Putting Satan in his historical-political place

In a comment on my post Did Christ strike the serpent’s head, my friend abondarenko01 questioned my claim that the Leviathan myth could generate the link between Satan and snakes in early Christian texts like Luke 10:19, Romans 16:20, Mark 16:18, Acts 28:3-6, and 1 Corinthians 15:32. He notes that while Leviathan is an aquatic beast, each of these New Testament passages have terranean snakes in mind—land animals that one might crush underfoot.

Do we find the [sea serpents and land serpents] connected in the extant literature from ANE/Jewish/Early Christian sources? Unless I’m misreading you, you seemed to have leaped from saying that the Tiamat-type Leviathan/Dragon creature would’ve been considered to be the same type of thing (or perhaps directly analogous to) the snakes of every day experience. Is there evidence for this sort of conceptualisation?

Part of the appeal of the Genesis connection is the fact that its a more direct connection in that we have a land dwelling snake being stepped on.

It’s a good point, and perhaps a fatal hole in my argument.

But before I try to address the specific problem, let’s outline the ground we’ve covered. Skip ahead to Back to Psalm 91 if you’re ready.

A quick recap

In the last handful of posts I’ve tried to demonstrate that early Christian thinkers had no interest in equating Satan with the serpent of Eden. I went about this by examining the conceptual origins of Satan as he was depicted by 1st century Christians. These were my conclusions.

  1. The return of the monsters
    • Revelation 12:9 is the chief text by which Christians establish the link between Satan and the Edenic serpent (“The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray”). I argued, however, that the Satan of John’s Apocalypse, the dragon-serpent of old, was roused from depictions of Leviathan in the LXX, not from Genesis 3. This Leviathan, being a beast both primordial and eschatological, serpentine and draconic, many-headed and violent, corresponds with John’s representation of Satan in key ways.
    • I argued further that the dragon’s program of deceit as the one who “leads astray the entire world” is more consistent with Daniel’s apocalyptic visions than with Genesis 3 (Revelation 12:7, cf. 12:9-12, 13:13-15, 18:21-24, 20:3-8). The dragon and his beasts (θηρίον), like the blasphemous beasts of Daniel 7-11, “mislead the nations” in order to muster the political powers of the age for war against God’s saints. Whereas the deception by Eden’s serpent explains the difficulty associated with living in a cursed world, the deception in Revelation serves a more specific and political purpose; it explains why the idolatrous nations violently oppose God’s people.
  2. The Devil and his angels
    • Satan’s other principal persona in the New Testament as the lord of evil angels and spirits originates in the Enochic myth of the rebellious angels. As the ringleader of these angels, Satan is responsible for teaching men how to systematically destroy each other and tempts them to abandon the truth. With this popular legend in mind, the Johannine Jesus could rightly accuse Satan of being a “murderer from the beginning” and the “father of liars” (John 8:44) without intending any reference to Genesis 3.
  3. Fall of man, fall of Cain
    • Lastly, I contested the conventional interpretation of Wisdom 2:24. While many have found here a very early Jewish reference to Satan as the one through whom “death entered the world” via Adam, I showed that Wisdom 2:24 probably identifies Cain as the “adversary” (διάβολος) through whom death came. Some early Christians appear to have interpreted the text in this way.

Back to Psalm 91

I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. (Luke 10:18-19)

And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons… they will pick up snakes in their hands… [nothing] will hurt them. (Mark 16:17-18)

A viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself onto [Paul’s] hand… [Paul] shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. (Acts 28:3-5)

As abondarenko01 elaborated upon in his comment, the Leviathan sea monster serves as a rather poor model for the land snakes referred to in texts like Luke 10:18-19, Mark 16:17-18, and Acts 28:3-5. Leviathan can neither be crushed underfoot nor picked up by the hand. It therefore seems wise to restrict Leviathan’s explanatory reach to the book of Revelation.

Having removed Leviathan from the picture, though, the question remains: Why did Christians associate [land] snakes with Satan and demonic spirits?

In considering this topic earlier, I identified LXX Psalm 91:13 as the direct literary source for Luke 10:18-19 and as an important subtext for Mark 16:17-18, and Acts 28:3-5. We could profitably add LXX Isaiah 11:8-9 to this web. Regarding the coming Davidic kingdom the text reads:

An infant will put his hand on the holes of asps, and on the nest of young asps. And they shall not hurt, nor shall they at all be able to destroy any one on my holy mountain. 

Christians appear to have inherited two ideas from Psalm 91 and Isaiah 11— 1) that they would step upon and otherwise touch snakes, and 2) that they would not be harmed by them.

Moreover, I noted that Genesis 3:15—especially as it was known to Greek readers—lacked the same explanatory power for a number of reasons.

