Èṣù in Yoruba Metaphysics: A Brief Note
Traditionally, Yoruba conceives of the world as an interconnected three-tiered cosmos: Ọ̀run (meaning, heaven), Aiyé (meaning, the earth) Ilẹ̀ (meaning, underground; netherworld). Ọlọ́run (literally, “heaven’s owner”) inhabits Orun with the over four hundred gods in the Yoruba pantheon, many of whom walked the earth as humans with supernatural abilities. Ọlọ́run, also known as Ẹlẹ́dàá (literally, “the creator”), is the supreme being. Aiyé is the world of humans, and Ilẹ̀ is the world of departed souls, especially of ancestors. The dividing wall between Ọ̀run and Ilẹ̀, especially regarding deified souls, is quite ethereal.
Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, African metaphysics is best thought of as cyclical. Many members of Yoruba pantheon resided on the earth as humans and departed through Ilẹ̀ to make their abode in Ọ̀run along with Ẹlẹ́dàá, also known as Olódùmarè. However, this observation does not mean that every human becomes a god—though every human has a worship-worthy god as her metaphysical head. This merely shows that the human world is in close contact with those of the ancestors and gods—and these are worlds of causally active, supernaturally living beings. There is nothing barring visits from the other worlds to the humans’ world either. It is worth briefly noting that the unborn humans also reside in Ọ̀run—presumably, not in the active sense as the gods and ancestors; every human being comes from Ọ̀run . This element partly explains the quotidian belief that ancestors may be reborn into families. Temitope Adefarakan observes that the cycle “reflects how the individual exists within the context of the larger community and how the living self is intertwined with the world of the ancestors and the unborn” (35). A traditional Yoruba community includes members of the spiritual worlds.
The different members of the Yoruba pantheon serve various functions. The god who serves at the nexus of the supernatural worlds (Ọ̀run and Ilẹ̀) and the physical world of humans (Aiyé) is Èṣù. The roots of the word “Èṣù” are today uncertain, but the common praise-name, Ẹlẹ́gbara, often shortened as Ẹlẹ́gba, literally means “one who does 200 (read as ‘many’) wonders.” Funso Aiyejina writes of Èṣù being “a neutral force” who “straddles all realms and acts as an essential factor in any attempt to resolve conflicts between contrasting but coterminous forces in the world” (4). Indeed, there are several stories told about Èṣù resolving conflicts and preventing wars. A key component of living in Yoruba conception is offering sacrifices to the gods. Since the message of a sacrifice must cross realms, it must pass through the office of Èṣù, the “god of the crossroad and messenger of the deities” (Olajubu cited in Adefarakan, 37). Indeed, a separate sacrifice is typically made to Èṣù, appealing to him to allow the original message to reach its target god unhindered. Adefarakan elaborates, “Esu has the vital charge of traveling, translating and judging; that is, whether the offered sacrifice is appropriate for the designated spiritual cognates” (37). Funso Aiyejina further adds that but for Èṣù’s intervention, “no sacrifice, no matter how sumptuous, will be efficacious” (4).
It is worth noting how this role of Èṣù would disproportionately elevate his status in the pantheon. A cursory look at the world would suggest that there are more unsolved human problems than solved ones. Since people offered sacrifices to improve their conditions, Èṣù was to be blamed or, more practically, propitiated for much of the unsolved problems in the world. Notice that, on this conception of things, the gods whose aid was sought typically did not have a say in the matter. Whatever Èṣù disqualified did not get to the intended deity. In this narrow sense, Èṣù is a more active player than the gods and the Supreme Being. Something of this nature may have informed a belief among some Yoruba people that Èṣù is co-eternal with Olódùmarè. Nevertheless, Aiyejina writes that Èṣù “supports only those who perform prescribed sacrifices and act in conformity with moral laws of the universe as laid down by Olodumare” (4).
Èṣù also serves a critical, if indirect, role in divination. Whereas Ọ̀rúnmìlà is the god of divination and wisdom, Èṣù “is the guardian of Orunmila’s oracular utterances” (Aiyejina, 4). Aiyejina points out, “Without Esu to open the portals to the past and the future, Orunmila, the divination deity, would be blind” (4). It is no surprise that Ifa priests invoke Èṣù every time someone consults them. The god of divination depends on Ẹlẹ́gbara.
