Taught the first part of Lesson 4 yesterday — I say the “first part,” because we had 10 minutes of class time (thanks, Ward Conference!), and this lesson is important enough to bump Lesson 5 forward. See here for an example of how class is supposed to be done. So, in our ten minutes, I covered the Council in Heaven, Satan’s fall and the serpent. Next week we’ll do the Fall and the redemption (if Aaron Brown shows up). At one point, we read Moses 4:5-6:
And now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which I, the Lord God, had made. And Satan put it into the heart of the serpent, (for he had drawn away many after him,) and he sought also to beguile Eve, for he knew not the mind of God, wherefore he sought to destroy the world.
There’s a lot to unpack in those verses, and we didn’t try in our time to talk about why Eve, or why Satan would not know the mind of God, etc. Best leave that for next week. Instead, I asked: “was there really a snake?”
Moses 4 and Genesis 3 both say that the serpent is more subtle than any beast of the field. Not sure what this means, exactly, except that the use of subtle here is more linked to subterfuge and cunning than to fashion sense or understatedness. Did God create snakes to be more wily? Genesis 3 doesn’t mention Satan separately; instead, many readings view ‘serpent’ as another name for the Devil, and accordingly whether there was a physical snake or not is left an open question. But Moses 4 forces a more narrow view: Satan puts the temptation of Eve into the heart of the serpent. In other words, the JST seems to have a real talking snake.
Also note the reference to Satan’s influence over the created world: he has drawn away many after him. Presumably this includes some of the animal kingdom. This is I believe consistent with the Bible: the devil has power over snakes and can possess other animals in certain conditions (see, e.g., Mark 5:7-13). The worldview put out by Moses 4 is one in which the Devil has real power and is not merely a tempting spirit — we have already seen Satan’s attempts to destroy Moses personally (with echoes of the First Vision narrative), and now in the retelling of the Garden of Eden story that Satan is not just a passive observer but a physical participant.
When I asked the question, “was there really a talking snake,” a classmember of a certain age shouted out, “I don’t care!” That’s a fair reaction – we certainly don’t have to think about these issues if we don’t want to. Most of the rest of the class argued that the serpent was metaphorical, again a very conventional way of approaching the Biblical account. I tend to agree that that there was probably no actual talking snake — but this conclusion raises as many questions as it solves. Yes, we’re no longer faced with the logistics of a conversant reptile, but if there’s no snake, then who’s beguiling Eve? Is it all in her head? Is she conversing with the unembodied spirit of Satan? More importantly, if there was really no serpent, WHY MENTION ONE AT ALL? I don’t think the serpent is mechanically required by the text — after all, angels and ill spirits converse with people elsewhere in the O.T., so why not just go with that view instead? Further, if it is a metaphor, why the added explanation of possession/sway by Satan over the serpent in Moses 4? Writing off the snake as an image is clean in the short-term but it leaves us some messy textual questions as well.
I also found it interesting how people were quick to interpret some parts of the Creation as symbols, but not others, without any real reasoning behind one choice or the other. Snakes: metaphor. Fruit: metaphor. But you ask them whether Adam and Eve are symbolic, and the answer is almost always a very quick defense of a literal Adam and literal Eve. They existed, were formed from the clay and there was a real Fall that took place in Missouri. I tend to believe in a literal Fall, but maybe we need to pay attention to the text a little bit. If we’re so willing to swing wide the metaphor door for snakes and apples, we may find it harder than we’d like to clap it shut again for our Parents.