Who Was the Serpent in the Garden of Eden?

IndiancobraThe temptation of Eve is one of the most well-known stories of the bible. Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, she shares a bite with Adam, and they realize their nakedness. God discovers their futile efforts to cover their private parts and curses them to a hard life of toil and pain outside the Garden. If the bible is the story of mankind’s tumultuous relationship with God, then that tumult starts right here with mankind’s first ever exercise of free will and the first time that he defied his maker.

But who was that mysterious serpent that started the wheels of rebellion turning? Jews and Christians approach this bible story differently. Christians at least have a clear answer to this question: the serpent was Satan who has snuck into the Garden to lead God’s new creation astray. But for Jews, the answer is less easy. Was the serpent a metaphor? A talking animal? Something else?

This post will explore the ways that Jews and Christians have come to understand the bible’s first antagonist. The serpent is a slippery beast so read on for more!

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby

"Man Made in the Image of God", Providence Lithograph Company, 1906 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Man Made in the Image of God”, Providence Lithograph Company, 1906 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

(This post is part of a long series of commentaries on the Book of Genesis, starting at the very beginning. Other posts from the Eden story include a look at the history of the folk-demon Lillith, Adam and Eve, and marriage in Eden.) 

Our story begins immediately after the creation of Eve. Man and women were together and not ashamed. The bible does not say how long they lived in this idyllic state, but before very long our serpent entered the story:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”
Genesis 3:1

Immediately, we are presented with theological challenges. The serpent is “more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made”. How should we read that sentence? God created the serpent so how did this one become more subtle? Or was this serpent not a beast of the field, i.e. something else. For Christians, this something else is a clue to the beast’s demonic personage, but even if you do not believe that, it is clear there is something special about him.

But we’ve just ignored the elephant in the room: the serpent talks. And, as we will find out a bit later, it walks as well. This places the serpent in a rare place within the biblical canon. For all the miracles and magic that we have in the bible, one thing we don’t have is talking animals. (Balaam has a talking donkey in the Book of Numbers, but there that is God talking through the donkey rather than it talking on its own accord.) This bothered me as a child. Could all of the animals in Eden talk? Could Adam and Eve speak the language of the animals before their expulsion? Did this somehow represent their connection to nature? I’ll come back to talking animals in a moment.

And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:2-5

Eve is paraphrasing God’s command from the preceding chapter, but pay attention! There is something very funny happening here. Look at God’s exact words:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eats thereof thou shalt surely die.
Genesis 2:19

But God didn’t speak these words to Eve, he spoke them to Adam. But, perhaps Adam told Eve later? That seems likely. But look at what happens when you eat the fruit: God says that you will die within the day, but eve just says that you will die. And yet, somehow the serpent also knows that you will die “in the day ye eat”. The serpent must have been present when God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree. He’s correcting Eve.

In retrospect, we know that the serpent is also telling the truth. The fruit does not kill Adam or Eve, and certainly not within that day– Adam lived to be 930! God must have been speaking in metaphors, but the serpent seizes on this and uses it to his advantage. You know the rest of the story:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Genesis 3:6

Eve gave the fruit some consideration, seems to have considered wisdom a good thing, and she ate.  Then she handed the fruit to Adam and he ate. They they had a funny misadventure when they suddenly realized that neither of them were wearing pants and God was knocking at the door. God cursed them, yes, but he also cursed the serpent!

And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Genesis 3:14-15

The serpent was cursed to behave like the snakes that we know today. This verse continues the use of metaphor from the previous ones: obviously serpents do not actually eat dust, but the wider metaphor of yapping at our heels works. At least Adam and Eve were allowed to keep their feet.

The Serpent as Satan

"La chute des anges rebelles" (The Fall of the Rebel Angels) by Charles Le Brun, 1680. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“La chute des anges rebelles” (The Fall of the Rebel Angels) by Charles Le Brun, 1680. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s start from the end and work our way backwards. For Christians, the answer to this question is given in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. It has beautiful and poetic symmetry as one of the mysteries of the first book is brought to a conclusion in the last:

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan,who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Revelation 12:7-9

This text, known as the “War in Heaven”, is a prophecy given to John of Patmos (not the apostle John) which claims to depict a climatic struggle for control of the world. The forces of heaven, led by the archangel Michael, fights against a “dragon”, the “ancient serpent called the devil”. Prophecies of the bible include layers on layers of symbolism and this story not only depicts a battle at the end of the world, but also the fall of the angels at the beginning. Most Christians see the reference to the “ancient serpent” given here (and in a similar passage in Revelation 20) as the most ancient serpent, the one that tempted Eve.

