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.


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.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 8, 2016.

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.



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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  • DANI says

    Nothing you have said here is correct. Nothing. The bible, the Authorized King James 1611 identifies the serpent in the garden as “that old serpent called the devil and satan” in Revelation 12:9:

    9 And the great dragon was cast out, THAT OLD SERPENT, CALLED THE DEVIL, AND SATAN, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

    It is as clear as clear can be to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

    The devil is not an “invented” creature. He was in the garden of Eden and it was he who tempted first Eve and when she succumbed to his lies, he used her to tempt Adam. There was no literal serpent in the garden and no “talking” serpent; he was simply used as an analogy that we may have something by which we may understand the devil’s character. Satan tempts men and women today in the same way he tempted Eve – by the power of suggestion. By inserting THOUGHTS into our minds.

    The Lord has so created the universe that we may learn spiritual truths by observing nature. Without it we would have no point of reference by which we could understand spiritual things. Unlike his progeny, Adam and Eve were not born. They came into this world as adults. They were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and were holy. They had absolutely NO KNOWLEDGE of evil. Thus they needed some instruction, which is what Adam was getting prior to Eve being made. The serpent was created in just such a way as to have all the characteristics of the devil…that we may understand what he is like. Serpents are, amongst other things:

    Predatory – It is always seeking UNSUSPECTING prey to devour
    They slither – sneaky, lowdown, no boundaries
    It has a forked tongue – duplicitious/deceitful/lying
    Cannot be trusted, will ALWAYS bite you
    It devours its prey whole

    He was once an the anointed cherub responsible for directing worship to God. He was a beautiful angel named Lucifer. Isaiah 14:
    12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou
    cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
    13 For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
    14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
    15 Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
    16 They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms;
    17 That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that
    opened not the house of his prisoners?

    The devil was in the garden of Eden IN SPIRIT tempting our first parents to sin as is evidenced from Genesis 3. He is a fallen angel, he is a spirit:

    Ephesians 6:10-12
    10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
    11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
    12 For we [Christians] wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against SPIRITUAL WICKEDNESS in high places.

    Adam named the animals in Genesis 2. That includes the serpent. How did this come about? God brought the animals to Adam to SEE what he would call them. Why did the Lord want to see what Adam would call the animals?

    Obviously (to those who have the Spirit of the Lord) the Lord had been busy instructing Adam. He had been taught certain characteristics about the devil (amongst other things) and accurately named the serpent based upon those characteristics. You can see proof of this when Adam was presented with his wife. He immediately saw that she was NOT like the animals, she was “bone of his bone” and “flesh of his flesh”. He accurately named her woman…because she was taken out of man. She shared his nature, his capacity for communion with God, his biological aspects (flesh, blood, bone, hair, eyes, etc.) his intelligence, etc.

    “…… do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God”. Matthew 22:29

    Satan is indeed an independent force of evil as the above scriptures show. Neither does the Lord have any “braggadocio”. as you ascribe to him in your ignorance. What you do not and cannot see is that God is SOVEREIGN over his creation. Satan is a created being. His evil and his wickedness is his own, just as wicked men are responsible for their evil. God did not make him so anymore than he made man to sin against him in the garden of Eden or causes wicked men to sin against Him in these last days. The bible also speaks of him thus:

    Ezekiel 28:12-19
    12 Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him,
    Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in
    13 Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy
    covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the
    jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee IN THE DAY THAT THOU WAS CREATED.
    14 Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: THOU WAST UPON THE HOLY MOUNTAIN OF GOD; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.
    15 Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, TILL INIQUITY WAS FOUND IN THEE.
    16 By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with
    cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee.
    18 THOU HAST DEFILED THY SANCTUARIES BY THE MULTITUDE OF THINE INIQUITIES, BY THE INIQUITY OF THY TRAFFICK; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to
    ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.
    19 All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou
    shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more.

