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.