Snake or Seraph? The Identity of the Serpent in Genesis 3 (Part 2)

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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.

More Than a Mere Beast of the Field

First of all, the serpent obviously bears qualities that are superior to the animal life, namely, intellectual, communicative, and moral capacities. The use of the min (מן) comparative to describe the serpent as wiser than the ordinary animals (מכל חית השדה) indicates a contrast and need not imply that the serpent in fact belonged to the same class of beings with which he was being compared.16 Thus, when Solomon pledges to build Yahweh a great temple, “for our God is greater than all gods [מכל האלהים] (II Chr 2:5), he does not intend to place God in the same class as the false deities of the pagan nations. When the Psalmist declares, “I have more understanding than all my teachers [מכל מלמדי],” he views himself as a pupil, not as a teacher (119:99). Similarly, “the serpent” of Genesis 3:1 may appear to belong to the class of animals with which he is compared but in fact does not. Hence, the narrator’s syntax seems to place the serpent into a class of his own. Rowland Ward agrees and remarks

the words may be read as placing the serpent outside the category of “the wild creature of the field,” in which case another cunning creature, but not an ordinary snake, is meant. The creature is Satan himself, a fallen angel.17

Moreover, one may read the so-called etiological allusion to the ordinary snake’s legless locomotion (“on your belly you shall go”) and earthy diet (“dust you shall eat”) in Genesis 3:14 as, instead, a metaphorical description of disgrace and defeat. For instance, the Solomonic Psalm 72 prays that Yahweh would cause the king’s human enemies to bow to the ground and eat dust (72:9). The prophet Micah heralds God’s judgment upon the nations and depicts their defeat in terms of “lick[ing] the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth” (7:17). Similarly, the woman’s offspring crushing the Serpent’s head with his heel in Genesis 3:15 need not constrain the picture of a human stepping on the head of a literal snake since the same language is used elsewhere of the human victor and the human vanquished:

Then Joshua said, “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me from the cave.” And they did so, and brought those five kings out to him from the cave, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon. And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Joshua 10:22–25, ESV).18

Indeed, the New Testament depicts the eschatological victory of Christ and the church over Satan and his minions in terms of the underfoot-subjugation metaphor (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 15:25-27).19

Superlative Shrewdness

Second, the superiority of the serpent over the humans also suggests an angelic creature. In Genesis 2, Adam is portrayed as wiser than the animals in that he is appointed to rule over them (1:26, 28) and has the capacity to name them (2:19–20). Indeed, among all the livestock, birds, and beasts, there was found no equal to Adam (2:20).20 But in chapter 3, “the serpent” assumes the role of humankind’s teacher and superior. As many commentators point out, the description of the serpent as “crafty” (ערום) is probably a word-play on the previous description of Adam and Eve as “naked” (ערומים) that connotes not only innocency but also naiveté.

Although Adam and Eve are portrayed as wiser than the animals, they are also depicted as lacking a higher kind of wisdom, symbolized by the Tree of Knowledge (2:9, 16–17; 3:5–6).21 Accordingly, the reader should interpret their “nakedness” as a reference to ethical innocency and immaturity.22 They do not yet possess that Elohim-like quality and prerogative that characterizes angelic beings (2 Sam 14:17) and some earthly monarchs who function as judges (2 Sam 14:17; 1 Kgs 3:9).23 The serpent, however, does possess that quality. Although the Hebrew ערום may sometimes convey negative connotations (Job 5:12; 15:5), it predominantly denotes one who possesses wisdom (Prov 14:8) and is contrasted with ethical folly (Prov 12:6, 23; 13:16; 14:18) and naïveté (Prov 14:15; 22:3; 27:12).24 So the narrator portrays the serpent as wiser than the humans.25

That Well-Known Primordial Dragon

Third, the use of the definite article with the noun “serpent” (הנחש) suggests an entity already well-known to the original Israelite audience.26 Of course, this may imply nothing more than that the Israelites already knew the Genesis 3 story about a talking serpent that tempted the first humans. On the other hand, biblical evidence indicates that Moses’s original audience may have been aware of a class of angelic creatures called “seraphim” (שרפים) to which the serpent of Genesis 3:1 may have belonged. Though the term is sometimes applied to ordinary snakes,27 it is also used in Isaiah’s vision for the dragon-like angelic beings with wings and limbs that flanked Yahweh’s throne (Isa 6:2, 6). Such semi-divine creatures find counterparts in the legends and mythology of the ancient Near East.

