"That Ancient Serpent:" Was Satan In the Garden?
In last Sunday’s sermon on the story of Adam and Eve, I made the argument that the Bible never tells us that the snake in the Garden of Eden was actually Satan. Some of you have had questions about my claim, because there seems to be one place in the Bible (and only one) where it does say that Satan was the snake—in Revelation 12:9. There was no time during the sermon to talk about this passage in scripture, but now that we’ve switched over to this new Faithlife software, I have the opportunity to test out our new blog/article feature by digging into the passage a little deeper. So, for those of you who asked, and anyone else who’s curious, here is my take on the identity of the serpent in Revelation 12:9.
First of all, let’s look at the verse in question:
“The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” (NIV).
[Edit: there is another, parallel verse in Revelation 20:2 that I forgot to mention here: "He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years." (NIV) This verse is clearly a reference back to 12:9, so these passages are referring the same thing.]
Now, at first glance this passage looks like a slam dunk. The verse tells us that Satan is “that ancient serpent,” which must be referring to the serpent from Genesis 3:1. What other ancient serpent could there be? Seems like an open and shut case. However, there is a lot more to be said about this verse: first of all, there is a theological problem with connecting the snake from Genesis 3 with the Dragon from Revelation 12; second of all, there actually is another ancient serpent in the Old Testament—one which fits the description of John’s dragon much better than the snake in Eden.
First, let’s look at the theological problem. (For this point, I am indebted to the After Class Podcast, Episode 1.17). When we leave the snake in Genesis 3, he is a cursed creature, condemned to crawl on his belly, eat dust, and fight a perpetual losing battle with humanity. This curse is laid on him by God himself in Genesis 3:14-15. Now fast-forward to Revelation 12, where we encounter, not a lowly, belly-crawling serpent, but a massive, flying, earth-shaking dragon. The dragon of Revelation 12 has the ability to swipe stars from the sky, battle armies of angels, drown people with water from his mouth, and call world-conquering monsters from the ocean and the desert. Far from being in a losing battle with humanity, the dragon dominates humanity every step of the way until he is thrown down by God’s direct intervention.
The question we have to ask is: can these two images really be the same being? Everything about the Dragon of Revelation 12 is the exact opposite of how the snake is described in God’s curse in Genesis 3. If the Eden snake became a dragon, then God’s curse must not have been very powerful. Some might say that God’s curse doesn’t take effect until after the final defeat of Satan, but that is hardly what Genesis 3:14-15 actually say. The effects of the curst are clearly meant to take effect immediately. If the snake became a dragon, then God’s curse doesn’t seem to have taken affect at all.
But “that ancient serpent” doesn’t refer to the snake from the garden, then who else could it be? Well, it turns out there is another serpent in the Old Testament, one who is mentioned a lot more than the snake of Genesis 3 (who never reappears), and who is actually a lot like a dragon: the sea monster known as Leviathan.
Leviathan is a sea-monster in the Old Testament, and in other cultures around ancient Israel, who represented the powers of chaos. Leviathan is mentioned most famously in Job 41, when God describes the immense power of Leviathan to demonstrate the power of the God who created him. But Leviathan is also mentioned in Psalm 74:14 as an enemy of God that he destroyed to protect the Israelites. For our purposes, however, the most important verse to examine is Isaiah 27:1:
In that day,
the Lord will punish with his sword—
his fierce, great and powerful sword—
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea. (NIV)
Now, there are two reasons why Leviathan is a better candidate than the snake of Genesis 3. First of all, Leviathan matches the description of the Dragon much better. Leviathan is a massive sea monster who looks a lot like what we could call a dragon. He is also depicted in the Old Testament as an agent of chaos and destruction, and an enemy of God.
Second of all, the words John chooses to describe the Dragon reflect Isaiah 27:1. In the original Greek of Revelation 12:9, the word for “dragon” is drakon, and the word for “serpent” is orphis. In the ancient Greek translation of Isaiah 27:1, the word for “serpent” is orphis, and the word for “monster” is drakon. That’s right: in Greek, Leviathan is a dragon. In fact, the King James Version actually uses the word “dragon” in Isaiah 27:1.
So the question is, which one of these candidates sounds more like “the dragon… that ancient serpent… who leads the world astray”—the lying snake of Genesis 3 who is cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust, or Leviathan the chaos dragon, the gliding, coiling serpent who is slayed by God on the day of the Lord? Personally, it looks to me like John is talking about Leviathan in this passage. And if that’s true, then that means there are no passages in the Bible that say that the snake is Satan.
Now, does that mean that the snake couldn’t be Satan—or at least some other supernatural being? Not necessarily. After all, if the snake is possessed by some supernatural being, that would explain why he can talk (in the Genesis account, the reason he can talk is because he is “more crafty than all the wild animals.”). To me, however, that’s only a theory—it’s not what the text actually says. And I have no problem with theories that try to make sense of the Biblical narrative; however, when we are interpreting what the passage is teaching us, we should be careful to use only what the text actually says, not our own theories. And that’s why I preached this story the way I did.
I hope this was helpful. If you’re not convinced, that’s no problem—we don’t have to agree on this passage. (Turns out, the point of the sermon still stands even if the snake was Satan, because Eve didn’t know it was Satan. For all she knew, she was talking to one of the wild animals she was instructed to rule over) But now you know how I reached that conclusion.
If you have any more questions during this sermon series, feel free to ask. I’m happy to answer, and maybe I’ll be able to write another one of these blog posts!
Stay healthy & hopeful!