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The Serpent of Genesis

What does the serpent represent? 
By RICHARD MORGAN
Read Time: 8 minutes

Many Christians believe the serpent of Genesis 3 to be either a tool of the fallen angel Satan of orthodoxy or Satan himself. Let’s examine those claims using Scriptural commentary on the events in Eden.

The Nahas

First, we don’t have much to go on regarding the serpent himself. We do know he was “more crafty than any other beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1),1 suggesting he was one of the animals created by God in chapter 1. Mathews writes concerning this verse, “Also the serpent is identified as an animal that God ‘had made’ among the beasts of the field, referring to 2:19. This dismisses any notion of a competing dualism since the animal owes its existence to God.”2

That the serpent speaks is held as proof that there was something supernatural going on. Even if the serpent was an animal, the fact he talks to Eve must mean he is being controlled in some way by Satan. However, that is an inference not supported by the text.

In fact, none of the other occurrences of the Hebrew word for serpent, nahas, lend any commentary on Genesis 3, much less inferring that Satan was the power behind him. However, we do come across several passages where Yahweh (rather than Satan) controls nahas. For instance, in Numbers 21:6 we’re told, “The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people.” Amos 9:3 records, “I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.” We saw last article that Yahweh is sovereign, creating good and evil. In both passages, we see evidence for the fact that he kills as well as makes alive.

It is the serpent’s speech, however, which is his outstanding characteristic. Eve admitted, “The serpent deceived me” (Genesis 3:13), and we find how deceiving his words were by examining the word “crafty” from verse 1. The word itself, arum, is neither negative nor positive. We find most occurrences in Proverbs where it is used in a positive sense to describe prudence (Proverbs 12:16, 23; 13:16; 14:8, 15, 18; 22:3; 27:12).

Perhaps the context in Proverbs 14 is useful here, where in verse 8 we’re told, “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way” but in the context, we read “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (v. 12). Perhaps there is a hint to the experience of Eve who heard the prudent speech of the serpent. It seemed right to her to eat the fruit, but that “way” resulted in death.

Twice in the Psalms, we’re reminded of serpent-like deceitful speech. David speaks of the wicked, “They have venom like the venom of a serpent” (Psalm 58:4) and “They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s” (Psalm 140:3). So, what can we learn from the rest of Scripture regarding the deceitful speech of the Genesis serpent?

New Testament Echoes

The best way to interpret Old Testament Scripture is to use apostolic testimony. What did Jesus and the apostles say about the events in Eden? We can turn to several passages that allude to the serpent that are worth considering.

First, think about the curse placed on the serpent. God told him, “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 3:15). This curse, called the protoevangelium by Bible scholars, is prophetical of the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death. When he was crucified, the serpent bit him in the heel, but he rose from the dead and dealt the serpent a death blow to the head.

Remember that passage in Numbers when the nahas bit the children of Israel. Moses was told to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that anyone who looked at it would be cured of the serpents’ bites. John tells us, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14), so there’s something about this incident that points forward to Christ’s victory on the cross. The question is, what does the serpent represent? 

When we look at the cross, we see Jesus nailed to it. We do not see a serpent, so there must be some way in which the serpent is incorporated into the body of Christ. Either Jesus was possessed by the serpent on the cross (an idea not taught in Scripture), or we need to find something about Jesus himself that connects to the idea of the serpent.

There’s a clue in James’s explanation regarding temptation and sin. He tells us, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” (James 1:14). Notice no mention of the serpent here despite his presence in the very first temptation in Eden. Instead of being lured and enticed by the serpent, we are lured and enticed by our own desire. If the mainstream view of the serpent was correct, that he was a tool of Satan or Satan himself, and that this is where temptation comes from, why doesn’t James mention him? 

we have desires built into our fleshly bodies

Paul, using the same word for “desire,” exhorts us, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” (Romans 6:12). Later in Romans, he writes, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14). These, and other passages, confirm that we have desires built into our fleshly bodies. The Bible also says that Jesus came in the flesh and, therefore, has the same inbuilt desires. The difference with Jesus is that he overcame the luring and enticing power of the flesh by always depending on God.

Could it be, therefore, that James’s summary of the way temptation works is a commentary on Genesis 3, and the luring and enticing deceitful words of the serpent are a symbol for how our natural desires and passions speak to us and entice us into sin? Furthermore, could it be that the serpent on the pole, pointing forward as it does to the cross, represents the fact that when Jesus was crucified, he put to death the desires of the body?