Besides his roles in trans-realms communication, handling human requests, and divination, Èṣù is also a trickster or mischief-maker. Aiyejina describes Èṣù “as a divine trickster, a disguise-artist, a mischief-maker, a rebel, a challenger of orthodoxy, a shape-shifter, and an enforcer deity” (4). Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and Jeremy Weate (as cited in Adefarakan, 38-39) further explain that Èṣù:
challenges us to reflect constantly on our lives and not get too blinded by habit. He is cocky and masterful, but against cockiness and mastery. At first sign of complacency, Esu keeps us in check by introducing chaos and confusion. . . He is sometimes referred to as the “devil.” This is not because he is spiteful or the devil, as the Christian mistranslation of his characteristics would have us believe. Rather, he wants us to always be alert, vigilant, and to make active choices by questioning our sense of certainty and unexamined faith in the world.
Èṣù is that active in the world. The òrìṣà “tempts people in complex situations by offering a number of choices to see how they will handle such a situation” (Adefarakan, 38). Essentially, he is at work whenever a person faces (ethical) dilemmas. “Philosophically speaking,” as Funso Aiyejina reminds us, “Esu is the deity of choice and free will” (4). He provides multiple opportunities for humans to develop their character in this trickster role.
Undoubtedly, most Yoruba people today only associate Èṣù with his trickster role, but the Orisa is much more than that. We should also note that even in his trickster role, Èṣù is not pure evil. He does not undermine human free will. He is a central Òrìṣà who connects the different realms. This critical role confers coherence to the Yoruba’s cyclical metaphysical conception of the world. It is no exaggeration to say that Yoruba metaphysics falls apart without Èṣù.
The Judeo-Christian Satan: There is no Satan in the Old Testament
We can easily trace how some ideas develop through the Bible. Consider the concept of sacred space—God’s house, if you will. We can easily trace the development: God existed outside space-time, then set up an office in Eden, then lived in a tent before upgrading to a magnificent temple. The idea stagnated for some centuries until Jesus showed up and taught that sanctified human bodies would be God’s new address. Similarly, several other ideas developed over time. One of such other ideas concerns the identity of Satan.
It may scandalize my reader to learn that the character Satan, God’s cosmic archenemy, does not even appear anywhere in the Old Testament. This does not mean that the Old Testament does not have seeds of ideas of a divine archenemy. Some English translations continue to have “Satan” in some verses, leading uninformed readers to conclude that God’s cosmic enemy is the referent. Thankfully, many modern translations now have footnotes explaining the term.
The key issue here concerns Hebrew grammar rules. The Hebrew word satan is not a proper noun; it is not a person’s name. It is a noun deriving from a related verb that means “to be at enmity with” or “be hostile toward.” The word satan means “accuser” or “adversary”—human or divine. In the Hebrew Bible, satan occurs 27 times as a noun. Below are some examples:
“Then the LORD raised up against Solomon an adversary [satan], Hadad the Edomite, from the royal line of Edom.”—1 Kings 11:14
“But the princes of the Philistines were angry with him; so the princes of the Philistines said to him, ‘Make this fellow return, that he may go back to the place which you have appointed for him, and do not let him go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become our adversary [satan]. For with what could he reconcile himself to his master, if not with the heads of these men?'”—1 Samuel 29:4
“And the Angel of the LORD said to him, ‘Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out [as satan] to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me.'”—Numbers 22:32
Notice how the term refers to both human and divine beings.
Sometimes, satan presents with a definite article (which in Hebrew is a letter prefixed to the word). Just as is true in English, Hebrew grammar forbids prefixing the definite article to a person’s name. Hence, we do not say, “The Sade,” “The Paul,” or “The Buhari.” We just name the persons “Sade,” “Paul,” and “Buhari.” Seventeen times in the Old Testament, satan presents with a definite article. Such passages include all the references in Job. These verses do not name a particular person. The accuser in Job is simply doing a God-approved job much like the lying spirits who enticed Ahab to his death in 1 Kings 22:19-23.
That leaves us with ten occasions when satan does not have a definite article with it. Almost all the ten anarthrous occurrences are straightforward. Michael Heiser writes, “Of these ten, seven refer to human beings and two refer to the Angel of Yahweh for sure. The lone outlier is 1 Chron 21:1.” The three passages cited above fall into this category of anarthrous occurrences. Hence, there is only one occurrence of satan in the Hebrew Bible without a definite article that may potentially refer to God’s archenemy. But does the passage refer to the Devil?
There have been many scholarly commentaries on the subject, and here is not the space to exhaust the issue. Nevertheless, I shall briefly address it. First, let us read the text of 1 Chronicles 21:1-2,
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.”
