That Old Serpent

By Loyal to the Word


Latter-day Saints stand uniquely apart from other Christian sects when it comes to their understanding of the identity and origin of God, angels, and heavenly hosts. They also have a unique perspective regarding the identity and origin of Satan and his minions. According to Latter-day Saint theology, Lucifer was a spirit son of God, the same as Christ and you and I. Because he led a rebellion against God, he “became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God” (2 Ne. 2:17). Lucifer became known as Satan and fell from heaven to the earth, where we live, to tempt men. Yet the scriptural accounts specifically mention that it was a serpent who beguiled Eve (Gen. 3:1-6,13-15; Moses 4:3-10,19-21). The scriptures confirm that this serpent was in fact Satan, who “sought the misery of all mankind. Wherefore, he said unto Eve, yea, even that old serpent, who is the devil…Partake of the forbidden fruit” (2 Ne. 2:18, emphasis added). Yet the question remains:


Did Satan Appear Unto Eve As A Snake, Or In The Form of A Man?


            This is a question which is unique to Latter-day Saints, and that is because of the temple endowment. While it is not appropriate to discuss the endowment in detail here, suffice it to say that throughout the instruction that accompanies the rituals, it is necessary to have an actor represent Satan as the adversary. This is especially true when the endowment was first administered in this dispensation through Joseph Smith. There were no movie special effects in those days, yet roles of characters needed to be assumed, and someone needed to play the part of Satan. And so the endowment as we have it incorporates a human representative for Satan.

            But does the mere fact that Satan is represented in the temple as a person mean that the passages referring to a “serpent” are entirely figurative? Let us examine the Garden of Eden story passages that refer to the serpent:


And I, Lehi, according to the things which I have read, must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God. And because he had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind. Wherefore, he said unto Eve, yea, even that old serpent, who is the devil, who is the father of all lies, wherefore he said: Partake of the forbidden fruit, and ye shall not die, but ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil. And after Adam and Eve had partaken of the forbidden fruit they were driven out of the garden of Eden, to till the earth. (2 Nephi 2:17-19.)


            In the Book of Mormon account the identity of the serpent is made perfectly clear. But sufficient information does not exist in this passage to determine whether Satan actually came in the form of a snake or if the mention of a serpent is only symbolic of his subtlety. Let us now examine another account:


Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down; And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice. And now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which I, the Lord God, had made. And Satan put it into the heart of the serpent, (for he had drawn away many after him,) and he sought also to beguile Eve, for he knew not the mind of God, wherefore he sought to destroy the world. And he said unto the woman: Yea, hath God said—Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? (And he spake by the mouth of the serpent.) And the woman said unto the serpent: We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; But of the fruit of the tree which thou beholdest in the midst of the garden, God hath said—Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman: Ye shall not surely die; (Moses 4:3-10)


And I, the Lord God, said unto the woman: What is this thing which thou hast done? And the woman said: The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. And I, the Lord God, said unto the serpent: Because thou hast done this thou shalt be cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life; And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; and he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Moses 4:19-21)


            The account in Moses, which is the inspired revision of the account in Genesis, gives a very interesting detail: “Satan put it into the heart of the serpent, (for he had drawn away many after him,) and he sought also to beguile Eve… (And he spake by the mouth of the serpent)” (Moses 4:6-7). This suggests that Satan had some sort of influence upon an actual snake in the Garden of Eden. And that through this actual, literal snake Satan spoke to Eve.

            The fact that Satan possessed the body of a snake to beguile our first parents is what gave him forever after the title, “that old serpent.” Bruce R. McConkie taught this when he wrote, “Since the day in which Satan spoke by the mouth of the serpent to entice Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit (Moses 4:5-21), Satan has been called ‘that old serpent.’ (Rev. 12:9; 20:2; D. & C. 76:28; 88:110.) Choice of the name is excellent, indicating as it does a cunning, sly, subtle, and deceitful craftiness.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., p. 704.) No doubt the stealth and slyness of the serpent suited Satan’s demeanor, and so he chose to take its form as he attempted to bring ruination to Adam and Eve.

            To say that Satan did not actually take the form of a snake destroys much of the meaning of many phrases in the Garden of Eden story. Certainly the rebuke God gave the serpent (Satan) was intended for the devil and not just snakes. But it was given in the context of a serpent, comparing Satan to the reptile in whose body he entered. For instance, “thou shalt be cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Moses 4:20) and “he [the seed of Eve] shall bruise thy [the serpent’s] head, and thou [the serpent] shalt bruise his [mankind’s] heel” (Moses 4:21). This means, no doubt, that Satan and his minions will have power to afflict man in diverse ways, but unto mankind will be given a Savior to overcome Satan.

