Snake or Seraph? The Identity of the Serpent in Genesis 3 (Part 1)

Genesis 3:1 introduces a new character into the Eden narrative and signals a shift in the plot. He is introduced as “the serpent.” Initially, the reader may picture nothing more than a legless reptile (suborder: serpentes). The Hebrew term נחש is generally used to refer to a type of a reptile, usually a legless reptile such as a snake (Num 21:6; Deut 8:15; Ps 58:4; Prov 23:32; Isa 65:25; Jer 8:17; Amos 5:19; Mic 7:17). But additional information in the account suggests that this entity is more than a mere snake. This creature talks with the humans and entices them to sin (3:1–5). As a result, he and his “offspring” are cursed by God (3:14–15). The mixture of animal and supra-animal characteristics raises the question of the real identity of this “tempter,” the answer to which is vital for a proper interpretation of the text.

Some Modern Views

Some modern scholars suggest that the narrator’s portrayal of a talking animal classifies the text as ancient folklore and myth, and it serves both an etiological as well as a moralistic function. Herman Gunkel opines,

The myth belongs to the category of myths and fairy tales very common in antiquity and among primitive peoples which tell how certain animals came by their unusual characteristics, “why the flounder has its oblique mouth, the donkey its long ears, and the bear its stumpy tail.”1

Others compare the narrative with ancient Near Eastern serpent mythology and argue that the serpent is a symbol of immortality, wisdom, or chaos.2 Still other modern commentators propose that the serpent be seen as a symbol for the evil impulse that resides within human beings3 or a metaphor for whatever in God’s good creation serves to facilitate options for human decisions for or against God.4

There are, however, significant problems with these modern views. The historical character and non-symbolic nature of the other Edenic referents (i.e., the trees, rivers, animals, humans, etc.) render the interpretation of the serpent as a mythical symbol5 or as the personification of evil impulse untenable. The fact that Moses attributes personal qualities (i.e., speech, intelligence, ethical capacity) to the serpent (3:1–5) and portrays him as an entity liable to divine judgment (3:14–15) precludes treating the serpent as a mere metaphor. Such an interpretation is incompatible with the textual data.

The Serpent as an Instrument of Satan

Traditionally, Bible scholars have taken the serpent as a real snake that becomes the instrument or organ through which Satan entices man to sin.6 The fact that the serpent is compared to “the beasts of the field” (3:1, 14)7 seems to suggest an ordinary snake. That the serpent is styled as “crafty” does not necessarily disqualify the entity from membership in the animal kingdom since the Bible elsewhere attributes sapient qualities to mere creatures (Prov 30:24–28), including the snake (Matt 10:16).

The data also suggest, however, that there is an intelligent and malicious personality at work behind this creature (3:1, 4–5; 14–15).8 Therefore, the majority of commentators identify the evil persona behind the serpent as none other than Satan,9 also called the devil,10 the dragon,11 and significantly “the ancient Serpent” (Rev 12:9; 20:2).12 According to Scripture, Satan can enter, possess, and influence both animals and humans (Matt 8:28, 31–33; Mark 5:12–16; Luke 8:32–36).13 God’s curse in 3:14–15 may be viewed as addressing the real culprit (i.e., Satan) through the instrument (i.e., the serpent), comparable to Jesus’s rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matt 16:23).14

The Serpent as a Title for Satan

There is, however, another way of viewing the serpent of Genesis 3. When NT writers associate the serpent with Satan or the devil, they do not explicitly represent that association as a semi-divine “dark power” manipulating an animal as a mere organ of temptation. Instead, “the serpent” seems to function as a descriptive title, at the same level as “the dragon,” “the devil,” or “Satan” (2 Cor 11:2, 14; Rev 12:9, 14, 15; 20:2).15 Since later revelation identifies Satan as a fallen angelic creature (Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–4, 6–7; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1–2; Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13; 10:18; 2 Cor 11:14; Eph 2:2, 6:11, 12; Rev 12:9), perhaps what Adam and Even saw and heard in the Garden was no mere snake but a serpent-like creature belonging to a higher order than the ordinary “beasts of the field.” Several considerations lend support to this view.

This brief article has been excerpted and adapted from my published monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com.

Photo: Conscious Design on Unsplash.

Notes

1 Genesis, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Macon, GA: Mercer University, 1997), 21. See also John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, The International Critical Commentary, ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910), xi; Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, 2nd ed., trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 92; Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Continental Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 259.

2 See Karen Joines, Serpent Symbolism in the OT: A Linguistic, Archaeological, and Literary Study (Haddonfield, NJ: Haddonfield, 1974), 16–31. While acknowledging parallels between the serpent in Genesis 3 and ANE mythology, others understand the portrayal of the serpent in Genesis 3 as a kind of demythologizing polemic against such mythological stories. Nahum Sarna, for example, notes that the serpent here is described as merely a creature, as mortal, and as too insignificant to speak in God’s presence. Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 24. Gordon Wenham believes that there may be an allusion to the ANE myths with a polemical aim to correct the falsehood of those myths and to present the truth. Genesis 1–15, The Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1987), 72–73. Wenham interprets the serpent as an “anti-God symbol” that “symbolizes sin, death, and the power of evil.” Ibid., 80. He acknowledges that later biblical writers identify the serpent with the person of Satan, but he does not believe the Genesis narrator possessed this understanding. Instead, the narrator intended simply “the powers of evil,” and later revelation, by virtue of sensus plenior, expanded the referent to Satan. Ibid., 81.