This text is a reworked version of an older text in 2 Samuel 24:1-2,
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”
These passages say the same thing except for the Chronicler’s description of who incited David. How are we to deal with this observation? Well, the obvious first choice is to allege that there is a contradiction here. If “Satan” here refers to the Devil, then we have two different instigators in the passages. This conclusion, however, is quite unlikely. The Chronicler is doubtful to have accurately reproduced the other details in the account but missed the identity of the instigator. It is even more unlikely that a Jewish Chronicler would mistake the identity of Yahweh for Yahweh’s archenemy. Another common idea is to say that the Chronicler wanted to dissociate Yahweh from such an evil act by reinterpreting the 2 Samuel passage. While this idea is more plausible than the first, it has its own problems. The Chronicler does not show a similar concern to dissociate Yahweh from evil in his account of king Ahab’s death in 1 Kings 22. In any case, there is a better alternative, one that posits that the labels “Satan” and “the LORD” pick out the same referent. That is, Yahweh is the satan of 1 Chronicles 21.
There is only one other place in the Old Testament where satan occurs without a definite article and refers to a divine being. That verse is in Numbers 22, the famous story of Balaam, Balak, and the talking donkey. Verses 21 and 22 say the following,
So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. Then god’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the LORD took His stand in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.
The translators here opted for “as an adversary.” But the term is the same as that found in 1 Chronicles 21:1. If we translate consistently, verse 22 above will read, “the Angel of the LORD took His stand in the way as Satan against him.” In other words, the Angel of Yahweh is a satan against Balaam. Taking this insight into the 1 Chronicles passage, we may conclude that the “Satan” there is Yahweh. Michael Heiser summarises:
This connection between the word satan and the Angel of Yahweh is crucial to understanding the discrepancy between 1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1. In both accounts the Angel is present as the one who dispenses god’s judgment upon David (1 Chron 21:14-15; 2 Sam 24:15-16). Since God and the Angel of the Lord were frequently identified with each other in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 3; Judges 6), the best solution seems to be that we don’t have Satan, God’s cosmic enemy, in the Chronicles passage. Rather, we have two writers both referring to god—one using “Yahweh” and the other referring to Yahweh in human form, the Angel (cp. Joshua 5:13-15) in another adversarial role.
As we have argued elsewhere, the Angel of Yahweh is a second Yahweh person that the Old Testament abundantly recognizes.
So, we see that the idea of a fully developed archenemy of God does not exist in the Old Testament. But the seeds of the concept exist. Several Jewish writers would later develop the idea starting from Genesis 6:5. The enemy figure was developed under different names and attributes, such as Asael (or Mastema), Angel of Darkness, and Belial—and it is not certain that these terms for an archenemy pick out the same person. By Jesus’ time, however, the idea of “the Devil” or “Satan” was essentially fully formed. The New Testament characterizes the Devil in different ways. The Devil is to be resisted (James 4:7); he has been sinning from the beginning (1 John 3:8); he prowls around like a lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8); he tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4); he prompted Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:2); he holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14); he was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44); he leads some Christians astray (1 Timothy 5:15); he masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14); and he tries to outwit Christians ( 2 Corinthians 2:11). It is also highly likely that some first-century Jews anachronistically read the Devil into older Jewish texts. For instance, Revelation 20:2, speaks of the “ancient serpent,” probably referring to the serpent in Eden. However, Genesis 3:1 introduces the serpent as merely “more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made.” There is no notion of the serpent being the devil. It was just a wild animal that God made earlier during the creation week.
So, how much of these things did Bishop Ajayi Crowther know while translating the Bible? He certainly would have known whatever was then available in the scholarships of Èṣù and Satan. Crowther also had his religious experiences in the native Yoruba religion. There is no telling what exactly he knew or believed about Satan. It is, however, very plausible that the literature on Satan in the Western world that Crowther was educated in might have been colored by the enormously influential Dante’s Divine Comedy and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In any case, it is improbable that Crowther would have confused the identities of Èṣù and Satan, as it shall be argued.
Adefarakan, Temitope. “‘At a Crossroads’: Spirituality and The Politics of Exile: The Case of the Yoruba Orisa.” Obsidian, vol. 9, no. 1, 2008, pp. 31–58. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44489275. Accessed 14 Jun. 2022.
Aiyejina, Funso. “Esu Elegbara: A Source of an Alter/Native Theory of African Literature and Criticism.” St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago: The University of the West Indies, 2009. Internet resource.
Heiser, Michael. “The Absence of Satan in the Old Testament.” Drmsh.com, Feb 1, 2010, The Absence of Satan in the Old Testament – Dr. Michael Heiser (drmsh.com).
Heiser, Michael. “The Absence of Satan in the Old Testament.” Drmsh.com, Nov 15, 2013, Yahweh and Satan in Samuel and Chronicles – Dr. Michael Heiser (drmsh.com).