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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: The Devil was Jealous

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January 18, 2011 Tags: Problem of Evil
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: The Devil was Jealous

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

In an earlier post, we looked at the serpent in Genesis 3. Some early interpreters identified him simply as a talking snake, while other saw him as Satan (or an agent of Satan). Most early interpreters took the latter approach.

Understanding the serpent as the devil, however, leaves open a pretty basic question in Genesis: why did the devil want to trick Adam and Eve in the first place? Granted, if the devil is God’s archenemy and wants to undermine God’s works, tricking Adam and Eve into disobeying God is a good idea. But why does such an archenemy exist in the first place? Is there something behind what Genesis 3 is telling us?

Ancient interpreters definitely thought so. Many argued that the devil was the leader of a group of angels who were jealous that Adam has been given such an elevated status in God’s creation.

There are two Old Testament passages that worked together to help create this impression among early interpreters. The first is Isaiah 14:12:

How you have fallen from heaven,
  O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to earth,
  You who once laid low the nations!

The Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, translates “morning star” as “Lucifer” and so being “cast down to earth” refers to Satan being cast out of heaven. This picture of Satan being thrown out of heaven is a misunderstanding of the Hebrew, however. The context of the passage is a taunt against the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4). He is being compared to a divine figure whom we now know of from Canaanite religion. The king of Babylon was claiming divine status, and Isaiah mocks him using his own stories.

So, in its original context the passage is likely not about the fall of Satan. But it came to be understood by some early interpreters as an indication of a prior conflict between him and God for which he was cast out of heaven. That conflict comes into play when asking, “Why did the devil set out to trick Adam and Eve?”

A second passage comes into play: Psalm 8:4-8. In these verses, the psalmist praises God for his creation (v. 3), and in the midst of all this wonder, asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” After all, here are these creatures -- man -- made by God, just like all the others, but yet they hold a special place. Of all the creatures, God made them “a little lower than God” and “crowned them with glory and honor” (v. 5). In fact, God made man “ruler over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet” (v. 6).

The psalmist considers this elevation of humanity to be motivation to praise God. But, perhaps not all were so supportive. The question raised among early interpreters was “I wonder how the angels felt about this?” Seeing mere creatures have such an exalted place, while angels, divine beings, are given no such royal status must have made some of them jealous. The angels simply fly about doing God’s bidding, sent down by God to help the humans along occasionally. It almost seems as if the angels serve the humans! One ancient story, Life of Adam and Eve, even says that the angels had been commanded by God to worship Adam! (See Life of Adam and Eve, 12:1; 13:2-3; 14:1-3).

So, for some interpreters, there was an elaborate drama that took place behind the events of Genesis 3. Those events, although not mentioned in Genesis, can be pieced together from other portions of the Bible. Some of the angels were jealous of man’s lofty status (as seen in Psalm 8), and Isaiah 14:12 gives us an indirect glimpse of a heavenly battle where the ringleader of the rebellion, later known as Satan, was cast out of heaven. Once landed on earth, the devil plotted his revenge against God by undermining the lofty status of humanity.

This is probably the most popular way biblical interpreters have come to understand why the devil did what he did. It was also brought into common Christian consciousness through John Milton’s seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost, where Milton writes about the Fall of Adam and Eve at the hands of the fallen angel Satan. Milton’s version of the Fall became very influential among Christians (directly or indirectly), although his poem greatly expands on how the biblical story itself is told by drawing on extrabiblical traditions.

Satan’s jealousy was explained one other way, and this was rooted in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you [serpent/Satan] and the woman.” Some early interpreters suggested that if God only now put enmity between them, there was no enmity before. Perhaps Eve and the serpent had been friendly. That might explain why Eve trusted the serpent when he began to trick her.

But what was the serpent’s problem? Why turn a friendly relationship sour? Because he was jealous—not of Adam’s exalted status in creation but of Adam having Eve to himself. We have, in other words, a love triangle.

And so we find in the case of the serpent who sought to kill Adam and marry Eve. God said to him: “You thought: I will kill Adam and marry Eve—now I will put enmity between you and the woman.” Tosefta Sotah 4:17-18

A second century Christian writer, Theophilus of Antioch, added another twist: Satan was overcome with jealousy when he saw that Adam and Eve had children (To Autolycus 2:29).

There are two questions concerning the serpent in Genesis 3: who is he and why did he do what he did? We looked at the first question in an earlier post and the second question here. Genesis 3 only gives us a rough sketch of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation and the disastrous consequences that resulted (Genesis 3:14-24), which included the introduction of death and expulsion from Paradise. With such dire consequences, early interpreters were intent to explain what set off such a scenario in the first place.

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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normbv - #47999

January 18th 2011

Here is an additional angle on Satan.
The Devil or Satan was a deceiver because he corrupted Adam’s purpose in the Garden. If we move into the realm of real peoples and Adam as Israel then who would Satan represent as the craftiest deceiver Israel encounters. Perhaps we can get a glimpse of the idea in Jesus statement comparing the Pharisaical Jews who idolized the Law as a “brood of vipers” whose father was the Devil. The Jews themselves embodied the Devil in beguiling them into a false dependence upon Law.  There were two “seeds” prophesied in Gen 3:15 one was the good seed of Abel who was a shepherd of the flock and the other was the bad seed of Cain who followed the path of his parentage and was a “worker” of the ground. Cain is portrayed to the early Christians as not the model to follow.

1Jn 3:12 ASV not as Cain was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his [WORKS] were evil, and his brother’s righteous.