            Also, the woman confessed to God that, “the serpent beguiled me” (Moses 4:19). This utterance would have made no sense if a snake had nothing to do with her conversation with Satan. Therefore, from this reasoning and the plain statements in Moses chapter 4, we can be sure that Satan used the medium of a literal snake to converse with Eve.


Demonic Possession of Animals


            What happened in the Garden of Eden was that Satan entered into the body of the serpent and spoke to Eve through the serpent. When an evil spirit takes possession of a body it is commonly called demonic possession. That it in reality happens on occasion need not be reinforced here. But the question is, can it happen to animals? The answer, according to scripture, is yes. In the Gospels is given the peculiar account of the devils calling themselves “Legion,” who possessed the body of some poor man. When Jesus cast them out, an interesting thing happened:


And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them. Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked. (Luke 8:32-33)


Animals and the Power of Speech


Was Eve surprised when a serpent began talking to her? Perhaps not. At this time in the earth’s existence, it was in a paradisiacal state and animals and men lived in harmony together, as they will again in the Millennium (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:17-25, D&C 101:26). In such a paradise, it is conceivable that animals will have the power to communicate. This idea is strengthened in the fact that the Lord opened the mouth of a beast of burden so that it spoke to its master:


And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? (Numbers 22:21-30.)


            There are theological liberals who, upon reading this incredible story, would outright reject it because animals do not talk in their present state. But this story is no doubt true. Brigham Young concurred with this when he said,


I have heard ministers of the gospel declare that they believed every word in the Bible was the word of God. I have said to them “you believe more than I do.” I believe the words of God are there; I believe the words of the devil are there; I believe that the words of men and the words of angels are there; and that is not all,—I believe that the words of a dumb brute are there. I recollect one of the prophets riding, and prophesying against Israel, and the animal he rode rebuked his madness.
(Journal of Discourses, 14: 280.)


Did Snakes…Have Legs?


            There is an interesting phrase in the passage of scripture where God is rebuking the serpent. He says, “Because thou hast done this thou shalt be cursed…upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Moses 4:20) suggesting, possibly, that snakes did not previously have to go upon their bellies. Of course, this is a bizarre thought, but an interesting historical account contributes thoughtful information to this. When Josiah Quincy, the Mayor of Boston who was a contemporary of Joseph Smith, was visiting Nauvoo, Joseph showed him his collection of Egyptian papyrus. Quincy related,


The parchment…showed a rude drawing of a man and woman, and a serpent walking upon a pair of legs. I ventured to doubt the propriety of providing the reptile in question with this unusual means of locomotion. “Why, that's as plain as a pikestaff,” was the rejoinder [from Joseph]. “Before the Fall snakes always went about on legs, just like chickens. They were deprived of them, in punishment for their agency in the ruin of man.”
(Millet & Jackson, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 2: The Pearl of Great Price, p. 92. Emphasis in original).



A sample image from some of the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri. Displayed here is a snake with legs similar to that described by Josiah Quincy. 




Secondhand accounts of Joseph’s sayings from people who were not close to him should always be approached with a healthy caution as to their veracity. But while this is a bizarre teaching to this author, if Joseph Smith did in reality teach it, then it is accepted as being true without reservation. And with no compelling reason to doubt the Josiah Quincy account, it seems there is little alternative. Also, Hyrum L. Andrus noted that William W. Phelps wrote in the Times & Seasons that, “the serpent was cursed to crawl upon his belly through the loss of his feet.” (as quoted in God, Man, and the Universe, p. 372. Emphasis added). However, if this Quincy account about snakes having legs is true then this is further evidence that Satan literally came in the very body of a snake.




            Satan, “that old serpent, who is the devil” (2 Ne. 2:18) is thus called because he literally inhabited the body of a serpent while in the Garden of Eden. This act, symbolic of his cunning, has come to be archetypal of his subsequent devices among men. The fact that his diabolical possession of the serpent was a real and literal event serves to increase the meaning of the symbolism between Satan and the serpent. And this gives us a clearer picture of what went on in the Garden of Eden when our first parents were cast out of paradise.




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