Temptation (in the Bible)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


In the Bible the word temptation primarily denotes a trial in which man has a free choice of being faithful or unfaithful to God; only secondarily does it signify allurement or seduction to sin. After treating of the terminology and definition of temptation in the Bible, this article discusses the idea of temptation, first in the Old Testament, then in the New Testament.

Terminology. The Hebrew noun massâ, ordinarily translated as temptation, is derived from the verb nāsâ, meaning to try, prove, put to the test. The Hebrew verb bāan, originally meaning to assay (metals), is also used figuratively of God testing men. However, Hebrew does have several verbs with the specific meaning of seducing, or alluring into evil, such as hitâ, hēsît (from sût ), and nidda (nipal of nd :). In classical Greek the verb πειράζω is used, first in the sense of "to attempt," and then in the meaning of "to try, to test," but not in the meaning of "to tempt" to evil; yet the latter connotation is common in the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament. The noun πειρασμός is an almost exclusively Biblical word, meaning not only trial or test, but also temptation (to evil).

Definition. Temptation in the Biblical sense is a situation in which one experiences a challenge to choose between fidelity and infidelity to one's obligations toward God. God "temptsu," i.e., tests men's fidelity to Himself; men by their fidelity or infidelity "tempt," i.e., test Him to reward or punish them. Temptation presumes that God's word has been given and connotes the covenant relationship. Adherence to the covenant is fidelity (esed ), which entitles the faithful partner to a reward. God is never unfaithful to His own word. Man, however, by being seduced or deceived, trusts creatures, thereby testing God's patience. The evils that befall God's people appear as manifestations of His anger merited by infidelity.

Since the covenant, as an initiative of God's favor, became mutually effective only after being ratified (Ex 24.78; Jos 24.18; see also Mk 14.24; Mt 26.28; Lk 22.20), subsequent generations saw themselves obligated (tested) to fidelity in union with their forebears.

In the Old Testament. The concept of temptation is evident in the first pages of Genesis and recurs continually, although the word itself does not always occur. The account of the fall of man in Gn 2.43.24 describes the relationship of God and men as a mutual temptation or testing: God tests Adam and Eve's fidelity; Eve is deceived (Gn 3.13), thereby testing God's fidelity to His own threat (Gn 2.1617), which He carries out (Gn3.1619). The propagation of the human race is described as coextensive with that of sin, which tempts or tests God's patience, resulting in the wiping out of humanity (except for noah and his family) by the flood (Gn6.58.19). The patriarchal narratives (Gn 11.2750.26) emphasize Abraham's justice, exemplified by belief in God's promise (Gn 15.6). The natural circumstance of advanced age rendered it unlikely that abraham and Sarah could beget children. Therefore God's promise of future posterity tested Abraham's faith. Abraham's belief, in return, obliged God to fulfill His promise, which He did. Abraham undergoes another temptation in being directed to sacrifice Isaac (Gn 22.2). His obedience merits a further promise (Gn 22.1518).

In Early Israel. The Mosaic traditions of the exodus from Egypt and the desert journey of the Israelites constantly repeat the same theme, i.e., God's generosity while testing Israel's trust in His power to save, and Israel's incessant murmuring; the chosen people test God's patience, always demanding present necessities, instead of trusting God's providence. The ten plagues convinced Pharaoh of the power of Moses' God. The Israelites, however, test God's power to stall the pursuing Egyptians (Ex 14.1012). The wondrous crossing of the Red Sea reduces them to silence, emphasizing their obligation to serve the God who has done this great sign (Ex 14.3031). Immediately again, however, their murmuring and distrust lead God to provide water (Ex 15.2425;17.17), manna, and quails (Ex 16.15; Nm 11.19;18.32). However, because Israel's murmurings test God's patience, catastrophes accompany these benefits. The incident of Ex 17.67 is so typical of the strained relations of God and His people during this period, that the names of the places at which these incidents occur (Massah, "temptation," and Meribah, "strife") become bywords in later writings [Dt 33.8; Ps 94 (95).8; 105 (106).32].

The Sinai covenant (Ex 19.124.18, esp. 24.38) becomes the foundation of Israel's later obligations to God; Joshua renews it at Sichem after the invasion, making the covenant the foundation of Israelite life in the newly acquired land (Jos 24.128). The Deuteronomic history (Jos, Jgs, 1 and 2 Sam, 1 and 2 Kgs) stresses the constant tension existing between the covenant faith and the specious seductions of temporal security (Jgs 2.617). After describing the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the author explains the reason (2 Kgs 17.618): God's generosity has met with only ingratitude and infidelity; failing the test of faith in their purely spiritual God, the people of Israel have placed faith in the material idols of the Canaanites and in the seductive promises of foreign alliances, tempting God's patience to the breaking point. Exile results. The Southern Kingdom's history is radically the same (2 Kgs 17.19; 21.9).

