Who was the Serpent in Genesis 3?
By Hal Flemings
Early in the Bible narrative, a most incredible account occurs. We are told that a serpent carried on a conversation with a human, the first woman who was called Eve. According to Genesis 3:1-5, this is what transpired:
"Now the serpent proved to be the most cautious of all the wild beasts of the field that Jehovah God had made. So it began to say to the woman: "'Is it really so that God said you must not eat from every tree of the garden?' At this the woman said to the serpent: "Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat. But as for eating of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'You must not eat from it, no, you must not touch it that you do not die.' At this the serpent said to the woman: "You positively will not die. For God knows that in the very day of your eating from it your eyes are bound to be opened and you are bound to be like God, knowing good and bad." (NWT)
Many find the report that a snake talked difficult to accept, especially in view of the evidence from science that tells us that snakes cannot engage in human conversation today and very likely did not in the past.
It is of interest that apparently some have concluded that a literal snake did, in fact, talk with Eve. None other than the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who lived from 33 C.E. - 100 C.E., composed these words as found in his work The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1 and Chapter 1:
"God therefore commanded that Adam and his wife should eat of all the rest of the plants, but to abstain from the tree of knowledge... But while all the living creatures had one language, at that time the serpent, which then lived together with Adam and his wife, showed an envious disposition, at his supposal of their living happily, and in obedience to the commands of God and imagining, that when they disobeyed them, they would fall into calamities, he persuaded the woman, out of a malicious intention, to taste of the tree of knowledge... [Later God] deprived the serpent of speech, out of indignation at his malicious disposition towards Adam. Besides this, he inserted poison under this tongue, and made him an enemy to man."
This paper proposes that the literal snake did not talk to Even in the Garden of Eden but that a rebel spirit son of Jehovah orchestrated the snake's actions. Several arguments primarily from the Hebrew Scriptures will be submitted to make the case.
According to Genesis 1:26, 27, only man and woman, not animals, were made in God's image. There is, at least, the suggestion in this passage that only man was an intelligent, rational creature and that animals were not. If this is included in the notion of imaging God, then it means that animals, including snakes, were not, as now, intelligent rational creatures capable of processing and relating information on the level of humans. This argument seems to be buttressed by the fact that God tested the obedience of only Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - not the obedience of animals, who, if they were intelligent creatures, would have been, it seems, candidates for testing as well. (Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-5)
The only other account of an animal talking is found in Numbers 22. Here we are told that an ass conversed with a man named Balaam who lived in a town called Pethor. This time the Biblical account lets us know that an angel of God was the cause of the animal's behavior. Years later, the Christian Apostle Peter referred to this event and made it plain that animals do not of themselves have the ability to converse with humans:
"Abandoning the straight path, they have been misled. They have followed the path of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the reward of wrongdoing, but got a reproof for his own violation of what was right. A voiceless beast of burden, making utterance with the voice of a man, hindered the prophet's mad course."
Another, perhaps less obvious, evidence is pictured for us at Exodus 7:11, 12. The man, Moses, and his older brother, Aaron, appeared before the Pharaoh of Egypt to request that the enslaved Israelites be released to celebrate a festival to Jehovah in the wilderness. The Pharaoh was resistant. To make the point more forceful to Pharaoh, Aaron threw down his rod which metamorphosed into a large, living snake. Earlier, the Bible account had told us that the ability for Aaron to do this came from Jehovah. Undaunted, Pharaoh summoned his men. Verse 12 of Exodus 7 tells us what they did:
"So they threw down each one his rod, and they became big snakes; but Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods."
Now, the value of this account, in the context of our question, is that it delivers to us an event involving animals, and snakes at that, where demonic forces against Jehovah employed them to serve their purposes. It is not less reasonable to see that this could have been the case at Genesis 3 as well.
Not to insult the sensitivities of animal rights activists, but there certainly is a message in the Bible that animals are less valuable than humans, and in a restricted sense, dispensable. Even in the Garden of Eden this is suggested in that, to clothe Adam and Eve, God gave them garments of skin. (Genesis 3:21) Later, Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, presented animal sacrifices to Jehovah. (Genesis 4:4) So, the moral tone of the Bible argues that, if animals were functioning at the level of humans, then making clothing of their skins and sacrificing them would not have been acceptable to Jehovah, notwithstanding the later human sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Our last argument arises out of what may be labeled a puzzling passage from the book of Ezekiel. After the prophet and priest Ezekiel had been swooped up with other members of the Judean upper class and leadership in 617 B.C.E. at the hands of the Babylonians, he was privileged to represent Jehovah among the Jewish captives and to write prophecies against Ammon, Edom, Moab and others. He was also used to convey God's judgment against the King of Tyre. Part of the message against the King of Tyre is now the focus of our interest. In Ezekiel 28:11-17, the subject passage, we read:
"And the word of Jehovah continued to occur to me [Ezekiel], saying: "Son of man, lift up a dirge concerning the king of Tyre, and you must say to him, "This is what the Sovereign Lord Jehovah has said: "You are sealing up a pattern, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.1 In Eden, the garden of God, you proved to be. Every precious stone was your covering, ruby, topaz and jasper; chrysolite, onyx and jade; sapphire, turquoise and emerald; and of gold was the workmanship of your settings and your sockets in you. In the day of your being created they were made ready. You are the anointed cherub that is covering, and I have set you. On the holy mountain of God you proved to be. In the midst of fiery stones you walked about. You were faultless in your ways from the day of your being created until unrighteousness was found in you. Because of the abundance of your sales goods they filled the midst of you with violence, and you began to sin.2 And I shall put you as profane out of the mountain of God, and I shall destroy you, O cherub that is covering, from the midst of the fiery stones. Your heart became haughty because of your beauty. You brought your wisdom to ruin on account of your beaming splendor. Onto the earth I will throw you. Before kings I will set you, [for them] to look upon you."
There is no doubt that the King of Tyre was the object of Ezekiel 28 but there appears to be incontrovertible evidence that someone else was also the target of this pericope. What is that evidence?
Firstly, although the King of Tyre may have been surrounded by an Edenic palace, he was never in "Eden the Garden of God". Indeed at this point in time, it was a few thousand years downstream from the time of Adam and Eve, and no fleshly beings alive in Ezekiel's time had been in Eden.
Secondly, no human living at this time had been "created"; all had been generated from their parents.
Thirdly, no human living or dead had ever been a "cherub" since a cherub is an angel.
Fourthly, no human living at this time was "faultless, in his ways from the day of being created". All humans had been born imperfect.
Fifthly, if the "fiery stones", among which the cherub of Ezekiel 28 lived, represented the holy angels pursuant to Psalms 104:4, Hebrews 1:7, 14 and Ezekiel 1:13, then it is certainly clear that no human had ever lived in such a place.
The second party of Ezekiel 28 was in Eden, was a cherub, was created perfect, was a member of the angelic community and turned against Jehovah due to becoming enamored with himself. This places this angel in the story of Genesis 3 and by deduction identifies him with the talking serpent. No, the literal serpent did not speak to Eve.
1. The New English Bible renders this part of verse 12: "You set the seal on perfection; full of wisdom you were and altogether beautiful." The New International Version says: "You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty."
2. The New International Version renders this part of
verse 16: "Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence and you
sinned." Byington's The Bible in Living English says: "In the vastness of your
trade your core was filled with foul play, and you sinned..."