When Satan Was a Trickster

About a week before he went into the MTC, my son, who had been studying the scriptures earnestly like a good missionary should, came down stairs with a look of amazement on his face and said, “dad, guess what I just figured out: the Book of Genesis never actually says that the serpent was Satan. It just says it was a snake.”

That meant, of course, that it was time for “the talk.” It went something like this.

Satan, my son, was a fairly late addition to the Hebrew scriptures. When the Book of Genesis was first set down, there was no concept of a being of utter darkness and evil. The God of these people, Yahweh, was plenty scary. But as Yahweh came to be seen ever more as a good and loving father figure, they needed a place to put all of the evil scary things that were once a part of God. And it didn’t hurt that the Jews at this time were deeply influenced by the Persians, who were theological dualists, meaning that they had a figure of of ultimate evil (Ahriman) to oppose their otherwise monotheistic God (Ahura Mazda).

Even in the Book of Job, which was written around 500 years after the earliest Genesis texts, Satan is not yet the Prince of Darkness. He is not even Satan. He is “the satan,” a member of God’s court who functions something like a prosecuting attorney combined with a store detective—he goes throughout the kingdom looking for people who are disloyal to the King (God in this case) and then prosecutes them before God for their disloyalty.

So we risk misreading the opening chapters of Genesis rather badly if we insist on seeing the serpent as a figure of ultimate evil. That is what the Christian (and Mormon) traditions have made the story, but it was not at all what the people who first told the story had in mind.

To understand what they did have in mind, we need to talk for a minute about the “trickster,” a character-type in nearly every culture’s folklore. The trickster is an agent of neither good nor evil. Rather, he (and, very infrequently, she) introduces chaos and randomness into a system that is stable and predictable. Tricksters are extremely important to the narrative component of mythic beliefs: without them, there can be no story, just a lot of perfect gods and perfect people being perfect.

Tricksters are the ones who get the ball rolling. The Greek Titan Prometheus was acting as a trickster when he stole fire and gave it to humanity, just as Sun Wukong, the Chinese Monkey King was when he trashed the Taoist heaven. And remember Maui—the guy who stole the Mother’s Heart in Moana—he was a trickster figure too. Big time. Often, the tricksters are talking animals, such as Anansi the Spider in African mythology or Coyote in Native American folk tales. They have become cartoon characters in our own media-saturated era. Bugs Bunny (a direct descendant of the Br’er Rabbit of the American South) was the pre-eminent trickster figure of my generation. For yours, I think, the most obvious example was Bart Simpson.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Satan wasn’t real, or that there isn’t evil in the world, or even that Satan was not part of the story of the Creation and the Fall. What I am saying, though, is that this is not a good way to read the earliest accounts that we have of those events. As you know, I am often less interested in reading the scriptures to find out what really happened in a historical sense and more interested in understanding what we can get out of the stories as they are told. For me, stories matter.

This is why I think that it is important to understand the Creation story in Genesis as a trickster story. When we read it this way, we see something very different than the normal Christian version of the story, which is so concerned with fitting a later version of Satan into the story that it misses almost everything important about it.

Tricksters, as I said, introduce chaos and randomness (which are not the same things, by the way, ask my good friend Steven Peck to explain the difference some day) into an otherwise stable order. In terms of narrative, stable orders are no good. They are predictable, stagnant, and boring. The Eden of Genesis is a stable as stories get: nobody worked, nobody got sick, nobody did much of anything. And, noticeably, there were no other characters in the drama: just Adam, Eve, and a perfect God.

And then the serpent shows up, and, all of a sudden, we get a story. Things happen. The plot moves forward. Adam and Eve come into conflict with God, and then they have children, and we get all the bad stuff like murder and sex and incest and death and destruction. But we also get all of the good stuff, like covenants and chosen people and prophets. But more than anything else, we get stuff. Stories. People to whom things happen. Without the serpent, the Bible would have been a very boring book.

And human life would have been very boring too—just a couple of people in a garden eating all of the approved fruits who didn’t even know that they were naked.

More than any other Christian denomination, Latter-day Saints believe that what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden was actually a good thing. This is the essence of Jacob’s sermon in 2 Nephi:

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (22-25)

As you interact with other Christians, on your mission and afterwards, you will get a sense of how different this belief is than the understanding of the Fall in other traditions. For Mormons, the Fall is an unqualified good thing.

