(This is an excerpt from Verse by Verse, the Old Testament by D. Kelly Ogden, Andrew C. Skinner, and Ellis T. Rasmussen.)
Into this setting of the Garden of Eden came one called “the serpent,” who said, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Satan thus invited a reexamination of God’s admonition. This continues to be one of his tactics. The book of Moses (4:7) says Satan, or Lucifer, “spake by the mouth of the serpent” (Satan is a Hebrew word meaning “adversary.”) His motivation is clear from Moses’ account. He had already “drawn away many after him,” and “he sought also to beguile Eve, for he knew not the mind of God, wherefore he sought to destroy the world” (Moses 4:6).
After having ruined the progression of a third part of the hosts of heaven, he tried to ruin the entire plan of salvation by drawing away our first parents, especially the mother of the human family, one of God’s choicest daughters. Perhaps he understood that if you can ruin the mother, you can destroy the family. But ultimately Satan did not know what God knew; he did not comprehend the plan. The reason Satan was so interested in the adversarial role was, as Lehi taught, “because he had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind. . . . he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:18, 27).
The question of why Satan chose the serpent as his representative and symbolic image is not entirely clear in this text. Certainly, the serpent was regarded as “more subtil than any beast of the field” (v. 1; emphasis added). But this is also a play on words. The term “subtil” or “cunning” in Hebrew is ‘arum; the word for “naked” (v. 7), Hebrew ‘erum, is the same root, with only one vowel different. In addition, ‘arum also means “wise” or “prudent,” and this points us to something else about the serpent. As we shall see in Exodus, the serpent was a powerful symbol of Jehovah and hence of Jesus Christ (see commentary at Exodus 4:1–9 and at Numbers 21:1–9)
When Moses tried to remind Jehovah, after the prophet’s call to be the deliverer of Israel, that the people would look upon him as one without authority or credentials, Jehovah invoked the symbol of the serpent, “that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee” (Exodus 4:5; see also vv. 1–4). Later on, the serpent of Moses and Aaron consumed the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians, symbolic of the overwhelming power of the true and living God as opposed to the false gods of the Egyptians (Exodus 7:10–13). Pharaoh was believed to be a living god on earth, and the symbol of his divinity that he wore as part of his crown was the cobra.
Moses raised the brazen serpent in the wilderness, which was an instrument of physical healing for the people, but which also pointed to the physical and spiritual healing provided by the future Messiah. Hence, Jesus referred the Jews to the raised serpent as a potent symbol of his Messiahship (John 3:14–15). By usurping and manipulating the symbol of the serpent in Eden, Satan tried to validate his false identity and his lies, insisting that following his ways would elevate our first parents to the status of the very God represented by the true image of the serpent (Moses 4:10–11). Satan came to Eve clothed, as it were, in the garb of the Messiah, using the signs, symbols, and even the language of the Messiah, promising things that only the Messiah could rightfully promise. “(And [Satan] spake by the mouth of the serpent.) . . . And the serpent said unto the woman: Ye shall not surely die; . . . ye shall be as the gods” (Moses 4:7, 10–11). In reality only the One who would work out an infinite atonement could legitimately make these kinds of promises. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Satan is justly called a liar from the beginning.
(Moses 4:4; D&C 93:25). [pp. 41–43]