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The Lying Serpent in Genesis: What Does It Represent?

Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, and author of Biblical Prayer for Today's Believers: Transform Your Prayer Life (available on Amazon).

Adam et Ève au Paradis Terrestre

The Talking Serpent

The serpent in Genesis 3 appears unexpectedly, with very little introduction, often puzzling the reader. What is this snake? Why does it lie? Why can it speak? Did it really have legs? How did it get into the garden? Is it only a symbol, or is it a real snake? These are common and popular questions about this enigmatic creature. In this article, we are going to try to figure out an answer to these questions.

The Purpose of Genesis

Genesis is one of Moses' five books, which are believed to have originally been one book. As such, Genesis serves as the introduction to the Pentateuch, or Torah. Consequently, we can expect to find in the book of Genesis elements that prepare the reader to admit the Law of Moses.

And we do find such elements. The book of Genesis doesn’t merely tell us the beginning of the cosmos and humanity, but the beginning of the Jewish people and God’s dealings with them. Thus, the book of Genesis happens to also tell us who the Jewish people are: they are descendants of Abraham, chosen by God.

For this reason, when we read the account of creation, we find several elements that help the reader accept the Mosaic Law.

  • All things were created by the one God of the Jews.
  • God created all things to follow a specific order.
  • God gave a law unto the man, Adam.
  • Adam was supposed to transmit this law unto Eve, and Eve was supposed to follow it.
  • The devil deceived the woman to disobey God's law.
  • Adam followed the woman in disobeying God’s law.
  • The disobedience to God's law resulted in death.

It is easy to see how the woman really does represent Israel and how Adam represents Moses. Just as God gave the Law to Israel through Moses, God also gave his first law to the woman through the man. Now, this does not necessarily negate that Adam and Eve were true historical figures, but it does tell us about what they stand for in the book of Genesis.

If The Serpent were Literal

What, then, is the serpent? Genesis 3:1 appears to imply that the serpent is one of the beasts that God had created: otherwise, there would be no point of comparing the serpent to the beasts God had created if the serpent was not one of them. Consequently, the narrative is really introducing the reader to the animal we commonly call a serpent—just what kind of serpent it is does not matter.

But are we to interpret the serpent itself as a literal serpent? Are we to say that two historical figures were historically deceived by a serpent? Obviously, thinking in this way is more challenging—why would the pinnacle of God’s creation, Adam and Eve, be deceived by one of the many good creatures God created on day six? This does not make much sense.

However, it is not completely impossible. The Bible does present us two additional accounts about animals that can be important for us to understand what is happening with the serpent, if we wish to believe that the entire account of Genesis 1-3 is a literal and historically accurate account.

First, we are told that God caused a donkey to speak (Numbers 22:28). We should notice that, just like Eve, Balaam does not appear to be at all surprised that the donkey spoke to him. Notice also that this account also takes place in the Pentateuch, the same portion of the Bible in which we find the account of the serpent. Nevertheless, the donkey is faithful creature to its master, whereas the serpent sought to hurt Adam and Eve.

Second, according to the gospels, pigs can be possessed by demons (Mark 5:13, Matthew 8:32, Luke 8:33). If pigs can be possessed by demons, then it likely that any creature can be possessed by demons.

Consequently, if Genesis 1-3 is to be interpreted as a literal and accurate account of historical events, then it is reasonable to think that a spirit took possession of the serpent and spoke through it unto the woman.

Why The Serpent Is Most Likely Symbolical

The problem with the view above, however, is that Genesis 3:1 appears to imply that the reason the serpent deceived the woman was that it was more crafty that the other beasts. The problem, then, is not that the serpent was possessed, but that it was more crafty. Could we then be dealing with another intelligent creature, intelligent like Adam and Eve? That is unlikely, because only the man and the woman were created in God’s image—which appears to involve intelligence, emotions, volition, and morality.

Throughout the centuries, Christianity has accepted that this serpent is somehow related to the devil, or Satan. But why? If we were to rely only on Genesis to interpret the serpent in Genesis 3, we would have more questions than answers. However, the other books of the Bible, being God’s word as much as the Torah, may help us understand this better.