Which is why your observation that the Book of Genesis does not actually say that the serpent is Satan is so important. It was never the intention of those who told the story to suggest that Adam and Eve were tempted by the incarnation of evil. That view of Satan did not develop until hundreds of years after the text had been set down. They were not tempted by an evil one, but tricked by a trickster into producing the story that we are still a part of today.

Comments

  1. Really great! (Except I wouldn’t list sex among the bad stuff–I’m just sayin’)

    Always enjoy reading, and Godspeed and congratulations to your son.

  2. Aaron Brown says:

    I’ve scoured my copy of Mormon Doctrine to find confirmation of what you’re saying here, but I just can’t find it. Could you please provide me with a page number?

    Aaron B

  3. Bookmark worthy. But it all comes down to “For me, stories matter.” Me too.

  4. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Satan wasn’t real, or that there isn’t evil in the world, or even that Satan was not part of the story of the Creation and the Fall.”

    Did the author feel like this was sort of a disclaimer to not upset orthodox members? Just curious, not trying to be combative. Barring the “there isn’t evil in the world” portion of the above statement (which we can all agree on), does the author really feel that Satan is a real being? I’m sure his view is more nuanced than that, but when I hear statements like this, I do like to dive in a bit deeper and ask what the author really feels about “Satan”.

  5. Id love to see a followup article to give some clarification into what your article means for an LDS perspective on Satan.

  6. Scott, I suspect that Mike didn’t lay out what he really feels about Satan because that’s irrelevant to the thrust of his post. His post here is about the literary conventions and necessities of Genesis. That is, he’s looking at how to address the text. And clearly there’s a connection between the biblical text and the world that surrounds us. But there’s value in reading scripture on its own terms, and the idea that the snake in the Garden was a trickster, and not a representation of pure evil, let’s us address Genesis in a way that’s largely been lost to Christianity for a long time.

    Also, not that I want to speak for Mike, but I’m going to speak for him: I suspect he views Satan a lot like this: https://youtu.be/v_piQJW49lI?t=15s

  7. Scottsma,

    All I mean by this disclaimer is that, for me at least, interpreting a story is not the same thing as doing theology. Whatever I think about Satan is separate from what I think that the people who wrote Genesis thought about the Serpent. But, for the record, I don’t think that Genesis was written in its final form by Moses as dictated from the hand of God. I think that it is a story that we have to interpret.

  8. Or, in other words, what Sam said.

  9. MDearest says:

    In our glorious diversity, as shown here in the comments, not all feel as you do that stories have inherent value. To some, they are evidence, to be carefully deconstructed and analyzed for the little nuggets of knowledge and what those signify.

    I prefer the approach I’ve gleaned from people like my sister the English major, who taught me about being literate as well as being literal, and how to tell the difference.

  10. Adam Ellsworth says:

    That’s a pretty insightful 18/19 year old. Very thought-provoking post. Thank you.

  11. “For [nearly all] Mormons, the Fall is [considered to be] an unqualified good thing.”

  12. I think the “trickster” was the evolution of self-awareness or self-recognition in human consciousness, the psychological emergence of this egoic separate self and separate independent identity in the world, and everything that goes along with it. It was a trickster in that it is not what we really are, but just what we *think* we are in our minds. And in thinking it, we gradually separated ourselves from God, we Fell from knowing our true reality as one with and part of the world. And as long as we continue tricking ourselves, as long as we cling to our identification with the self-centered ego and constructed illusion of self (which Christians personified as Satan and the son of perdition), we will be alienated from God, we will think we are still separate and isolated beings in the world, and will do all the things that separate and isolated beings do to protect and grow their egos at the expense of the rest of the world, others, and nature.

    The Good News is that we can crucify our ego, we can put off the natural man and carnal mind, we can take this son of perdition out of the way, we are saved from this ego, and then see reality as it really is, see what each and every one of us really is, which is a Saint, a Savior, a Christ, a Perfect, Whole, Complete, Pure, Anointed Being in Oneness with the world and the cosmos, who at-ones and is at-one with God always. That’s when we return to Eden, to the presence of God, and discover we are gods in God, and always have been, that the flesh and bones of God are *our* flesh and bones, and that *now* is the day of our repentance and of living Eternal Life as God lives, not after we die. Now is the time and the day of our salvation.

  13. I think the biggest difficulty in the view that the Genesis account is just a story, and Satan being nothing more than a trickster, is the book of Moses, chapter 4. The Genesis account is a pale shadow, thousands of years after the original.

