What Does A Talking Snake Say?
We do not have to read very far into the scriptures before we encounter a passage that many people have trouble with. Within the first few pages, we meet a talking serpent. For those who do not believe in God, it is the sort of story that reinforces their thinking that the bible and much of what it contains is mythical. Even for those who do believe, some passages are not taken literally. In the case of the talking snake, it is likely one may not stop to ponder if it is literally true. Also, many have given this snake a name – Satan.
The passage reads like this:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And it said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent,”From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:1-5, NASB
What is really going on here? Is this animal, this reptile, actually speaking? And further, is the snake really Satan in disguise? The short answer to these questions, I suppose, is that none of us were there so we cannot know for certain based on personal experience – however we can examine the text to determine the potential literal interpretation as to the talking serpent, and we can also explore other passages to attempt to explain why the perceived identity of the serpent came about.
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, stated in his work “Antiquities of the Jews” that “…all the living creatures had one language..”. (Antiquities Book 1, 1:4) I have heard some say that the snake itself could not actually speak, just as snakes cannot speak today, but rather Satan (or perhaps a lesser demon) manifested itself through the snake or in some way possessed it (thus enabling it to have the faculty of speech.) In the New Testament we have over a dozen accounts of demons, including Satan, entering, or possessing men, as well as animals (Matthew 8:32; Mark 5:13; Luke 8:33) Although the demons are able to speak through possessed humans, we have no other definitive account of a demon-possessed animal speaking, though we do have an account of a donkey speaking in Numbers 23:28. Of course, not all donkeys can speak, and in this case it was an ability temporarily granted to the donkey to prove a point and to prevent it’s owner, Balaam, from being killed. The text says “And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey…” indicating it could not speak of its own accord. We do know that God curses the serpent in Genesis 3:14-15, however nothing in this passage indicates the snake’s ability to speak will be taken away, only that it will go on its belly and eat dust.
We may entertain the idea that perhaps the snake could not actually speak in an audible voice, we can consider that maybe the snake’s movement was in some way mesmerizing to Eve; perhaps it coiled itself around the branches of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, maybe it even caused a piece of fruit to fall off the tree, right into the hand of Eve, and thus was interpreted by her that the snake wanted her to eat it. I have to reject this romanticized notion on several grounds: 1) The text says the snake spoke, so if you are Jewish and believe that every word of the Torah is there by design, or if you are Christian and believe that the word of God is divinely inspired, you are hard pressed to come away with this interpretation; if it says the snake ‘spoke’ then it means in the plainest sense that it did in fact speak with an audible voice. 2) Eve had a conversation with the serpent, so it must have not only spoken in an audible voice, but in a language Eve could understand, and further must have had some ability to reason with Eve – not just repeat words like a parrot. Even if you do not believe the scriptures were by design or of the Holy Ghost, consider these next two points: 3) When Eve accused the snake of deceiving her, God did not question how a creature without the ability to speak could have deceived her; and lastly 4) God curses the snake as a result, so we can be certain the snake was in some way, both involved, and guilty, in this transaction. I trust we can all agree that God is omniscient and not relying solely on Eve’s testimony against the snake, and further that God is a just judge and would not punish the snake if it were innocent.
So of the matter of the snake speaking we can only conclude that it did in fact happen, and at some point since, the snake (and perhaps almost all other animals) have lost their ability to speak in a way that humans can understand. This may sound fantastical, however bear in mind that scientifically speaking, animals do communicate with one another, especially within their own species. It may be worth noting here that the opening statement in the story of the Tower of Babel was “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1, NASB) A rough translation of the original Hebrew might read “Everything that was an inhabitant used one (or the first) speech and the same sayings.” We may interpret this to be inclusive of animals as well, as nothing in the original language specifically excludes the idea, nor specifically includes only humans.
