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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: A Crafty Serpent

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November 16, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: A Crafty Serpent

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

The earliest interpreters of the Bible—just like modern ones—where curious about the serpent mentioned in Genesis 3. He is introduced as “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (v. 1). He then proceeds to dupe Eve into eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge.

This episode raises a number of well-known questions. Is there more to this snake than just being “crafty?” After all, he can talk and he seems to have it out for the first couple.

Genesis 3:1 presents the serpent simply as an animal. But how to explain his ability to talk? Some interpreters suggested that at first all animals were able to talk. The second century BC book of Jubilees says that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, “the mouth of all the beasts and cattle and birds and whatever walked or moved was stopped from speaking because all of them used to speak with one another with one speech and one language” (3:28). Philo said that, “in olden times…snake could speak with a man’s voice” (On Creation 156). The historian Josephus said, “at that time all living things spoke the same language” (Jewish Antiquities 1:41).

This explanation may strike modern readers as a bit fanciful, but perhaps not more fanciful than the presence of a talking snake in the first place. For these early interpreters a talking animal posed a problem that they felt they needed to solve.

Some also handled in the same way the serpent’s unusual punishment: condemned to crawl on his belly (Genesis 3:14). Don’t serpents do that anyway? But some early interpreters surmised that serpents originally had legs like other animals. Of all the animals on earth, they alone lost their legs because of what this one serpent did.

In either case, there was nothing supernatural about the serpent.

Other interpreters took a different approach, and one well known to Christian readers. The serpent’s craftiness and ability to talk are supernatural powers: the serpent was Satan, or perhaps an agent of Satan. This explanation had the advantage of making more sense of the promise of “enmity” between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed (3:15). If the serpent was just a regular animal, Genesis 3:15 would simply be talking about how people would view snakes. Admittedly, it is true that most people really do have a special fear of snakes, but such an explanation seemed terribly anti-climactic as a focus of this important story. Many interpreters concluded that there is something more going on here than a story about a snake.

The Old Testament itself nowhere makes the connection between the serpent in the Garden and Satan. In fact, after this episode, the serpent is not mentioned again in the Old Testament. In the New Testament he seems to make his appearance in Revelation 12:9. There he is referred to as “the great dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, who was cast out, he who deceives the whole world” (see also 20:2).

Not all scholars, however, think this is an allusion to the serpent in the Garden but to the ancient symbol of chaos known to us from other ancient literature. The serpent also appears in several biblical passages such as Isaiah 27:1, where he is referred to as Leviathan: “In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword—his fierce, great and powerful sword—Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.” Furthermore, the highly symbolic nature of the book of Revelation is reason to pause before jumping to conclusions.

Still, Revelation 12:9 refers to the serpent “deceiving” and this may be an allusion to the Garden episode. Other early interpreters read the Garden story similarly, identifying the serpent with Satan or one of his agents. For example, in 1 Enoch 69:6, the serpent is “the third [fallen] angel Gadreel.” In the Apocalypse of Moses 16:4 and 17:4, the serpent becomes the devil” “vessel” for speaking. According to one of the Targums (Pseudo-Jonathan), it was a wicked angel Sammael. With this understanding of the serpent, the promise of enmity was understood as the war between subsequent humans and the devil.

One interesting dimension that has been discovered anew in modern times is how snakes were viewed in other ancient religions. In the Gilgamesh epic, the magical plant that would have rejuvenated Gilgamesh was stolen by a snake. Most scholars see some parallel here with the loss of immortality in the biblical story.

Additionally, snakes were associated with wisdom in Egyptian religions, which may also parallel the biblical story. Gaining knowledge of good and evil is a goal of wisdom for the Israelites, but it has to be gained God’s way (hence the injunction in Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). The serpent in the Garden tempts Eve to seize wisdom in an illicit way—through disobeying God.

Many biblical scholars today see these themes at work in the Garden story in Genesis, and so see the serpent as an ancient and powerful symbol of the loss of immortality and wisdom.

The serpent is a central figure in the Garden story, but slithers in and out of the story somewhat mysteriously. He continues to attract the attention of biblical interpreters to this day.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Martin Rizley - #40379

November 17th 2010

When Paul tells the Romans, “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly,” he is echoing Genesis 3:15 and telling the believers in Rome that in Christ—the woman’s seed ’par excellence’—they themselves have become ’offspring of Eve’ and will participate in Christ’s victory over Satan, by crushing his body under their feet, even as Christ dealt a mortal blow to his head on the cross.

normbv - #40386

November 17th 2010

Martin Rizley

Yes that is it.

1Jn 3:11-12 ESV For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.  (12)  We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.

