Snake or Seraph? The Identity of the Serpent in Genesis 3

Genesis 3:1 introduces a new character into the Eden narrative and signals a shift in the plot. He is introduced as “the serpent.” Initially, the reader may picture nothing more than a legless reptile (suborder: serpentes). The Hebrew term נחש is generally used to refer to a type of a reptile, usually a legless reptile such as a snake (Num 21:6; Deut 8:15; Ps 58:4; Prov 23:32; Isa 65:25; Jer 8:17; Amos 5:19; Mic 7:17). But additional information in the account suggests that this entity is more than a mere snake. This creature talks with the humans and entices them to sin (3:1–5). As a result, he and his “offspring” are cursed by God (3:14–15). The mixture of animal and supra-animal characteristics raises the question of the real identity of this “tempter,” the answer to which is vital for a proper interpretation of the text.

Some Modern Views

Some modern scholars suggest that the narrator’s portrayal of a talking animal classifies the text as ancient folklore and myth, and it serves both an etiological as well as a moralistic function. Herman Gunkel opines, “The myth belongs to the category of myths and fairy tales very common in antiquity and among primitive peoples which tell how certain animals came by their unusual characteristics, ‘why the flounder has its oblique mouth, the donkey its long ears, and the bear its stumpy tail.’”1 Others compare the narrative with ancient Near Eastern serpent mythology and argue that the serpent is a symbol of immortality, wisdom, or chaos.2 Still other modern commentators propose that the serpent be seen as a symbol for the evil impulse that resides within human beings3 or a metaphor for whatever in God’s good creation serves to facilitate options for human decisions for or against God.4

There are, however, significant problems with these modern views. The historical character and non-symbolic nature of the other Edenic referents (i.e., the trees, rivers, animals, humans, etc.) render the interpretation of the serpent as a mythical symbol5 or as the personification of evil impulse untenable. The fact that Moses attributes personal qualities (i.e., speech, intelligence, ethical capacity) to the serpent (3:1–5) and portrays him as an entity liable to divine judgment (3:14–15) precludes treating the serpent as a mere metaphor. Such an interpretation is incompatible with the textual data.

The Serpent as an Instrument of Satan

Traditionally, Bible scholars have taken the serpent as a real snake that becomes the instrument or organ through which Satan entices man to sin.6 The fact that the serpent is compared to “the beasts of the field” (3:1, 14)7 seems to suggest an ordinary snake. That the serpent is styled as “crafty” does not necessarily disqualify the entity from membership in the animal kingdom since the Bible elsewhere attributes sapient qualities to mere creatures (Prov 30:24–28), including the snake (Matt 10:16).

The data also suggest, however, that there is an intelligent and malicious personality at work behind this creature (3:1, 4–5; 14–15).8 Therefore, the majority of commentators identify the evil persona behind the serpent as none other than Satan,9 also called the devil,10 the dragon,11 and significantly “the ancient Serpent” (Rev 12:9; 20:2).12 According to Scripture, Satan can enter, possess, and influence both animals and humans (Matt 8:28, 31–33; Mark 5:12–16; Luke 8:32–36).13 God’s curse in 3:14–15 may be viewed as addressing the real culprit (i.e., Satan) through the instrument (i.e., the serpent), comparable to Jesus’s rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matt 16:23).14

The Serpent as a Title for Satan

There is, however, another way of viewing the serpent of Genesis 3. When NT writers associate the serpent with Satan or the devil, they do not explicitly represent that association as a semi-divine “dark power” manipulating an animal as a mere organ of temptation. Instead, “the serpent” seems to function as a descriptive title, at the same level as “the dragon,” “the devil,” or “Satan” (2 Cor 11:2, 14; Rev 12:9, 14, 15; 20:2).15 Since later revelation identifies Satan as a fallen angelic creature (Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–4, 6–7; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1–2; Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13; 10:18; 2 Cor 11:14; Eph 2:2, 6:11, 12; Rev 12:9), perhaps what Adam and Even saw and heard in the Garden was no mere snake but a serpent-like creature belonging to a higher order than the ordinary “beasts of the field.” Several considerations lend support to this view.