Of the matter of the identity of the snake, whether or not it was actually Satan, or if Satan manifested himself through the serpent or otherwise possessed it, we must investigate as well. The obvious place to start is the text of Genesis chapter 3. Nowhere in the text is the name of Satan, or the devil mentioned in any way. In fact, Satan is mentioned but a few times in the entire Old Testament. Further, when God curses the snake, He makes no direct reference of actually cursing Satan instead, or in addition to, the creature itself. This raises the question then, why would God curse the snake and negatively affect its creature-capabilities if Satan were really possessing the snake? That would not be fair to the snake. Even if we take a wholly non-literal but rather allegorical approach to the interpretation of the story of the fall of man, it is difficult to draw a parallel between the curse placed on the snake (below) and the fate of the devil. God’s curse on the serpent reads:
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life; And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” Genesis 3:14-15, NASB
The snake itself, as an animal, was cursed, and no sort of spiritual punishment was mentioned. The punishment of the devil, on the other hand, we are later told in the New Testament, is to be thrown into the lake of fire, which was actually prepared for Satan and his (fallen) angels (Matthew 25:41).
Josephus goes so far as to say that the snake lived among Adam and Eve, perhaps even as a pet, and may have become jealous at the human’s relationship with God, so it sought to deceive them into disobeying God that it might bring calamity upon them (Antiquities, Book 1, 1:4). So from the text itself, without reading into it and without the benefit of context with other passages, we are left with a snake, not Satan, as the chief offender. The snake was smart enough to trick Eve (we are told the snake was the most crafty creature) but may still have been ignorant of the bigger picture; It did not necessarily know it was inadvertently orchestrating the fall of mankind and the thousands of painful years of human history to follow. For all it knew, it was just making Eve disobey her creator on that fateful day. We encounter a bit of trouble with this interpretation however, as we must acknowledge from the text that the snake a) spoke of God, b) it knew what God had said to Adam, c) it knew the end result of eating the forbidden fruit. What kind of mere animal can perceive God and understand His words? How could it have any knowledge of the potential of the fruit of the tree? Difficult questions indeed!
Was the snake Satan?
The perceived identity of the snake seems not to be Jewish, but Christian tradition, though not entirely without basis. There are certainly other passages in both the Old and New Testaments from which inferences are drawn that trigger our memory back to the fall of man and Satan’s potential involvement.
There are a handful of passages which associate the likeness of Satan to certain animals. The Apostle Peter refers to him in this passage like so: “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8), NASB The passage below relates Satan to two other creatures (though one may be fictional to us today):
And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth , and his angels were thrown down with him. Revelation 12:9, NASB
So some animals seem to be a fair target as a representation of Satan, including, of course, the serpent. This passage also includes other allusions to the story of the fall – namely the ability and propensity of Satan to deceive, as well as the his access to our planet.
Although Satan is not a main character in the Old Testament, he makes quite an impression in the book of Job, which many scholars consider one of the most ancient writings, perhaps written before the five books of Moses. In the opening chapters of Job, some interesting dialogue takes place between God and Satan, from which here I simply glean from the text that when God asked Satan where he was, Satan answers that he was “…roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” (Job 1:7) Also noteworthy from this exchange is that Satan has permission from God to attack Job in various ways in an attempt to cause Job’s faithfulness and obedience to God to waiver. So we know that many years ago, Satan at the very least had some level of access to earth (and humans) and then at some point later (perhaps yet future) he is thrown down to earth. Also he clearly has an interest in causing pain to mankind and attempting to cause us to break fellowship with God. The serpent, whether knowingly or not, through his deception also caused pain to mankind and breached our fellowship with God.
In the writings of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel we see more interesting passages that seem to be speaking of Satan, and though they are typically attributed to him, do not mention him specifically. In the book of Isaiah, when speaking of the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, the text reads:
How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning*, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to earth, you who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’
Isaiah 14:12-14, NASB
* “Lucifer” in the KJV
At this point some readers may be thinking “Of course that passage is about Satan! Who else could it be about? First let me point out that verse four of this chapter states “...take up this taunt against the king of Babylon…”. The passage continues:
Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit. Those who see you will gaze at you, they will ponder over you, saying, ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a wilderness and overthrew its cities, who did not allow his prisoners to go home?’
