My Favorite Story from the Qur’an

While we’re on the subject of Satan, and the fall, I’d like to deal a bit with one of my favorite stories from the Qur’an al-Kareem, one of the Qur’an’s several versions of the fall of Man and the disobedience of Satan. This is from Surah al-Araf, The Heights, the seventh surah of the Qur’an.

The translation by Mohsin and Khan — my personal favorite, given how literal its non-parenthetical translation is — reads as follows:

11 And surely, We created you (your father Adam) and then gave you shape (the noble shape of a human being); then We told the angels, “Prostrate yourselves to Adam”, and they prostrated themselves, except Iblis (Satan), he refused to be of those who prostrated themselves.
12 (Allah) said: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate yourself, when I commanded you?” Iblis said: “I am better than him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.”
13 (Allah) said: “(O Iblis) get down from this (Paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you are of those humiliated and disgraced.”
14 (Iblis) said: “Allow me respite till the Day they are raised up (i.e. the Day of Resurrection).”
15 (Allah) said: “You are of those respited.”
16 (Iblis) said: “Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path.
17 “Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left, and You will not find most of them as thankful ones (i.e. they will not be dutiful to You).”
18 (Allah) said (to Iblis): “Get out from this (Paradise), disgraced and expelled. Whoever of them (mankind) will follow you, then surely I will fill Hell with you all.”

What follows is the story of Adam and Huwwa’s temptation and fall. But this little exchange fascinates me, and tells me all I need to know about who and what Satan is. (Because it does not contradict a Bible story, or anything specific in scripture, I accept its moral legitimacy.)

Iblis (an Arabic version of diabolos, διάβολος, the term used in Matthew 4), is present with all the angels in heaven or paradise the moment God makes man from clay (طين). Sometime before, God made the angels and Iblis, and while it’s not said here what God made them from, Iblis claims to be made from fire (نار) — a fact he haughtily and arrogantly cites when he refuses the command of God that all the other created things bow before the Man.

Consider, for a moment, this scene. In Surah al-Baqara, another version of this is related. God has commanded the angels to bow before the man, the Angels question God. “Do you mean to fill the earth with these things that will cause mischief while we worship and adore you?” God dismisses the objection, teaches the man the names of all things, then asks the angels, who do not know. But here, there is no angelic objection, just a demand — all the beings God has created up to this point are commanded to bow, to grovel before the thing made of clay. And they do.

All but Iblis. Angel of jinn, it doesn’t matter (there is evidence in the Qur’an for both.)

“I am better than he!” (انا خير منه) Because Satan was made of fire, and fire is apparently better than clay.

At this point, God condemns Iblis. Leave paradise! You are finished!

And Iblis, for his part, doesn’t argue about this. “Hold off on that until the last day!” he demands. And God, in God’s mercy, agrees.

Further, Iblis then promises to lead astray any of the mud creatures as he possibly can, in order to teach God a lesson. This new creature, so dear to God (and who just seems to be standing there while all this happens), will prove to not love God anywhere near as much. And to not be anymore loyal to God than Iblis.

Fine, says God. I will fill Hell with all of you.

What intrigues me most is that Satan, from the moment of his rebellion against God, knows that he is doomed and defeated. He doesn’t argue with God — he merely asks for a postponement to his sentence, in order to work more mischief. But Iblis/Satan knows he is done. Knows he has been defeated and condemned.

So from this, it is pointless to follow Satan. Because then you are following one who has already lost and knows it. There can be no victory in following Satan, in falling for his temptations, because we are falling for one who has already lost, and in his desire to wreck some kind of vengeance upon God, promises to drag as many of these mud creatures with him as he can. (What follows next is the fall, but the qur’anic version always ends with Adam and Huwwa learning and speaking words of repentance to God, so this is not an Augustinian “original sin” moment so much as it is an attempt to deal with the human condition and create a foundation for humanity’s moral relationship with God for Muslims. To be fair, this is what Augustine does too.)

Satan has already lost, the story says. So only a fool follows Satan.

I take something similar from something Jesus says in John 16:

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (ESV)

All of these things are important to me because I get a little tired of people saying we must struggle to overcome evil. The overcoming of evil has already been done, and too often the evil in question is usually outside ourselves. It resides in some other. Or it is in a pietistic denial of self, a demand for denial which leaves no room for the kind of “love of self” that a true love of neighbor requires. The Devil has already lost. He was defeated on the day he came into being. We need not fear him. The love of God, in the Son of God, has already overcome the world.