    I think many Mormons, including the Prophet Jared (and Eve herself) make a post-hoc rationalization of the fall, to try and lessen the blow of Adam and Eve transgressing. We assume that if Satan had not convinced them, they would have never left the garden. We (as Mormons) leave out the Endowment that points out that the fruit was given to Adam & Eve on other worlds (not by Satan). The fruit was necessary, the sin was not.

    I know Satan is real, but much less powerful than we often give him credit. We would have had plenty of excitement without him. Life is scarcely boring without evil to liven things up. I seriously doubt Eden was as boring as many make it out to be either.

  14. Hell and Satan were in the Genesis Hebrew Scriptures. You sound like a worker of iniquity. Satan is a beast and not to be taken lightly. The devil is the god of this world who holds millions in captivity in hell and deceiveth the whole world. Satan was in the garden of God appearing as a serpent. Hell was created for Satan and his fallen angels cast out of heaven. This obviously happened before the garden since Satan was present. The serpent in itself is not an evil creature. Jesus Christ the Son of God compared himself to the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness in John Chapter 3.

    You are teaching new age heresy doctrine. The Father of lies wants to slit your throat and drink your blood. Satan is your enemy and adversary in every way imaginable.

    Get with the Gospel. You Mormons are open to too many spirits.

  15. Oh you didn’t hear? LDS believe Lucifer & Jesus to be brothers.

  16. LOL @ the Trumpkin troll

  17. My theory is that the serpent is a symbol of Christ from the beginning. Just as Lucifer attempts to be god, sit on god’s throne, mimic god’s priesthood, he steals god’s symbols. Moses lifted the Serpent in the wilderness and it healed. Jesus “descended below all things” much like a serpent is below all things as it doesn’t have legs. Nonetheless, God did say “upon thy belly shalt thou go” to Lucifer so there’s something there, too. Dunno. There’s more to be understood with the whole serpent thing for sure.

  18. Crash Course Mythology on youtube is covering this topic at the moment. its a great series.

  19. Frank Pellett,

    Just for the record, I don’t think that anything is “just a story.” Those words don’t even make sense to me on a visceral level. When I say that something is a story, I mean that it is part of the lifeblood that makes human culture and civilization possible–something that deserves utmost respect and consideration. Stories make us who we are. Some stories are based on actual history, and a very small (and extremely recent) subset of stories can be said to be documented history. That stuff is OK too. But it has nothing to do with how I read the Book of Genesis.

  20. N. Bailey says:

    The snake as a symbol of everything earth bound and 2nd law of thermodynamics stuff- all action leading to chaos and increased entropy, is enough of a fit to carry a lot of meaning and truth.

    Eat this fruit and you will go to where all things fall apart.

    Isn’t the ouroboros symbol Egyptian? that is perfect for a tricksters take on infinity, a snake eating its tail, eventually it eats itself, no perpetuation of life.

    Compared to a brass serpent that has been sacrificed and if you look to that pattern, “loose your life, and ye shall find it” type of behavior- that is christian infinity.

  21. Revelations 12: 9 So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

  22. Great post, Mike. I’m bookmarking it for when we read Genesis with our kids.

  23. I also just had a vision of a Bugs Bunny cartoon set in the Garden of Eden.

  24. Isn’t II Nephi 2, with it’s “opposition in all things,” about chaos and entropy being a necessary element of mortal life? We tell stories to make sense of things we don’t understand, and sometimes even God, I suspect, tells us stories for the same reason.

  25. Interesting how have helped your son… No Satan, No god..

    simple…

  26. Jane Hafen says:

    Good explication of trickster archetypes, traditions, and narratives.Talking serpent in Genesis is scripture; talking spiders and coyotes are mythology and folk tales. Hmmmm.

  27. Peter Bleakley says:

    I disagree that Mormons have abandoned the role of Satan as part of the heavenly host legal team as chief prosecutor along with other Christians for a being who is the totally terrifying source of all evil. Lucifer’s role in the Endowment is much more like your original model – he has his own role and authorised powers and he is able to speak to divine messengers and assert his rights and role while also being messed up in the head and vindictive and power-obsessed. It is much more reminiscent of his lawyerly role in Job negotiating with God about Job’s soul and initiating a test of his faith than the later images of him as a red devil unable to be anywhere near anything holy. Great article – thanks.