In her study of serpent symbolism in the OT and its relation to ancient Near Eastern serpent symbolism, Karen Joines notes the striking resemblance of form and function between the seraphim of Isaiah 6 and the winged serpents that stand erect, wear crowns, and flank the throne of the fourteenth-century BC Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. She also refers to the many Egyptian scarabs that feature winged serpents, most of which date to the eighth and ninth centuries BC.28 While the Israelite reader would have rejected the mythological distortions of his pagan neighbors, he would have no serious obstacle in viewing the serpent of Genesis 3 as a supernatural being of angelic status that had rebelled against Yahweh and had become the supreme Antagonist to the divine will. In other words, the ancient Near Eastern mythical concept of semi-divine dragon-like creatures may reflect the nations’ faint memory of that primeval serpent-like creature in Eden. The fact that the angelic guardian-creatures called “cherubim” (כרובים) were also present in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24; Ezek 28:12–16)29 lends further support to the view that the “primeval serpent” (Rev 20:2, NJB) was not an ordinary snake but an angelic being who was about to lead the vice-regents of Yahweh-Elohim into cosmic mutiny.30

This 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.

Notes

16 See IBHS § 14.4e; GKC § 119w.

17 Foundations in Genesis: Genesis 1-11 Today (Wantirna, Australia: New Melbourne, 1998), 100. See also Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 73–74.

18 See also 1 Kings 5:3; Pss 18:38[Heb. 39]; 47:3[Heb.4]; 110:1; Mal 4:3; Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36.

19 One should also note that the etiological interpretation of this passage seems quite trivial and out-of-step with the serious theological intentions of the inspired author. For one thing, snakes, as the Israelite reader well knew, did not really “eat dust.” And is it not better to view the snake’s legless movement as a wonder of God’s creative activity—a part of the original “very good” (1:31)? Moreover, human-reptile antipathy is by no means universal; some people are very fond of snakes, and there are other animals (like certain insects) that produce a far greater aversion in humans than do snakes. Consequently, it seems more natural to interpret God’s curse on the serpent as addressing an intelligent, supernatural being who would “father” a race of spiritual rebels that would oppose the race of the godly, physically born of Eve but spiritually born of God (see Gen 4:2–8; John 8:44; 1 John 3:8–12; Jude 1:11). See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison and Richard L. Hubbard Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 196–97.

20 “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” The Hebrew term translated “fit” [כנגדו] refers to that which corresponds in stature or capacity. The point is not merely that Adam needed a suitable biological partner with which to procreate but that the animals lacked the intellectual, spiritual, and moral qualities necessary to serve alongside Adam as vice-regents to fulfill God’s creation-mandate.

21 For the interpretation that sees “the knowledge of good and evil” as a kind of ethical maturity (i.e., “wisdom”) that pertains primarily to those in kingly authority who have the right to exercise judgment, see William Malcolm Clark, “A Legal Background to the Yahwist’s Use of ‘Good and Evil’ in Genesis 2–3,” Zeitscrift für die alttestamentlische Wissenschaft 83 (1971): 266–78.

22 Ethical immaturity need not connote a flaw in Adam’s human nature or the presence of sin. The NT implies that Jesus Christ progressed from a lower state of ethical maturity to a higher state of ethical maturity (Luke 2:40; Heb 5:8–9) with-out the slightest taint of ethical flaw or sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet 2:22).

23 Psalm 82 provides additional support. Whether the )elöhîm identified (82:1, 6) are human rulers or are the semi-divine beings of the divine counsel, in either case they exercise a God-like prerogative and function when they render judicial decisions, even when their judgments fail to represent accurately divine justice and equity (Ps 82:1–7).

24 Likewise the cognate verb (ערם) may connote the negative idea of devious scheming (Job 5:13; Ps 83:3) or the positive idea of wisdom (Prov 15:5; 19:25).

