One of the consequences of rejecting certain foundational teachings of earlier prophets, such as Brigham Young, is that we find ourselves ever learning but never coming to an understanding of the truth. This is never more apparent than in the case of serpent symbolism. We agree that Satan is represented in the Garden of Eden as a serpent and we also agree that Jesus Christ is compared with the brass serpent raised up by Moses in the wilderness. What we haven’t been able to reconcile is the reason why they share the serpent as their representative. Some say that it was Christ’s before the foundation of the earth but that it was usurpeded by the Adversary (like so many other symbols have been). Some don’t have any explanation at all. But the answer is simple.
First let it be noted that, although the account in Numbers 21 omits the fact that these were “fiery flying serpents” we are talking about in the story of the brass serpent, 1 Nephi:41 makes that point clear. Moses would have made a brass image of a winged serpent and lifted it up on a pole. It's strange that the Bible should have omitted that because the early Christian fathers seemed to take that fact for granted.
What's more, across ancient cultures there is a wealth of imagery and lore connecting winged serpents with the divine, either as the attendants of gods or the gods themselves. Consider Quetzalcoatl of the Aztec tradition, whose name means "feathered serpent." We're not so much interested in the feathers as we are in its wings. Then we have the winged serpent chariots of gods such as Cronus, Medea and Demeter, as shown below.
What is it about winged serpents that makes them an appropriate figurative description for gods and their attendants? Remember what the Lord told Joseph Smith in answer to his question about the meaning of the four beasts spoken of by John the Revelator: "they are figurative expressions...to represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined order." The beasts surrounding the throne of God had wings that, according to the Lord, "are a representation of power, to move [and] to act." So the wing part of the equation is easy, thanks to modern revelation... and the serpent part should be easy as well, if it were not for the fact that we have regressed in our knowledge base.
Serpents are known to shed their skins. There. That's the secret. That is what makes them a fit symbol for resurrected, immortal beings. They shed their dull skins and emerge bright and new, recreating themselves afresh over and over. Sometimes we’ll see the snake eating it’s tail, called the Ouroborus, which is a redundancy on the concept of immortality. The phrase "be ye wise as serpents but harmless as doves" is a truism not because the snake is innately wise but because the serpent is (for the reason just stated above) representative of the immortalized being who, through age and experience, is wise.
Wait! You say. How can the serpent be a symbol of Satan if he is not a resurrected, immortal being? Ahh. But, you see, in the Garden of Eden, he was. He is like Aphosis (Apep), the evil snake of Egyptian mythology, in the story of the Ished Tree, who was dismembered by the god Ra in the form a a great cat. Like our own scriptures teach, in a veiled sort of way...Lucifer had a resurrected body, but he lost it. Nevertheless, he is still referred to as that "old serpent," a dragon even (whose wings would imply that he had greater power to move and act at one point in time).
Wait! You say. But how could the brass serpent represent Jesus Christ if Christ obviously would not have been a resurrected immortal being until AFTER he was lifted up on the cross?
The answer lies in the transcendent, eternally reaching nature of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, coupled with the fact that He is a link in the chain of redeemers. It was revealed through Brigham Young that "sin is upon every earth that ever was created. . . . Consequently every earth has its redeemer, and every earth has its tempter” (Journal of Discourses 14:71–72). Hence overlapping into our round of eternity, like one link of a chain overlapping into the next link, is the eternally reaching atoning power of the resurrected, immortal savior of our Heavenly Parents who, we are told (thanks again to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), passed through experiences similar to ours. After Christ's resurrection he became the "mediator of the new covenant" reaching both forward and backward within the scope of this eternal round and overlapping into the next link of eternity.
But that isn’t all. When you search for serpent symbolism across cultures you’ll come across some real gems. Below is a depiction of Fu Xi and Nu Wa, the mythological serpents who created humans in Chinese lore. They are the Chinese version of Adam and Eve. In an earlier post about Adam and Eve we talk about how they would fit the serpent symbolism perfectly.
It is thought that the word seraphim has to do with the Hebrew word for snake, “saraf.” Seraphim would mean “serpents.” How interesting, then, that D&C 109:79 prays “that we may mingle our voices with those bright, shining seraphs around [the] throne [of God.]” As reflected even down through the convolutions of mythological record, the serpentine attendants of the gods are surprisingly akin to the “seraphic hosts of heaven” (D&C 38:1). But what are they, really?
The serpents of ancient lore have such varying degrees of mobility (ie. legs vs. no legs, wings vs. no wings) it's likely to be a reflection of the different orders and classes of resurrected, immortal beings, to borrow language from the Doctrine and Covenants. Now, when we are told to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" we might understand to what we actually aspire.
What say ye?