How the Serpent Became Satan

Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden

Introduced as “the most clever of all of the beasts of the field that YHWH God had made,” the serpent in the Garden of Eden is portrayed as just that: a serpent. Satan does not make an appearance in Genesis 2–3, for the simple reason that when the story was written, the concept of the devil had not yet been invented. Explaining the serpent in the Garden of Eden as Satan would have been as foreign a concept to the ancient authors of the text as referring to Ezekiel’s vision as a UFO (but Google “Ezekiel’s vision” now, and you’ll see that plenty of people today have made that connection!). In fact, while the word satan appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, it is never a proper name; since there is no devil in ancient Israel’s worldview, there can’t yet have been a proper name for such a creature.

adam-eve-and-the-serpent

Depicted here are God the Father, cherubim, angels, Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in Domenichino’s painting The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (1626). Photo: Patrons’ Permanent Fund, National Gallery of Art.

The noun satan, Hebrew for “adversary” or “accuser,” occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible: five times to describe a human military, political or legal opponent, and four times with reference to a divine being. In Numbers 22, the prophet Balaam, hired to curse the Israelites, is stopped by a messenger from Israel’s God YHWH, described as “the satan” acting on God’s behalf. In Job, “the satan” is a member of God’s heavenly council—one of the divine beings, whose role in Job’s story is to be an “accuser,” a status acquired by people in ancient Israel and Mesopotamia for the purposes of particular legal proceedings. In Job’s case, what’s on trial is God’s assertion that Job is completely “blameless and upright” vs. the satan’s contention that Job only behaves himself because God has rewarded him. God argues that Job is rewarded because he is good, and not good because he is rewarded. The satan challenges God to a wager that if everything is taken away from poor Job, he won’t be so good anymore, and God accepts. Though a perception of “the satan” as Satan would make this portrait of God easier to swallow, the story demonstrates otherwise; like Yahweh’s messenger in Numbers 22, this satan acts on YHWH’s instructions (and as a result of God’s braggadocio) and is not an independent force of evil.

In Zechariah 3, the prophet describes a vision of the high priest Joshua standing in a similar divine council, also functioning as a tribunal. Before him stand YHWH’s messenger and the satan, who is there to accuse him. This vision is Zechariah’s way of pronouncing YHWH’s approval of Joshua’s appointment to the high priesthood in the face of adversarial community members, represented by the satan. The messenger rebukes the satan and orders that Joshua’s dirty clothing be replaced, as he promises Joshua continuing access to the divine council. Once again, the satan is not Satan who we read about in the New Testament.

The word satan appears only once without “the” in front of it in the entire Hebrew Bible: in 1 Chronicles 21:1. Is it possible that we finally have Satan here portrayed? 1 Chronicles 21 parallels the story of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24, in which God orders David to “go number Israel and Judah” and then punishes king and kingdom for doing so. The Chronicler changes this story, as he does others, to portray the relationship between God and David as uncompromised; he writes that “a satan stood up against Israel and he provoked David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:6–7; 27:24). Although it is possible to read “Satan” here instead of “a satan” (Hebrew uses neither uppercase letters, nor indefinite articles, e.g., “a”), nothing else in this story or in any texts for another 300 years indicates that the idea of an evil prince of darkness exists in the consciousness of the Israelites.
 


 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.
 

 
So if there’s no Satan in the Hebrew Bible, where does the devil come into the details of Eden?

The worldview of Jewish readers of Genesis 2–3 profoundly changed in the centuries since the story was first written. After the canon of the Hebrew Bible closed,1 beliefs in angels, demons and a final apocalyptic battle arose in a divided and turbulent Jewish community. In light of this impending end, many turned to a renewed understanding of the beginning, and the Garden of Eden was re-read—and re-written—to reflect the changing ideas of a changed world. Two separate things happened and then merged: Satan became the proper name of the devil, a supernatural power now seen to oppose God as the leader of demons and the forces of evil; and the serpent in the Garden of Eden came to be identified with him. While we begin to see the first idea occurring in texts two centuries before the New Testament, the second won’t happen until later; Eden’s serpent is not identified with Satan anywhere in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament.

The concept of the devil begins to appear in second and first centuries B.C.E. Jewish texts. In 1 Enoch, the “angel” who “led Eve astray” and “showed the weapons of death to the children of men” was called Gadreel (not Satan). Around the same time, the Wisdom of Solomon taught that “through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who are on his side suffer it.” Though this may very well be the earliest reference to Eden’s serpent as the devil, in neither text, nor in any document we have until after the New Testament, is satan clearly understood as the serpent in Eden. At Qumran, though, Satan is the leader of the forces of darkness; his power is said to threaten humanity, and it was believed that salvation would bring the absence of Satan and evil.