25 Interpreters and theologians debate at what point the serpent’s ערום became corrupted into anti-God or “worldly” wisdom. Most locate Satan’s fall sometime prior to the Genesis 3 narrative so that his cunning in verse 1 is interpreted negatively. See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Satan (Chicago: Moody Press, 1942), 3; Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology: A Study of the Spiritual Forces Behind the Present World Unrest (Wheaton: Van Kampen, 1952), 15, 18, 20, 42, 184–217; Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 90. Others argue that Satan’s fall occurred in connection or close proximity with man’s fall. See Payne, Theology of the Older Testament, 294; James B. Jordan, “Merit Verses Maturity,” in The Federal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004), 200, n. 38. Arguments in favor of Satan’s “fall” occurring about the time of man’s fall include (1) the fact that at the end of the sixth day God assessed the creation as “very good” (Gen 1:31), which would seem to preclude the presence of evil in the universe at that point, and (2) the fact that God pronounces a penal curse on Satan at the same time that he pronounces a curse on fallen humanity (Gen 3:14–19).

26 The usage is not anaphoric (i.e., referring back to a preceding word) since there is no previous mention of the serpent in the context; nor is the usage generic since it is not a class or species of animals in view but a single entity. Instead, according to Waltke and O’Connor, the articular noun designates “a well-known thing or person; the combination is close to constituting a name (cf. 13.6)” IBHS § 13.5.1.c (emphasis theirs).

27 Aside from Isaiah’s vision, wherever the noun שרף appears in the OT, it seems to refer to a venomous snake (Num 21:6, 8; Deut 8:15; Isa 1 4:29; 30:16). The noun derives from the Hebrew verb “to burn” (שרף) and may denote the burning sensation from their venomous bite (cf. LXX, δακντων), but more likely it refers to their shiny or luminous appearance. Even the term נחש, which appears to be related to the word for “bronze” (נחשת) may “suggest a shiny and luminous appearance, which would arrest Eve’s attention.” Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 187. The two other Isaiah references (14:29; 30:16) describe the שרף as מעופף, which some versions translate as “flying” (KJV, NAU, ESV, CSB) and others as “darting” (NIV, NET). Interestingly, the fifth-century BC Roman historian Herodotus wrote of “the winged serpents [that] are nowhere seen except in Arabia, where they are all congregated together.” Book III, Chapter 109 of Histories, cited in Joines, Serpent Symbolism, 8. Some modern evangelicals have conjectured that these texts may be referring to the now extinct pterosaur, a “prehistoric” flying reptile. See John Goertzen, “The Bible and Pterosaurs: Archaeological and Linguistic Studies of Jurassic Animals that Lived Recently,” a paper presented at the 1998 Midwestern Evangelical Theological Society Conference held at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (Grand Rapids, Sept 30, 1998); Ken Ham, The Great Dinosaur Mystery Explained! (Green Forrest, AR: Master, 1999), 45.

28 Serpent Symbolism, 49–51. Moreover, she discusses recent archaeological evidence of divine or semi-divine serpent creatures in ancient Near Eastern mythology and legend dating in some cases to the third-millennium BC (17–31, 62–73, 109–21). In light of this abundant archaeological evidence, John Ronning remarks, “It is ironic to note that the key argument used by rationalists to turn the tide towards a naturalistic interpretation could not be made today. That is the argument that Israelites could not have known of a Satanic being such as the dragon of Revelation equated with the Genesis 3 serpent until the exile. For some strange reason, the discovery of the ancient Near East evil anti-God dragon figure, pre-dating Moses by almost 1000 years (or more), has not caused a reevaluation by scholars of the identity of the Genesis 3 serpent, even though we have seen strenuous efforts to interpret Leviathan as a supernatural dragon even where he is clearly portrayed as a created animal. In this respect (as in all others touching on the interpretation of Genesis 3:15), we see the New Testament well ahead of modern scholarship.” “The Curse on the Serpent (Genesis 3:15) in Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics” (Ph.D. Diss.; Westminster Theological Seminary, 1997), 380–81.

