5-2 The Serpent In Eden

Genesis 3:4-5: “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”.

Popular Interpretation

It is assumed that the serpent here is an angel that had sinned, called “Satan”. Having been thrown out of heaven for his sin, he came to earth and tempted Eve to sin.


1. The passage talks about “the serpent”. The words “satan” and “devil” do not occur in the whole book of Genesis.

2. The serpent is never described as an angel.

3. Therefore it is not surprising that there is no reference in Genesis to anyone being thrown out of heaven.

4. Sin brings death (Rom. 6:23). Angels cannot die (Lk. 20:35-36) , therefore angels cannot sin. The reward of the righteous is to be made equal to the angels to die no more (Lk. 20:35-36). If angels can sin, then the righteous will also be able to sin and therefore will have the possibility of dying, which means they will not really have everlasting life.

5. The characters involved in the Genesis record of the fall of man are: God, Adam, Eve and the serpent. Nobody else is mentioned. There is no evidence that anything got inside the serpent to make it do what it did. Paul says the serpent “beguiled Eve through his (own) subtilty” (2 Cor.11:3). God told the serpent: “Because thou hast done this...” (Gen.3:14). If “satan” used the serpent, why is he not mentioned and why was he not also punished?

6. Adam blamed Eve for his sin: “She gave me of the tree” (Gen. 3:12).

Eve blamed the serpent: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:13).

The serpent did not blame the devil - he made no excuse.

7. If it is argued that snakes today do not have the power of speech or reasoning as the serpent in Eden had, remember that:-

(a) a donkey was once made to speak and reason with a man (Balaam); “The (normally) dumb ass speaking with a man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet” (2 Pet. 2:16). and

(b) The serpent was one of the most intelligent of all the animals (Gen. 3:1). The curse upon it would have taken away the ability it had to speak with Adam and Eve. But it was an animal.

8. God created the serpent (Gen. 3:1); another being called “satan” did not turn into the serpent; if we believe this, we are effectively saying that one person can enter the life of someone else and control it. This is a pagan idea, not a Biblical one. If it is argued that God would not have created the serpent because of the great sin it enticed Adam and Eve to commit, remember that sin entered the world from man (Rom. 5:12); the serpent was therefore amoral, speaking from its own natural observations, and was not as such responsible to God and therefore did not commit sin. The serpent was a beast of the field which God had made (Gen 3:1). Yet out of the ground [Heb. adamah- earth, soil] God formed all the beasts of the field, including the serpent (Gen. 2:17). So the serpent was likewise created by God out of the ground- it wasn't a pre-existing agent of evil. Note the snake, as one of the beasts of the field, was "very good" (Gen. 1:31)- hardly how one would describe the serpent according to the orthodox reasoning. The Torah doesn't speak of purely symbolic, abstract concepts; there is always a literal reality, which may then be interpreted in a symbolic way. The serpent, therefore, begs to be understood in this context as just that- a serpent. The view has been pushed that the serpent is to be read as a symbol of our human or animal nature. This would mean that Eve's nature deceived Eve, and such a separation between a person and their nature is problematic to say the least. This view runs into huge difficulties- for how could Eve's nature be punished in a way separate to her punishment, in what way was her deceptive nature created by God like the animals, and how just was Eve's personal judgment in this case... and the questions go on, continuing to be begged the more we think about it.

Some suggest that the serpent of Genesis 3 is related to the seraphim. However, the normal Hebrew word for “serpent”, which is used in Genesis 3, is totally unrelated to the word for “seraphim”. The Hebrew word translated “seraphim” basically means a “fiery one” and is translated “fiery serpent” in Numbers 21:8, but this is not the word translated “serpent” in Genesis 3. The Hebrew word for brass comes from the same root word for “serpent” in Genesis 3. Brass represents sin (Jud. 16:21; 2 Sam. 3:24; 2 Kings. 25:7; 2 Chron. 33:11; 36:6), thus the serpent may be connected with the idea of sin, but not a sinful angel.