More Than a Mere Beast of the Field

First of all, the serpent obviously bears qualities that are superior to the animal life, namely, intellectual, communicative, and moral capacities. The use of the min (מן) comparative to describe the serpent as wiser than the ordinary animals (מכל חית השדה) indicates a contrast and need not imply that the serpent in fact belonged to the same class of beings with which he was being compared.16 Thus, when Solomon pledges to build Yahweh a great temple, “for our God is greater than all gods [מכל האלהים] (II Chr 2:5), he does not intend to place God in the same class as the false deities of the pagan nations. When the Psalmist declares, “I have more understanding than all my teachers [מכל מלמדי],” he views himself as a pupil, not as a teacher (119:99). Similarly, “the serpent” of Genesis 3:1 may appear to belong to the class of animals with which he is compared but in fact does not. Hence, the narrator’s syntax seems to place the serpent into a class of his own. Rowland Ward agrees and remarks

the words may be read as placing the serpent outside the category of “the wild creature of the field,” in which case another cunning creature, but not an ordinary snake, is meant. The creature is Satan himself, a fallen angel.17

Moreover, one may read the so-called etiological allusion to the ordinary snake’s legless locomotion (“on your belly you shall go”) and earthy diet (“dust you shall eat”) in Genesis 3:14 as, instead, a metaphorical description of disgrace and defeat. For instance, the Solomonic Psalm 72 prays that Yahweh would cause the king’s human enemies to bow to the ground and eat dust (72:9). The prophet Micah heralds God’s judgment upon the nations and depicts their defeat in terms of “lick[ing] the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth” (7:17). Similarly, the woman’s offspring crushing the Serpent’s head with his heel in Genesis 3:15 need not constrain the picture of a human stepping on the head of a literal snake since the same language is used elsewhere of the human victor and the human vanquished:

Then Joshua said, “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me from the cave.” And they did so, and brought those five kings out to him from the cave, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon. And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Joshua 10:22–25, ESV).18

Indeed, the New Testament depicts the eschatological victory of Christ and the church over Satan and his minions in terms of the underfoot-subjugation metaphor (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 15:25-27).19

Superlative Shrewdness

Second, the superiority of the serpent over the humans also suggests an angelic creature. In Genesis 2, Adam is portrayed as wiser than the animals in that he is appointed to rule over them (1:26, 28) and has the capacity to name them (2:19–20). Indeed, among all the livestock, birds, and beasts, there was found no equal to Adam (2:20).20 But in chapter 3, “the serpent” assumes the role of humankind’s teacher and superior. As many commentators point out, the description of the serpent as “crafty” (ערום) is probably a word-play on the previous description of Adam and Eve as “naked” (ערומים) that connotes not only innocency but also naiveté.

Although Adam and Eve are portrayed as wiser than the animals, they are also depicted as lacking a higher kind of wisdom, symbolized by the Tree of Knowledge (2:9, 16–17; 3:5–6).21 Accordingly, the reader should interpret their “nakedness” as a reference to ethical innocency and immaturity.22 They do not yet possess that Elohim-like quality and prerogative that characterizes angelic beings (2 Sam 14:17) and some earthly monarchs who function as judges (2 Sam 14:17; 1 Kgs 3:9).23 The serpent, however, does possess that quality. Although the Hebrew ערום may sometimes convey negative connotations (Job 5:12; 15:5), it predominantly denotes one who possesses wisdom (Prov 14:8) and is contrasted with ethical folly (Prov 12:6, 23; 13:16; 14:18) and naïveté (Prov 14:15; 22:3; 27:12).24 So the narrator portrays the serpent as wiser than the humans.25

That Well-Known Primordial Dragon

Third, the use of the definite article with the noun “serpent” (הנחש) suggests an entity already well-known to the original Israelite audience.26 Of course, this may imply nothing more than that the Israelites already knew the Genesis 3 story about a talking serpent that tempted the first humans. On the other hand, biblical evidence indicates that Moses’s original audience may have been aware of a class of angelic creatures called “seraphim” (שרפים) to which the serpent of Genesis 3:1 may have belonged. Though the term is sometimes applied to ordinary snakes,27 it is also used in Isaiah’s vision for the dragon-like angelic beings with wings and limbs that flanked Yahweh’s throne (Isa 6:2, 6). Such semi-divine creatures find counterparts in the legends and mythology of the ancient Near East.