By the first century C.E., Satan is adopted into the nascent Christian movement, as ruler over a kingdom of darkness, an opponent and deceiver of Jesus (Mark 1:13), prince of the devils and opposing force to God (Luke 11:15–19; Matthew 12:24–27; Mark 3:22–23:26); Jesus’ ministry puts a temporary end to Satan’s reign (Luke 10:18) and the conversion of the gentiles leads them from Satan to God (Acts 26:18). Most famously, Satan endangers the Christian communities but will fall in Christ’s final act of salvation, described in detail in the book of Revelation.

But curiously, although the author of Revelation describes Satan as “the ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2), there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake. The ancient Near Eastern combat myth motif, exemplified in the battle between Marduk and Tiamat in Enuma Elish and Baal and Yam/Mot in ancient Canaan, typically depicted the bad guy as a serpent. The characterization of Leviathan in Isaiah 27 reflects such myths nicely:

On that day YHWH will punish
With his hard and big and strong sword
Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
Leviathan the twisted serpent,
And he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

So the reference in Revelation 12:9 to Satan as “the ancient serpent” probably reflects mythical monsters like Leviathan rather than the clever, legged, talking creature in Eden.

In the New Testament, Satan and his demons have the power to enter and possess people; this is what is said to have happened to Judas (Luke 22:3; John 13:27; cf. Mark 5:12–13; Luke 8:30–32). But when Paul re-tells the story of Adam and Eve, he places the blame on the humans (Romans 5:18; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21–22) and not on fallen angels, or on the serpent as Satan. Still, the conflation begged to be made, and it will seem natural for later Christian authors—Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus and Augustine, for example—to assume Satan’s association with Eden’s talking snake. Most famously, in the 17th century, John Milton elaborates Satan’s role in the Garden poetically, in great detail in Paradise Lost. But this connection is not forged anywhere in the Bible.
 


 
shawna-dolansky Shawna Dolansky is Adjunct Research Professor and Instructor in the program in Religion at the College of Humanities, Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She coauthored the well-known The Bible Now (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) with Richard Friedman.
 

 

Notes:

1. The book of Daniel was the latest book to be included in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and dates to about 162 B.C.E.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Who Is Satan?

Should We Take Creation Stories in Genesis Literally?
Shawna Dolansky discusses this question in her Biblical Views column in BAR.

The Adam and Eve Story: Eve Came From Where?
Ziony Zevit argues that Eve wasn’t made from Adam’s rib—but from his baculum

The Creation of Woman in the Bible
Mary Joan Winn Leith takes a look at the creation of woman in Genesis 2

Lilith in the Bible and Mythology
Dan Ben-Amos explores the figure of Lilith

Defining Biblical Hermeneutics

Understanding Revelations in the Bible
 


 

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  1. Thomas says

    This article provides a useful corrective to anachronistic exegesis of Scripture that would import later ideas into earlier texts. That said, one needs to distinguish between the purely historical-critical reading of Scripture practiced in biblical studies and the theological reading of Scripture by the Church. In the former, there is no warrant for linking Satan to the serpent, nor for linking the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) to Jesus Christ. When Genesis is read through the eyes of Christian faith, however, such readings become plausible and legitimate.

    From a biblical studies point of view, the writer overstates the claim that the New Testament does not link Satan with the serpent of Eden. While no NT writer makes a straightforward, direct identification between the two, there are a number of texts where a connection may at least be hinted at — not only Rev. 12:9 and 20:2 but also Rom. 16:20, 2 Cor. 11:3-14, and John 8:44. Note also the claim in 1 John 3:12 that Cain was ‘of the evil one’ – this seems to presuppose that Satan had existed in early Genesis. The author would have done well to research recent scholarly commentary on these texts.

    I also note the author’s error in asserting that 1 Chr. 21:1 is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where the word satan occurs without the article. In fact, Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2 are the only places where the word satan occurs WITH the article.

    A fully developed primeval Satan myth doesn’t appear in Christian literature until the second century, but its absence from the New Testament does not imply that first century Christians held no such ideas.

  2. John says

    It is always comical when comments are left instructing the author to “research recent scholarly commentary on these text” when the author is a scholar and has written books, while the comment writer has done nothing but critique. Just because a “Christian” interprets a text a certain way does not justify the interpretation. Just because a term or name like a satan appears in the NT does not mean the people writing “believed” the theology the comment writer accepts.

