What is the Serpent?

One of the more interesting details of the Genesis story is the Serpent.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Was the Serpent a snake? What was it?

I would venture to say that a talking snake would be in conflict with mainstream science :wink:

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That’s what they said of talking horses, and yet:

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@Patrick

This is the same category as a recent posting that wanted childbirth for the non-Eden females to suddenly become worse because of “The Fall”. I would prefer that the “snake” episode be taken literally only as an option, and not a requirement.

I dare say, @swamidass is going to feel torn on this … and I look forward to his thoughts about how to treat these two items (and everything else that is of the same type):

After the Transgression
Snake inside Eden: Talks (optional?)
Pain of Childbirth gets worse for humans outside of Eden. (optional?)

I loved that show. It first aired on TV in 1961 when I was 3 years old. It stayed on until I was eight. I can honestly tell you that even at 3 years old, I didn’t think that horses really talked. And nobody told me that horses did talk or that it was some kind of magic. I just “knew”. By the time I was eight years old I was tried to figure out how they did it. Nevertheless it was a great show with great moral message. Mr. Ed was so human. Wilbur treated Mr. Ed not as a horse but as a close friend.

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Probably, but that is also not what Genesis says. It says “nacash” which is difficult to translate, most people do not understand as a snake, even among YECs (though you can surely find counter examples). In traditional theology, there are a range of readings about what the “Serpent” is, but most (as far as I know) do not take the view that it is a snake.

I think some options are:

  1. A man who is turned into a snake
  2. A demon, fallen angel, or Satan cursed to walk the Earth
  3. A demon cast, fallen angel, into a snake

I think option #2 is, by far, the most common interpretation, even in literal Genesis circles. The reason “nacash” is not normally thought of as a snake is that he is “walking” and “talking.” The “talking” quality is particularly bizzare, because humans are the only animals that talk, so even literalists are quick to move away form reading “nacash” as “snake.”

Ironically, those I’ve found most intent on saying “nacash = snake” are those who are convinced the whole narrative is figurative (or hogwash). It seems like a way to dismiss the narrative as false with an obvious mistranslation.

And I can assure that animals do not have langauge that begins to approach that which we see in humans. And Genesis is not describing the origin of all snakes.

@swamidass

There’s an old joke: what’s brown and sticky? Why a stick, of course.

I am pretty well up to speed on the various interpretations… but no matter how you cut it, there is some kind of affinity between the “creature” and snakes… because the story is supposed to provide an etymological explanation for why Snakes don’t have legs. As for the talking part, if Balaam’s donkey can talk outside of Eden, I’m not sure anyone offers too much protest as to some bizarre creature talking within Eden.

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Obviously you have not had a lot of experience with lawyers…

Just a little joke there. Do notice that there are seven or eight Hebrew words translated “snake” and the Hebrew word translated “snake” there actually means “shining one”. Lucifer was literally a “shining one”, a divine being. In fact the same word used as a verb means “to practice divination”.

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@swamidass @gbrooks9

Mike Heiser argues for the common ANE association of serpents with deities (in much detail, of course), to suggest strongly that the serpent was one of the divine council legitimately present in the garden. In other words, the interpretation of the rest of the Bible that “that ancient serpent” is Satan would be inherent in the text, rather than a later gloss. This, of course, fits with traditional accounts of the fall. This does not preclude the ancient habit of blurring of categories, so that the heavenly serpent being has snakelike characteristics.

What it doesn’t fit with is modern distaste for (or blindness to) the OT concept of the divine council, but it is almost certainly implied in the Gen 1 passage of the creation of man, and to the writer it would be axiomatic that where God was present, eg in the garden, so would be his royal entourage - such as the cherubim which guard the guarden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve. That axiom is shown by the representation of the cherubim in both tabernacle and temple.

This also provides a motivation for the serpent’s deception - the scene is a royal court, in which the privileged vizier gets wind that an upstart (in this case a mere “animal”, Adam) is to be favoured and even given authority over him. The best way to nobble the plan is to implicate Adam in rebellion - and then God cannot punish the serpent without also punishing the man. Cue the plot of the whole Bible leading to Christus Victor. A fuller post on that here.

Whether or not there is any animal, as opposed to angelic, association with the serpent, there is zilch evidence (except in fundamentalist Young Earth interpretations, (for which I recently heard the term “Texegesis” coined!) that it is an aetiological tale about legs. First, the subject is too crucial theologically for such niceties, but more importantly legs are never even mentioned, but only (granting the zoological application) a snake - and snakes are definitionally legless, which is why they’re snakes and not lizards in folk zoology.

