Left in the Dust

Do snakes really eat dust like Genesis says?

Some people try to discredit Genesis by saying snakes don’t eat dust, as Genesis 3:14 claims and that, therefore, the Bible is in error.

After the serpent deceived Eve, God cursed it, saying, “On your belly you shall go and you shall eat dust all the days of your life.” Although we can’t know for sure that the serpent referred to in Genesis 1 really was the same as a snake today, many people use this verse as a reason not to take Genesis literally, since snakes don’t eat dust.

Many have responded to this charge by pointing out that a snake has an organ located in the front of the roof of its mouth that functions as a chemical receptor. The Jacobson’s organ helps the snake smell. As a snake’s forked tongue darts out to sense its surroundings, it, at least occasionally, licks the ground or picks up dust particles. Once the snake pulls in its tongue, it inserts the tips of its forked tongue into the two openings of the Jacobson’s organ, where the particles are identified and analyzed. The snake’s brain can “read” the smells and tastes from its tongue. So, in a way, snakes really do eat dust.

But is this really what God had in mind when he cursed the serpent? Probably not. Let’s look at Genesis 3:14–15 for the context:

So the Lord God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”

Notice that the serpent’s curse included crawling on its belly, eating dust, bruising the heel of the woman’s Seed, and the Seed bruising the head of the serpent. Most theologians have recognized verse 15 as the protoevangelium (“first gospel”). God, here, prophesies the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, the one who would die for our sins and rise again, defeating Satan. The bruising of the heel and the bruising of the head are obviously symbolic language, pointing to a greater reality. Recognizing this in no way violates the historical genre of Genesis: the symbolic language is still couched within a largely literal framework.

So, did God curse the animal or Satan? It appears he cursed both of them. Throughout the Scriptures, God commonly speaks to the vessel and then to Satan. Here are a few examples:

  1. In Ezekiel 27–28 the Word of the Lord was said to Tyre itself (Ezekiel 27:2), then to the ruler of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:2), and then a lament beginning in Ezekiel 28:11 to the “King of Tyre.” This one was specifically directed to the one influencing the King of Tyre—Satan.
  2. Jesus rebuked Peter and then spoke to Satan when he influenced Peter in Mark 8:33.
  3. In Isaiah 14 God spoke to the King of Babylon and, in some parts, to Satan, who was influencing him.

This concept of speaking directly to Satan while he is influencing someone is nothing uncommon. So, there is no stretch to understand that the Lord is speaking to the serpent and Satan in Genesis 3. Genesis 3:14 is said to the serpent, and then Genesis 3:15 is said to Satan, who is influencing the serpent.

The curse pronounced upon the serpent of “eating the dust” is a result of it now crawling on its belly in the dust. It used to be like one of the “cattle” and “beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1, 14), but now will crawl on its belly and eat dirt. More importantly, this imagery of eating dust is symbolic of a creature low, despicable, abhorrent, and degraded. In Micah 7:16–17, God prophesies of a time when the nations will come crawling to Him:

The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might;
They shall put their hand over their mouth;
Their ears shall be deaf.
They shall lick the dust like a serpent;
They shall crawl from their holes like snakes of the earth.
They shall be afraid of the Lord our God,
And shall fear because of You.

A proper understanding of the context (literary, historical, and theological) helps us understand what God meant when he cursed the serpent. There is no contradiction here, but rather a wonderful promise of victory by a risen Savior.

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