  28. Brother Sky says:

    I think kevinf is right. I also think the oppositional model isn’t really correct in my experience. To me it’s more a neoplatonic thing. Plotinus tells us that “evil” is really just a matter of being further away from the unifying principle (what he calls “The One”), so it’s not a binary system, its a unitary system/deity that we can either approach or retreat from. Simple. No need for Satan. And I take Frank Pellett’s point, too, about life being exciting enough without Satan. My sense is that Satan is an invention/story used to teach the concept of good/evil. My experience with temptation is that it’s much more psychological than spiritual. Reminds one of all of those medieval and renaissance paintings that feature a serpent that has Eve’s face; she’s tempting herself.

  29. Public Service Announcement: Michael isn’t saying that Lucifer isn’t real or that he doesn’t fulfill the role of “the devil” or “Satan” in LDS beliefs. He’s saying the account of the creation in the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention the Satan that Christians and Mormons believe in. He’s referring to the words of the story itself. Anyone can verify that by going back and reading what the words actually say. What we can know so far about the cultural context of those words and about the development of the idea of good vs. evil in that culture and the surrounding cultures supports the reality that the story contained in Genesis doesn’t refer to the Christian or Mormon Satan.

    Yes, later Hebrew scripture refers to Lucifer and much later Christian scripture refers abundantly to both Lucifer and Satan. And Mormon scripture expands dramatically on the person of Satan. Michael isn’t denying or opposing any of that. He’s focusing on what the Genesis account actually says. (I’m sure he would have a much different discussion with his son or daughter about the Mormon Book of Moses.)

  30. john f – I guess it’s just difficult for most of us to see the framing. The closing paragraph is the hardest part –
    “It was never the intention of those who told the story to suggest that Adam and Eve were tempted by the incarnation of evil. That view of Satan did not develop until hundreds of years after the text had been set down. They were not tempted by an evil one, but tricked by a trickster into producing the story that we are still a part of today.”
    The Mormon view is that Satan being evil predates the Genesis text. It’s a faded picture that’s been restored incorrectly. It’s the basis for Mormonism, a restoration of what was lost, not a retelling for an more modern culture.

  31. Michael’s point is about the people who wrote the Genesis account. That account says what it says, Frank, not what later Christian evangelists say (e.g. John in Revelation) or much later Mormon authorities (e.g. Joseph Smith in The Book of Moses).

    Yes, talking about what the text itself actually says rather than concepts that have been inserted into the referents of the actual text based on later revelation about principles is abstract and so can be difficult for some to grasp, especially if they don’t see any value in such endeavors because of their commitments to certain fundamentalist ways of reading scriptures that Mormonism has adopted from early-to-mid twentieth century Evangelical American Christianity.

  32. Thank you for commenting that. Revelation 20: 2 also states this. There is also this one: And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen. Romans 16:20. That verse is in allusion to the statement in Genesis that the woman’s seed would bruise the serpent’s head. (Genesis 3:15)

  33. “Without the serpent, the Bible would have been a very boring book.”

    Very much like 4 Nephi. Nothing to write about for 166 years. No story. Sort of like our idea of heaven. Oops, sorry to point that out.

    As for Bugs Bunny in the Garden of Eden, I think Roger Rabbit works better, with his “Eve” (Jessica).

  34. Did you just have a post MCU Thor conversation about trickster gods, and not mention Loki?

  35. The text can also be interpreted as a story of children differentiating themselves from their parents and leaving home. Sometimes an external impetus is necessary to get things moving.

  36. I think it is easy to walk into a disagreement with a typical faithful latter-day saint if you frame the argument like has been done. The post is operating under certain assumptions, which if aren’t shared will confuse people with thinking the map is the same as the territory — or in this case that the writings in the OT reflect what actually happened and what was actually understood at the time the writings were about instead of what was understood at the time the ink was put to paper (or skin or what have you).

    Clearly, the record of Genesis that we have was not actually from Adam’s writings or even Moses’ direct hand. But Someone else wrote them down, after someone else, and so on.

    So what the OP is telling us is not guaranteed to be what Adam taught. And he’s not even telling us what Moses believed or taught. The author is telling us his assumptions about the person who wrote down the account a couple thousand years after Moses and attributed it to Moses. Or something like that.