In her study of serpent symbolism in the OT and its relation to ancient Near Eastern serpent symbolism, Karen Joines notes the striking resemblance of form and function between the seraphim of Isaiah 6 and the winged serpents that stand erect, wear crowns, and flank the throne of the fourteenth-century BC Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. She also refers to the many Egyptian scarabs that feature winged serpents, most of which date to the eighth and ninth centuries BC.28 While the Israelite reader would have rejected the mythological distortions of his pagan neighbors, he would have no serious obstacle in viewing the serpent of Genesis 3 as a supernatural being of angelic status that had rebelled against Yahweh and had become the supreme Antagonist to the divine will. In other words, the ancient Near Eastern mythical concept of semi-divine dragon-like creatures may reflect the nations’ faint memory of that primeval serpent-like creature in Eden. The fact that the angelic guardian-creatures called “cherubim” (כרובים) were also present in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24; Ezek 28:12–16)29 lends further support to the view that the “primeval serpent” (Rev 20:2, NJB) was not an ordinary snake but an angelic being who was about to lead the vice-regents of Yahweh-Elohim into cosmic mutiny.30

B.G.

* This brief article has been excerpted and adapted from my published monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com.

  1. Genesis, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Macon, GA: Mercer University, 1997), 21. See also John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, The International Critical Commentary, ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910), xi; Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, 2nd ed., trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 92; Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–11: A Continental Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 259.
  2. See Karen Joines, Serpent Symbolism in the OT: A Linguistic, Archaeological, and Literary Study (Haddonfield, NJ: Haddonfield, 1974), 16–31. While acknowledging parallels between the serpent in Genesis 3 and ANE mythology, others understand the portrayal of the serpent in Genesis 3 as a kind of demythologizing polemic against such mythological stories. Nahum Sarna, for example, notes that the serpent here is described as merely a creature, as mortal, and as too insignificant to speak in God’s presence. Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 24. Gordon Wenham believes that there may be an allusion to the ANE myths with a polemical aim to correct the falsehood of those myths and to present the truth. Genesis 1–15, The Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1987), 72–73. Wenham interprets the serpent as an “anti-God symbol” that “symbolizes sin, death, and the power of evil.” Ibid., 80. He acknowledges that later biblical writers identify the serpent with the person of Satan, but he does not believe the Genesis narrator possessed this understanding. Instead, the narrator intended simply “the powers of evil,” and later revelation, by virtue of sensus plenior, expanded the referent to Satan. Ibid., 81.
  3. S. R. Driver interprets the snake as “representative of evil thoughts and suggestions.” The Book of Genesis, Westminster Commentaries, ed. Walter Lock (London: Methuen, 1904), 47. Similarly, Umberto Cassuto sees “the serpent” as a kind of latent crafty impulse in man himself. Accordingly, “The duologue between the serpent and the woman is actually, in a manner of speaking, a duologue that took place in the woman’s mind, between her wiliness and her innocence, clothed in the garb of a parable…. By interpreting the text in this way, we can understand why the serpent is said to think and speak; in reality it is not he that thinks and speaks but the woman does so in her heart.” A Commentary on the Book of Genesis I: From Adam to Noah, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964), 142–43.
  4. Terence Fretheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?” Word & World 14 (1994): 149; idem., “Genesis,” in vol. 1 of The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 365–66; Donald E. Gowan, From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1-11, International Theological Commentary, ed. Fredrick Carlson Holmgren and George A. F. Knight (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 51–52.
  5. The reality and prevalence of serpent mythology in the ANE is undeniable. But some features of ANE myth may be better understood as legend, that is, as containing an admixture of fact and fiction. Arguably, the ANE myths about serpent-like super-human beings or gods, associated with immortality, wisdom, and evil, reflect the faint yet corrupted memory of a primeval tradition passed down from antiquity. If that is the case, then Genesis 3 may be viewed, at least partly, as a polemic against pagan mythology and a true representation of the origin of evil in the world. For more on the relationship between biblical history and ANE mythology, see Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 13-33; John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