The Devil is a Liar. But You Knew That Already…

My sermon for this Sunday, which I preached at First Lutheran in Harvey, Illinois. I ad-libbed a fair amount into this, but this text is the core of what I preached. The readings for the first Sunday in Lent from the Revised Common Lectionary are Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11.

* * *

Good morning, sisters and brothers. Let’s talk about Satan.

Jesus calls him a liar. In fact, Jesus calls him the “Father of Lies” in John 8. So, we know all we need to know about Satan. That he is a liar.

But there are all kinds of different ways to lie. So, I think it’s fair to ask — what kind of liar is he? What kind of lies does Satan tell?

So let’s take a look at the reading in Genesis this morning. God has made this garden, this amazing place, and created this man out of mud, breathing life into him. And put him to work, to tend the garden. That’s what the man was made for, to work and keep the garden.

And the man has free run of the place, and can eat anything he wants in this amazing place. Except for one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, many clever people have asked: “Why would God do this? Why create the temptation?” And many clever people have tried to answer this, too. I want you to set that aside — the question is pointless and the answer is even more so. This story, and the Gospel, are about the human condition. And about God’s response to the human condition. Not about some imaginary, perfect world.

Okay, so God has told the man this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is off limits. And there will be a price for eating of the tree — “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In the Hebrew, it literally says — you shall die the death. It’s emphatic. It’s final. Death will be a consequence of eating.

How do we hear that? I’ll tell you what I see in my mind — I reach for the fruit, I grab it, I hold it my hand, maybe I smell it, and then I take a bite. And BAM! I keel over, dead. That’s how I hear “on that day you will surely die, you will die the death.”

Most likely, the man — who’s just been made, and doesn’t know very much — probably just nodded his head. You know, like a small child hearing stern words but not quite sure what they mean. I will die the death. Whatever die is. Whatever death is.

So we fast forward a bit, and suddenly a serpent — who we identify as the Devil, as Satan, as the adversary — shows up. God made a mess of animals to keep the man company, and finally he made a woman. And the serpents asks her, “So did God really tell you not to eat of that tree?”

“Yes,” she says. “We shall surely die if we do.”

This is where the Devil gets clever. “No, you won’t die. You’ll just be like God, knowing good and evil!” That’s what he says.

Now, brothers and sisters, let me ask you — did the Devil lie?

If by “on the day that you eat you shall surly die” means grab, smell, taste, die, then no, the Devil did not lie. In fact, if anything, God is a liar. Because the Devil goes on to tell the woman a very profound truth — you shall know good and evil, and in that, be like God.”

Is he right about that? The man and the woman suddenly realize they are naked, and do something about it.

But as to the consequences of eating, well, no one dies that day. In fact, the man and his wife are cast out of this garden — the man loses the very purpose for which he is created. The serpent is cursed, the woman is cursed, even the earth is cursed so that the very work man was created to do will become an unpleasant burden. None of those things God threatened or promised.

But no one dies that day.

Adam does die, after a very long life. And death becomes part of our existence. So, God did not lie. From that day on, we live, knowing we will die.

But we didn’t die that day. The Devil didn’t tell the truth, but he didn’t quite lie either. The Devil mixes lies with truth, and he speaks more to our weaknesses and expectations. Even our hopes and dreams.

Mostly, though, the Devil wants to make God out to be liar.

And this takes us to our Gospel reading today. Jesus is out in the wilderness, driven there after his baptism in the River Jordan by the Spirit of God for the very purpose of being tempted by the Devil. He’s hungry, he’s alone, and then the Devil comes to him.

“Hungry? Well, if you are Son of God, turn those stones to bread and eat your fill!”

And it must have been tempting for Jesus to do just that! Because he is the Son of God — this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel anyone calls Jesus by that name, and it is the Devil who does it — and can do exactly what the Devil says he can do.

Use your power to solve your problems, the Devil says to Jesus.

And however Jesus answers — angrily, confidently, just barely able to restrain himself from succumbing to temptation — he tells the Devil, “no, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

So, not content with this, the Devil takes Jesus up to the top of temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off! You are so important to God that angels will come to rescue you.” And the Devil’s not content at this point to let Jesus do all the scripture quoting — the Devil can quote the Psalms too!

And I suspect Jesus looked down and thought to himself, “why not?” Who wouldn’t want to fly like that? Who wouldn’t want to tempt God? I’m going to fall – catch me!!

