Serpent in the Garden

From our earliest days we were told the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation by the serpent in the garden. In children’s books there is often the quick explanation that the serpent is the devil/satan tempting the first humans. To be clear this earliest of accounts in Genesis 3 does not refer explicitly to Satan (which by the way is never used as a proper name in Scripture). The tempter is simply called a nāḥāš, which is a common Hebrew word for a serpent, used a total of 31 times in the OT. There is perhaps a sinister nuance possible as seen in the Hebrew word for serpent (nāḥāš) if it is to be connected with the verb nāḥaš, “to practice divination, observe signs,” a verb that appears eleven times in the OT. In the ancient Near East such divination formulae frequently involved a serpent.

While the account does not provide a name, it does provide two other pieces of information. We are told something about the serpent’s character and something about its origin.

First, its character. The serpent is defined as the most cunning (ʿārûm) creature of the field. It is an ambivalent word which can be taken in a pejorative sense (cunning) or a more positive sense (prudent). But given the serpent’s action in tempting Adam and Eve, the approach was both cunning in its goals, but somewhat prudent in its method as seen in how it engages Eve in dialogue. For the record, the choice of “cunning” is repeated in the New Testament: “as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning.”  (2 Cor 11:3)

As regards its origin, we are clearly told it is part of God’s creation. While we might ask, “Why did God do that…?”, at the same time, it removes any possibility of the duality of a God of good and another of evil in constant warfare over the fate of humanity.

All that being said, the tradition of the identification of the serpent as satan/devil is supported by Scripture. Consider, “The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.” (Rev 12:9) Clearly an illusion to the expulsion of Satan from heaven (cf. Lk 10:18). And again, “He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, which is the Devil or Satan, and tied it up for a thousand years.” (Rev 20:2)

There are many questions that could be asked, but an elementary question is “how do we explain the  ability of a serpent to speak?” The Bible provides no answer. How Eve heard the serpent is not explained either, but there is no indication that she was shocked to discover this creature could communicate with her. This has led some to speculate that before the Fall, animals had the ability to speak. Or maybe we had the ability to understand. I would note that in Numbers 22:28, God speaks to the prophet Balaam via a donkey.

So, a bit of linguistics, some comparative analysis of different Scripture passages, a pinch of speculation, but sometimes the answer is perhaps offered by a child

I think the child is onto something. Maybe the serpent was the original, however evil, muppet with the devil/satan being the operative hand/voice.

Such are the morning musings on a day off.


Image credit: Pexel free images

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