Evidence #95 | September 19, 2020

Snake Infestation

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The book of Ether records that a drought was followed by a snake infestation. The details of this account are plausible in light of ecological science as well as similar accounts from both ancient and modern times.

A Snake Infestation in the Book of Mormon

The book of Ether records what may at first seem like an unusual series of events:

  1. The people during the days of King Heth rejected the Lord’s prophets (Ether 9:28–29).
  2. The Lord then sent “a great dearth upon the land, and the inhabitants began to be destroyed exceedingly fast … for there was no rain upon the face of the earth” (v. 30).
  3. Afterwards, “there came forth poisonous serpents also upon the face of the land” (v. 31).
  4. The people’s “flocks began to flee before the poisonous serpents, towards the land southward” (v. 31).
  5. The serpents followed the flocks until the Lord caused “that they should pursue them no more, but that they should hedge up the way that the people could not pass” (v. 33).
  6. As far as they were able, the people also “did follow the course of the beasts” and “did devour the carcasses of them which fell by the way” (v. 34).1

Snake Infestations in both Modern and Ancient Times

Throughout history, snakes have caused humans a good deal of trouble. Hugh Nibley has highlighted several ancient accounts of human-snake conflict that, like the story in Ether, include snakes swarming human habitation after a period of drought, as well as snakes blocking a path of human travel:

Pompey the Great, we are told, could not get his army into Hyrcania because the way was barred by snakes along the Araxes, a stream that still swarms with the creatures. One of the chief philanthropic activities of the Persian magi was to make war on the snakes—a duty which must go back to a time when the race was sorely pressed by them. The Absurtitani were said to have been driven from their country by snakes, and Esarhaddon of Assyria recalls the horror and danger of a march by his army through a land “of serpents and scorpions, with which the plain was covered as with ants.” In the thirteenth century A.D. Shah Sadrudin set his heart on the building of a capital which should surpass all other cities in splendor; yet the project had to be abandoned after enormous expense when during a period of drought the place so swarmed with serpents that no one could live in it.2 

Death of the Serpents by James Fullmer.

It should not be surprising, in light of such reports, that the ancient authors and editors of the book of Ether would similarly draw attention to a vexing snake infestation.3 Such problems are apparently not too trivial to be included in ancient historical accounts.

The account in Ether is also consistent with ecological science. A number of natural conditions could have caused a spike in snake population, such as the reduction of natural predators or an increase of prey.4 In addition, many animals, including some species of snake, are known to migrate to new habitats during times of drought, usually in search of food or water.5 

Telling about a personal experience on a farm near Jericho, Book of Mormon scholar John A. Tvedtnes reported that most of the farm’s pumps had been destroyed, causing mice to migrate westward in search of cultivated fields. Serpents then followed the mice, which caused an unusual influx of vipers in areas of human habitation. Tvedtnes remarked, “My thoughts turned to the story in Ether 9:30–3, where we read that the Jaredites were plagued by ‘poisonous serpents’ during a time of ‘great dearth’ when ‘there was no rain upon the face of the earth’.”6 

According to geologist Jerry Grover, “In 2007, a large migration of venomous brown snakes invaded the city and suburbs of Sydney, Darwin, and other areas of Australia that had been hit by the worst drought in 100 years, biting many people. The snakes were seeking water, and were much more aggressive than normal, although brown snakes are known to be an aggressive snake.”7 In 2009 snakes swarmed into populated areas of southern Iraq in response to reduced water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. According to one medical administrator, “We knew these snakes before, but now they are coming in huge numbers. They are attacking buffalo and cattle as well as people.” Similar examples could be cited.9


The snakes in Ether migrated to rivers during the famine, blocking the way to the land southward. Image by Book of Mormon Central.

Such accounts suggest that a correlation indeed exists between droughts and snake migrations and infestations, at least for some species and in some circumstances.10 In light of such evidence, the story in the book of Ether is not by any means farfetched. It is expected that animals would migrate during a drought and that snakes would follow those animals, either in search of prey or in search of water, or perhaps both. Furthermore, it also makes sense for the snakes to have taken up residence in a new location, perhaps along the stretch of a lengthy river where water and food was more plentiful. This, in turn, would have provided a natural barrier to “hedge up the way” for southbound travelers, as described in Ether 9:33.