9. Note that the enmity, the conflict, is between the woman and the serpent, and their respective seed. The serpent is presented not so much as the foe of God, but the enemy of mankind. The promise that the seed of the woman would crush his head is echoed in the words to Cain in regard to sin: "Its desire is for you, but you will be able to master it" (Gen. 4:7). The snake is to be connected symbolically with human sin, not any superhuman Satan figure.

Suggested Explanations

1. There seems no reason to doubt that what we are told about the creation and the fall in the early chapters of Genesis should be taken literally. “The serpent” was a literal serpent. The fact that we can see serpents today crawling on their bellies in fulfillment of the curse placed on the original serpent (Gen. 3:14), proves this. In the same way we see men and women suffering from the curses that were placed on them at the same time. We can appreciate that Adam and Eve were a literal man and woman as we know man and woman today, but enjoying a better form of existence, therefore the original serpent was a literal animal, although in a far more intelligent form than snakes are today.

2. The following are further indications that the early chapters of Genesis should be read literally:-

- Jesus referred to the record of Adam and Eve’s creation as the basis of His teaching on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:5-6); there is no hint that He read it figuratively.

- “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived (by the serpent), but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Tim. 2:13-14) - so Paul, too, read Genesis literally. And most importantly he wrote earlier about the way the “serpent beguiled Even through his subtilty” (2 Cor. 11:3) - notice that Paul doesn’t mention the “devil” beguiling Eve.

- Is there any evidence at all that there is anything else in the record of the creation and fall that should be read figuratively? The world was created in six days according to Genesis 1. That these were intended to be understood as literal days of 24 hours is proved by the fact that the various things created on the different days could not usefully exist without each other in their present form for more than a few days. That they were not periods of 1,000 years or more is demonstrated by the fact that Adam was created on the sixth day, but died after the seventh day at the age of 930 (Gen. 5:5). If the seventh day was a period of 1,000 years then Adam would have been more than 1,000 when he died.

- In Digression 3 I attempt to outline the original intention and context of Genesis 3- to explain to the Israelites in the wilderness where the truth lay in all the various myths about creation and 'Satan' figures which they had encountered in the epics and myths of Egypt and the Canaanite tribes. The record appears at pains to stress that the account of the garden of Eden is intended to be understood literally. Consider Gen. 2:11,12 about "The land of Havilah, where there is [now] gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stones are [right now] there". Cassuto comments about the record: "Its intention was to express a protest against the mythological notions current among the people. Do not believe- so it comes to tell us- that the Garden of Eden was a supernatural garden, and that its trees bore precious stones or gold balls instead of fruit that was good for food... yet was its fruit real fruit, fruit good for human food. Bdellium, onyx and gold come to us from one of the countries of our world, from the land of Havilah" (1). The literality is indeed being emphasized, and I therefore suggest that we likewise read the serpent as indeed a "beast of the field" created by God- and nothing more.

3. Because the serpent was cursed with having to crawl on its belly (Gen. 3:14), this may imply that previously it had legs; coupled with its evident powers of reasoning, it was probably the form of animal life closest to man, although it was still an animal - another of the “beasts of the field which the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1 & 14). It was cursed “above (“from among”, RVmg.) every beast of the field” (Gen. 3:14), as if all the beasts were cursed but especially the serpent.

4. Maybe the serpent had eaten of the tree of knowledge which would explain his subtilty. Eve “saw that the tree was...a tree to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6). How could she have seen this unless she saw the result of eating the fruit in the life of something that had already done so? It may well be that Eve had had several conversations with the serpent before the one recorded in Genesis 3. The first recorded words of the serpent to Eve are, “Yea, hath God said...” (Gen. 3:1) - the word “Yea” possibly implying that this was a continuation of a previous conversation that is not recorded.