John Walton points out that the point of “on your belly you shall go” in the curse is that a proud snake rears up, whereas a humbled snake doesn’t - no legs needed for either. It is as much a metaphor for humbling as “eating dust.”

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One of the things modern audiences also don’t realize is how important snake symbolism was to ancient cultures … with the prominent exception of Zoroastrianism. In that “new style” religion of Persia, it was considered a good deed to kill snakes!.. Any snakes.

The rest of the ANE, while being vigilant about snakes, found that they helped keep the rodent population in check - - cats, for the most part, not yet being widely domesticated. In Egypt, even as domesticated cats became common place, the ancient reverence for snakes is maintained - - as we can see by the presence of the Cobra on the Pharaoh’s headwear!

It would only be in latter-day Jewish and Christian writings would such sentiments continue to be dispensed against the wise and immortal icon of the fertility of life!

Gen 3:14-15
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 crush thy head, and thou shalt bruise his/her heel.

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Some comments on this.

First a trivial point of orthography. If the right characters could be used here (and probably they can’t due to limitations of the blog software), the word would be rendered as “nahash” with a dot under the first “h”. That’s to indicate a rough aspirated h, which comes out like the “ch” in “Loch Ness”. So if one doesn’t have an h-subscript-dot character available, “nachash” would be a better rendering, provided one takes care not to pronounce the “ch” as in “church” but as in “Loch” (think Scots!) But this is not the interesting question here.

I did some looking up here. It turns out that nachash is used several times in the Old Testament clearly in reference to snakes, and that would be the most obvious translation, unless context determined otherwise. There are a few verses where it may refer to something more generically reptilian, and once it seems to refer to a (probably snake-like in shape) marine creature.

So the traditional translation of “serpent” is not unreasonable, and I would say that most people in the tradition, and most people today, still have a mental picture of a snake (albeit an unusual one) when they read the passage.

The more interesting question is why this particular “serpent” displays odd behavior, such as, for example, talking, and even engaging in debate with people.

This takes me to another old post where this subject (and Joshua’s remark) is picked up, i.e.,

On Narnians, Martians and Neanderthals

For some reason, I am blocked from commenting on this post, replying to it, or directly using the quote function, but I can still quote from it via copy and paste:

Joshua: “the Serpent is speaking of its own accord. This appears to be unique in Scripture, and suggests strongly that the Serpent is not a beast.”

to which came this reply:

John Harshman: “But Genesis says he’s a beast, the cleverest of all the beasts.”

Now, as everyone here knows, I rarely agree with John Harshman. However, he is correct here regarding the Hebrew text. “Now the serpent was clever, beyond every beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” This would be a very odd locution if the text did not intend to convey that the serpent was one of the “beasts of the field” that God made (reference to Genesis 1, sixth day). In other words, whatever remarkable abilities this serpent may show, and whatever else it may be, it is a created thing and one of the “beasts of the field” (whatever one conceives that category to include).

Does this rule out the possibility that the serpent is Satan? Not necessarily. Satan might conceivably occupy the form of a beast, and give it the power to talk, and use it as a mouthpiece. But it still is a created beast; it’s not a devil disguised as a beast. It’s a flesh-and-blood animal. It is distinguished from the other animals by being “more clever”, and by being able to talk (which may perhaps be conceived of as part of its “cleverness”). And this idea that the serpent is wiser or more clever (and more devious) than other creatures is very common among ancient peoples. So it’s not at all surprising that if any created animal could cause trouble in Eden, the serpent would be the one.

So the first and most natural reading of the text here is that we are talking about a serpent, albeit the original form of the serpent before it was modified (as will happen later in the narrative).

Of course, I’m here taking Genesis 1-11 as my initial literary unit. Whether the serpent might take on more levels of meaning as we progressively add wider circles around it (all of Genesis, all of the Torah, all of the Hebrew Bible, all of the Christian Bible) is another question. But John Harshman’s point seems correct in the context of Gen. 1-11.

Obviously the serpent in Genesis 3 reminds us of the Satan in Job. He asks questions, and questions of a skeptical nature that imply distrust of someone. So it is understandable why later tradition will see the serpent as Satan. But that interpretation tends to make us think of angels and demons – immaterial substances, whereas this serpent is a concrete, created being, in flesh and blood – an animal. I think this needs to be remembered. If it is supposed to be Satan (and remember, no angelology is expressed in Genesis 1 or 2, so the flow of the story so far has given the reader no preparation for such a conclusion), it must be a created tool of Satan, or Satan disguised as an animal, and hence not really an animal at all – but the text assures us that it is an animal.

