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Determining features of the serpent from the precious little information given in the Bible is a difficult task.
Perhaps one of the most-asked and most-debated topics is the serpent’s original appearance. The model of the serpent here at the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum exhibit just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, is pictured below to consider.
Determining features of the serpent from the precious little information given in the Bible is a difficult task, and there is considerable speculation in this area. For example, we can speculate about what color and patterns were on the serpent’s exterior, what shape of eyes did the serpent have, and so on.
Even the question of legs on the serpent is one with varying speculation. Consider the biblical text to see what it says of the serpent:
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1–5)
And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
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.” (Genesis 3:13–15)
When looking at Genesis 3:13–15, there is no direct indication that the serpent had legs, only that its curse would be “on your belly you shall go.” But in Genesis 3:1, we get a clue that the serpent was likely classified as a beast of the field, which is probably why beasts of the field were also mentioned in 3:14.1
What makes this an issue is that it was a land animal and/or flying reptile in general—hence, it moved by flying, slithering, or with appendages. If it slithered already, what was the point of the curse and why compare it to creatures which had legs in Genesis 3:14?
Regardless if it was a beast of the field, the serpent was indeed a land animal and capable of locomotion in the Garden of Eden and in the field. Let’s evaluate forms of locomotion to see the possibilities.
Land animals are currently known to have three classes of locomotion.2 They are
Beasts of the field, and virtually all land animals, use leg(s) to move, from cattle as a quadruped to inch worms, which use two grabbing spots on their body to inch along. Of course, snakes and legless lizards slither.
The other means of locomotion is rolling. Few creatures today roll, and of these creatures, the rolling is only temporary. The primary means is using gravity and balling up to roll down a hill, like a web-toed salamander or a Namib wheeling spider.
Few land animals have a self-powered rolling mechanism. There are two that come to mind, mother-of-pearl moth caterpillar stage and the Pangolins both use a leg(s) and/or tail with which to push. But even these rolling creatures use some form of appendage or leg; so, arguably, there are really only two types of locomotion found among animals today: slithering or legged.
Was there some other form of locomotion among creatures that are now extinct? Without further research, there is no certain answer.
As for the possibility of wings, this can’t be entirely ruled out either. But if so, then the serpent had some form of locomotion other than slithering and some form of appendage that physically changed forms.
The Hebrew word for serpent is nachash, and the Greek equivalent is ophis. It means “snake, serpent, sly, cunning, and image of a serpent.” The late Dr. Henry Morris says of the Hebrew word:
There has been much speculation as to whether the serpent originally was able to stand upright (the Hebrew word nachash, some maintain, originally meant “shining, upright creature”).3
Although, this speculated meaning may have been deduced from Genesis 3:14 regarding the serpent being forced to crawl on its belly, this doesn’t really help us ascertain if the serpent had legs or not.
Several commentaries were checked to see what other scholars said about the serpent. They are accumulated below. Of course, commentaries are not inspired like the Bible is, but they can give us some insight.
“The body of the serpent, in addition, was altered even further by eliminating his ability to stand erect, eye-to-eye with man as it were.”
“It is further possible that all these animals (other than the birds) were quadrupeds, except the serpent, who had the remarkable ability, with a strong vertebral skeleton supported by limbs, to rear and hold himself erect when talking with Adam and Eve.”