5. I've shown elsewhere (2) that the entire Pentateuch is alluding to the various myths and legends of creation and origins, showing what the truth is. Moses was seeking to disabuse Israel of all the myths they'd heard in Egypt, to deconstruct the wrong views they'd grown up with- and so he wrote Genesis 1-3 to show the understanding of origins which God wished His people to have. The serpent had a major significance in the surrounding cultures. It was seen as a representative of the gods, a kind of demon, a genie. But the Genesis record is at pain to show that the serpent in Eden was none of those things- it was one of the "beasts of the field". No hidden identity is suggested for the serpent in Genesis. J.H. Walton comments: "The Israelites [made no] attempt to associate it [the serpent] with a being who was the ultimate source or cause of evil. In fact, it would appear that the author of Genesis is intentionally underplaying the role or identification of the serpent...In Canaanite literature the role of chaos was played by the serpentine Leviathan / Lotan. In contrast, the Biblical narrative states that the great sea creatures were simply beasts God created (Gen. 1:21). This demythologizing polemic may also be responsible for avoiding any theory of conspirational uprisings for the existence of evil... there is no hint in the OT that the serpent of Genesis 2-3 was either identified as Satan or was thought to be inspired by Satan. The earliest extant reference to any association is found in Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 (first century BC)... the earliest reference to Satan as the tempter through the serpent is in Apocalypse Of Moses 16-19, contemporary to the NT... in the writings of the church fathers, one of the earliest to associate the serpent with Satan was Justin Martyr " (3). Even within Judaism, it is accepted that the idea that the serpent was Satan is not in the text itself, and arose only within later Rabbinic commentary: "The interpretation... according to which the serpent is none other than Satan... introduces into the text concepts that are foreign to it... the primeval serpent is just a species of animal... it is beyond doubt that the Bible refers to an ordinary, natural creature, for it is distinctly stated here: Beyond any best of the field that the Lord God had made" (4).

Why So Misunderstood?

Throughout the entire history of Jewish and Christian thought, Genesis 1-3 has been the most studied passage, the verses most used to justify theories, theologies, dogmas and behavioural demands. There's simply a huge amount of material been written about these chapters, and a colossal weight of dogma built upon them. The result is that psychologically, most people approach these chapters with assumptions and pre-existing ideas as to what's going on there. Here more than anywhere else in the Bible, we run the danger of eisegesis (reading into the text) rather than exegesis, reading out of the text what God is saying, rather than projecting our own preconceived ideas onto the text and calling the process 'Biblical interpretation'. Augustine, one of mainstream Christianity's greatest influencers, based much of his teaching upon early Genesis. His whole teaching about sex, human nature, Satan, temptation, salvation, judgment etc. all had its basis in his understanding [or misunderstanding] of these chapters. Within the Christian spectrum, evolutionists and creationists, pro-life and otherwise, gay and straight... all seek justification from these chapters.

So it's not surprising that many commentators have noted that this passage is one of the most misused and misunderstood in the whole Bible. But why? I'd suggest it's because humanity [and that includes theologians and formulators of church doctrine] squirms awkwardly under the glaring beam of the simple record of human guilt. And therefore the serpent has been turned into a superhuman being that gets all the blame; and human sin has been minimized, at the expense of the plain meaning of the text. The whole structure of the Biblical narrative is concerned with the guilt and sin of the man and the woman; the snake isn't where the focus is. Von Rad, in one of the 20th century's most seminal commentaries on Genesis, understood this clearly: "In the narrator's mind, [the serpent] is scarcely an embodiment of a 'demonic' power and certainly not of Satan... the mention of the snake is almost secondary; in the 'temptation' by it the concern is with a completely unmythical process, presented in such a way because the narrator is obviously anxious to shift the problem as little as possible from man" (5). The record keeps using personal pronouns to lay the blame squarely with Adam: "I heard... I was afraid... I was naked; I hid... I ate... I ate" (Gen. 3:10-13; and compare Jonah's similar confession of sin in Jonah 4:1-3- Jonah appears to allude to Adam here). Nobody reading the Genesis record with an open mind would surely see anything else but the blame being placed on humanity; as I have repeatedly stressed, the words 'Satan', 'Lucifer' and the idea of the serpent as a fallen Angel are simply not there in Genesis. They have to be 'read in' from presuppositions, which ultimately have their root in pagan myths. John Steinbeck, who was hardly a Biblical Christian, was fascinated by the early chapters of Genesis, and his 1952 novel East Of Eden is evidently his commentary upon them. And he finds no place for a 'Satan' figure. Instead, he is struck by the comment to Cain that although sin crouches at the door, "do thou rule over him". Steinbeck concluded from this that victory over sin and the effects of Adam's sin is possible; and therefore we're not bound by some superhuman Satan figure, nor by an over-controlling Divine predestination to sin and failure. There's a passage in chapter 24 of the novel that bears quoting; I find it deeply inspirational, and another example of the practical import of the correct understanding of early Genesis: "It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying, "I couldn't help it; the way was set". But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice; a bee must make honey. There's no godliness there... these verses are a history of mankind in any age or culture or race... this is a ladder to climb to the stars... it cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness... because "thou mayest" rule over sin". The practical inspiration ought to be evident; all further commentary is bathos.