    Recent scholarship is no proof either. Scholarship can range from the Moody Bible College to Pontifical Biblical Commission. Some so called scholarship ends up being nothing more than someone’s blog. In the end, like the bible, scholarship says what you want it to so.
    It would do well for comment writers to go to school and “Fist Learn, the Form Opinions.

  3. Brent says

    You know what, the serpent in the garden of Eden could be symbolic for Satan rather than a talking snake? The dragon is also symbolic for Satan but they’re obviously extinct, not unless God was referring to the Komodo dragon? In a way this symbolism would make sense because the animal we all know that spoke like a man was a donkey of the prophet Baalim but then again the strangest things have happened. So Satan might have the power to possess animals by making them talk. Mind you he does with humans. I guess its back to the drawing board.

  4. Casey says

    What kind of “satan” tempted Jesus in the desert? Was it the actual “satan” or just an adversary?

  5. Maranatha says

    “…We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. And this is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.…”
    [Paul: 1 Corinthians 2:12-14]

    It would do well for all men to first be born again of the Holy Spirit before writing opinions about the Word of God.

  6. dustin says

    As an exegesic reader of the scriptures, and a believer of His preserved Word, I would have to say that you are heretical. Satan is one of many names given to the fallen angel, just as Savior references Jesus Christ. Is is mentioned, along with evil spirits numerous times in the old and new testiment. He was noted to walk in the garden of Eden until inequity was found in him. Evil and darkness are always the abscence of goodness, not some twisted Mr. Hyde side of God. Please be careful when you post things contrary to God says in His word. The end of Revelations warns you about what may happen. In Christ always,

  7. dustin says

    Dave, your comment is extremely offensive and houses no biblical support.

  8. Sillygoose says

    Dustin, quick question, how can Eve know that eating the apple is evil, if she only gains the knowledge of good and evil after having eaten it?

  9. C says

    Regarding God cursing the serpent to crawl on the ground and what kind of creature was it before it was cursed.
    Is there anything in scripture to indicate that the curse on this creature was just to that individual alone? “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
    “all the days OF YOUR LIFE.”
    Also, might this have been one of their domesticated animals? It would have been even more poignant if it had been.

  10. Trin says

    I found this article really interesting. I’d like to know from the author how Lucifer and the fallen angels, as depicted in the book of Isaiah fits in. As Christians we are taught that Lucifer, Satan and the devil are one and the same.

  11. Mike says

    This was one of the most disappointing articles I have seen in Biblical Archeological Review. Clearly no one qualified reviewed the article before it was published. Here are just a couple of the factual errors:

    The author states: “In Numbers 22, the prophet Balaam, hired to curse the Israelites, is stopped by a messenger from Israel’s God YHWH, described as “the satan” acting on God’s behalf.”

    However, while some do treat the two instances in Nu. 22 as a noun (wrongly in my opinion), it clearly does not include the article unless one were to reject the pointing in the MT. Furthermore, most scholars would see this as a verbal form and not a noun, and translate it as “and an angel of the Lord stood in the way TO OPPOSE him” rather than “and angel of the stood in the way AS AN ADVERSARY.” Here are some translations that treat this as a verb: “NIV, HCSB, NET, NLT. The ESV is inconsistent i.e. treating as a noun in Num. 22:22, but as a verb (same form in Hebrew) in 22:32.

    ‎ וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֞ב מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהוָ֛ה בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ

    The author states: “The word satan appears only once without “the” in front of it in the entire Hebrew Bible: in 1 Chronicles 21:1”

    However, there are a several more instances in Scripture where satan is used without the word “the” in front of it. Two more could be added if we accepted the contention that instances in Nu. 22 were nouns and not verbs.

