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Satan as Trickster in the Desert: An Experiment in Non-literal Interpretation

If one chooses to interpret the story of Jesus fasting in the desert symbolically, the story becomes an allegory of transformation. Jesus enters the desert in one state of being and, 40 days later, he leaves in another state of being, ready to teach and to heal. What role, exactly, does Satan play in this story? A creative, progressive look at this apparent allegory suggests an interesting role for the Prince of Darkness in the Gospels, far from the irrational promoter of evil and harm one finds in the orthodox, literal interpretation and popular culture.
The Number 40 as a Symbol of Transition

We can start with the number 40. French journalist Jacques Duquesne, in Jesus: An Unconventional Biography, had this to say about the number 40:

“Forty: again, this is not a number plucked out of the air at random. It features in many ancient legends…the Buddha and Mohammed both began preaching at the age of forty; in Judaism, the waters of the flood had covered the earth for forty days…Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. The use of the number forty should therefore alert us to the symbolism of this passage. We are entering a domain that is more literary than historical.” (Duquesne, p. 92,93)

So Jesus fasted 40 days, Noah sailed 40 days, Moses fasted 40 days on a mountain, Israelites wandered 40 years, Buddha began teaching at 40, Mohammed began teaching at 40. It looks as if, in sacred literature, before someone can do something significant, it is necessary to spend forty days or years in preparation. The number 40 is used, therefore, to describe a transitional situation – sort of a gestation period. The number 40 would seem to denote a substantial period of time during which an individual or people changes (for the better).

We know, frankly, this is a symbolic story because it could not have happened; Jesus would have died. Luke says Jesus did not eat or drink anything for 40 days (Luke 4:2). Over 40 days ‘fasting’ and ‘the desert’ are, therefore, a symbolic means and a symbolic setting in which change happens. The number 40 denotes that Jesus underwent an ordeal that constituted a period of transition. In the first three gospels Jesus meets and is tempted by Satan ONLY while engaged in this process. Furthermore, if the number 40 is a symbol of transition, we should see Jesus come out of the desert a different person and this seems to be the case. Jesus only begins working in the world after the 40-day fast and he never fasts again. Coincidentally, Gautama Buddha spends 40 days under a Bodhi tree to gain enlightenment. This would seem to entail fasting for 40 days as well before becoming radically changed.

The Three Temptations as Assessment

Fasting becomes the symbolic way to bring about an inner change. The desert is the symbolic setting for the change. Satan provides the test or assessment to establish that change has occurred. Victory is a new state of being that allows one to re-enter one’s society with a new perspective and more humane and pro-social values – in Jesus’s case, his new being and new engagement with the world promises transformation of others and potentially of society itself.
That Jesus accomplishes this change of being, in the story, is shown by the fact that he passes a test given to him by Satan. How does a person discover that he or she has mastered some type of learning? Usually, one takes and passes a test. How does a person know when he/she has attained to a different level of being or has become different in some behavioral manner? In symbolic literature this person resists a temptation – meaning that the person does not do what he/she might have done in the past. For example, if you realize that you become frustrated and angry easily, but you wish to change, and one day you are confronted with a frustrating situation but suddenly learn how to take it in stride, you have resisted a temptation and, perhaps, moved to a new behavioral plateau. Even the Buddha resists temptation after the Bodhi tree incident. So temptations seem to be symbolic tests to see whether one has actually changed.

Symbolism in the Three Temptations 

The three temptations of Jesus become symbols within an allegory. In regard to the three temptations we get: 1) “Turning stone into bread” 2) “Tower jumping” and 3) “Resisting the temptation to make the world your oyster.” If 40 is the number of transition, 3 seems to be the number of completion. To do something three times seems to mean, “That’s that, it’s finished. There’s your proof.” Three is used in the Bible in this manner: three days in a whale’s belly, three days dead before resurrection etc.

So first Jesus is tempted to change stone into bread. Stone, on a literal level, is something hard, cold, ‘dead,’ and unchanging while bread is something nourishing and life giving. One might say that stone is a type of truth or moral code that exists outside of oneself, like a tool, and is cold and harsh because once established it exists outside of our being, while bread is a type of truth or understanding that leads to spiritual nourishment, that can be incorporated into one’s very being. When Jesus refrains from trying to turn stone into bread he basically says, “I can’t use my own will to bring about inner change. I have to use patience and self-denial to reach that fourth level of competency or to move from committing and then regretting an action to preventing negative actions in the first place. Sure, I need that bread, but I’m not using my own flawed and limited will to get it. I’m not even going to try. I’ll continue fasting, thank you.”

Then, Satan literally quotes from the Bible and says, essentially, “Hey Jesus, the Bible says that if you throw yourself off a building God will stop you from falling to your death; so if you believe in the Bible, jump!” Jesus, a good progressive-Christian-non-literalist, asks Satan, essentially, whether he looks that stupid. Jumping off the building is, again, trying to force God to provide salvation before salvation is ready. It is putting human will before God’s will. It is also assigning a power to God that God does not offer.
Finally Satan takes Jesus up to a mountain top, points to a city and says, ”Look at that! All of that will be yours if you worship me.” Satan is basically saying, “I know the way. Follow my way. You get stuff, good stuff, my way.” Jesus, however, senses another way. Wealth and power and the products of wealth and power become symbols of a false way. It is not money and power which will bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus rejects Satan’s generous offer.

Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

As T.S. Eliot wrote: “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” These three temptations are all about Jesus refusing to attempt to do the wrong thing in regard to his personal transformation. Maybe the implication is that if you resist doing something ineffective long enough you get pointed toward the right thing to do. We can see the devil, therefore, as a sort of comic trickster figure, a character who is offering the wrong way to get to the right place. Basically, in this part of the Gospel story, Jesus refrains from taking bad advice in a desert from a self-proclaimed expert after not eating for 40 days.

Could it be, ironically, that Satan is conscientiously trying to help Jesus attain to something better than God can help him attain to? In, for example, Native American mythology, we have Coyote, who is always sure that his way is the best way, while continually failing to be of assistance and often bringing disaster. Is Satan a trickster who is so full of himself that he thinks he knows the right way while he actually does not? It is like a retelling of the Garden of Eden story where the snake is a trickster and promises something God does not and the first humans fall for the bad advice? Jesus, resisting the three temptations, is undergoing the Garden temptation all over, but this time makes the right choices. The story of the temptations could be a direct response, therefore, to the story of the Fall. Satan might be more of a goofy and incompetent trickster figure than anything evil in the Bible; an altruistic but incompetent trickster. He’s just a soul whose intentions are good.

Interestingly, the Bible stories do not say that Jesus “chose” to enter the desert. Nobody says why he did this, just: One day, Jesus entered a desert. Paradoxically, the desert may have looked good to him at the time. This story points to the fact that in our personal, humane development we can be in an absurd situation that we do not even recognize as absurd. Sometimes, an absurd situation often does not look absurd until we leave it. In our evolution as spiritual beings, we can go into the desert to either stagnate in denial or ultimately recognize the absurdity of our actions.

The Thief as Symbol, Satan’s Shortcuts to Salvation

Jesus goes through his ordeal of fasting in a desert, and this trickster capacity of himself (Satan) presents itself, so Jesus can address it, examine it and abandon it. Satan seems to represent an inner capacity we have to lie to ourselves or to employ the wrong means for the wrong reasons to get to something that is perceived to be good or higher. Satan, in fact, seems to represent the same thing as a thief and thieves abound in symbolic literature. Could it be that Satan wants to help Jesus steal salvation (à la the snake)? Satan thinks he sees shortcuts, which is tantamount to a type of thievery or cheating. So the desert is the infertile ground one foolishly enters on a false quest where one is forced to fast until a vision appears which will push the initiate into an epiphany.

Remember, Jesus was crucified among thieves in the story presented in the Gospels, Jean Valjean is falsely accused of being a thief, Magwitch, who attempts to help Pip in Great Expectations, is a thief. Paris stole Helen of Sparta. Ravenna stole Sita. Monostatos steals Princess Pamina. Thievery abounds in sacred literature for a reason. This story would seem to be implying that there is a different process that has to be used than the one we are often tempted to use. Satan represents this ‘urge’ to steal the new life possible for us instead of merely waiting and accepting it as a gift from God.

Once one begins to realize that there is the possibility of a new type of being, one is tempted to work toward it aggressively, to steal it. If a person begins to sense that we do not have to return hatred for hatred or insult for insult – that a different, more humane way of responding might be possible – the temptation is to actively work toward this new type of behavior. The story of Jesus might be teaching, through symbols, that what one really needs is a type of patience and self-denial for new behavior to emerge. One has to learn to say “no” to ways of living or acting that one never said “no” to before. We must fast and not fight for the new life. There is a different process that has to be used than the forceful one we are tempted to use.

Refraining One’s Way to Grace

The nature of the test will be whether a person can refrain from doing something he/she feels compelled to do but that simply will not work. This story seems to point to an inner process, not an abstract truth. You fully surrender to a type of deprivation and the deprivation (what the deprivation represents) finally gives up secrets to you which help you transition to another more serene and humane level.

In Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief, she points out that the first three Gospels simply do NOT say that Jesus WAS God. Only the much later Gospel of John makes this claim and Pagels believes that this Gospel was written solely to make that claim after some organization folks decided it would be a good idea to have Jesus as a God. Pagels seems to imply that the first three Gospels clearly present Jesus as a VERY HUMAN human being. The implication would then be that whatever the 40 day fast represents symbolically, whatever inner process occurred and was represented symbolically by the story, is a process that might be available to all human beings just as nirvana was theoretically available to others in Buddhism and not just one guy under a Bodhi tree.
Duquesne, Jacques, Jesus, An Unconventional Biography, Liguori, MO, Liguori Publications, 1997
Nicoll, Maurice, The New Man, Boulder, CO, Shambala, 1984
Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, New York, Random House, 2003

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