We’ve already looked a little at Paul’s words in Romans, a book all about the problems of sin and evil. And yet, until the very last chapter (which we’ll look at in a moment), Paul fails to mention Satan, the devil, or the serpent. That is, even though in chapter 1 he lists the sins of humankind, in chapter 2, he lists the sins of the Jews, and in chapter 3, he sums it up by saying, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Still, there is no mention of any involvement by a malevolent fallen angel.

However, Paul does allude to the events in Eden. Consider these words in chapter 7: “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” (v. 8). The word “covetousness” is the same word used for “desire” by James. And isn’t this what the serpent did in Genesis 3, seizing an opportunity through the commandment when he said to Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1) quoting the commandment in the process?

Even more so, in Romans 7:11, Paul writes, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” This sentence seems to be a summary of the events in Eden. Once again, we have something seizing an opportunity through the commandment, then deception, and death—just as it happened in Genesis 3. But, instead of the serpent, it is sin that seizes its opportunity. 

If Paul and James believed in the malevolent fallen angel of mainstream Christianity, they would have written things much differently. Perhaps James would have written, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by Satan in the guise of a serpent.” Paul would have said, “For the serpent, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”

False Teachers

Paul does, however, mention Satan in the very last chapter of Romans. In fact, he seems to tie Satan and the Genesis serpent together with the words “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” (Romans 16:20). Commentators agree “there is an obvious allusion to Gen. 3:15”3, but perhaps this proves too much for the mainstream belief in a supernatural devil. 

The context is talking about false teachers: 

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive (vv 17-18). 

Notice further echoes with the serpent. The word “appetites” is literally “bellies,” reminding us of the serpent’s curse to slither along on his belly. He used “smooth talk” and did “deceive” the “naïve” Eve. These connections further cement the link in verse 20 to the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15. 

Does that mean the false teachers Paul warns about are under the control of Satan? That is a conclusion many mainstream believers in a supernatural devil are forced to make. However, the links with Genesis 3 tell us the false teachers are the serpent, and Satan is also the serpent. We’ll come back to that point in a future article.

For now, consider the point that Paul is connecting false teachers with the serpent, whose main characteristic is his deceitful speech. Notice Paul says that in so doing, they “serve their own appetites,” thus connecting their motivation for false teaching with the desires of the bodies. Here, we have an outworking of the problem Paul identified earlier in Romans, as outlined above.

There’s one other interesting connection with the serpent in Romans. Remember, from Psalm 140:3, we looked at how it is one of the occasions where we encounter the word nahas. In Romans 3:13, Paul quotes the verse with the words, “The venom of asps is under their lips.” This statement is about “both Jews and Gentiles” (v. 9), who are “under sin.”

This moment would have been another opportunity for Paul to say, “under the influence of Satan,” but he doesn’t do that. He says they are “under sin,” which is a power found in our bodies according to what Paul teaches in the context, not a power that comes from the promptings of a supernatural devil.

Who might the false teachers be? We know that in the first century, Judaizers followed Paul around, preaching to people that they needed to keep the Law of Moses and be circumcised. Interestingly, the precursor to the Judaizers were the Pharisees and Sadducees. Both John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7) and Jesus (Matthew 12:34; 23:33) call them “You brood of vipers!”—another allusion to Genesis 3:15 and the seed of the serpent. 

the serpent represents the false teachers themselves

Paul is concerned with false teachers in other epistles. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 11, he uses the example of the serpent—“But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (v. 3).

What is the counterpart of the serpent here? The next verse says, “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted.” In other words, the serpent represents the false teachers themselves. 

Conclusion

There is little, if any, Old Testament commentary on the serpent’s identity in Genesis 3. We know he was one of the animals God made, and his main characteristic is his deceitful speech.

In the New Testament, we do have echoes back to the Genesis serpent. First, we see how the serpent comes to represent the principle of sin and the desires of the flesh. Second, the serpent represents false teachers urged on by those same desires.

There is one other mention of the serpent we need to look at, in Revelation 12:9, where the dragon in the vision is called “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan,” but we will save looking at the context for a future article.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

 

  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Bible, unless specifically noted.
  2. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 232.
  3. Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 280.
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