    When we frame it that way, sure we can all agree that the Jews at that point in time had lost many many truths from Adam or Moses’ time. They didn’t have the fullness of the gospel. That has not bearing whatsoever upon what happened in the Garden itself. And it reflects all the more importance in prophet

  37. The whole concept of Satan as an actual entity opposed to God was imported from the Persians, as Michael notes. Unfortunately, it makes no sense in creedal Christianity–if God is omnipotent and omniscient, then Satan cannot genuinely be opposed to God (because no opposition is possible against an omnipotent and omniscient entity).

    Mormon theology is a bit more ambiguous about the absolute supremacy of God, so Satan as Enemy doesn’t completely undermine it, but it’s still a bit iffy.

    The Jewish version, the “satan” that works for God, makes a lot more sense–but then, the Jews were never particularly concerned about whether their God was “good” or not.

  38. It’s worth noting that many see the deuteronomist tradition combined with the exile removing any Canaanite like elements from Judaism. There are strong indicates that prior to Josiah the Jewish religion was much closer to Canaanite religion. As such talking about the evolution after the exile kind of misses the point.

    Within Canaanite religion Mot seems to offer the most parallels to later Satan developments. That is it may well be influencing the later development as much as Persian and Babylonian traditions are. Further it may actually reflect an earlier strata of belief before such ideas returned to Jewish belief. In the Ugaritic myth cycle the brothers Baal (more or less like Jehovah) and Mot battle. Mot has been terrorizing the earth and Baal comes to battle him. During the battle Baal is killed. Baal’s sister kills Mot in revenge and grinds him like grain scattering his remains which resurrects Baal and restores the soil’s fertility.

    An other figure in Canaanite religion is Habayu who is a demon that spouts horns.

    There’s lots of other sources of influence on the later Jewish beliefs, but the more interesting question is how similar early (pre-King) Judaism was to Canaanite beliefs. Obviously the Jews didn’t practice human sacrifice although at times there appears to be syncrestic religion in Jerusalem. There’s overlap between the Jews ever since the conquest of Jericho. Likewise the Jews were prior in Egypt and we know they brought a lot of beliefs with them that Moses tried to stamp out. (Remember the golden calf)

    In this period we have Baal sometimes appearing as a devil like figure in contrast to Jehovah. We also have elements that appear to parallel the more Canaanite pantheon. From a Mormon perspective our own beliefs are closer to the pantheon than the strict monotheism that Judaism emerges from the exile with.

    My point is just to problematize the idea that any devil like figure has to emerge from during or after the exile. Certainly we can point to such elements. But it’s not hard to see good reasons to think there are pre-exilic notions with a devil like figure. Indeed perhaps a devil like figure who is much more in keeping with Mormon conceptions of the devil as a son of God and brother to Christ.

  39. “Tricksters, as I said, introduce chaos and randomness (which are not the same things, by the way, ask my good friend Steven Peck to explain the difference some day) into an otherwise stable order.”

    Just to add it’s worth noting the Jon Levenson argues that the earliest Hebrew creation accounts don’t have a completely omnipotent God who creates everything as the later Jewish and Christian accounts tended to. Rather creation is through combat – typically with the waters of chaos or their symbolism with dragons or sea monsters – with the waters surviving combat and creation needing to be continually recreated. In this view the stories of the flood are showing how this process can be reversed. So we have a system where chaos precedes creation and is never fully complete.

    Needless to say these often were elements the Jews shared with the Canaanites. Psalms 29 for instance has long been viewed as a Jewish adaptation of a Baal hymn. The flood is not the flood of Noah but the battle with the monsters in the sea of chaos.

    Again just noting that things are more complex than it seems if we see Satan like elements only as late additions.

  40. So, what I’m getting from this is Good Omens is The Most True and should be added to the canon. Yes, good.

    (More seriously, the day it hit me that Temple Satan /isn’t actually wrong/ and doesn’t seem to be at all /evil/, perhaps barring his temper tantrum towards the end, was a fascinating day for deeper thinking.)

  41. No reference to “tricked” on byutv?

  42. It seems satan, devils have power over the anmals, do spirits have to “possess” bodies or animals? (The gaderean swine)
    Why cant devils be content as just spirits?
    Why are you assuming a trickster would try to get eve to transgress?
    I ask bwcause where is the line between “trickster” minded and “evil” minded?
    Im hearing gollums voice.
    It is interesting that when satan does appear in scripture its as a good boss or even angel.
    Except for moses.
    Are tricksters evil? Do they work for satan?

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