
  • In the explanation of the parable of the sower, Satan comes takes away the word that has been sown on the path (4:15)
  • Jesus rebukes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33)

Starting with the last occurrence, “Satan” seems to be anyone whose mind is not set on divine things – who seeks to stand in the way of Jesus (or us?) fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives. “Satan” knows enough not to be divided against himself – which may mean that Satan is clear about his purpose and role in the universe, which is to seek to take away the Word of God, which is easily done with people who are too “hard-hearted” for the Word to take root. If God’s Word is not well rooted in our lives, then we can’t know God’s purpose for us. Thus it will be easy for Satan or other people to steer us away from that purpose.

It is significant that Mark does not report the victory of Jesus over Satan, nor the end of the temptation (In contrast to Mt. 4:11; Lk. 4:13). It is the evangelist’s distinctive understanding that Jesus did not win the decisive victory during the forty days nor did he cease to be tempted. Jesus is thrust into the wilderness in order to be confronted with Satan and temptation. It is this confrontation which is itself important, since it is sustained throughout Jesus’ ministry. This explains why Mark does not say anything about the content of the temptation: his whole Gospel constitutes the explanation of the manner in which Jesus was tempted.

Wild Beasts. A detail recorded only by Mark is that Jesus was with the wild beasts in the wilderness. “Wild beasts” therion occurs only here in all of the gospels. In ancient Greek, therion especially referred to animals that were hunted. It is unique in Mark’s account of the testing. It is a word that refers to any wild animal or beast. It is used in Acts 28:4-5 for the viper who bites Paul. It is used in Revelation to refer to the “beast” who is worshiped rather than God.

Since 1:12–13 is usually understood as a report of Jesus’ triumph over Satan the reference to the wild beasts has been interpreted as an element in the paradise motif. Jesus in the midst of the wild beasts signifies the victory of the New Adam over Satan and temptation so that paradise is restored in which man is at peace with the animals. But as soon as it is recognized that the dominant motif of the prologue is the wilderness, Mark’s distinctive reference to the wild beasts becomes intelligible. In the OT blessing is associated with inhabited and cultivated land; the wilderness is the place of the curse. In the wilderness there is neither seed nor fruit, water nor growth. Man cannot live there. Only frightening and unwanted kinds of animals dwell there. Significantly, when the wilderness is transformed into a paradise no ravenous beast will be in it (Isa. 35:9; Ezek. 34:23–28). Mark’s reference to the wild beasts in v.13 serves to stress the character of the wilderness. Jesus confronts the horror, the loneliness and the danger with which the wilderness is fraught when he meets the wild beasts. Their affinity in this context is not with paradise, but with the realm of Satan.

Angels. Both the Greek (aggelos) and Hebrew (mal’ak) words translated “angel” have the basic meaning “messenger.” Just as earthly rulers needed messengers to carry messages to others before there was the post office and faxes and e-mail, so it was thought that God needed heavenly messengers to carry the divine word to earth. This word occurs five times in Mark.

  • Quoting Malachi 3:1, it is the messenger who goes ahead of you, preparing your way (1:2).
  • They will be part of the entourage when the Son of Man comes in his Father’s glory (8:38) and then they will gather the elect (13:27); but they do not know when that time will be (13:32).
  • The risen dead will be like angels (12:25).

The eschatological emphasis on angels could indicate that Jesus with the wild beast is a picture of the peaceful kingdom that is coming. However, I would more likely present a contrast between “wild beasts” and “angels”. The wild beasts are those who would “devour” Jesus. Angels are those who “serve” or “minister” (diakoneo) him. Perhaps it is not too important to try and define “angels,” except as those who serve – a key thought in Mark’s sense of discipleship

And how do these angels serve? The motif of the angel who guides and helps Israel through the wilderness is prominent in many of the narratives of the first exodus (Ex. 14:19; 23:20 [cited in Mk. 1:2], 23; 32:34; 33:2). The closest parallel to the Marcan account, however, is provided by 1 Kings 19:5–7 where an angel supplies nourishment for Elijah in the barren wilderness. Mark’s reference to a plurality of angels indicates that Jesus is sustained by the servants of God. There is no indication in Mark that the service of the angels is withdrawn nor that it serves to mark the termination of the temptation. This is an appropriate description, for the Marcan account of the ministry of Jesus is dominated by his confrontation with demonic forces and the sustaining of temptation. Jesus’ obedience to God is affirmed and sustained in the desert, the precise place where Israel’s rebellion had brought death and alienation, in order that the new Israel of God may be constituted.

Notes

Mark 1:13 Satan. He is the great “adversary,” as his name indicates. Satan does not play a major role in Mark, although demonic conflict does. After this scene, he is mentioned only in the dispute over the source of Jesus’ healing power (3:23, 26), in the parable of the seed (4:15), and in the rebuke to Peter about Jesus suffering (8:33). Pheme Perkins [586] notes the brevity of Mark’s reference to Satan. While some scholars conclude/presume that Jesus is locked in conflict with Satan throughout the narrative. Perkins notes that Satan rarely appears in the rest of the Gospel as the agent of temptation. And conjectures that Mark probably intends readers to assume that Jesus had already broken Satan’s power before his ministry began.

forty days. It is hard to establish whether this number is symbolic: The Israelite nation wandered for forty years (Num 14:34), and Elijah’s fast (1 Kgs 19:8) and Moses’s time on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28) both lasted forty days.

among the wild animals. Once again, it is unclear if this detail is symbolic. In Judaism, wild animals were associated with threat or evil; their subjection could represent the defeat of evil and the arrival of the new era (Isa 13:21–22; Ezek 34:5, 8). Alternatively, wild animals at peace picture an idyllic state could be part of a paradise motif (Isa 11:6)

angels. Angels also provided sustenance for Elijah (1 Kgs 19:1–8) and, traditionally, for Adam and Eve (b. Sanhedrin 59b; cf. Apocalypse of Moses 29:1–6). This divine care also hints that the new era of restored creation was present in Jesus.

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