Joh 8:44 ESV You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Eph 6:12 ESV For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Bilbo - #40427

November 17th 2010

Ezekiel 28:12-17, compares Tyre to someone in the garden of Eden.  It doesn’t say specifically that it was the serpent, but that seems to be what it is referring to.

Ryan G - #40554

November 18th 2010

G.K. Beale suggests that Ezekiel 28 is referring to Adam (esp v. 13 - the stones indicating a priestly garment, along with his theme of Adam appointed as priest of the first “Temple” in Eden).


I suppose that passage could apply both to Satan and his co-opted representative, Adam -  one prophecy, multiple fulfillments.

hashavyahu - #40565

November 18th 2010

Beale doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  All the reference to Eden in Ezek 28 means is that both Ezek and the author of Gen 2-3 knew a tradition about a pristine garden called “Eden.” Adam and Eve are conspicuously lacking in Ezek 28, and there is no good evidence that Ezekiel knew or referred to Gen 2-3, Adam, or a snake.  Its easy to assume that since Ezekiel comes later than Gen in the canonical bible, that he actually knew Gen, but there isn’t enough to evidence to conclude that.  In any case, if there is a literary, as opposed to tradition-historical, relationship between Ezekiel and Gen, it would have to be argued for rather than assumed.

Also, let’s not forget that this prophecy is really about the king of Tyre in the 6th century BCE.

Bilbo - #40590

November 18th 2010

The traditional Hebrew text seems to rule out Adam and rule in an angelic being of some kind:

“I created you as a cherub
With outstretched shielding wings; (v.14)
“And I have destroyed you, O shielding
cherub,...” (v. 16)

And then

“I have cast you to the ground” (v.17)

A serpent-like ending.

Dale - #40801

November 19th 2010

a couple of comments. 

First, hashavyahu has it right concerniong Ezekiel.  It is a prophecy concerning the King of Tyre, and not satan.

Second, the greek meaning for the word satan is “adversary:.  Could it be that there never was an angel, being, or serpent, and that anything that is our adversary is considered our satan?  I like the symbolism of satan being the “law”, as is our “flesh”.  Both are our adversaries.  Just a thought….

Bilbo - #40952

November 20th 2010

@Dale - #40801:

First, hashavyahu has it right concerniong Ezekiel.  It is a prophecy concerning the King of Tyre, and not satan.

Yes, it is a prophecy concerning the king of Tyre.  However, it seems to be done by comparing him to someone in the garden of Eden.  For example, if I said, “Dale is Einstein,” I’m talking about Dale and comparing him to Einstein.  Thus the information we are told about this somebody in the garden of Eden becomes significant.  If I had said, “Dale is Einstein, brilliant beyond all human beings,”  I would be saying that Einstein was brilliant beyond all human beings, and that Dale is just like him.  It’s not clear that the someone in the garden is Satan, but apparently an angelic being.

Robert - #41318

November 23rd 2010

Dale you have it dead-on imho. Satan= adversary. In Kings and Chronicles   there is a verse where the exact same word, which in Hebrew is actually ha-satan or the satan, meaning function as opposed to a proper name. God is said to be Davids *satan*  i.e. adversary. Hmmmm now why do the translators use adversary here and not satan?? Could it be theological bias???

Isaiah and the lucifer passage are notoriously used to prove lucifer is satan the fallen angel. If you look at the context though, Isaiah is speaking about nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. Jeremiah says that the human heart is wicked above all else. Hmmm I thought a supernatural fall angel evil being would certainly be far more evil than the human heart, especially since he rebelled against God to begin with right??? 

If we exegete all the passages where satan is used, and substitute adversary, it becomes a lot more clear that satan is like Dale said, humans or our innate sinful condition adversarial to God

Jon Garvey - #42413

December 3rd 2010

@Robert - #41318

I guess you mean 1 Ch 21 and 2 Sam 24, where the former has “satan” and the latter “God” inciting David. That seems better explained by Chronicles justifying God, or maybe nuancing the story, to supply an intermediary between David and God. It’s going beyond the text to insist on a human adversary, since all David’s advisers are against the census.

There are about 15 other OT uses of “satan” where AV translates “Satan” rather than “adversary”: all but 3 are in Job, where he is one of the assembly of the Sons of God - so neither human nor a personification of our sin.

2 are in Zechariah where Joshua the priest stands before God’s angel while Satan accuses him - again, a supernatural setting, in which God rebukes Satan and defends Joshua, so not likely to be his sinful condition nor a human enemy.

The last is Psalm 109 where the meaning could parallel either “an evil man” or “the evil one”, so NIV differs from AV here and translates “adversary”.

All the New Testament references clearly echo belief in a personal devil, if only because that was the lingua franca of 1st century Judaism.

Hardly a conclusive endorsement of your suggestion, IMHO.

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