But even supposing the serpent to be in some way Satan or Satan’s tool, it raises interesting questions, since the Satan of Job is not a principle of evil, an anti-God, etc. He is part of the heavenly court whose skepticism serves God, by testing those whose motives for worshiping God may not be pure. Later on, of course, Satan will become a purely evil being, opposed to the will of God, but the serpent’s activity reminds us first and foremost of the Satan of Job.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, because God punishes the serpent, whereas he doesn’t punish Satan in Job. So this leaves the nature and character of the serpent puzzling. He starts out as something like a tester of the obedience of Adam and Eve (which could be a God-ordained function), but ends up as something apparently aimed at thwarting God. But how does a creature that God made acquire such a character? Elephants and raccoons are also smart, but they don’t show this streak. The text leaves this a mystery. Hence, the Jewish rabbis could engage in various speculations.

But at least on the narrow point based on the text of Genesis 1-3, John Harshman is right. Of course, I don’t endorse other things John Harshman says here, e.g., his low opinion of C. S. Lewis. But I think that we have to remember that the serpent, whatever else he is, is identified in Genesis as one of the beasts of the field that God made. And I think that the denouement, in which the serpent goes on its belly, is meant to make us think of the serpent as a snake. Yes, one can say that lizards, turtles, etc. go on their “bellies”, i.e., walk close to the ground, but only the snake actually travels on its belly (if we discount rarities like legless lizards, which the Biblical authors would have counted as snakes anyway), and I think the snake is the animal the text is talking about.

Oh me, me, me ! My turn now?

I thoroughly enjoyed @Eddie’s discussion on the Serpent. Truly. Nothing up my sleeves.

There are all sorts of good papers and books about the Serpent side of Biblical matters…
and the academic professionals are careful to point out that a “serpent” is not exclusively
one kind of creature. He can be a snake. Or a snake with wings… and much much more.

The various national priesthoods who commanded the powers of snakes in the ANE were an absolutely fascinating bunch!

As bewildering the Genesis account may be about serpents, it really doesn’t end there. Perhaps the next big “jarring interaction” with snakes comes in Exodus:

(https://www.blueletterbible.org/assets/images/copyChkboxOff.gif) Exo 7:9
“Pharaoh will demand, ‘Show me a miracle.’ When he does this, say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down in front of Pharaoh, and it will become a serpent.[fn]’”
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did what the LORD had commanded them. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a serpent!
Then Pharaoh called in his own wise men and sorcerers, and these Egyptian magicians did the same thing with their magic.
They threw down their staffs, which also became serpents! But then Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

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.
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So what just happened there? If Moses was using the power of Yahweh to make the rod into a snake… what were the Egyptian sorcerers using? If the Egyptian sorcerers were using fake magic to produce the snakes (who no doubt were real enough), why doesn’t Exodus expose the trickery as fraud?

What is this about snakes? God is even especially specific about using the right staff! He reminds Moses to take the one that turns into a snake!

Exo 7:15
So go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes down to the river. Stand on the bank of the Nile and meet him there. Be sure to take along the staff that turned into a snake.

It is important to remember that snakes are feared and revered throughout the ANE - - with one peculiar exception: the Persians. The priests of Persia believe killing a snake each day is a good deed…

This is an important point, that the Satan we know is a late invention, and his identification with the snake of Eden is late also, not something the writers of Genesis would have done.

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It was common to depict god’s as serpents in ANE literature. There was an enlightenment attempt to recast this as a literal snake, but Im not convinced. You are welcome to tjhink other wise. Serpent (symbolism) - Wikipedia

You think the serpent is supposed to be a god? Then why does it say that it’s the cleverest of all the creatures that God had made?

What do you think of the theory that Satan, in his modern character, was introduced by the Essenes, likely on the model of Ahriman?

The serpent was what we now call the snake. the audience for genesis would always understand this. Thus the snake lost its legs as it is today. If one examines big snakes one finds evidence for once having been leggy.
Satan entered the snake because the prophecy was SOMEONE would come to destroy the snakes head even though the snake would bite his heel.
its not about a actual snake. this is clear.
Yes Adam/Eve would not know a creature can’t talk. maybe others did1 probably not.
Indeed the snake being crafty was about why it was not surprising it could talk.
A curve in subtlety was introduced. The snake was just MORE. not the only one.
it means the folks did not find it surprising the snake talked or that it was Satan behind it. thats all.

