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 tend to 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. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.
Ezekiel 28:14 (ESV), emphasis added
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, 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.
Isaiah 14:12-15 (ESV), 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.” (Interestingly, Šahar was a Canaanite deity, so a better translation of the verse is “Day Star, son of Dawn.” And that leads to some interesting speculation about the nature and origin of Helel. Were Helel and Šahar two of the fallen gods? But I digress.)
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.
Daniel 10:5-6 (ESV), emphasis added
Obviously, “shining one” is a pretty 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 saraphnachash (“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 “saraphserpents”.
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), emphasis added
Again, the root word of seraphim is saraph, the same word translated “serpent” in Numbers and Deuteronomy. In fact, aside from the Isaiah 6 passage above, 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, very likely of serpentine appearance.
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Now, since you’re paying attention, you’ll remember that the divine rebel in Eden, the nachash of Genesis 3, was called a guardian cherub in Ezekiel 28. As we just showed you, nachash and saraph, the singular form of seraphim, are interchangeable terms. But if the rebel in Eden was one of the seraphim, how could he also be one of the cherubim?
Good question. Cherubim are mentioned more frequently in the Old Testament than the seraphim. They are usually referenced in descriptions of the mercy seat on top of the Ark of the Testimony or carved decorations in the Temple built by Solomon. The exceptions are the cherubim who guard the entrance to Eden and the four cherubim Ezekiel saw in his famous “wheel within a wheel” vision by the Chebar canal.
The modern image of cherubim has been shaped by artists in the Middle Ages—cute, chubby little boys with dinky wings who filled up the empty space in religious paintings. Nothing could be further from the biblical and archaeological truth. Cherubim are seriously bad dudes you do not want to mess with. For more, see Josh Peck’s book Cherubim Chariots.
The cherubim of the mercy seat are usually shown as a matched pair of plainly recognizable angels perched on top of the ark with their outstretched wings touching in the middle. The Bible doesn’t describe these cherubim, telling us only that they have wings and faces. Why? Apparently, everybody in the 15th century B.C. was familiar with what a cherub looked like, and they knew it was right and proper for them to serve as Yahweh’s throne-bearers. You see, God appeared to men above the mercy seat “enthroned on the cherubim.” (See Numbers 7:89; 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2: Psalms 80:1 and 99:1; and Isaiah 37:16.)
But the cherubim that Ezekiel saw looked like something from a nightmare:
…this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze.
Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went.
As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle.
Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went.
As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.
Ezekiel 1:5-14 (ESV), emphasis added
While these living creatures aren’t identified as cherubim in these verses, they are specifically called cherubim in Ezekiel 10.
So how do we read this? These creatures sound nothing like the shining serpentine seraphim. What’s even more confusing is the description Ezekiel gives of another type of angelic being, the ophanim—the wheels that UFO hunters love to call spacecraft. They seem to be related somehow to the cherubim:
And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub, and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling beryl. And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went. And their whole body, their rims, and their spokes, their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes all around—the wheels that the four of them had. As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing “the whirling wheels.”
And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Ezekiel 10:9-14 (ESV), emphasis added
Wait—the ophanim had the face of a cherub and the face of a human? What’s the difference? Why a cherub instead of an ox for the fourth face? Is there some connection between the cherub and the ox?
Well… maybe. The word cherub probably comes from the Akkadian karibu (the “ch” should be a hard “k” sound, although we English speakers don’t usually say it that way). It means “intercessor” or “one who prays.” The karibu were usually portrayed as winged bulls with human faces, and huge statues of the karibu were set up as divine guardians at the entrances of palaces and temples. This is like the role of the cherubim placed “at the east of the garden of Eden… to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24, ESV)
This is speculation, but the divine rebel in Eden, the anointed guardian cherub, might have protected the tree of life once upon a time.
Cherubim were the gold standard for guarding royalty in the ancient Near East. In Assyria they were called lamassu, and the Akkadians called them shedu. They were sometimes depicted as winged lions rather than bulls and they were often incorporated into the thrones of kings.
So the function of the biblical cherubim, guarding the tree of life and carrying the throne of God, was entirely consistent with what the neighbors of the Israelites knew about these beings. Based on archaeological finds in the Levant (modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel), the cherub was probably more like a winged sphinx than a humanoid with wings.
In other words, the presence of the cherubim in the Bible wasn’t something the Hebrew prophets just made up. The cherubim were known by different names by the other cultures of the ancient Near East, but they served a similar role in all of them. The cherubim were supernatural bodyguards for the throne of Yahweh, and their imagery was appropriated by earthly kings. A bit of hubris, no doubt encouraged as a PSYOP by the Enemy. Remember, “you shall be as gods.”
The consequences of the rebellion in Eden were immediate and harsh:
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” […]
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”
[T]herefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 3:14-15, 22-24 (ESV)
For centuries, well-meaning Christians have pointed to Genesis 3:14 as the moment in history when snakes lost their legs. That misses the mark entirely by desupernaturalizing the story. God didn’t amputate the legs of snakes; He was describing the punishment the nachash would suffer in figurative language. Even casual observers of the animal kingdom know that snakes don’t eat dust.
What happened was this: The nachash was cast down from the peak of the supernatural realm, “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” to become lord of the dead.
What a comedown! Isaiah 14 makes a lot more sense when you keep a supernatural worldview in mind:
Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.
All of them will answer and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!
Isaiah 14:9-10 (ESV)
Remember these verses because we’ll come back to them later in this series. The “shades” referenced by Isaiah are the Rephaim (root word rapha), a mysterious group mentioned several times in the Old Testament. The Rephaim weren’t an invention of the Hebrews, either. They were well known to their neighbors. We’ll examine them more closely a forthcoming article in this series.
For Adam and Eve, the banishment affected the two of them and all their descendants through the present day. Instead of living with God as members of His council, we humans have struggled for millennia to make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense. The memory of our brief time in the garden of God has echoed down the centuries, and it may be the source of our belief that mountains are somehow special, reserved for the gods.
The main takeaway of this article is this: Eden was a lush, well-watered garden “on the holy mountain of God,” which was where Yahweh presided over His divine council. The council included the first humans. They walked and talked with the supernatural “sons of God” who, based on clues scattered throughout the Bible, were beautiful, radiant beings. At least some of them were serpentine in appearance.
The long war between Yahweh and the sons of God who rebelled is not just about control of the spirit realm, it’s also about whether humanity will be restored to its rightful place in the seat of the gods—among the divine council on the Holy Mountain of God.