  6. A sampling of commentators and theologians includes Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, vol. 1, trans. George V. Schick, in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelican (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958-66), 1:151; C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, trans. James Martin, vol. 1 of Commentary on the Old Testament (1866; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 91–92; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941)224; Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1948; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 44; Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 106–09; Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Nelson, 1998), 441–42.
  7. There is some debate about whether this comparison implies that the serpent was an animal with more wisdom than the animals he is compared to (positive comparison, or superlative comparison, ) or whether the serpent is in a class by itself, possessing a kind of shrewdness the other animals did not possess, i.e., “the serpent was shrewd as none other of the beasts,” (comparison of exclusion). For the first, see Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (IBHS) (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), § 14.4d, 14.5d. For the second, see IBHS § 14.4e, or Wilhelmus Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (GKC), 2nd ed., ed. E. Kautzsch, trans. A. E. Crowley (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910), § 119w. In either case, it is argued that the syntax represents the serpent as belonging to the same class as the “beasts of the field.”
  8. Accordingly, John C. Collins avers, “A competent reader from the original audience would have been able to infer that the serpent is the mouthpiece of a Dark Power.” Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006), 172.
  9. The Hebrew שטן may refer simply to mere human adversaries (1 Sam 19:22 [Heb 23]; 29:4; 1 Kgs 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25; Ps 109:6) or to the Angel of Yahweh who opposes a false prophet (Num 22:22, 32). Both the Old and New Testament canons, however, employ the term for the Adversary par excellence, the infamous antagonist of God and His people (Job 1:6–9, 12; 2:1–4, 6–7; 1 Chr 21:1; Zech 3:1–2; Matt 4:10; 12:26; 16:23; Mark 1:13; 3:23, 26; 4:15; 8:33; Luke 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3, 31; John 13:27; Acts 5:3; 26:18; Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18; 2 Thess 2:9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:15; Rev 2:9, 13, 24; 3:9; 12:9; 20:2, 7).
  10. Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13; John 8:44; 1 John 3:8, 10; Rev 12:9, 12; 20:2, 10.
  11. Isa 2 7:1; 51:9; Rev 12:3, 4, 7, 9, 13, 16, 17; 13:2, 4; 16:13; 20:2.
  12. Both texts in Revelation use the phrase ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, which has been variously interpreted as the “ancient serpent” (NIV, ESV, NET, CSB), the “old serpent” (KJV, DRA, ASV, NAU), or “that primeval serpent” (NJB). The fact that these texts juxtapose this phrase with the titles “dragon,” “devil,” and “Satan” clearly indicates that the author of Revelation saw more than a mere snake in Genesis 3.
  13. The example of Balaam’s talking ass is sometimes adduced as analogous to the talking serpent (Num 22:28, 30), though in the case of the donkey, it was not Satan but God who opened its mouth.
  14. Some scholars who adopt this reading doubt the original audience would have been able to discern this meaning but think it became an appropriate inference from later revelation. See Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 2:405; J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962)216, 291–95; Marguerite Shuster, The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become as Sinners (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 22; John H. Walton, Genesis, in The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 210.
  15. Similarly, Oliver J. Buswell suggests, “The words ‘the Serpent’ … should be read as a proper name, or as a title functioning as a proper name. The Genesis account has nothing to say about a biological reptile.” A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 1:264.
  16. See IBHS § 14.4e; GKC § 119w.
  17. Foundations in Genesis: Genesis 1-11 Today (Wantirna, Australia: New Melbourne, 1998), 100. See also Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 73–74.
  18. See also 1 Kings 5:3; Pss 18:38[Heb. 39]; 47:3[Heb.4]; 110:1; Mal 4:3; Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36
