We’re all familiar with the sorry scene when the first man and woman rebelled against their Creator. One sunny day Eve wandered through the trees perusing the luscious fruit that God had placed throughout the Garden of Eden, when suddenly she heard a voice. Turning, she saw that the words came from a serpent. No big deal. Many animals talked. Eve was innocent, so she never suspected a sinister scheme and readily engaged in conversation.
We need to separate God’s Word from our conjectures.
Wait. Stop. Hold on. That’s not what happened, not exactly. You see, as Eve walked through the garden admiring the tasty assortments, a mighty angelic being called a cherub approached her and struck up a discussion. Given that Eve had regularly seen angels in her untainted home at Eden, she had no reason to be wary.
Whoa! That’s not in the Bible either. Eve was helping Adam tend the garden when she accidentally wandered away from Adam and came too close to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan seized the opportunity to deceive the woman by possessing a serpent, which slithered down the tree to speak to her. Right?
When we talk about famous Bible events, like David and Goliath, we often assume we know what happened in rich detail, until someone asks, “But where’s that in the Bible?” Then we realize how many details came from teachers, books, or movies we’ve encountered over the years, and not from Scripture.1 In this case, where does Genesis actually identify Eve’s deceiver as the devil? What kind of serpent talks? Was the serpent in the tree? And why wasn’t Eve shocked to hear a talking creature?
In our effort to make sense of these strange (and unique) scenes from history—based on the limited perspective of our own lives—most readers naturally try to fill in the details. But we must be careful. God has a reason for every word He says . . . and doesn’t say. We need to separate God’s Word from our conjectures.
So do any of these three retellings closely represent what happened? What do we really know about the details? The answers largely depend on who you ask. So let’s survey who promoted each of these three views to see if they had any biblical support to help us identify this creature. Since the answers shed light on the interaction between humans and the evil “powers” that attempt to draw us into sin, our proper understanding is vitally important to our walk with God (see Ephesians 5:15; 2 Corinthians 2:11).
Was The Serpent Just an Animal?
Some early Jewish writers did not think Satan was behind the temptation. After all, Satan’s name does not appear in Genesis. They believed that the serpent itself tempted Eve. For this amazing thing to be possible (a talking serpent), they assumed that this creature, along with many other beasts, was originally able to speak. The craftiness of this particular animal led to Eve’s fall into sin.
The Book of Jubilees, written before the New Testament and of historical interest (though not part of God’s Word), states that on the day Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden God closed the mouths of all living things “so that they could no longer speak: for they had all spoken . . . with one tongue” (Jubilees 3:28).
Josephus, a contemporary of the apostles, repeated this popular Jewish idea, writing that God “also deprived the serpent of speech, out of indignation at his malicious disposition towards Adam. Besides this, he inserted poison under his tongue, and made him an enemy to men.”2
This interpretation was fairly common before the first century AD. Nothing in Genesis indicates that Satan was involved here. The text refers only to a beast of the field, a cunning “serpent,” that tempted Eve. We need to remember that most of what we know about Satan comes from New Testament writings. Jewish interpreters would not have readily connected Satan to the serpent in the garden.
This position has some weaknesses, however. The New Testament links “the serpent” to Satan several times (Revelation 12:9 and 20:2; see also 2 Corinthians 11:3–15). Also, Genesis does not indicate that any animals, including other serpents, had the ability to speak. Nor did the Curse include a statement about animals losing their speech. Although the serpent is described as being “cunning” (Genesis 3:1), this view requires the creature to be evil before sin, apart from Satan’s outside influence. Finally, if the perpetrator was merely a serpent, then God’s Curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:14–15 merely prophesies that snakes and humans won’t like each other.
Was The Serpent Satan Incarnate?
Another view is that Satan was able to physically manifest in the garden, probably in the form of a serpent (or dragon). Some supporters of this position read Genesis 3:1 (“The serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field”) and believe it means the serpent was not like the beasts of the field. That is, he was not one of them or else the text would have said “any other beast of the field.” Ezekiel 28:12–17, viewed by many Christians as referring in some way to Satan, states that he was an “anointed cherub” and was in “Eden, the garden God.” This position does a better job than the previous view at explaining why the serpent was able to speak, why he would tempt Eve, and how God’s Curse on the serpent affected more than just the relationship between snakes and people.
Nevertheless, this view has its own share of difficulties. Why would Genesis even bother to mention a serpent, using a common Hebrew word for snake (nachash) and associate it with the beasts of the field if no animal was actually involved? If the culprit was not a physical serpent, why would the Curse apply to the serpent and its seed? And what would it mean that Satan would have to crawl on his belly? This view also raises a much-disputed issue about Satan’s ability to manifest physically.