3 S. R. Driver interprets the snake as “representative of evil thoughts and suggestions.” The Book of Genesis, Westminster Commentaries, ed. Walter Lock (London: Methuen, 1904), 47. Similarly, Umberto Cassuto sees “the serpent” as a kind of latent crafty impulse in man himself. Accordingly, “The duologue between the serpent and the woman is actually, in a manner of speaking, a duologue that took place in the woman’s mind, between her wiliness and her innocence, clothed in the garb of a parable…. By interpreting the text in this way, we can understand why the serpent is said to think and speak; in reality it is not he that thinks and speaks but the woman does so in her heart.” A Commentary on the Book of Genesis I: From Adam to Noah, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964), 142–43.

4 Terence Fretheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?” Word & World 14 (1994): 149; idem., “Genesis,” in vol. 1 of The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 365–66; Donald E. Gowan, From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1-11, International Theological Commentary, ed. Fredrick Carlson Holmgren and George A. F. Knight (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 51–52.

5 The reality and prevalence of serpent mythology in the ANE is undeniable. But some features of ANE myth may be better understood as legend, that is, as containing an admixture of fact and fiction. Arguably, the ANE myths about serpent-like super-human beings or gods, associated with immortality, wisdom, and evil, reflect the faint yet corrupted memory of a primeval tradition passed down from antiquity. If that is the case, then Genesis 3 may be viewed, at least partly, as a polemic against pagan mythology and a true representation of the origin of evil in the world. For more on the relationship between biblical history and ANE mythology, see Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 13-33; John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

6 A sampling of commentators and theologians includes Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, vol. 1, trans. George V. Schick, in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelican (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958-66), 1:151; C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, trans. James Martin, vol. 1 of Commentary on the Old Testament (1866; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 91–92; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941)224; Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1948; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 44; Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 106–09; Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Nelson, 1998), 441–42.

7 There is some debate about whether this comparison implies that the serpent was an animal with more wisdom than the animals he is compared to (positive comparison, or superlative comparison, ) or whether the serpent is in a class by itself, possessing a kind of shrewdness the other animals did not possess, i.e., “the serpent was shrewd as none other of the beasts,” (comparison of exclusion). For the first, see Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (IBHS) (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), § 14.4d, 14.5d. For the second, see IBHS § 14.4e, or Wilhelmus Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (GKC), 2nd ed., ed. E. Kautzsch, trans. A. E. Crowley (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910), § 119w. In either case, it is argued that the syntax represents the serpent as belonging to the same class as the “beasts of the field.”

8 Accordingly, John C. Collins avers, “A competent reader from the original audience would have been able to infer that the serpent is the mouthpiece of a Dark Power.” Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006), 172.

9 The Hebrew שטן may refer simply to mere human adversaries (1 Sam 19:22 [Heb 23]; 29:4; 1 Kgs 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25; Ps 109:6) or to the Angel of Yahweh who opposes a false prophet (Num 22:22, 32). Both the Old and New Testament canons, however, employ the term for the Adversary par excellence, the infamous antagonist of God and His people (Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–4, 6–7; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1–2; Matt 4:10; 12:26; 16:23; Mark 1:13; 3:23, 26; 4:15; 8:33; Luke 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3, 31; John 13:27; Acts 5:3; 26:18; Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18; 2 Thess 2:9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:15; Rev 2:9, 13, 24; 3:9; 12:9; 20:2, 7).

10 Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13; John 8:44; 1 John 3:8, 10; Rev 12:9, 12; 20:2, 10.

11 Isa 2 7:1; 51:9; Rev 12:3, 4, 7, 9, 13, 16, 17; 13:2, 4; 16:13; 20:2.

12 Both texts in Revelation use the phrase ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, which has been variously interpreted as the “ancient serpent” (NIV, ESV, NET, CSB), the “old serpent” (KJV, DRA, ASV, NAU), or “that primeval serpent” (NJB). The fact that these texts juxtapose this phrase with the titles “dragon,” “devil,” and “Satan” clearly indicates that the author of Revelation saw more than a mere snake in Genesis 3.

13 The example of Balaam’s talking ass is sometimes adduced as analogous to the talking serpent (Num 22:28, 30), though in the case of the donkey, it was not Satan but God who opened its mouth.

14 Some scholars who adopt this reading doubt the original audience would have been able to discern this meaning but think it became an appropriate inference from later revelation. See Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 2:405; J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962)216, 291–95; Marguerite Shuster, The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become as Sinners (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 22; John H. Walton, Genesis, in The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 210.

15 Similarly, Oliver J. Buswell suggests, “The words ‘the Serpent’ … should be read as a proper name, or as a title functioning as a proper name. The Genesis account has nothing to say about a biological reptile.” A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 1:264.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Looking forward to part two.  Off to a good start, interested in seeing where he goes with this.

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