In the Prophets. The pre-exilic prophets constantly accuse their contemporaries of infidelity to the covenant; Israel's calamities are punishments from God. In symbolic language they describe the testing and the infidelity (Jer 2.2; Is 5.27; Ez 16). They specify the sins which tempt God: idolatry (Jer 2.5; Hos 2.1015; Am 2.4; Mi1.7); wronging of the poor and weak (Am 3.910; Mi2.12); reliance upon foreign alliances (Is 36.1418; Jer1.1419); and infidelity of the leaders (Jer 5.13;3031; Ez 13.10). The postexilic prophets also see infidelity as a testing of God's patience by both Israel (Hg 1.611; Mal ch. 2) and the gentiles (Ob 3; 1014; Jl 14.18).

In the Psalms. Besides echoing many ideas of the Pentateuchal and prophetic traditions, the Psalms contain much individual piety. The psalmist often calls upon God to test or prove him [Ps 16 (17).3; 25 (26).2; 138 (139).23]. The Hebrew verb in such passages is less frequently nāsâ, and more often bāan [Ps 7.10: 80 (81).8]. The test here is radically the same, i.e., trust in the saving power of God over that of creatures [Ps 117 (118).9; 145 (146).3].

The sapiential writings equate doing the works of the Law with the practice of wisdom (Prv 1022; Sir1.2324). The faithful must expect temptation (Sir 2.16; Wis 3.59); the seduced reject wisdom (Prv 10.17; 12.26;28.10), fail the test, and merit doom (Prv 1.2033). Job is the classic example of the man subjected to temptation. Here too God is ultimately the author of the temptation or trial; Satan works on Job only by God's permission (Jb 1.612; 2.17). Job, indignant at first (Jb 6.814), soon admits that it is man's lot to be tried by God (Jb 7.1821). Hearing God's proclamation of His own divine transcendence (Jb 3839; 4041), Job submits (Jb 42.16), disclaiming any right to test God's dominion over creatures.

In the New Testament. According to New Testament concepts it is principally God alone who submits men to the supreme test, calling them to have faith in the saving power of Jesus' death and Resurrection (Mk 16.16; Lk 10.1316). The Church is the society of those who respond, acceding to the test of faith. The Christian's life, however, is a constant struggle; he is beset by temptations to sin (Mt 18.6; Lk 17.1); furthermore, Satan constantly seeks to seduce him to reject Christ and continue in sin (Lk 22.3; Acts 5.3; 2 Cor 2.11).

In the Synoptic Gospels God unfolds His plan through Zachary, then through Joseph and Mary. All these are tested for their faith in God's power (Lk 1.20; 3539; Mt 1.19). The Scribes and Pharisees often "tempt," i.e., test, Jesus, seeking in His speech some infidelity to the Mosaic traditions (Mk 8.11; Lk 11.16). Jesus warns His followers against temptation, whereby they would follow creatures instead of God (Mt 6.13).

In the Pauline Epistles men are tempted by Satan to fail against Christian life (1 Cor 7.5; Gal 6.1). This tension is basic to spiritual growth (Rom 5.3; 2 Cor 6.410); temptations against Christian virtue come from within by the sinful desires of human nature (epitomized by σάρξ, the flesh) and from without, by persons who strive to choke the Christian spirit from those who profess it. Christians, therefore, suffer in hope, enduring trials (θλίψεις) in fellowship with the sufferings and death of Jesus (1 Thes 3.7; Phil 3.10). In this struggle God gives grace sufficient to overcome sin (1 Cor 10.13; Gal5.1317). At the Last Judgment the Father will reward with eternal beatitude those who have been proved (δόκιμοι, 2 Cor 11.18; 2 Tm 2.15).

This state of temptation or trial, as characteristic of Christian life, is part of the message of St. John's Revelation. It symbolically portrays the state of the entire Church as subject to the insidious enmity of Satan (Rv 12.15; 20.710), who eventually will be vanquished. God will perform judgment (Rv 20.1115), damning the unfaithful and bringing to His presence (Rv 22.35) those who by faith have withstood the temptation (3.10; see also 1 Jn 2.1819; 2 Jn 8). The doctrine of the Catholic Epistles is similar (Jas 1.24, 1318; 1 Pt 1.67; 4.16;12).

Conclusion. Man constantly seeks salvation from earthly misery. Given God's supernatural revelation of Himself, first in the Old Covenant, later in Jesus, man must choose between creatures and God, placing hope in one or the other. Jesus as the suffering and resurrected Savior presents the supreme test; absolute faith in Him, exemplified by patient acceptance of trials and tribulations, overcomes temptation to sin, and makes the Christian live in confident hope of eternal union with God after bodily death.

See Also: temptations of jesus.

Bibliography: a. sommer, Der Begriff der Versuchung im A.T. und Judentum (Breslau 1935). j. h. korn, IIειρασμός: Die Versuchung des Gläubigen in der griechischen Bibel in Beiträge zu Wissenschaft vom Alen (und Neuen) Testament (LeipzigStuttgart 190838) 4.20, 1937. a. humbert, "Essai d'une théologie du scandale dans les Synoptiques," Biblica 35 (1954) 128. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 240115.

[t. e. crane]

More From Encyclopedia.com