29 Michael Heiser classifies “the Serpent” of Genesis 3 as one of the cherubim on the basis of his reading of Ezekiel 28, where he sees the proud king of Tyre likened to a rebellious cherub in Eden. The Unseen World: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 75-82. However, debate over the precise wording of Ezekiel 28:14-16 has led some scholars to identify the entity with whom the king of Tyre is compared as Adam. Even if one interprets the cherub of Ezekiel 28 as a reference to Satan, he may conclude that seraphim were a particular type (or rank) of cherubim. Interestingly, the pseudepigraphal First Book of Enoch associates the seraphim and the cherubim (along with the Ophannin, another class of angelic being) in paradise and as guardians of the throne of God (1 Enoch 20:7; 71:7; 61:10).

30 One might even theorize as follows: the Seraph-Cherub of Genesis 3 served among the highest ranking throne-guardians of Yahweh-Elohim. When this Anointed One learned that God destined his image-son, Adam (i.e., humankind), who was initially made lower than the angels (Ps 8:5) to someday rule over all angels (1 Cor 6:3; Heb 1:1-10; 2:5-13; Rev 22:5), he became sinfully proud and jealous. Not only did he decide to rebel against the Most High, but he also determined to bring the humans down with him. Hence, the fall of Satan and the fall of humanity closely coincide.

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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There are 6 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I think the the more natural understanding of the cursing of the serpent is that now snakes crawl.  To allegorize crawling on the dust for being humbled is a bit much.  If we are going to start allegorizing, pretty soon we won't have much of a literal creation story left.

As far as the serpent being something other than a typical snake, I think that is a good thought.  

I like that this series is getting us to think outside the box, btu I am unsure if outside the box is the right place to be.  Interested in what others may say.

I do th9ink we might be missing something here.

 

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JDen's picture

I remember the first time that I heard someone say that the serpent in the Garden had legs before the Fall. I was shocked. That interpretation is possible but not certain. I think that this author's viewpoints fit in the same category. He gives us something to chew on, but I don't think that we'll ever be able to conclusively state that this was Satan himself rather than Satan manifesting himself in or through a serpent.

Ed Vasicek wrote:

I think the the more natural understanding of the cursing of the serpent is that now snakes crawl. To allegorize crawling on the dust for being humbled is a bit much. If we are going to start allegorizing, pretty soon we won't have much of a literal creation story left.

I agree.

In reference to your point about allegorizing, I was also surprised by his comment about nakedness:

Bob Gonzales wrote:
Accordingly, the reader should interpret their “nakedness” as a reference to ethical innocency and immaturity.

I see no reason to allegorize nakedness or the serpent going on his belly.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Allegorizing is more than taking a single phrase as a metaphor.

I'm not convinced yet that Bob's view is correct, but I don't see it as allegorizing. After all, we all read "take, eat, this is my body" as metaphor, do we not?... and we don't call our view allegorizing. I'm not saying it's a good idea to start seeing metaphors wherever we happen to prefer them, but as Bob's article shows, there are difficulties involved in making the narrative work without a metaphor or two somewhere in there. If it's not the crawling in the dust, it's the word "serpent" itself.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

RajeshG's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

I think the the more natural understanding of the cursing of the serpent is that now snakes crawl.  To allegorize crawling on the dust for being humbled is a bit much.  If we are going to start allegorizing, pretty soon we won't have much of a literal creation story left.

As far as the serpent being something other than a typical snake, I think that is a good thought.  

I like that this series is getting us to think outside the box, btu I am unsure if outside the box is the right place to be.  Interested in what others may say.

I do th9ink we might be missing something here.

Had the serpent been something other than a "typical" snake, why would God then have cursed "typical" snakes so that they now crawl, as you have indicated that you think He did?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, you are right.  Allegorizing is not the right term, metaphor would be better.  To me, the plain sense makes sense on a narrative level.  IMO, someone reading this for the first time would conclude that this is be taken as a non-metaphor.

Rajesh said:

 

Had the serpent been something other than a "typical" snake, why would God then have cursed "typical" snakes so that they now crawl, as you have indicated that you think He did?

Yes, I agree. There had to be some form of cooperation with a literal serpent and Satan.

Still, I very much appreciate this article.  I do think there is something missing in our understanding here.

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

AndyBoni's picture

That's a tough subject, for sure! But I appreciate the article and willingness to bring some thought-provoking ideas to the table. As in so many areas and instances, there is little doubt that God purposely did not give us all the information we wish we had!

Also, thanks for the comments, they enrich the debate. AB

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