    Job was a righteous man in the estimate of God. Yet something was lacking. This Job needed to see. So God ALLOWED Satan to do what he did in order that He might prove or test the faith of Job. He did it for his own purpose and it wrought in Job that which He foreknew that it would – Increased faith and a higher and greater manifestation of the Lord in Job’s life.

    “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.”

    There was no snake in the garden, much less a talking one. The serpent is simply a “type” of Satan, a metaphor…an analogy by which we may understand his character. The bible does not call him and “ancient serpent” but an old serpent for it was he who was in the garden and it was he who tempted Eve. The reference in revelation could not be clearer to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Nor is Jesus defeat over Satan “temporary”. Satan is now and forever a defeated foe. He “walketh about like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour”. He knows that his time is short.

    Revelation 12:12
    12 “…… Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is
    come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a
    short time.”

    • kazy says

      You can’t use the King James Bible as an accurate source of Jewish biblical text or even the Christian bible. It is filled with so many mistranslations. King James instructed his writers to adjust passages to conform to Christian tradition and Christological interpretation like interpreting the Hebrew for young woman to “virgin” or anointed one to messiah, or mistranslating Mary Magdalene’s “sickness” to being a whore.

      The KJV was written 400 years ago, and we have more (and more accurate) sources today than what was available then, so a more modern translation will usually be better, unless it is produced by some group with a particular agenda which the King James Bible did have an agenda which was to read the Jewish bible retrograde to confirm Christian belief.

      There is a difference between a translation which is simply wrong, and one which is DELIBERATELY wrong – the ‘virgin’ in Isaiah and the ‘pierced hands’ etc in Psalms are DELIBERATELY wrong. The ‘kill vs murder’ in the ten commandments is just a simple error.

  • Ryan says

    While there are some good points made in the essay, which I found quite helpful, overall I found this essay rather confusing. In the absence of any clear text to refute it, I think there are clear enough texts linking the serpent of Eden to Satan. It seems obvious to me that our understanding of Satan, as with many people and concepts in the Bible, developed through progressive revelation. In 2 Corinthians 11 there is a comprehensible link between the serpent who deceived Eve (v3) and Satan who masquerades as an angel of light (v14). Along with Revelation 12:9, I have no problem accepting that the serpent in the garden of Eden was, in fact, one and the same being as Satan, the devil and chief fallen angel (Matt. 25:41). The fact that he gets enchained for a thousand years to prevent him deceiving the nations (Rev. 20:3), and then gets released for that purpose one last time, only to get punished eternally in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10) only increases the already high probability that we are speaking of the same dark, spiritual entity.
    Thank you and may God guide you.

    • Dennis says

      It’s funny how you evangicals interpret the Bible. The Bible is just a fairytale meant to keep people in line and pay their 10%. The two biggest examples are King David and Job. God breaks his own covenant when he kills David’s son after saying each shall die in his own sin, children will not be responsible for their fathers sin. And all Job wants to know is why God did what he did and God says “Don’t you know who I am?” I guess he did or else he wouldn’t have been so faithful. You probably believe in Trump and what he’s doing. But answer me this. God says to protect the elderly, children and the handicapped, so why is Trump cutting programs for all these people. And now the Vatican tells the Pope what to do when God supposedly picks him. And the priests who take that Hippocratic oath and then molest children. The reason they do this is because they’ve read the Bible and obviously don’t believe in it either. Would God really let it go on for as long as its gone on? I believe in God I just don’t believe a book that’s been rewritten over and over. We don’t need a book to tell us to be kind to one another. My hope is God is compassionate and not like the God of the Bible who is self-centered and a murderer of innocent women and children. And the direction this world is turning into, there needs to be another miracle by God to let people know that God is watching and he isn’t too pleased either.

  • Che says

    Just to say am blessed and inspired by this teaching.
    Am a young preacher of the Gospel, and have always wonder the mission of a serpent, and Jesus even gave us power over serpent, and today the Spirit leaded me here, so, am happy because it will help me a lot.

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