The title of this unit, “Do Serpents Really Speak?” is provocative, one that invites discussion, and undoubtedly interpretive disagreement.
It is clear that the serpent as it appears in Genesis has been open to interpretation by Christians. Some married to a certain interpretation of the Bible really do believe that there was an actual serpent that really did speak to Eve, convincing her to disobey God and lead her companion, Adam, astray. Others wouldn’t necessarily agree with that view seeing the serpent as myth or symbolic.
Scholars, however, wish to determine the author’s motives and intentions through looking at the “World of the Text” and the “World Behind the Text” (West, 2014: 9-10). The latter looks to the author of the text and hopes to learn about him or her whereas the former examines the text itself. What, for instance, does the text say? What is its message? (Breed, 2015) Is it poetic or a story? And who are the key characters? Thus, in Genesis 3, why, for example, does the serpent play such a central role in the narrative? Why is it given human capacities and abilities such as rational thought and language? And what deeper meaning does it have theologically?
That an animal speaks is not limited to the serpent in Genesis. In the book of Numbers (22:21-39), God speaks through Balaam’s donkey rebuking the prophet. Undoubtedly, the historian would wish to determine why an author made a donkey, of all things, rebuke a prophet. What purpose does it serve the narrative? What is its deeper meaning? However, it is likely that the serpent, a prominent religious symbol in Canaan, Mesopotamia, Greece, and in the biblical word (snakes and serpents evidently made their reptilian appearance, as symbol or organism, in numerous narratives as in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Isaiah, 2 Kings, and the gospels of Matthew, John), symbolized both good and bad things.
On the bad side, the serpent symbolized chaos from the underworld and evil power (Olson, 1996: 136). On the good side, it stood in as a symbol of healing, fertility, and life (Olson, 1996: 136). It seems clear, given the biblical narrative, that the serpent in Genesis is hardly a positive influence. The serpent is rendered as being deceptive and cunning (Gen. 3:4-5; 3:22), and it is unlike the other animals because of its reasoning capabilities (3:1). It is smart enough to successfully tempt Eve to eat the fruit from the tree in the Garden of Eden that God had forbidden (2:15). The serpent promised Eve that if she ate from the tree, she would become like God knowing good and evil (3:4-5). Though Eve initially protested (3:4), she inevitably gave in to the serpent’s deceit and, in turn, so did Adam (3:6-7). This proved to be a fateful decision that resulted in God’s cursing of the serpent, Eve, and Adam (3:14-20). God then exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden never to return to it again (3:21-24). Not much positivity in this narrative.
Many Christians draw a connection between Satan and the serpent although others deny there being any connection between them (Gorton, 1824: 22). Either way, the serpent is a negative, spiritually harmful influence within a narrative that has obvious theological significance. According to Old Testament Professor Walter Brueggemann,
“Rendered theologically, [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” (Brueggemann, 2003: 37).
As per the World of the Text, understanding a text’s genre is important should one wish to mine from the text itself. How might genre assist in one’s understanding? The tale is a genre, among many, that those wishing to take the Pentateuch seriously need to become familiar with. Coates, for example, identifies numerous literary genres within the Pentateuch including the saga, fable, tale, novella, history, report, myth and the etiology, all of which feature within the handful of books that make up the corpus (Coates, 1983: 5-10).
It is important to note that a tale is not necessarily a fictitious story, although it can be used that way (Teeter & Teeter, 2016: 91). One specific characteristic of the tale is a relatively short and simple narrative (Coates, 1983: 7). The biblical tale of the serpent and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden is little more than a single chapter within the larger Genesis story (3:1-24), although it is undoubtedly one of the most important chapters within the entire Bible. It is also not particularly difficult to understand. Complexity can, and often does, arise when one wishes to seek after a systematic theological understanding of scripture in which he or she allows a myriad of biblical voices to speak to, and inform, pertinent theological doctrines such as original sin, God’s view of sin, his dealing with sin and sinners, and more. But by itself, the Genesis 3 pericope, as a ancient tale, is simple and easy to understand. Readers, both ancient and contemporary, can quite easily identify with Genesis 3’s themes of temptation, disobedience, betrayal, punishment, and fear.
Tales also posses few characters, perhaps two or sometimes three (Coates, 1983: 7). God is present throughout the story although the serpent, Eve, and Adam definitely feature most prominently within it (God is sort of there in a sense to mop up the mess at the end). It is clear that the Genesis 3 author employs few characters which lends credence to the powerful placement that they enjoy within the narrative, and it is no wonder why exegetes have dedicated entire chapters and sections of tomes to each character in the tale. Tales also usually have a resolution of the tension within its narrative (Coates, 1983: 7). Here the Genesis 3 narrative resolves in God’s banishing of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and though it is not a particularly happy ending, it is a resolution nonetheless. The tension between God and humanity persists from that time onwards as sin enters the world ultimately leading to the greatest sacrifice of them all, Christ on the cross.
Breed, B. 2015. What Can Texts Do?: A Proposal for Biblical Studies. Available: http://www.atthispoint.net/articles/what-can-texts-do-a-proposal-for-biblical-studies/262/ [4 June 2016]
Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.
Coates, G. 1983. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing.
Gorton, J. 1824. A Philosophical Dictionary, From the French of M. De Voltaire.
Olson, D. 1996. Numbers (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press
Teeter, J., & Sandberg, J. 2016. “Cracking the enigma of asset bubbles with narratives,” in Strategic Organization. 15: 91
West, G. 2011. “Do Two Walk Together? Walking with the Other through Contextual Bible Study.” In Anglican Theological Review, 93:3.