Was the Serpent Possessed by Satan?
The most popular view among Christians today is that Satan possessed a serpent. This position combines the strengths of the other two views while minimizing the difficulties. A real serpent was involved in the temptation, just as Genesis 3 states, but Satan was also responsible, as the New Testament seems to indicate (John 8:44).
The New Testament provides an example of evil spirits possessing animals (pigs, in Luke 8:33),3 so Christians do not dispute Satan’s ability to perform an action similar to this. Like the previous view, this one offers a reasonable explanation for the serpent’s ability to speak intelligibly and his desire to tempt Eve. If you take this view, then the first half of God’s Curse (Genesis 3:14) upon the serpent may apply to the actual creature, while the second half (Genesis 3:15) may have been addressed only or primarily to the evil being who possessed it.
Nevertheless, there are some objections to this position that need explanation.
Why would God blame the serpent, a nonrational creature, in Genesis 3:14 (“
you have done this . . .”) and curse the serpent and its offspring if Satan
had actually been the culprit? If it was an actual serpent being cursed to go
on its belly, does that mean it originally moved in a different manner? Did
it have wings or legs? While plausible answers exist for these questions, we
can’t be certain, given how little the Scripture tells us about this situation.
Things are not always as they seem at first glance. This often becomes apparent when we study the Scriptures in detail. In the case of the serpent in the garden, many questions remain unanswered, and we should be tentative in answering them. Either we lack sufficient understanding, or the Holy Spirit chose not to divulge enough information for us to be conclusive. The possession view seems to make better sense of the relevant Scriptures and has fewer issues than the other positions, but our case for it is not airtight.
While it is intriguing to think about the serpent’s appearance and it is important
to consider the ways that the devil works (2 Corinthians 2:11), a far more important
concern is how he was able to deceive the first woman and how Satan continues
to tempt people to doubt the Word of God today. Just as in Genesis 3:1 where
he led Eve to question the reliability of God’s statements (“
Did God really
say . . .”), the enemy currently is attacking the reliability of the early chapters
of Genesis, with similar deadly results. Many believers have fallen for his
deception and have opted to reinterpret or ignore the biblical view of the origin
of the first man and the first sin. This attack has had devastating results
because it undercuts our understanding of biblical authority and the basis of
the soul-saving gospel message itself. Learning from the mistakes of Eve, we
need to take a firm stand on God’s Word starting in Genesis. He meant what He
said, and we need to believe it.
The Serpent—Symbol of Evil . . . and the Gospel?
Despised. Detested. Loathed. Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the garden, serpents have been abhorred like no other creature.
Perhaps the serpent’s low point is its link with Satan. Hearkening back to Genesis 3, the Apostle John wrote, “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2).
Jesus castigated the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, calling them “serpents” and a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). John the Baptist used this same imagery to describe Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7).
Solomon compared intoxicating wine to the bite of a serpent and sting of a viper (Proverbs 23:32). David said that evil men “sharpen their tongues like a serpent [and] the poison of asps is under their lips” (Psalm 140:3). The prophets pictured serpents as symbols of judgment (Jeremiah 8:17; Amos 9:3).
Regardless of their negative connotations, God occasionally used serpents for worthwhile purposes. He transformed the staffs of Moses and Aaron into serpents as signs that the Almighty God had sent these men to free the Israelites (Exodus 4:3–5; 7:9). After each Egyptian magician “threw down his rod, and they became serpents,” God demonstrated His superior power by having Aaron’s rod swallow the other rods (Exodus 7:12).
Later, the Lord used “fiery serpents” to judge the grumbling Israelites (Numbers 21:6). God instructed Moses to “make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole” so that anyone bitten by those fiery snakes could look at it and be healed (Numbers 21:8). Sadly, in later centuries many Jews committed shameful idolatry with this bronze serpent. When King Hezekiah broke into pieces this image-turned-idol, called Nehushtan, Scripture praised him (2 Kings 18:4).
God had one last, surprising role for this bronze serpent. In a strange twist, the Creator referenced the reviled serpent as a picture of His sacrificial death on the Cross. Immediately before He spoke the well-known words in Scripture (John 3:16), Jesus compared Himself to the bronze serpent: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
The serpent in the garden led mankind into rebellion against his Creator, but the Son of God later referred to a bronze image of this disgraced creature to explain the glorious gospel. Jesus was lifted up on the Cross and died for our sins so that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).