    ‎ (1 Ki. 5:18 WTT) וְעַתָּ֕ה הֵנִ֙יחַ יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהַ֛י לִ֖י מִסָּבִ֑יב אֵ֣ין שָׂטָ֔ן וְאֵ֖ין פֶּ֥גַע רָֽע׃
    14 וַיָּ֙קֶם יְהוָ֤ה שָׂטָן֙ לִשְׁלֹמֹ֔ה אֵ֖ת הֲדַ֣ד הָאֲדֹמִ֑י מִזֶּ֧רַע הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ ה֖וּא בֶּאֱדֽוֹם׃
    (1 Ki. 11:23 WTT) וַיָּ֙קֶם אֱלֹהִ֥ים לוֹ֙ שָׂטָ֔ן אֶת־רְז֖וֹן בֶּן־אֶלְיָדָ֑ע אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּרַ֗ח מֵאֵ֛ת הֲדַדְעֶ֥זֶר מֶֽלֶךְ־צוֹבָ֖ה אֲדֹנָֽיו׃
    (1 Ki. 11:25 WTT) וַיְהִ֙י שָׂטָ֤ן לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה וְאֶת־הָרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֲדָ֑ד וַיָּ֙קָץ֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיִּמְלֹ֖ךְ עַל־אֲרָֽם׃ פ
    (1 Chr. 21:1 WTT) וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֥ד שָׂטָ֖ן עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיָּ֙סֶת֙ אֶת־דָּוִ֔יד לִמְנ֖וֹת אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
    (Ps. 109:6 WTT) הַפְקֵ֣ד עָלָ֣יו רָשָׁ֑ע וְ֜שָׂטָ֗ן יַעֲמֹ֥ד עַל־יְמִינֽוֹ׃

    Sloppy scholarship leads to sloppy conclusions, and this article is wrought with both!

  12. TheDarkF00L says

    Regardless of who this serpent was, consider this: which one lied? God or the serpent?

    Genesis 2:17 – “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

    Genesis 3:5 – “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    Genesis 5:5 – “Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.”

    Makes you wonder.

  13. matt says

    Thank you for this article. I appreciate the time it took to dig into this. I will help guide me in my our studies.

  14. Gary says

    In the context of the times, the Serpent, stood for Knowledge.

    In the Desert of the Moon, the Israelites made a Bronze Serpent — The Nehushtan. If you were bit?

    Before it, you did your thing — And you lived. This is no small matter, in the lands of cobras, of asps.

    The Bronze Serpent was destroyed during the reign of Hezekiah (c.716 to 686 B.C.E.) It was destroyed, because the Israelites were burning incense to it —

    Which means, everyone thinks, that they were idolizing it.

    But I do not think so…

    No mention is made, of them being Satanists.

    2 Kings 18:4: He hath turned aside, the High Places; and broken in pieces, the Standing-Pillars; and cut down, the Shrine —

    And beaten down, the Brazen Serpent that Moshe made —

    For unto these days, were the sons of Israel, making perfume to it. And he calleth it, “a piece of brass.”

    The Stones Set Up, by the Patriarchs?

    Smashed.

    The Groves, wherein these Stones Were Set Up As Altars to YHWH?

    Cut down.

    Even the terebinths, of Mamre…

    The very one, Against Which YHWH Rested, Beneath His Own Created Chuppah, With His Best Friend Abram…

    Destroyed, upon the advice of the control-freak Levites.

    All of the Altars, of the past — Approved of, By YHWH Himself — Were destroyed, by Hezekiah…

    For how could you centralize worship in Jerusalem under the control of the Priesthood — And beneath the watchful eye, of a covetous king — It these YHWH-Approved Altars, were allowed To Remain, all over the place?

    If you read the text critically, you will see, that the issue was not idol worship, nor apostasy, nor the incorporation of foreign gods into the worship of YHWH. The issue, was the control of all YHWH worship in one single location, under the hand of one small familial group, who were descended from Levi and Aharon.

    Levites, as the Priesthood?

    Does not necessarily mean, that they were not to live amongst the people, throughout the land.

    Even some of the Levites — Especially, the descendants of Moshe — Objected, to this abomination of centralization.

    Who can possibly build a man’s house, for He Who Fills the Universe?

    But, go ahead…

    Build it — If you must.

    Now, Who Is the Accuser of His brethren, of His children?

    You have to know what you are reading, within the cultural and historical context of the times, to be able to properly interpret actions — And, more importantly, Within the Mind of YHWH — To Be Able To Understand the motives, which underscore said actions.

    Aharon wanted to centralize worship under their control, in the South. The rest of Israel, including Moshe, resisted — For they wanted to maintain the mode of worship, Which Had So Well Served the Patriarchs. The latter mode, Is the One, Which Speaks of a Far More Intimate Relationship, With YHWH.

    The former mode, Sandwiches YHWH narrowly, Between Two Stone Tablets of Serpentine; it Hides Him, In a Box; and it Buries Him, In a dark back room of a man’s building, To Be Checked Upon once a year —

    To make sure, that She Is behaving properly —

    And to make sure, that the Serpent of Hope, Has not Been Let Out, in the interim.

    I prefer the YHWH who you can kick back with under a tree, in the breezy shade and the grass, by a small flowing stream. A YHWH you can talk to, and can share a drink and a meal and the Deep Dark Secrets, Hidden of the Ages, With.