  19. One should also note that the etiological interpretation of this passage seems quite trivial and out-of-step with the serious theological intentions of the inspired author. For one thing, snakes, as the Israelite reader well knew, did not really “eat dust.” And is it not better to view the snake’s legless movement as a wonder of God’s creative activity—a part of the original “very good” (1:31)? Moreover, human-reptile antipathy is by no means universal; some people are very fond of snakes, and there are other animals (like certain insects) that produce a far greater aversion in humans than do snakes. Consequently, it seems more natural to interpret God’s curse on the serpent as addressing an intelligent, supernatural being who would “father” a race of spiritual rebels that would oppose the race of the godly, physically born of Eve but spiritually born of God (see Gen 4:2–8; John 8:44; 1 John 3:8–12; Jude 1:11). See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison and Richard L. Hubbard Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 196–97.
  20. “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” The Hebrew term translated “fit” [כנגדו] refers to that which corresponds in stature or capacity. The point is not merely that Adam needed a suitable biological partner with which to procreate but that the animals lacked the intellectual, spiritual, and moral qualities necessary to serve alongside Adam as vice-regents to fulfill God’s creation-mandate.
  21. For the interpretation that sees “the knowledge of good and evil” as a kind of ethical maturity (i.e., “wisdom”) that pertains primarily to those in kingly authority who have the right to exercise judgment, see William Malcolm Clark, “A Legal Background to the Yahwist’s Use of ‘Good and Evil’ in Genesis 2–3,” Zeitscrift für die alttestamentlische Wissenschaft 83 (1971): 266–78.
  22. Ethical immaturity need not connote a flaw in Adam’s human nature or the presence of sin. The NT implies that Jesus Christ progressed from a lower state of ethical maturity to a higher state of ethical maturity (Luke 2:40; Heb 5:8–9) with-out the slightest taint of ethical flaw or sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet 2:22).
  23. Psalm 82 provides additional support. Whether the )elöhîm identified (82:1, 6) are human rulers or are the semi-divine beings of the divine counsel, in either case they exercise a God-like prerogative and function when they render judicial decisions, even when their judgments fail to represent accurately divine justice and equity (Ps 82:1–7).
  24. Likewise the cognate verb (ערם) may connote the negative idea of devious scheming (Job 5:13; Ps 83:3) or the positive idea of wisdom (Prov 15:5; 19:25).
  25. Interpreters and theologians debate at what point the serpent’s ערום became corrupted into anti-God or “worldly” wisdom. Most locate Satan’s fall sometime prior to the Genesis 3 narrative so that his cunning in verse 1 is interpreted negatively. See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Satan (Chicago: Moody Press, 1942), 3; Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology: A Study of the Spiritual Forces Behind the Present World Unrest (Wheaton: Van Kampen, 1952), 15, 18, 20, 42, 184–217; Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 90. Others argue that Satan’s fall occurred in connection or close proximity with man’s fall. See Payne, Theology of the Older Testament, 294; James B. Jordan, “Merit Verses Maturity,” in The Federal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004), 200, n. 38. Arguments in favor of Satan’s “fall” occurring about the time of man’s fall include (1) the fact that at the end of the sixth day God assessed the creation as “very good” (Gen 1:31), which would seem to preclude the presence of evil in the universe at that point, and (2) the fact that God pronounces a penal curse on Satan at the same time that he pronounces a curse on fallen humanity (Gen 3:14–19).
  26. The usage is not anaphoric (i.e., referring back to a preceding word) since there is no previous mention of the serpent in the context; nor is the usage generic since it is not a class or species of animals in view but a single entity. Instead, according to Waltke and O’Connor, the articular noun designates “a well-known thing or person; the combination is close to constituting a name (cf. 13.6)” IBHS § 13.5.1.c (emphasis theirs).