In Revelation 12:9, the Apostle John tells us that the devil is the old serpent that deceives the whole world. In this verse, John is directly addressing his readers to help them interpret the symbolism in Revelation: he is telling them that the red dragon in Revelation 12 is Satan. Incidentally, John also mentions that Satan is the old serpent that deceives the whole world. John is clearly saying that the serpent in Genesis 3 is Satan.

Now, John is not saying that Satan possessed the serpent: he is saying that Satan is the serpent. Unless we are prepared to believe that Satan is a literal serpent—according to the book of Job, Satan is not a physical serpent (Job 1:-7)–then the most obvious explanation for John’s statement is that the serpent in Genesis 3 is symbolical, not literal.

In fact, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus hinted that Satan is that serpent in Genesis (John 8:44). Jesus said that the devil (Satan) is a murderer from the beginning, a liar, and the father of lies. Why does Jesus say this? Because Genesis talks about the beginning, the serpent told the first lie to Eve, and the result of the serpent’s actions was the death of humanity. This is most likely a reference to the serpent in Genesis 3 (however, Jesus could have said this about Satan even if the serpent was literal).

Is Genesis 1-3 Symbolical?

But if the serpent in Genesis 3 is not a literal serpent—one that was possessed by Satan—but a symbol of Satan, should we take the rest of the account in Genesis 1-3 as a literal and historical account? My view is that we should be prepared to accept the fact that Genesis 1-3 is, at least in part, symbolical.

The reason the serpent in Genesis 3 talks is that the serpent is a symbol of Satan, not a mere serpent. The serpent is truly a symbol of the adversary that opposes God, seeks to destroy humanity, and tempts humanity to sin—that is, to disobey God’s Law (the Torah).

In support of this view, we must consider that there are various elements in Genesis 1-3 that lend themselves to be interpreted as symbols, a situation that suggests to me the presence of a literary motif.

Eve is a symbol of Israel, Adam is a symbol of Moses—although, in the New Testament, he is also a symbol of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:45)–God’s instruction to Adam represents God’s Law through Moses, the curses and the death that God pronounces on Adam and Eve represent the curses and death that come from breaking God’s law, and the dust that the serpent is supposed to eat is really only a reference to the serpent dragging itself on the dirt—it does not mean that snakes feed on dirt.

Conclusion

I see Genesis 1-3 as consisting, most likely, of symbols that attempt to explain theological points and uncertain historical events (events about which only a few details are known).

First, there are obviously literary and cultural purposes in everything these first few chapters tell us—so this indicates to me that the author has carefully crafted the narrative. Second, when Moses wrote this book, he was writing about events that had transpired long before he was alive. The only ways in which he could have known about these events are through supernatural revelation, traditions, or a combination of the two—in any case, revelations are often very symbolic (just read the books of Daniel and Zechariah, and you’ll see what I mean), and traditions could also use symbols to explain the events that are otherwise inexplicable, or to highlight theological points.

So what does this mean? First of all, I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God word by word—I am not questioning the authority of the Bible, nor am I questioning the authority or reliability of the first three chapters of Genesis. I do believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures directly created by God.

However, I recognize that I can read the first three chapters of Genesis in just a few minutes, whereas the events in Genesis 1-3 took at least eight days (from a literal point of view). This means that not everything that happened in those days is recorded. Some information is missing—we have only been given by God what we need to know in order to accept the rest of his revelation about Himself, his Torah, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We do not know exactly the process by which Moses came to know the information he reported in Genesis 1-3. Did he see visions? Did he rely on previous works or traditions? Did God dictate the book to him?

Although the Bible is the word of God, the word of God is a work of literature. God has chosen to give us his word as a work of literature. In this work of literature, there are poems, songs, historical records, dreams, visions, personal letters, theological treatises, and symbols—and not all of these are meant to be interpreted as historical accounts. So, my question is whether—given the presence of symbolical elements in the first three chapters of Genesis—we should regard everythign in them as literal and historical events. My answer to my question is "not necessarily—the serpent is most likely symbolical."

© 2015 Marcelo Carcach

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