Who Is the Serpent of Genesis 3 Anyway?
For awhile now, I’ve been analyzing the daylights out of the creation account in Genesis, reading it and rereading it, willing it to bend to the interpretation I’ve always been told to believe about it and failing miserably. The entire passages of Genesis 1-3 reads so much more like a mythic story than a literal historical record to me, and especially since I’ve done some reading up on the science behind evolution, I’ve realized that literal or no, I’ll never be able to read Genesis the same way again.
There’s one thing in particular that has been bugging me a lot. The serpent. Here are the two relevant Genesis passages that mention a serpent as the creature responsible for tempting Eve to sin:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”” — Genesis 3:1
The Lord God said to the serpent,“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”” — Genesis 3:14-15
I find it absolutely flabbergasting that we can read these two passages, and discern from them that Satan entered the mind of the serpent and worked through the serpent to convince Eve to sin. It doesn’t make sense to me on lot of different levels. If Satan possessed the serpent, then the serpent was in no way responsible for its words. Why then does God blame the serpent, and punish it, but make no mention of Satan or bring him to justice? That doesn’t seem to me like a very fair move on God’s part. And what’s more, there is absolutely NO hint of the presence of Satan in these Genesis 3 passages. None whatsoever. There is no mention of Satan possessing the serpent’s mind, no suggestion that the serpent was not acting of its own volition when it spoke to Eve. It just isn’t there.
The way I see it, there are three reasons why it is so conclusively believed among Christian circles that Satan did indeed possess the serpent. The first comes from inferring that because Revelation 12:9, 14, and 15 (“that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan”, “out of the serpent’s reach”, and “the serpent spewed water like a river”) and Revelation 20:2 (“he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan”) explicitly use a serpent as a metaphor for Satan, that Genesis 3 must be doing the same thing. But that also makes no sense whatsoever. Firstly, because in the Revelation verses, the serpent is a METAPHOR for Satan. But no one believes that the serpent in Genesis 3 is a metaphor – they believe it is a real, flesh and blood serpent that Satan possessed. The Revelation and Genesis references just don’t compare, don’t line up correctly at all. If we’re going to be consistent in how we use scripture to interpret scripture, we must come to the conclusion that if Revelation uses the serpent as a metaphor, then so does Genesis 3!
Also, I think it’s just ridiculously sloppy exegesis that we’re okay with looking at the last book of the Bible—which was written more than a millennium after the first book of the Bible—and use two random little sentences from it to decipher the identity of the serpent in Genesis 3! Really?! Maybe I’m missing something huge (I probably am; I’ll admit these ideas are just coming from my own reading of scripture and my own understandings of what I’ve been taught, and not from any sound scholarly research), but that seems like an enormously logic-defying leap to me. It would be one thing if there was a hint to support this idea in Genesis 3, but there isn’t. Not even a tiny clue. We are relying exclusively on the Revelation phrases to interpret Genesis 3, and the idea of doing that feels absolutely preposterous to me.
Okay, so secondly, I think we latch onto that enigmatic phrase, “he shall bruise your head, / and you shall bruise his heel” to determine that Satan, not the snake, is the one who is literally responsible for tempting Eve. We look at that sentence, throw it haphazardly alongside Romans 16:20 (“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”), and say that, once again, the New Testament is helping us understand the Old. But to my mind, just because the two phrases have like, two words that are sort of in common (bruise/crush, feet/heel), it doesn’t mean that the “you” in the Genesis phrase is a pronoun of “Satan” in the Romans phrase! And there is another problem with trying to relate these two phrases. In Romans 16:20, God is the one doing the crushing. But in Genesis 3:15, the “woman’s offspring” is responsible for bruising the serpent’s head. Again, two completely different ideas here. I don’t know what the meaning of Genesis 3:15 really is, but common sense tells me it’s just an extension of the curse originally placed on the serpent in verse 14.
There is a third and final reason the myth that Satan entered the mind of the snake has been so frequently perpetuated that it has essentially become considered a fact. Basically, it is the only rendering that makes sense within a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. That’s it. It’s the only way to make sense of the idea that a serpent could up and randomly talk Eve into the most fatal decision a human being has ever made. And oh my goodness, do we struggle mightily hard to force this to make sense. We infer wonderingly that all animals must have been able to speak in the Garden, since Eve wasn’t shocked when the serpent spoke to her (yet most fictional stories are absolutely saturated with talking animals!). We declare conclusively, “Ah! So that’s why snakes have no legs! God cursed them!”, while shrugging off other legless land animals like worms, certain species of lizards, etc. as…blessed to be created the way God created them, I guess? It’s absolutely bizarre, the lengths we’ll go to to defend an interpretation that in the end, makes so very little sense.
Now that I’ve finished my heretical pulling apart of the very fabric of Genesis (or so some would say), I would LOVE it if someone could enlighten me on something I’ve missed here. Is there a clear Biblical defense of the “Satan possessed the serpent” idea that I’ve totally missed? I really, really, reeeeally want to know it if there is! Seriously. I’d even welcome being proven wrong on this, because being right creates a lot of problems for how to approach Genesis (such as the origin of sin, for one!), and I’ve become so very tired of dealing with such pesky questions. But I will deal with them, because they aren’t just pesky…they are also, at least to me, quite legitimate.