Isaiah 14:15-17, emphasis mine
So we may be left slightly confused – is this passage about Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon at the time, or is it about Satan? The translation of ‘Lucifer’ in the KJV may be a bit misleading – not necessarily inaccurate, but consider that Lucifer simply means ‘light-bearer’, although we have come to associate this term with Satan. In the original Hebrew, there is no such direct reference to Satan, but rather the Hebrew text reads “Helel son of Shachar”, which may be a pagan reference to the planet venus, sometimes considered the ‘star of the morning’. (The NET bible, footnote 23, Isaiah 14) Further confusing the matter is that Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 14:11 that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”.
Bear in mind that the taunt against the king of Babylon contains references to him going to Sheol and the leaders of other nations seeing and mocking him. Their presence in Sheol here would seem to convey that they were likely pagan rulers, some of which probably believed in mythology rather than God. As such, their taunt may simply be referencing false pagan gods such as the planets and stars (venus, and the ‘stars of God’), the mountains (“mount of assembly in the north”), the sky (“the heights of the clouds”). It is hard to say for certain.
We move on to another passage in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 28:
Again the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, take up a lamentation over the king of Tyre and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,
“You had the seal of perfection,
Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
“You were in Eden, the garden of God;
Every precious stone was your covering:
The ruby, the topaz and the diamond;
The beryl, the onyx and the jasper; The lapis lazuli, the turquoise and the emerald; And the gold, the workmanship of your settings and sockets, was in you. On the day that you were created they were prepared. ”You were the anointed cherub who covers,
And I placed you there You were on the holy mountain of God; You walked in the midst of the stones of fire.
“You were blameless in your ways
From the day you were created Until unrighteousness was found in you. ”By the abundance of your trade
You were internally filled with violence,
And you sinned;
Therefore I have cast you as profane
From the mountain of God.
And I have destroyed you, O covering cherub,
From the midst of the stones of fire.
“Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty;
You corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground;
I put you before kings,
That they may see you.
“By the multitude of your iniquities,
In the unrighteousness of your trade
You profaned your sanctuaries.
Therefore I have brought fire from the midst of you;
It has consumed you,
And I have turned you to ashes on the earth
In the eyes of all who see you.
“All who know you among the peoples
Are appalled at you;
You have become terrified
And you will cease to be forever.”‘”
Ezekiel 28:11-19, NASB
This passage leaves little doubt it is about Satan, or at the very least, one of the fallen angels. But the first ten verses of this chapter make specific reference to the King of Tyre. In addition, not once, but two times the prophecy given includes the phrase “…you are a man and not God” (vv. 2, 9) What is interesting in the first 19 verses is that there are two specific prophecies over the King of Tyre. The first in verses 1-10 seems to directly reference the worldly leader. Verses 11-19 however contain language that would be extremely difficult to attribute to a man, namely,
So it would seem that the first prophecy is physical in nature, and the second is spiritual. As both are directed toward the king of Tyre, it is hard to consider that the words of God against this king are addressing him not only in the physical sense, but also the spiritual sense. And as the king of Tyre himself is not an angel or demon, we are left with the notion that the king of Tyre is operating under the pretense, or power, of Satan.
While this concept may seem foreign in the Old Testament, in the writings of the gospels we have a very clear and personal example of this phenomenon. It involves Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Jesus Himself says in John 6:70 “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” Luke’s gospel confirms that we may not be merely speaking of ‘a devil’ in the general sense, but specifically states that “Satan entered into Judas, who was called Iscariot, belonging to the number of the twelve”. (Luke 22:3)
The Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:11-12 to “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
And so we have several cases throughout the scriptures that illustrate the premise of concurrent physical and spiritual interplay. Judas and Satan. The king of Babylon and Satan. The king of Tyre and Satan. And quite possibly a snake, and Satan. As we proceed through the scriptures, each reference to Satan becomes less ambiguous. It is no mystery then, why we picture Satan being the identity of the serpent in the story of the fall, considering the other scriptures. Though the New Testament provides very concise statements to make the case, even the Old Testament by itself provides the more weighty argument in support of this.
place where the Garden of Eden was, but Eden was a place where God walked with Adam, and after Adam was cast out, a guardian was placed at the entrance, which would imply that humans could no longer enter, lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)