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