The serpent was a prominent religious symbol used in Canaan, Mesopotamia and Greece. In these cultures it stood as a symbol of evil power and chaos from the underworld as well as a symbol of fertility, life and healing (1). Old Testament Professor John Day believes that the biblical serpent in the Garden parallels the one in the older Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic myth. He argues that this “must remain an interesting possibility rather than a certainty” (2). Professor Peter Enns views this as an “interesting dimension that has been discovered anew in modern times is how snakes were viewed in other ancient religions. In the Gilgamesh epic… most scholars see some parallel here with the loss of immortality in the biblical story” (3).
However, “Rendered theologically,” says Professor Walter Brueggemann the serpent is “the seductive voice of evil intrinsic to creation; that is, the creation in principle is under siege from evil that contradicts the intention of the Creator” (3). It is widely agreed that the serpent is symbolical of biblical moral and religious truths. The Bible tells us that the serpent is a deceptive creature that is cunning in its trickery (Gen. 3:4-5; 3:22). It is able to reason and therefore speak yet “the narrative expresses neither curiosity about the serpent nor explanation for it. The serpent is a given in the narrative and consequently in the garden – a voice that seeks to contradict and counter the compelling, commanding voice of the Creator God” (4). Enns says that although “The serpent is a central figure in the Garden story,” it “slithers in and out of the story somewhat mysteriously” (5).
But for the author the serpent was a special kind of creation. Day explains that according to the author (the Yahwist, or J source) “in its original pre-cursed state the serpent not only has the capacity to speak but also to have supernormal knowledge, which makes it more than an ordinary serpent at that point, a kind of magical animal” (6). It is clear to Enns that “the serpent was Satan, or perhaps an agent of Satan… Many interpreters concluded that there is something more going on here than a story about a snake” (7). But Enns is also cognizant that “The Old Testament itself nowhere makes the connection between the serpent in the Garden and Satan.” In fact, the serpent is only mentioned again much later in the book of Revelation where the ancient serpent “is the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9).
The biblical story informs us that it was ultimately the serpent that tempted Adam & Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden. After their disobedience Adam & Eve became ashamed of their nakedness. God subsequently expelled them from the Garden as punishment. This is “the fall,” the term used by Christians to describe the transition of the first man and woman from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience. According to Brueggemann the fall represents the condition of human creation, and all of creation, that “has fallen hopelessly and irreversibly into the power and into the habits of sin, so that human persons are irreversibly alienated from God and helpless to alter that condition” (8).
According to this interpretation, says Brueggemann, sin “is not a series of specific, discrete acts, but it is a continuing strand of related decisions that cumulatively produce alienation from God and helplessness” (9). Christians believe that the fall brought sin into the world which corrupted the entire natural world, including human nature. As a result all humans are born into original sin, a state from which they cannot attain eternal life without the grace of God.
1. Olson, D. 1996. Numbers. p. 136.
2. Day, J. 2015. The Serpent in the Garden of Eden and its Background. Available.
3. Enns, P. 2010. Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: A Crafty Serpent. Available.
4. Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. p. 37.
5. Enns, P. 2010. Ibid.
6. Day, J. 2015. Ibid.
7. Enns, P. 2010. Ibid.
8. Brueggemann, W. 2003. Ibid.
9. Brueggemann, W. 2003. Ibid. p. 38.