It is both one of the oldest stories told in Western civilization as well as a cornerstone tale of morality, temptation, and honesty for Christians. The pericope (or section of a story) of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, found in Genesis 3, is a brief story, but one that has held significance for centuries for believers. From the Christian perspective, this event holds the twin seminal moments of introducing sin into the physical world, as well serving as the instance in which human beings became fully separated from God.
Whether one takes the story as a literal history of humankind or simply an interesting literary narrative and the product of ancient imagination, the story continually fascinates us in the modern world and its imagery has become instantly recognizable. But what exactly lies at the heart of this narrative? Is it possible that we, modern 21st century readers miss the nuances and clever details of the story? As with all the articles on this blog based on the Bible, I assert that I am not suggesting I have some new and profound reading of the biblical material. Rather, I want my readers to take note of details in the text that they may have missed, and more importantly, separate what the text says from what Christian tradition maintains the text says. Although I want to focus on the serpent, I will discuss other aspects of the story as well.
The first thing to take away from the story is the identity and nature of the serpent. Christian tradition maintains the serpent as Satan, or the devil, but this is a feature that came later in the tradition. The text of Genesis 3 identifies the serpent as nahash, which translates as serpent. The Hebrew word for Satan, satan (which means “adversary”, does not appear in this text. Later tradition ascribes the serpent’s identity to Satan, based on its behavior. However, let us look closely at the serpent’s attributes.
So often the serpent is associated with evil and trickiness. My research has not turned up a single English language version in which the serpent is described as evil or deceitful in Genesis 3:1. Yet this evil aspect is the go-to characteristic prescribed to the serpent. But what does the biblical text say? He is not described as evil (ra in Hebrew, and no; it has nothing to do with the Egyptian god), but rather the serpent is ahroom, crafty or subtle. This term does not convey a negative aspect, but rather a positive one. Note the usage in Proverbs 13:16 – “The clever do all things intelligently, but the fool displays folly.”
There is another aspect to this term that is very important to note as well. The idea of being naked is a running motif throughout this pericope, with the story leading to a revelation that Adam and Eve were naked. The word “naked” in Hebrew is the exact same spelling as the word “crafty,” with the only difference being a shorter vowel (compare ahroom to ahrom). There is a literary artistry occurring in the Hebrew text that is lamentably lost in the English translations. Like many examples throughout Genesis, I submit that this reflects an awareness of literary style, as the final redactor of the book of Genesis and the writers before were aware of the construction of the various stories, thus building a literarily rich world and back story for Israel.
The serpent in the garden provides an excellent test case for what we should classify as evil. As I mentioned, the text does not view it as evil, just cunning and wise. The real threat from the serpent is that it seemingly has the same knowledge as God, but decides to use it to allow the humans to question aspects of their new existence. Although the serpent’s initial question of whether God prohibited the pair from eating from any tree carries a quality of leading, the serpent never actually lies to Eve. In fact, his prediction of what would happen if they eat the fruit comes true. Enough disconnect exists within the text to make it unclear as to the punishment. One way to look at it is that Adam and Eve were mortal to begin with, and by eating from the tree of knowledge and thus being expelled from the garden, they no longer had access to the tree of life, which provided immortality. Remember, these twin trees represent aspects of the divine: knowledge and immortality. Therefore God’s prohibition to not eat from the tree (2:17) did not refer to the fact that they would die instantly (i.e. some divine poisoning), but rather they would be forbidden from accessing the tree of life. This is supported by the text in 3:22.
I decided to go ahead and finish the article at this point. The serpent and the Garden of Eden in general is such a rich story, that a writer could continue for pages and pages. Indeed, entire books have been written covering just the roles of Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, as I have said before, the purpose for writing this specific post was to, hopefully, familiarize my readers with the story and get them to look at the story again, perhaps from a new perspective. What do you think about the serpent’s role? If the figure is not Satan, how does that change your outlook on the story? Thanks for reading.