But Jesus restrains himself. Quoting the Torah, he says, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So, the Devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world. “All of these are yours, if you just bow down and worship me.” Now, let’s assume for a moment the kingdoms of the world are the Devil’s to give — I think they are. I don’t think the Devil is lying when he makes this offer to Jesus. He hasn’t lied to Jesus yet, not really. Not about stones and bread, not about his value to God, and not about the kingdoms of the world.

And I imagine Jesus is also tempted by this. Just think — how much suffering, how much injustice, how much evil and violence could be done away with if the Son of God ruled the world? Jesus could do it differently. Jesus knows he could do it right. Not like Caesar or any of the world’s other rulers.

But the price — worshiping Satan — is too high. And Jesus knows his Torah. “Scram, Satan! You shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve!”

And with that, the Devil absconds. Whether he’s angry or not, I do not know. Did he really believe he could tempt the Son of God? I suppose that’s possible.

But the reality is he did not. The church has taught that Jesus was obedient to the will of God when Adam and his wife were not. Perfect obedience. Sure, I’ll accept that. In resisting the temptations of Satan, Jesus becomes the obedience that Adam was unable to be. As Paul writes to the church at Rome, the sin that brought death into the world is undone here.

Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s all. Because something else happens here, in each of these temptations.

What does it mean to be fed? To tempt God? To rule the world? What are our expectations? A world full of bread, so no one goes hungry. A world in which everything is a Disneyland ride, and there are no real risks because everyone’s plucked from doom just before they hit the ground. In which the world is ruled by only good and decent people, power wielded justly and fairly.

Something else happens here. Something I cannot really name. I’m not even entirely sure how to describe it. Jesus doesn’t really resist the Devil’s temptations. I mean he does, but he doesn’t.

Jesus is the Word of God. But he becomes bread — our bread — when, in that rented room at the last supper, he breaks the bread and proclaims, “this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” He becomes the bread that feeds the world.

And what else is his long journey to Jerusalem but the tempting of God? Yes, he constantly tells his disciples that he will die, and rise three days later, and they don’t believe it until after it happens. But maybe Jesus doesn’t either, not really. What else is his agonizing prayer in Gathsemane but a plaintive and pitiful demand that this end some other way, because Jesus doesn’t want to suffer, doesn’t want to die. Because it just might not end the way God promised.

And when the the chief priests, the scribes and the elders tell the crucified and dying Christ at Golgotha, “he saved others, he cannot save himself, let him come down off that cross and we will believe in him,” perhaps Jesus even wished, and hoped, prayed, for those angels to come down and save him. Right. Now.

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? For just a moment, maybe even Jesus doubted the promise of God. Because those are words of despair, very real, complete and utter despair, of someone who had hoped and prayed and possibly even demanded this would have ended very differently. Words of someone who is about to hit the ground with no one to save him.

As for the kingdoms of the world, Jesus rules those. Each and every one of them. Not as Caesar, not as king, not a president, not as prime minister. He has no army, no police, no treasury, no constitution, has has no policy and np program. We want to give him a flag and a banner, and march triumphantly under them as they flutter and wave, but he doesn’t have those either. He rules by surrendering, he ruled by calling, he rules through love. His rule is not what we — or maybe even Jesus himself at times — expect rule to be like.

In each of these temptations, he says no to the Devil’s way of doing things — a way that makes sense to me. Feed the world? Wouldn’t we turn stones to bread if we could? Tempt God carelessly if we could? Rule the world — because we’d do it right!

Everyone of these things Jesus shows there’s a different way, his way, God’s way, to do things. And he does them. Because we cannot. I can’t be bread. I can’t tempt God knowing that my death on the cross will save the world, will right the wrong of Adam’s disobedience. And I cannot rule in humility and love. None of us can.

Jesus does these things for us. He invites us to participate in his reign, in his kingdom, his rule. In our baptism into his death and resurrection, we become part of this new way of obeying God, of being God’s people. We, each and every one of us, shares in his hunger, his resisting of temptation, his body that is bread, his death that saves the world, his rule that is humility, poverty, powerlessness and love. And this is what makes it possible for us to follow when he calls, to live as his lived, to love as he loves, to die as he died knowing that death is not the final answer. That we will rise as he rose. Because he rose, we will rise.

That life eternal — the promise of God — is real. And true. It is not a lie. Regardless of what the Devil may tell us.