The long war between God and the lesser gods who rebelled began on a mountain, and it will end on a mountain.
First things first: The rebel gods are real. That’s not something you’re likely to hear in church. Not only have we been taught that the pagan deities of the ancient world were imaginary, most American Christians today don’t even believe in Satan or the Holy Spirit.
That’s not an exaggeration. The Barna Group found in a 2009 survey of American Christians that only about one in three believes Satan is real and not just a concept. Likewise, nearly 60% of American Christians said they didn’t believe the Holy Spirit is living entity. So it’s not surprising that when we think of Baal, Asherah, Moloch, Dagon, Chemosh, Marduk, and the rest of the pagan pantheon mentioned in the Bible (if we think of them at all), we assume they were nothing more than lifeless blocks of wood and stone.
We couldn’t be more wrong.
The true story begins on a mountain: Eden.
But wait, you say, Eden was a garden! Yes, it was. A garden on a mountain.
In Ezekiel 28, God tells the divine rebel from Eden:
You were an anointed guardian cherub.Ezekiel 28:14 (ESV)
I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God;
in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.
If you read the Old Testament carefully, you’ll notice many references to God’s holy mountain. The prophets knew that the war between the rebellious fallen gods and the Creator was all about who would establish their holy mountain—the “mount of assembly” or “mount of the congregation”—as supreme.
The most obvious reference is in Isaiah 14, a section of scripture that scholars generally agree is a parallel to Ezekiel 28:
“How you are fallen from heaven,Isaiah 14:12-15 (ESV)
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. [Emphasis added]
Over the course of this special five-week series, we’ll dig deeper into the conflict between God and the rebels and explore the importance of cosmic mountains. We’ll identify key battles in the long war and lay out a prophetic scenario for the final battle of this age.
Above all, we’ll show you a glimpse of this long war in the heavenlies, and where you can find it in the Bible. It’s a conflict that the prophets and apostles knew was real, but over the last two thousand years our churches have teaching us about it. With this war stripped out out of the Bible, we’re left with an incomplete story of God’s plan to save us from the gods who want to kill us and destroy everything we love.
So let’s start at the beginning. What do we know about the enemy? Was it a talking snake?
In a word, no.
So who or what was the serpent? Most of us assume it was Satan, but maybe not. The serpent isn’t named in the book of Genesis. In fact, Satan wasn’t even a personal name in the Old Testament.
Satan means “accuser,” written ha-shaitan in the OT. It’s a title, the satan, so it really means “the accuser.” Think of it as a job title, like “prosecuting attorney.”
The adversary in the Garden is the nachash, which is the word translated into English as “serpent.” It’s based on an adjective that means bright or brazen, like shiny brass. The noun nachash can mean snake, but it also means “one who practices divination.”
In Hebrew, it’s not uncommon for an adjective to be converted into a noun—the term is “substantivized.” If that’s the case here, nachash could mean “shining one.” And that’s consistent with other descriptions of the satan figure in the Old Testament.
For example, in Isaiah 14, the character called Lucifer in the King James translation, based on the Latin words chosen by Jerome (lux + ferous, meaning “light bringer”), is named in Hebrew Helel ben Shachar—”shining one, son of the dawn.”
Now, consider this in Daniel 10:
I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. [Emphasis added]Daniel 10:5-6 (ESV)
Obviously, “shining one” is a good description of the angel who battled the prince of Persia, another supernatural being, to bring his message to Daniel.
About 900 years before Daniel, when the Israelites started complaining on their way out of Egypt (see Numbers 21:4-9), God sent saraph nachash (“fiery serpents”), to bite them. Saraph is the root word of seraphim, which roughly means “burning ones.” But the key point of these verses in Numbers 21 is that the Hebrew words saraph and nachash are used interchangeably. So rather than “fiery serpents,” the translation should read “saraph serpents”.
Deuteronomy 8:15 praises Yahweh for bringing Israel through “the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents,” reinforcing the interchangeability of saraph and nachash.
Now, if the mental image of flaming snakes isn’t weird enough, the prophet Isaiah twice referred to flying serpents (saraph `uwph, in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6). And in his famous throne room vision, Isaiah saw:
…the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.Isaiah 6:1-2 (ESV)
Again, the root word of seraphim is saraph, the same word translated “serpent” in Numbers and Deuteronomy. In fact, aside from Isaiah 6, every single mention of seraphim in the Old Testament refers to serpentine beings!
The flying serpent was a well-known symbol in the ancient Near East, especially in Egypt. It would have been very familiar to the Israelites. The uraeus, a cobra standing on its coil with its hood extended, was a royal symbol of protection used by pharaohs and Nubian kings. Tutankhamun’s death mask is an excellent example; the uraeus’ hood is depicted with six distinct sections that look a lot like wings.
Of course, some scholars cite this as evidence that the Hebrews’ understanding of seraphim was influenced by, or borrowed from, Egyptian cosmology. That’s a common message from skeptics—Israel copied its religion from its neighbors. We’ll deal with that later.
The bottom line is this: What Adam and Eve saw in the Garden wasn’t a talking snake, but a nachash—a radiant, divine entity–one that very likely had a serpentine appearance.