Evidence #217 | July 26, 2021

Positive Serpent Symbolism

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Scripture Central


In the ancient Near East, there were a number of positive symbolic meanings of the serpent, several of which match the characteristics of Jesus Christ mentioned by Book of Mormon authors when comparing him to the biblical brazen serpent.

In the common religious symbolism of modern, western Christianity, the serpent is strongly perceived as a negative symbol associated with evil and the Devil. Yet in the ancient Near East, snakes had a wide range of symbolic meanings with both positive and negative connotations.1 In a comprehensive study of serpent symbolism in the ancient Near East, biblical scholar James E. Charlesworth identified 29 different positive associations with the serpent.

More in line with this ancient Near Eastern context, the Book of Mormon treats the serpent as both a negative and a positive symbol. In a couple instances, Nephite prophets identified the serpent with the Devil (2 Nephi 2:18; Mosiah 6:13). However, beginning with Nephi and continuing throughout Book of Mormon history, the brazen serpent raised up by Moses in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:4–9) is viewed as a type for Jesus Christ, and the act of looking upon it as symbolic of exercising faith in Christ (1 Nephi 17:41; 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:18–22; 37:46–47; Helaman 8:14–15; cf. John 3:14–15).

The Serpent as a Positive Symbol in the Ancient Near East

Brazen Serpent. Replica by David Baird. 

Among ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean societies, the most common and widespread use of the serpent was as a symbol of health and healing—and by extension, salvation.2 The deities of medicine and healing in Greek and Phoenician religion were symbolized by the serpent, and similar symbolism can be found in Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia.3 The Old Testament seems to draw upon this common motif in the story about the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:4–9). The serpent was, according to Charlesworth, “the quintessential symbol of healing, health, and rejuvenation in the ancient Near East, including Palestine, from circa 1850 BCE to at least 135 CE.”4

The serpent was also widely associated with life-giving properties, rebirth, resurrection, immortality, and eternal life.5 As a representation of the Egyptian goddess Wedjet, for example, “the cobra, or uraeus, became a generic Egyptian ideograph for the concept of immortality.”6 Manfred Lurker, an expert on ancient symbolism, explained that in Egypt snakes were “a symbol of survival after death.”7

Snakes were often used as symbols of royalty and kingship.8 In ancient Egypt, for example, the cobra (called a uraeus) is found on the Pharoah’s headdress, where it not only indicates his royal status, but also acts as a guardian of the king.9 Likewise, ancient Israelite stamp seals and other artifacts show winged serpents (the “fiery flying serpent” mentioned in Isaiah 14:29; cf. 1 Nephi 17:41) protecting symbols of royalty.10

The serpent could also represent God’s messenger, often used to administer God’s judgment and justice.11 An example of this is Isaiah 14:29 (cf. 2 Nephi 24:29), where the Lord warns Philistia: “from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder [or pit viper], and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent” (ESV, brackets added). As Charlesworth observed, “Here we confront in one self-contained passage the use of the serpent and the pit viper to symbolize God’s messenger.”12

Finally, the serpent was also a symbol for power, goodness, guardianship, and creation.13

The Serpent as a Symbol for Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon

Given all these associations, it is not hard to see why the Nephites, with their Israelite heritage, would use the serpent as a symbol of Jesus Christ. As Andrew Skinner pointed out, “Coming together in the person of Jesus Christ is a wide array of the positive powers and attributes of all those ancient Near Eastern deities ever associated with the image of the serpent.”14 Skinner continued by providing several examples:

Like the Egyptian Atum, Christ is the primeval creator deity (see Moses 1:32–33). Reminiscent of Amun, the supreme god of Egypt … Christ literally provides renewal and rebirth (see Romans 6:3–9; Mosiah 3:19; 5:7; Alma 5:14; D&C 5:16; and Moses 6:59–60). The goodness and bounties of life are not given to us by Thermuthis, the Egyptian goddess of harvest, but rather by Christ (see D&C 59:16–20). And resurrection and eternal life are not bestowed by Osiris but result from the atoning death of Jesus (see Romans 6:3–9; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Just as royalty and unity were symbolized by the serpent Wadjet of Egypt, royalty is truly to be ascribed to Christ the King, and unity is found in him (see D&C 38:27). Though in ancient Mesopotamia Ningizzida was regarded as the guardian at the door of heaven, the Book of Mormon teaches in unequivocal terms that Jesus is the true gatekeeper who employs no servant or substitute there [2 Nephi 9:41].15

Book of Mormon passages that mention or allude to the brazen serpent as a symbol for Christ also mention his role as Messiah, which is the true king of Israel (2 Nephi 25:19), they talk about healing (2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:21), salvation (2 Nephi 25:20), His rising from the dead and bringing resurrection to all (Alma 33:22), His role as judge on judgment day (Alma 33:22), and the giving of eternal life (Alma 37:46–47; Helaman 8:14–15). Each of these characteristics of Christ is also one of the many aspects of serpent symbolism in the ancient Near East.

Jesus on the cross. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Thus, as Skinner concluded, the Book of Mormon’s positive use of serpent symbolism is “perfectly at home in the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East.”16

Andrew C. Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation in the Ancient Near East and the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 2 (2001): 42–55, 70–71.

Bible Numbers 21:4–9Isaiah 14:29John 3:14–15Book of Mormon1 Nephi 17:412 Nephi 2:18 2 Nephi 25:19–20Mosiah 6:13Alma 33:18–22Alma 37:46–47Helaman 8:14–15


Numbers 21:4–9

Isaiah 14:29

John 3:14–15

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 17:41

2 Nephi 2:18

2 Nephi 25:19–20

Mosiah 6:13

Alma 33:18–22

Alma 37:46–47

Helaman 8:14–15

  • 1 For a helpful summary of both the positive and negative symbolism of the serpent, see Andrew C. Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation in the Ancient Near East and the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 2 (2001): 42–55, 70–71. See James H. Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010) for the most detailed study of the subject to date.
  • 2 See Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 254–256.
  • 3 See Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation,” 45, 47.
  • 4 Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 336.
  • 5 See Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 250–251, 259–261; Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation,” 44–47.
  • 6 Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation,” 45.
  • 7 Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1980), 108.
  • 8 See Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 238–239.
  • 9 Nicole B. Hansen, “Snakes,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 3 vols., ed. Donald B. Redford (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3:298; Lurker, Illustrated Dictionary, 125.
  • 10 See William A. Ward, “The Four-Winged Serpent on Hebrew Seals,” Rivista degli studi oreientali 43, no. 2 (1968): 137 fig. 1; Benjamin Sass, “The Pre-Exilic Seals: Iconism vs. Aniconism,” in Studies in the Iconography of Northwest Semitic Inscribed Seals, ed. Benjamin Sass and Christoph Uehlinger (Fribourg: University Press; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1993), 211 figs. 75–76, 215 figs. 77–81. See also Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Flying Fiery Serpents,” February 9, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 11 See Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 247–250; Nissim Amzallag, “The Serpent as a Symbol of Primeval Yahwism,” Semitica 58 (2016): 213, 217, 228.
  • 12 Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 248.
  • 13 See Charlesworth, Good and Evil Serpent, 225–234.
  • 14Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation,” 53.
  • 15 Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation,” 53–54.
  • 16 Skinner, “Serpent Symbols and Salvation,” 55.
Positive Serpent Symbolism
Book of Mormon

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