Genesis was possibly written by Hebrews whom already had this concept in their mind and simply put it forth in an apocalyptic literary style.  The fallen angels could represent fallen leaders of Israel who become jealous of Christ yet were intimate with the people.

paulff - #48112

January 18th 2011


It is interesting how people interpreted the serpent in history, but what do you think the author originally meant?

Cal - #48122

January 19th 2011


Just a reflection on your comment:

Scriptures speak of the prophets pouring over them to understand the prophecy Israel had received, to know when the Messiah would come and what would He usher in. While the author had his own ideas and poetics to attend to, we have the benefit of understanding that world of prophecy, ” He will crush your head and you will bite His heal” through the eyes of Christ that the author would not fully know.

Chris Massey - #48126

January 19th 2011


Fascinating stuff. I never would have imagined the love triangle twist.

Can you give any references or links describing the “divine figure whom we now know of from Canaanite religion” to whom Isaiah is comparing the King of Babylon?

Pete Enns - #48186

January 19th 2011

Ha. Want me to do your research for you, huh?   There is a divine figure in Canaanite myth “Dawn” who was son of the high god El. This is typically how OT scholars understand “son of the dawn” in Isa 14:12, and this is reflected in such translations as NRSV and JPS “son of Dawn.” Actually, if you have the JPS Study Bible (and every Bible student should, I think), look at the note on Isa 14:12. It also mentions a Greek myth of Phaethon son of Eos (radiant one, or dawn), who was cast down to earth by Zeus for being presumptuous. Both very interesting potential connections to what Isaiah is drawing on in slam dunking Babylon’s arrogance.

Your “additional angle” is interesting but remember the point of all of these posts: there is always an additional angle, and highly competent and engaged interpreters have been exploring them for over 2 millennia. Yours is one midrashic attempt among many to fill in the gaps of Genesis (although your last paragraph is a bit of stretch, don’t you think?).

Genesis is a fascinating, challenging, and pivotal text, folks. That’s why people of faith have been coming back to it since before the time of Christ—and still do.

Pete Enns - #48189

January 19th 2011

And Chris, my apologies. I am asleep at the switch this morning. I looked back over my own post (that I WROTE!!!) and see that the sparse info I gave you I had already included in the call out box at “Canaanite religion.” So, as to sources, I have no hesitation recommending good wikipedia articles, and the one on Lucifer is a good place to start that will lead to other things. Also, it should go without saying (but I will anyway) that with this issue of Isa 14:12, as with virtually every other syllable in the OT, there is some discussion. Most but not not all are convinced that a Canaanite myth lies behind this passage (though sometimes there is an apologetic reason behind it).

normbv - #48222

January 19th 2011


Your point is well taken, however I believe the NT interpretation and application helps us clarify generally who these various players are. I believe all of this falls into the Hebrew eschaton concerning the coming Messiah and so we can eliminate the past 1900 years of church speculation that applies it to every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along.

Identifying the OT “Beast” character is a good place to start as it is foundational to understanding that the basic character of a Beast figure is one who sets himself up outside God’s Dominion or jurisdiction. King Neb in Daniel provides a prime example of how one could actually move into the status of a “Beast” and then back to becoming acceptable again. [Dan 4:16, 5:21]  Also the identification of the four Kingdoms’s represented by the rulers of Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome as Beast from the Sea is followed up in Revelation 13:1 as becoming fulfilled prophecy.  But there is an additional Beast that rises not from the Sea [representing Gentiles] but one who comes from the “land” [Israel].

Rev 13:11   And I saw ANOTHER BEAST coming up out of THE LAND, and it had two horns, LIKE A LAMB, and it was speaking AS A DRAGON,


normbv - #48223

January 19th 2011

It was a Beast like the “crafty one” that was inside the Garden with Adam and was thus able to deceive even more than the Beast from without. Notice the allusion “like a lamb” denoting its Jewish connection yet it too was like a dragon which also is a metaphor of one who challenges God’s authority [as apostate Jews did concerning Christ authority]. All these icons and motifs are found through examining their applications within the OT and intertestamental literature.

This gets back to my point that in my opinion it is important to recognize the timing of when Genesis was constructed. If it was indeed compiled around 600-400BC then we would have to say it was nearly contemporary with and highly influential to literature such as Ezekiel,  the Book of Enoch and Jubilees more than we have previously considered. This could mean that the Messianic interpretation that we find in Ezekiel and Enoch are also well entrenched within Genesis as it appears to be in my opinion.

The question becomes would there have been at the time of the Genesis writing a thinking that within their own leadership of Judaism their own leaders would have been considered as the “crafty antagonist”? 


normbv - #48224

January 19th 2011

I believe there is ample evidence within the OT, and Ezekiel especially speaks to this issue that indeed the “Shepherds” were already found negligent and were being condemned and in need of replacing.

Eze 34:2 `Son of man, prophesy concerning shepherds of Israel, …  WOE TO THE SHEPHERDS OF ISRAEL, Who have been feeding themselves! The flock do not the shepherds feed? … 5 And they are scattered from want of a shepherd, And are for FOOD TO EVERY BEAST OF THE FIELD, … 16 The lost I seek, …  And THE FAT AND THE STRONG I DESTROY….

The Beast of the Land in Rev was also the one who leads astray and that is what Ezekiel prophesied about Israel’s Shepherds and their bad influence would be replaced by God himself [ through Christ].

Rev 13:14 YLT and it LEADETH ASTRAY THOSE DWELLING ON THE LAND, because of the signs that were given it to do before the beast, SAYING TO THOSE DWELLING UPON THE LAND TO MAKE AN IMAGE TO THE BEAST that hath the stroke of the sword and did live,

This is just a taste of how it appears the story is unfolding from within scriptures if we read it with an understanding of the Imagery and don’t let the symbolism throw us off.

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