    A YHWH, Who you Know the Personal Name of. Someone, Who Talks Right Back, To you.

    So you see?

    The Serpent, as Satan?

    Did not even enter into the picture, until after worship was centralized. Until after the Church — Whatever its contemporary guise, throughout the Ages — Stood Within the Way, and prevented the Entry of the Anointed Into the Sanctuary —

    Back, Into Gan Eden.

    They, who Do Not Enter themselves?

    Try to keep the Anointed Chosen of YHWH, from Entering.

    But Beneath the Bush — Beneath, the Horns — Is Found, the Small Door. And the Anointed Enter Within the Sanctuary, in spite of everything that the Church of man does, to prevent it.

    And Who, Is Hiding, Beneath the Chuppah of the Serpentine Green?

    Who, Has Shed His Former Covering?

    Only the Wise amongst men, Truly Know.

  15. Daniel says

    This is a good article for reminding us of what the Bible does NOT say, which we often assume it perhaps DOES say. I’m confused about Dolansky’s counting of 9 occurrences of satan in the Hebrew Bible. Doing a quick Lemma study in Logos Software, I see 27 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the use of ‘satan’ in Numbers 22 does not appear to have the definite article in front of it; this article says it does. Instead, both occurrences there have the preposition לְ – something like “the angel of YHWH stood in the road for a satan for him” or “to be a satan to him”. This doesn’t alter the point she’s making; I’m just not sure why she says these occurrences include the definite article when they do not. But I found the article overall interesting and got me digging, so I’m happy enough.

  16. Jaidev says

    Below is my interpretation of Genesis, I would like to know if it is correct or possible:

    Once it is understood that the Snake in the Bible is actually Time, then the reading of Genesis makes it similar to reading the Greek mythological story of the Pandora’s box.

    Pandora was specifically instructed not to open the box, but Time seduced her and and she opened the box out of curiosity that brought out death and all the evil of the world.

    Eve was specifically instructed not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but Time seduced her and she ate its fruit out of curiosity that brought death and exile from the garden of eden.

    Thus Time is the Snake and curiosity is the Satan. The curiosity/Satan/Lucifer is the scientific temperament that is opposed to blind faith in the Lord.

    After eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge, man became conscious and thus lost the primitive animal innocence, he came to understand death and other natural and artificial evils like illness, war, jealousy, money etc, before that he was just another animal unaware of the death and other evils. He exiled himself out of the nature into the Civilized world, the artificial villages and cities of the world.

    The Lord cursed Time (the lifetime spent by man on Earth), that it would crawl on its belly and eat dust– The daily grind of the routine work makes us feel like Time is crawling on its belly and nothing lasts forever, youth, beauty, love, money, fame, everything changes to dust in(side) Time, hence Time eats dust.

    The Civilized, knowledgeable, curious Humans have to plan their activities aHEAD of Time (Humans will bruise the Head of Time) and they are forced to run around to perform their duties (Time will bruise the Heel of Man). Thus Humans have to plan the sowing of seeds ahead of time and then as per the plan procure the seeds, actually perform the actions by moving their hands and feet to sow and subsequently harvest the produce. Thus we are intricately bound to the Time as against the innocent Animals who don’t care about planning for the future.

    Quote:
    And the LORD God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’ Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

    The Civilized man is a pawn, he/she does not have power/control/freedom over his own life (sent him forth from the garden of Eden), he has to work in the society (till the ground), the depressing routine life of the civilized man will drive him to despair and suicide (and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, i.e commit suicide, genocide, murder) unless there is hope and faith in his life.

    In Pandora’s story, hope was left behind inside the box, while in Genesis,

    So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life.

    The Lord placed Youth/Innocence (cherubim) at the start of the Life (East of the Garden) where there are positive qualities like open-mindedness, tolerance, love are prominent while negative qualities like bigotry, hatred and death are scarce.

    The Young have Hope (the flaming sword) that can cut through all adversity(turned every way) so that the Human race keeps procreating and bring forth new generations (to keep the way to the tree of life) or else if the young are exposed and corrupted by evils of the scientific knowledge, civilization and society, they will decide that the world is too evil to bring forth the next generation and abstain from procreating and the Human race will die out as is happening in the Developed world due to the low birth rates.

    Genesis is a very advanced scientific and psychological message in this interpretation, shrouded in the secret code of snake, satan, civilization, youth and hope.

  17. Elizabeth says

    “Eden’s serpent is not identified with Satan anywhere in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament”

    Yes he is – Rev 12:9

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