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That Old Serpent (Fred Zaspel)

Satan’s temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden is a piece of history that is basic to the Bible’s story-line and fundamental to Christian theology. In Genesis 3 Satan deceived the woman, Adam followed (cf. 1Tim.2:14), and all humanity was plunged into sin (cf. Rom.5:12). And among the results of this evil encounter is the continued war of Satan against humanity (Gen.3:15; cf. Job 1-2; Zech.3; Lk.22:3, 31; Acts 5:3; 1Cor.7:5; 2Cor.2:11, 14; 4:4; 12:7; Eph.6:12; 1Thes.2:18; 1Tim.5:15; 2Tim.2:26; 1Pet.5:8; 1Jn.5:19; Rev.12:9, etc.). But all this is to be understood in light of God’s promise to destroy the Tempter finally and decisively (Gen.3:15; cf. Jn.12:31; Rom.16:20; Rev.20:2, 10). The broad history of Satan is vividly portrayed in Scripture, and it entails a hope that is full of gospel implications. (This, among other reasons, is why the current debate about the historicity of Adam is such an important one.)

One element of the Genesis 3 temptation account that has puzzled many is its portrayal of “the Serpent” speaking to Eve. How are we to understand this? I have already said that this account must be understood as historical, so we cannot relegate it to mere mythology or legend. So, is it a talking snake? When God pronounces in judgment that the snake will crawl on its belly and eat dirt, should this be understood to imply that snakes formerly walked and that only now in the curse have been made to crawl? Or should we understand this as Satan appearing in the form of a snake? The whole scene is strange to us, to say the least. Are there biblical indications that would help us understand what went on there?

I certainly don’t expect to settle the matter, but perhaps a highlighting of some details will help. The Serpent is first introduced to us in Genesis 3:1 —

 “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (ESV)

The same expression occurs in verse 14 again, where God pronounces judgment against him. The first question that meets us here is how we should understand the Hebrew min. If it is taken as partitive, then the sense is “more than all [the other] beasts,” as the ESV translates it. But if it is taken as comparative, then the sense is “above” or “more than all the beasts.” This is how Walter Kaiser argues we should read the verse. If he is right, then Moses is not placing “the Serpent” among the animal creation but contrasting him to it, in which case the designation “the Serpent” can be understood as a name or title. “The Serpent” is a creature, made by God, but not equal to God, yet not one among the animals.

The argument in this direction continues. This “serpent” is clearly a fallen creature already, not part of the “good” animal creation (cf. Gen.1:25). And it is manifestly evident that throughout the encounter of God with the Serpent — the judgment pronounced — it is Satan himself in view. The references to the snake and his offspring do not have baby snakes in view but Satan and his followers (cf. Jn 8:44). So also the hostility between his offspring and that of the woman, his crushing of the heel of the woman’s offspring, and the crushing of his own head all have reference to Satan, and no literal snakes are in view at all. This enmity is not to be understood as implying that women will be afraid of snakes, of course, but in terms of the warfare of Satan against humanity.

Likewise, the language of “crawling on your belly” and “eating dirt” is probably not to be taken as indicating a new form of bodily existence for snakes but simply as the language of defeat. This is reflected, for example, in Psalm 72:9, where the Messianic King will have his enemies bow before him and “lick the dust.” So also in Micah 7:17 we learn of a day coming when enemy nations will submit to the Lord and “lick dust like the snake.” It is the language of utter defeat and subjugation that is reflected in John 12:31 where Jesus, referring to his cross-work, says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” It is reflected again in Romans 16:20 — “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” It reaches a higher point in Revelation 20:3, where Satan is chained and cast into the bottomless pit for a millennium. And it reaches is final fulfillment in Revelation 20:10, when Satan is thrown into the lake of fire to be tormented forever.

Moreover, “the Serpent” is precisely identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 — something anyone reading through the biblical text carefully as almost intuitively known all along.

Then there is the curious mention of Satan by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11. Here the apostle is warning against the deceptive ways of false teachers, and in verse three draws the comparison to Satan’s temptation of Eve (v. 3). And then in verse 14 he says that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” The point is graphic in its portrayal of Satan as the cunning deceiver, never appearing to be what he truly is. Some have raised the question here whether in this remark Paul is making a historical reference to Genesis 3. There were Jewish legends that affirmed exactly this, and so some have wondered if Paul is playing into that belief. It is clear that Paul in this passage is speaking metaphorically, but whether he is going beyond that to a historical reference is impossible to know.

But reading Genesis 3 in light of the whole story and especially the final chapters (Revelation) with their precise identifications, the simplest reading of the passage seems to indicate that no literal snake is in view but just Satan himself. Satan tempted Eve successfully, God spoke in judgment against him, Christ has won that decisive victory over him, and one day Satan will finally be brought to utter subjugation and defeat forever.

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., by CouponDropDown” href=””>Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.

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