In Matthew 4:1-11 (// Lk 4:1-13), the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. The Messiah responds to the devil’s temptations with three references to Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 6:13, 16; 8:3; Matt 4:4, 7, 10), but Satan chooses to cite from Psalm 91: “He will command his angels concerning you and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Ps 91:11-12). That Satan, the ruler of demons, refers to this particular text is ironic, since Psalm 91 was almost universally understood in the ancient Jewish world as a prayer against demonic forces!
In the original Hebrew, Psalm 91 reminds the reader not to fear violent enemies or agricultural disasters: “You shall not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence (דֶבֶר; dever) that stalks in the darkness, or of the destruction (יָשׁוּד; yashud) that wastes at noon” (Ps 91:5-6). Hundreds of years after this Hebrew psalm was first penned—but also hundreds of years before Jesus—the Jews who translated these verses into Greek saw a reference to the demonic: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the thing (πράγματος; pragmatos) that walks in darkness… and the demon (δαιμονίον; daimonion) at noon.” (Ps 90:5-6 LXX). Lest we think that the translator of the Septuagint was playing fast and loose with the Hebrew here, the Greek actually reflects a valid way of reading the original language: depending on which vowel points are appended to the Hebrew letters (these vowel points, or “nikkud,” were not included in the ancient Hebrew text that the Greek translators used), the words could read “pestilence” (דֶבֶר; dever) and “destruction” (שׁוּד; shud) or “thing” (דָבָר; davar) and “demon” (שֵׁד; shed) – the Greek translator decided on the latter meanings, “thing” and “demon.”
Then, hundreds of years after the Septuagint, the Aramaic translators of the Hebrew Bible (around the 4th century CE/AD) followed Greek-speaking Jews and found references to demons all over Psalm 91: “You will not be afraid of the terror of the demon (מזיק; maziq) that goes about in the night… nor of the company of demons (שׁידין; shedin) that destroy at noon…. No evil shall befall you, and no plague or demons (מזיקיא; maziqaya) shall come near your tent, for he will command his angels concerning you.” (Psalms Targum 91:5-6, 10-11). Thus, the devil’s decision to cite Psalm 91 during Jesus’ temptation is the worst possible choice to make, since first-century Jews would have known that Psalm 91 was a prayer that guarded against demons; of all the scriptural possibilities, Satan chooses a passage that was meant to drive him away! This comedy of satanic errors would have elicited a hearty laugh from Matthew’s original readers, and it shows that, according to evangelist, the devil is a bit of a dunce!
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