The Motive And Origin Of The Sin

What were the motives of Adam and Eve for sinning, for accepting the serpent's suggestion? Considering this can help open a window onto the question of the origin of Adam's sin. They were attracted by the idea of "knowing good and evil". But this phrase is elsewhere used in the Bible about how an adult 'knows good and evil', but a child can't (Dt. 1:39; 2 Sam. 19:35; Is. 7:16). Adam and Eve were immature; like children, they wished to 'grow up', they resented the restraints which their immaturity required them to be under; they wanted, just as children want, to be the all-knowing adults / mature people whom they had seen the Elohim as. As children long to escape from what they see as meaningless and onerous restrictions, whilst having no idea what this would really mean in practice and how un-free it would really be- so Adam and Eve were attracted by the idea of having the knowledge of good and evil just for the bite of the forbidden fruit. I find this a perfectly understandable explanation of the motive for Adam and Eve's sin. It seems a quite imaginable exercise of the freedom of choice and behaviour which God had given them. There is no hint that 'Satan made them do it', or that they were 'possessed' by some sinful spirit. They did just what we so often do- misused, wrongly exercised, their freewill and desired that which was inappropriate. Simple as that. There's no need to bring in an external Satan figure to explain what happened.

The Serpent And The Woman

In Gen. 3:15 we have the famous prophecy that the seed of the woman would have conflict with the seed of the serpent. The woman's son would mortally wound the snake by striking it on the head, whereas the serpent would temporarily wound the woman's son by 'bruising' him in the heel. New Testament allusion suggests we are to understand this as a prediction of the fight between the Lord Jesus, as the seed of Eve, and the power of sin. The Lord Jesus was temporarily wounded, dying for three days, but through this the power of death, i.e. sin, was destroyed (Heb. 2:14). In our context, it's noteworthy that the prophecy of Christ's crucifixion in Is. 53:10 underlines that it was God who 'bruised' Christ there. Gen. 3:15 says it was the seed of the serpent who bruised Christ. Conclusion: God worked through the seed of the serpent, God was [and is] totally in control. The serpent is therefore not a symbol of radical, free flying evil which is somehow outside of God's control, and which 'bruised' God's Son whilst God was powerless to stop His Son being bruised. Not at all. God was in control, even of the seed of the serpent. However we finally wish to interpret "the seed of the serpent", the simple fact is that God was in powerful control of it / him.


(1) Umberto Cassuto, Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 2 p. 107.

(2) See Digression 3 The Intention And Context Of Genesis 1-3.

(3) J.H. Walton, 'Serpent', in T.D. Alexander and D.W. Baker, eds, Dictionary Of The Old Testament And Pentateuch (Leicester: I.V.P., 2003) pp. 737/8.

(4) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998 ed.) Vol. 1, pp. 139,140.

(5) Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (London: S.C.M., 1966) p. 85.

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