Evil will not befall you, and pain will not draw near to your tent… Upon the asp and the basilisk you will tread, and you will trample the lion and the dragon… I will rescue [you] and preserve [you] because [you] know my name. (LXX Psalm 91:10, 13-14)

[Your seed] will [continually] watch [the serpent’s] head, and [the serpent] will [continually] watch [your seed’s] heel. (LXX Genesis 3:15)

What early Christians did not inherit from Psalm 91 (or Isaiah 11, for that matter), however, at least in its original form, was the conceptual link between snakes and demonic forces. As it stands in the Hebrew, Psalm 91 speaks only of mundane threats to human life—disease, enemies, animals, etc. The psalm by itself could therefore not have given rise to its spiritual re-interpretation among early Christians—nor to its exorcistic re-purposing at Qumran (cf. 11Q11).

The Greek version of the psalm tells a different story, however. In verse 6 the text shifts from “You will not fear… the destruction that wastes at noonday” in the Hebrew to “You will not fear… the demon at noonday” in the Greek. With this one small textual transition the Psalm becomes vulnerable to emerging apocalyptic interpretations—interpretations that recognize the spiritual war taking place behind the physical world. Serpents, in this context, become not merely dangerous animals, but weapons wielded by Satan to persecute and test God’s people.

I would propose then that it was the outworking of this apocalyptic framework in the second temple period that brought snakes and Satan together. As snakes were already a natural enemy to be overcome either by God’s direct help (Psalm 91, cf. 17:8-12) or by the peaceable reign of David’s son (Isaiah 11), they became also a spiritual and eschatological foe under Satan’s command. Satan ruled not only the kingdoms of men (cf. Luke 4:5-6), but also the animal kingdoms (cf. LXX Isaiah 34, Revelation 18:2).

We arrive at 1 Peter 5:8 by the same process.

Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

Once the Jewish scriptures had been reevaluated according to dualistic and apocalyptic interpretative strategies, the natural lions and the natural snakes of texts like Psalm 91:13 and Isaiah 11:6-7 could be viewed as demonic entities opposed to God’s people and God’s rule over the earth. In the end, no contemplation upon Genesis 3 was necessary to make this leap.


The politics of Satan

Having now spent some time and energy trying to tease apart Satan and Eden’s serpent, I want to comment on why I think this all matters.

At heart, the question of the serpent’s identity has to do with hermeneutics: What are we going prioritize in Biblical interpretation: earthly political concerns, or spiritual individualistic ones? What do we think the Biblical story is really all about: humanity’s struggle with sin, death, and existential dread, or Israel’s struggle to establish God’s rule in the midst of pagan nations?

If we side with the traditional theologians, Eden’s serpent and the story contained in Genesis 3 must take on sweeping importance for Biblical interpretation. Under this reading the fallen human condition is the result of an ancient war between God and Satan for our souls—the climax of which is Christ’s eternal sacrifice for the sins of the world. Only by believing upon Christ’s death will sinful humans escape the age-old deception of Satan and enter the heavenly life after death.

If we take a more historical-political track, however, Eden’s serpent and Genesis 3 represent a marginal part of the Biblical story. True, they still explain how humans became fixed in a perpetual struggle against death, nature, and each other, but under this reading these unfortunate conditions are not the result of a demonic plot, but the result of some strange flaw in the human psyche: was it our desire to know more? was it our desire for autonomy? or was it all just an accident of fate—bested by a wiser being like Esau was by Jacob? The author of Genesis 3 doesn’t seem to know; or at least he doesn’t want to say.

Regardless of all this, it is not the difficulties of the human condition that the Bible centrally concerns itself with. The Bible is not, in fact, humanity’s story at all—it is Israel’s. It is the story of a particular people chosen by God to be his representatives among idolatrous peoples. By obedience to God they were to be a prosperous example to the nations, a powerful city on a hill. Surrounded by hostile but alluring pagan kingdoms, Israel failed in this task; because they could not faithfully obey God, they could not be his priests or his kings—and thus their dominion dwindled until it was no more, trampled underfoot by blasphemous kings and lawless peoples.

So the climax of this long story is not Christ’s eternal sacrifice for humanity’s sins and his apparent victory over the Edenic serpent; it is rather Christ’s unexpected subjugation of the demonic pagan nations through the suffering obedience of his eschatological communities throughout the Mediterranean. Only then did God’s people become an exalted kingdom of priests, teaching the nations righteousness and healing them of their idolatrous ways.

From beginning to end, this is the story Satan operates within—the story of Israel’s political existence at the margins of idolatrous empires. As such, Satan is not so much the tempter of individuals as he is the tester of Israel’s saints. This is why, for the early Christians, Satan spurred believers to assimilate to the dominant pagan culture, whether by threat of death and marginalization or by the lures of sinful desire. By pressuring Christians to reincorporate themselves into pagan life, Satan was yoking Christian communities to dying oxen. Once dissolved into the idolatrous society, these compromised communities would perish along with Satan and his pagan empire when the new age dawned.

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