  27. Aside from Isaiah’s vision, wherever the noun שרף appears in the OT, it seems to refer to a venomous snake (Num 21:6, 8; Deut 8:15; Isa 1 4:29; 30:16). The noun derives from the Hebrew verb “to burn” (שרף) and may denote the burning sensation from their venomous bite (cf. LXX, δακντων), but more likely it refers to their shiny or luminous appearance. Even the term נחש, which appears to be related to the word for “bronze” (נחשת) may “suggest a shiny and luminous appearance, which would arrest Eve’s attention.” Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 187. The two other Isaiah references (14:29; 30:16) describe the שרף as מעופף, which some versions translate as “flying” (KJV, NAU, ESV, CSB) and others as “darting” (NIV, NET). Interestingly, the fifth-century BC Roman historian Herodotus wrote of “the winged serpents [that] are nowhere seen except in Arabia, where they are all congregated together.” Book III, Chapter 109 of Histories, cited in Joines, Serpent Symbolism, 8. Some modern evangelicals have conjectured that these texts may be referring to the now extinct pterosaur, a “prehistoric” flying reptile. See John Goertzen, “The Bible and Pterosaurs: Archaeological and Linguistic Studies of Jurassic Animals that Lived Recently,” a paper presented at the 1998 Midwestern Evangelical Theological Society Conference held at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (Grand Rapids, Sept 30, 1998); Ken Ham, The Great Dinosaur Mystery Explained! (Green Forrest, AR: Master, 1999), 45.
  28. Serpent Symbolism, 49–51. Moreover, she discusses recent archaeological evidence of divine or semi-divine serpent creatures in ancient Near Eastern mythology and legend dating in some cases to the third-millennium BC (17–31, 62–73, 109–21). In light of this abundant archaeological evidence, John Ronning remarks, “It is ironic to note that the key argument used by rationalists to turn the tide towards a naturalistic interpretation could not be made today. That is the argument that Israelites could not have known of a Satanic being such as the dragon of Revelation equated with the Genesis 3 serpent until the exile. For some strange reason, the discovery of the ancient Near East evil anti-God dragon figure, pre-dating Moses by almost 1000 years (or more), has not caused a reevaluation by scholars of the identity of the Genesis 3 serpent, even though we have seen strenuous efforts to interpret Leviathan as a supernatural dragon even where he is clearly portrayed as a created animal. In this respect (as in all others touching on the interpretation of Genesis 3:15), we see the New Testament well ahead of modern scholarship.” “The Curse on the Serpent (Genesis 3:15) in Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics” (Ph.D. Diss.; Westminster Theological Seminary, 1997), 380–81.
  29. Michael Heiser classifies “the Serpent” of Genesis 3 as one of the cherubim on the basis of his reading of Ezekiel 28, where he sees the proud king of Tyre likened to a rebellious cherub in Eden. The Unseen World: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 75-82. However, debate over the precise wording of Ezekiel 28:14-16 has led some scholars to identify the entity with whom the king of Tyre is compared as Adam. Even if one interprets the cherub of Ezekiel 28 as a reference to Satan, he may conclude that seraphim were a particular type (or rank) of cherubim. Interestingly, the pseudepigraphal First Book of Enoch associates the seraphim and the cherubim (along with the Ophannin, another class of angelic being) in paradise and as guardians of the throne of God (1 Enoch 20:7; 71:7; 61:10).
  30. One might even theorize as follows: the Seraph-Cherub of Genesis 3 served among the highest ranking throne-guardians of Yahweh-Elohim. When this Anointed One learned that God destined his image-son, Adam (i.e., humankind), who was initially made lower than the angels (Ps 8:5) to someday rule over all angels (1 Cor 6:3; Heb 1:1-10; 2:5-13; Rev 22:5), he became sinfully proud and jealous. Not only did he decide to rebel against the Most High, but he also determined to bring the humans down with him. Hence, the fall of Satan and the fall of humanity closely coincide.

5 thoughts on “Snake or Seraph? The Identity of the Serpent in Genesis 3

  1. Regarding “According to Scripture, Satan can enter, possess, and influence both animals and humans (Matt 8:28, 31–33; Mark 5:12–16; Luke 8:32–36)” can we add John 13:27 as another scripture reference? “Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him”

    And regarding the “earthy diet (“dust you shall eat”) in Genesis 3:14 as[…] a metaphorical description of disgrace and defeat” we can add Isaiah 65:25 as a reference: “But dust will be the serpent’s food…”

    • Yes, as I note in the article, the notion that Satan entered and possessed an ordinary snake is a possible and plausible interpretation. I’m just not convinced it’s the only or even best way to read the text. Even the text you reference in Isaiah 65 is, I think, metaphorical and not literary. I don’t think snakes will literally eat dirt in the new earth. It’s a common metaphor signifying subjugation and defeat. See J. A. Alexander’s commentary.

      • Agreed. As Carson says in “The God who is there,” Isa 65 does not mean snakes are somehow less moral than wolves or lambs, but the serpent is symbolically connected with the devil, a rejected, cast out, slimy, low down rebel.

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