Yes, but I want to clarify my position to both you and Joshua. While I agree with you that the figure of the serpent in Genesis 3 does not exhibit the full-blown characterization of the New Testament Satan, and that we could never derive the New Testament Satan from exegesis of Genesis 1-11 alone, I’m not saying that it is illegitimate to read earlier texts in the light of later ones, and see further layers of meaning. So, while the human writer of Genesis 3 may have had no thought that the serpent was Satan, and while the first readers of Genesis 3 may have had no such idea, either, it is not impossible that later generations of Israelites (and eventually of Christians) would see Genesis 3 as containing the germ of truths that would be revealed only later.

So I don’t want to be understood as saying that the identification of the serpent with Satan is “wrong”, but only that the identification of the serpent with Satan cannot be established from the context of Genesis 1-11 alone, or even from the entire book of Genesis, or the entire Pentateuch. It is only in the light of later developments (the whole Jewish and Christian Scriptures, read in the the frame of mind of the Christian Church) that new things can be seen which the first readers of Genesis could not possibly have seen.

I believe that the Roman Church currently makes a distinction between what a Biblical passage meant in its original historical context, and what it means in the light of the full and mature teaching of the Church. It has no problem with Catholic Bible scholars doing work on the meaning of passages of the Hebrew Bible in their original historical context, as long as those Catholic scholars don’t insist that the original context is the end of the story. For the Church, the original conscious intention of an author, or the original reception of a text by a certain historical audience, is not an adequate indicator of the full meaning of a text. Applying this in my own way, I would say that the serpent in Genesis 3 did not originally (as far as the Israelite scribe or his readers were concerned) represent the Christian Satan, but that within Christian doctrine (which involves many more considerations than are required for the scholarly reading of Genesis in its historical setting) it is right to see more in the story. That is, for a Christian the serpent is more than just another creature that Lord God made.

I think that Joshua sees more in the story because he is reading Genesis through Christian eyes. And that is perfectly fine; however, it is still necessary to be scholarly regarding the intended meaning for the original reading audience, which was not Christian. And it appears that in the original context, in the text of Genesis as we have it, the serpent is a snake, and that it is a beast of the field created by God, not a fallen archangel. To be sure it is an odd snake, and an odd beast of the field, and that leaves open all kinds of questions, such as, “Why is this created beast so different from the others, and what are its motives?” The story is not tidy, in the way that Genesis 1 is tidy. But I think it’s unsafe to deny that it says what it says. The serpent is, whatever else it might be, a beast of the field, and it is, based on the denouement (crawling on the belly, biting the heels of people) what we now call the snake. I think Joshua is not automatically wrong to Christianize the text retrospectively, but he would be wrong to deny that it says what it says.

@swamidass

I don’t contest this, but we can’t assume that the Biblical author follows everything in ANE literature. Indeed, the Biblical author often seems to be protesting against some claims of ANE literature. Even if we take the serpent as a personal being opposed to God, it is important that we note that the serpent is a beast of the field that the Lord God “made”. He is not co-eternal with God; he is not of the same divine status as God. He is a created thing, like the sun, moon, plants, and other animals. This would seem to be a way of puncturing any conceit that the serpent might have about being a “god.”

It is often said that the Hebrew Bible “demythologized” the world; well, taking a widespread symbol of evil, one understood in other cultures to be divine, and turning it into a mere beast that is made by God, and then humiliating it with an eternal destiny of crawling on its belly (apparently losing its power of speech as well) and getting its head crushed by human feet, certainly is a good start toward “demythologizing” this critter.

As for recasting the serpent as a literal snake, I don’t think any recasting was necessary, as the Hebrew word is the normal word for snake, and the Greek and Latin translations reflect that notion. The onus would be on those who claim that the serpent wasn’t a snake. (Of course, in light of later Christian reflection, it might have been both a snake and something else, in which case the either/or choice is not necessary.)

@Eddie,

Thoughts?

Below are several different Eastern Orthodox crossiers being compared to
one of the more obscure deities of the Ancient Near East …

[ CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO MAXIMIZE THE FONT SIZE ]
image

I would disagree with you only in this way: the further layers of meaning are imagined, not present but hidden.