|2||John Gill5||Yes (whether feet or flying)||“Jarchi thinks it had feet before, but were cut off on this account, and so became a reptile, as some serpents now have feet like geese, as Pliny [x] relates; or it might go in a more erect posture on its hinder feet, as the basilisk, which is one kind of serpent, now does; and if it was a flying one, bright and shining in the air, now it should lose all its glory, and grovel in the dust, and with pain, or at least with difficulty, creep along on its breast and belly; and this, as it respects the punishment of the devil, may signify, that he being cast down from the realms of bliss and glory, shall never be able to rise more, and regain his former place and dignity.”|
|3||Matthew Henry6||Yes (perhaps feet and wings)||“He is to be for ever looked upon as a vile and despicable creature, and a proper object of scorn and contempt: ‘Upon thy belly thou shalt go, no longer upon feet, or half erect, but thou shalt crawl along, thy belly cleaving to the earth,’ an expression of a very abject miserable condition.”|
|4||John Calvin7||No||“This objection has induced certain men of learning and ability to say, that the serpent had been accustomed to walk with an erect body before it had been abused by Satan. There will, however, be no absurdity in supposing, that the serpent was again consigned to that former condition, to which he was already naturally subject. For thus he, who had exalted himself against the image of God, was to be thrust back into his proper rank; as if it had been said, ‘Thou, a wretched and filthy animal, hast dared to rise up against man, whom I appointed to the dominion of the whole world; as if, truly, thou, who art fixed to the earth, hadst any right to penetrate into heaven. Therefore, I now throw thee back again to the place whence thou hast attempted to emerge, that thou mayest learn to be contented with thy lot, and no more exalt thyself, to man’s reproach and injury.’”|
|5||Adam Clarke8||Yes||“upon thy belly shalt thou go—thou shalt no longer walk erect, but mark the ground equally with thy hands and feet”|
|6||Leupold9||Yes/No—open to both—not necessarily a complete transformation but leans toward few, if any changes||“The first element is, ‘upon thy belly thou shalt go.’ This does not necessarily mean that a complete transformation of the serpent took place, so that “form and movements of the serpent were altered” (Keil). Some speak quite boldly at this point about a former erect posture, as though, for example, the serpent had strutted about proudly as a cock. It has been rightly pointed out that several parallels are available. Man worked before the Fall and still works since. Now work is in a measure a punishment. It seems likely that the rainbow existed before the Flood; but since that time it is a pledge of God’s covenant.”|
|7||Matthew Poole10||Yes||“If the serpent did so before the fall, what then was natural, is now become painful and shameful to it, as nakedness and some other things were to man. But it seems more probable that this serpent before the fall either had feet, or rather did go with its breast erect, as the basilisk at this day doth; God peradventure so ordering it as a testimony that some other serpents did once go so. And so the sense of the curse being applied to this particular serpent, and to its kind, may be this: Whereas thou hadst a privilege above other kinds of serpents, whereby thou didst go with erected breast, and didst feed upon the fruits of trees and other plants; now thou shalt be brought down to the same mean and vile estate with them”|
|8||John Trapp11||Yes||“The serpent here is first cut shorter by the feet, and made to wriggle upon his belly”|
|9||Martin Luther12||Yes||“From this some obvious conclusions follow: that before sin the serpent was a most beautiful little animal and most pleasing to man, as little mules, sheep and puppies today; moreover, that it walked upright.”|
|10||Allen P. Ross13||Yes||He says nothing about how the curse affected the serpent physically, though Ross indicates that the curse did change him physically in some way.|
|11||C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch14||Yes||“the form and movements of the serpent were altered . . . though we cannot form any accurate idea of its original appearance.”|
|12||Flavius Josephus15||Yes||“had deprived him of the use of his feet.”|
|13||Gordon Wenham16||No||“It is doubtful whether this implies that snakes once had legs to walk with like other animals.” But he doesn’t explain why he thinks it is doubtful.|
|14||John Sailhamer17||No||“This curse does not necessarily suggest that the snake had previously walked with feet and legs as the other land animals.” But he doesn’t explain why he calls the serpent a “snake” or why he concludes this about the curse.|
Most commentaries seem certain that it was referring to some form of erect creature and changes took place with the curse. John Calvin was the only one who seemed to think that the serpent remained with the same form.18 He said that the curse was more of a statement to “put the serpent back in its place.” Leupold leaves open either position but leans against a full transformation, leaving the serpent more in its original form. Wenham and Sailhamer more recently (1987 and 1990 respectively) both lean against the serpent changing forms but give no reasons why they believe this.
The problem with leaving the serpent “as is” is that it reduces the curse to almost a meaningless status. If such a philosophy is to be held, then the parallel comments by the Lord to the woman and the man should also be statements to just “put them back in their place.” This raises theological issues. It would mean that the other effects of sin listed in Genesis 3, such as thorns and thistles, increased pain and sorrow for the woman, and mankind returning to dust, were merely statements to put human beings back in their place, not real changes. This seems highly illogical, as it would have death before sin in humans, with man already returning to dust (recall Romans 5:12).
The more logical answer is that the serpent originally had some form of legs or appendages, and these were either lost or reduced (consider how many reptiles crawl on their bellies and yet have legs, e.g., crocodiles). This seems to correlate with the plainest reading of the passage and the comparison of a curse (“on your belly you shall go”) as compared with cattle and other beasts of the field, which do have legs.
Thorns and thistles were brought forth due to the curse (physical changes to vegetation); there were physical changes to the man and woman (increased sorrow in childbearing and increased pain in work that has been passed along). There is no reason to assume the serpent didn’t undergo physical changes as well—he was a prime culprit. These physical changes due to the curse help explain certain defense and attack structures (DAS) in animals and plants that currently dominate the world.