Whether the reported snake activity in the book of Ether was directly or indirectly caused by the Lord, the story certainly holds what Tvedtnes described as a “ring of truth about it.”11 Mesoamerican scholar Brant A. Gardner similarly felt that “what otherwise appears to be a fanciful tale contains surprising touches of authenticity.”12

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Snakes Infest Jaredite Lands During a Famine? (Ether 9:31),” KnoWhy 243 (December 1, 2016).

Jerry D. Grover Jr., Geology of the Book of Mormon (Vineyard, UT: Grover Publications, 2014), 206–210.

Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:265–267.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications—Drought and Serpents,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6, no. 1 (1997): 70–72; republished as “Drought and Serpents,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 262–265.

  • 1 It is important to note that the text doesn’t say the animals perished by snakebite. It may be that many, if not most, of them perished from the drought instead.
  • 2 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 5 (Salt Lake City and Deseret Book, 1988), 221.
  • 3 For relevant information on snake and human interaction in the Bible, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Drought and Serpents,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 263–264.
  • 4 See, for example, Jerry D. Grover Jr., Geology of the Book of Mormon (Vineyard, UT: Grover Publications, 2014), 208: “The description in Ether about the snakes maintaining high population densities blocking or ‘hedging’ passage of a particular area for a period of time might be explained by the lack or reduction of snake predators in conjunction with ample food supply, which may have occurred because of a significant removal of local bird predators as has been documented to occur as a result of volcanic eruption. There would be no competition from birds for the rodent or lizard food supply, and there would be no cap on the venomous snake population from direct predation by snake-eating birds.”
  • 5 In one study of a reported drought in Texas, the author was surprised to discover that, despite the decline of snake populations in other areas, a large number of snakes had congregated at a certain location called Sheff’s Wood. It was suggested that these “snakes may have been the result of animals leaving the surrounding farm ponds due to the drought and entering Sheff’s Wood looking for water sources.” Neil B. Bradford, “Ecology of the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon Piscivorus Leucostoma) in Northeastern Texas,” in Biology of the Vipers, ed. Gordon W. Schuett, Mats Hoggren, and Michael E. Douglas (Eagle Mountain, UT: Eagle Mountain Publishing, 2002), 167–177.
  • 6 Tvedtnes, “Drought and Serpents,” 262–263.
  • 7 Grover, Geology of the Book of Mormon, 208.
  • 8  Patrick Cockburn, “As Iraq runs dry, a plague of snakes is unleashed,” Independent, June 15, 2009, accessed June 6, 2019. See also, Lynn Peoples, “Snakes rattle war-torn Iraq,” Scientific American, June 16, 2009, accessed June 6, 2019.
  • 9 See, for example, Don Ayotte, “More Snakes Slithering into Lake Havasu City Area,” Havasu News, September 1, 2006; Eric Mayes, “Heat and Drought Bringing Snakes Out of their Dens,” The Daily Item, August 18, 2005.
  • 10 It should be noted that drought will not necessarily cause all snakes to migrate into human habitation in great numbers or to be unusually aggressive towards humans. For example, one study has shown that reported rattle snake bites in California increase after periods of rainfall rather than periods of drought. See Caleb Philips, Grant S. Lipman, Hallam Gugelmann, Katie Doering, and Derrick Lung, “Snakebites and climate change in California 1997–2017,” Clinical Toxicology 57, no. 3 (2019): 168–174. In addition, several studies suggest that snake behavior varies in response to environmental pressures like droughts. Examples of such variation, including instances of  increased or irregular migration, can be seen in the following sources: Richard A. Seigel, J. Whitfield Gibbons and Tracy K. Lynch, “Temporal Changes in Reptile Populations: Effects of a Severe Drought on Aquatic Snakes,” Herpetologica 51, no. 4 (1995): 424–434, esp. 431; John D. Willson, Christopher T. Winne, Michael E. Dorcas, J. Whitfield Gibbons, “Post-drought Responses of Semi-aquatic Snakes Inhabiting an Isolated Wetland: Insights on Different Strategies for Persistence in a Dynamic Habitat,” Wetlands (2006): 26: 1071; C. Kenneth Dodd Jr., “Population Structure, Body Mass, Activity, and Orientation of an Aquatic Snake (Seminatrix Pygaea) during a Drought,” Canadian Journal of Zoology 71, no. 7(1993): 1281–1288.
    11 Tvedtnes, “Drought and Serpents,” 265.
  • 12 Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:267. For a discussion of the many venomous snakes in the Olmec region (Veracruz and Oaxaca), which some scholars believe to be the general location of the Jaredites, see Gardner, Second Witness, 6:265; Grover, Geology of the Book of Mormon, 206–207.
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