This view has fantastic symmetry, but it is challenging to reconcile it completely with the text of Genesis 3. Satan could be described as “more subtle than the beasts of the field” and it makes sense that this was a new supernatural force in the Garden. It even explains the speaking! And yet, God’s punishment of all serpents makes little narrative sense if God recognizes this as the work of Satan.

The Serpent in Jewish Legends

Adam and Eve on a Polish coat of arms. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Adam and Eve on a Polish coat of arms. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Modern Jews, of course, don’t believe in the Book of Revelation, or fallen angels, or even in Satan in the same way that Christians do. That topic is too large to discuss here, but I have a great post about Jewish and Christian belief in angels which I hope to post soon. The end result is that Jews have to find a different answer for the question of the serpent in the garden.

As you might expect, the Christian view of Satan as the serpent in the Garden has its origins in Judaism, albeit not a book that is held as canonical by Jews today. In the Wisdom of Solomon, a text probably written and studied by Greek-speaking Jews a century or two before Jesus, the serpent is first connected to story of the devil:

For God created man incorruptible, and to the image of his own likeness he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world: And they follow him that are of his side.
Wisdom 2:23-25

While this text is no longer studied or believed by Jews, thanks to its being adopted into the Septuagint, it is still held canonical by Roman and Orthodox Catholics today, although most other Christian groups do not include it as part of their scriptures.

Other Jews of this period either had other explanations for the serpent or did not address the question directly. The Book of Enoch, one of the key texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, doesn’t offer an explanation for the serpent but effectively rules out that it was the devil. Why? Because in the Enoch theology, the fall of the angels happened after Eden, and Noah’s flood was God’s response to purge the world of the demonic influences.

Other Jewish texts give perhaps the simplest answer: the serpent was just a serpent, albeit one that had walked upright until being cursed by God to slither across the Earth. How then could the serpent have been “more subtle” than the other beasts? Looking at Genesis Rabbah, usually a treasure trove crazy readings, hardly speculates only suggesting that the serpent was an “unbeliever”. How exactly you can be an unbeliever having personally overheard God talking to newly-created humans in a miraculous garden, I’m not entirely sure.

This solution leaves open too many questions. How did the serpent know that eating the apple wouldn’t kill Adam and Eve? How was it so communicative when we have no other beasts in Eden walking up and talking to the first humans? Why would God have created another beast whose intelligence– and free will– seemed so much like man’s? I don’t have answers for these questions.

Serpents and Donkeys

This donkey likes carrots and probably cannot talk. (Source: Wikimedia commons)
This donkey likes carrots and probably cannot talk. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Stepping away from the Jewish and Christian commentaries for a moment, I want to offer an alternative interpretation based on a close reading of the text. What if the serpent was part of God’s plan? In the bible, there are only two instances where an animals speaks: here and in the Book of Numbers. Let’s look at that text:

Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Numbers 22:26-28

The full story doesn’t matter here, but the key is in the final part: “the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said…”. God is speaking through the donkey. That’s a beautiful image, but it begs the question: if the only other time we see an animal speak in the bible, it’s God doing the talking, is that the case here?

That would go a long way to explaining the serpent’s knowledge of things that it should not have known, as well as God’s conversation to Adam. However this line of reasoning also falls down as God punishes the serpent at the end of the story. If God were pulling his strings, he wouldn’t have punished the messenger.

Conclusion

The story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden is surprisingly complex and I hope you have enjoyed this look at some of the various interpretations. This is one of the clearest areas where Jews and Christians disagree on a text in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and certainly a story that warrants further study.

In the next several weeks, I will be alternating between “story” posts that continue the chronological narrative and these side-stories. The next post will resume the story of Isaac with his final adventure before he became crippled and blind, the second story of Abimelech which we covered in part a few months back. I also have posts started on an overview of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Enoch, a biblical history of Beersheba, a look at Christian and Jewish interpretations of angels, and a few others. We’ll see which posts pop out first!

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