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Ancient Serpent

When do we see evidence that people interpreted the serpent as something more than a snake in the garden?

In the book of Revelation, Satan is referred to as “that ancient serpent,” and so a lot of people make the connection that the ancient serpent is the garden of Eden and Satan is actually the serpent in the garden of Eden. And that is certainly the connection that the early church fathers made, and you see that explicit in a lot of early post-New Testament writings and the writings of the early church fathers. It is thought by biblical scholars, though, that the ancient serpent referenced in the book of Revelation is actually not Satan but rather the ancient serpent of the combat myth from the ancient Near East. So the ancient Near East has a bunch of literature that features a hero God battling a serpent or dragon of some kind, and it’s kind of an order vs. chaos motif. You see it in the Enuma Elish; you see it in the Canaanite Baal Cycle, stories of Baal fighting Yam, the Sea, and also Mot, Death. And they’re both kind of figured in serpent/dragon language. You see it in the Bible, in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah chapter 27. And there he’s named Leviathan, and so the ancient serpent is Leviathan in Isa 27. The connection between the serpent in the garden of Eden and Satan is probably one that is made after this combat myth has been forgotten. So when Revelation says the ancient serpent, it was natural for later church fathers reading the text to make that association between Satan and the garden of the Eden serpent. But it’s very likely that that’s not what’s intended in the book of Revelation. Paul doesn’t blame a Satan snake figure in Eden for the mistakes that the humans make. He blames the humans, and Satan shows up in the New Testament in all of the gospels as kind of the deceiver and tempter but never as a serpent. So all of those associations–you know, Satan as the devil, as the anti-Christ–all those associations are there in the New Testament, but they’re not brought together with serpent in the garden of Eden until early Christian writings.

  • Shawna Dolansky

    Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.