“But while all the living creatures had one language at that time, the serpent, which then lived together with Adam and his wife, shewed an envious disposition” — Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
Common church teaching states that the serpent in the story of the fall was the same as the figure of Satan or the Devil. Such a view is supported by the Bible … well by two verses in book of Revelation to be specific. “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9). What we need to keep in mind, however, is that hundreds of years separate the writing of Genesis 3 and the writing of Revelation. Satan as a concept was a late addition to Jewish belief and was probably the result of combining the earlier idea of The Accuser (HaSatan), a divine figure who appears in Job and Zachariah as one of the “sons of Elohim,” specifically as the prosecutor who serves the gods, with the purely evil Angra Mainyu of Zoroastrianism. Unlike the early Satan, the serpent is more knowledge bringer or deceiver than accuser. While the author of Genesis 3 probably did intend for his story to be an origin for snakes, he perhaps had some other being in mind, a being, perhaps considered divine, you yourself can see from the comfort of your backyard.
As we can see in the passage from 1st century historian Josephus, the common interpretation at the time was that the serpent, and even all animals, were capable of speech before the fall. Certain aspects of the curse Yahweh gives the serpent certainly seem like a part of a normal “why don’t snakes have legs,” etiology.
“Because you have done this,
you are cursed more than any livestock
and more than any wild animal.
You will move on your belly
and eat dust all the days of your life.”
If the serpent was a divine being in disguise it would make no sense to lump the serpent in with “livestock” and “wild animal[s].” If it were Satan possessing a serpent it would make no sense for God to punish the animal and not the one controlling the animal. As for why Eve wasn’t taken aback by a talking snake, we need to remember this story is a myth, and in myths and folktales animals talk all the time without anyone batting an eye. Only when we take the story of Genesis 2-3 as a literal historical fact do things seem odd.
Despite the seemingly clear references to a normal snake as the serpent in Genesis the remainder of the Genesis passage allows room for something more. In the curse on the serpent Yahweh predicts a rivalry between Eve’s descendants and those of the serpent, one that comes with a very specific image.
“I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.“
Yes, as a rule people tend to not like snakes. There’s nothing surprising there. The bit about heads and heels, however, seems to mean something specific. “Of course!” Traditionally the church has interpreted this as being a prophecy of Christ winning over sin while suffering by his death on the cross. Since we are not using the future to interpret the past we must rule out this meaning. The image of a man trampling a serpent while he himself is bitten must have been something anyone in that time period could have seen and understood, something as ubiquitous as pain in childbirth, hard farm work, and the leglessness of snakes.
It is my belief that the readers of Genesis simply needed to look up.
While doing a planetarium show for my job at a local natural history museum my jaw dropped when I saw Genesis 3:15 crawling across the sky. In summer the constellation of Draco snakes its way between the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and its head juts off to the east. Directly above its head is the foot of the kneeling figure of Hercules. The image suggests a hero crushing the dragon’s head.
Since the 200s B.C.E. The Greeks imagined the constellations of Hercules and Draco as depicting the 11th of the hero’s twelve labors, in which Heracles slays the dragon guarding the golden apples meant for the gods. Forbidden fruit, and massive serpents find themselves connecting two constellations and two ancient myths. Perhaps we are looking at a case of cultural cross pollination. The Greeks viewed the “Kneeling Man,” as Heracles comparatively late, certainly well after the composition of Genesis. Perhaps they saw the similarities and adopted the constellation as their hero, or perhaps they drew on a broader near eastern idea we are yet unaware of.
In several places in the Old Testament we see references to Israelite worship of the “host of heaven,” which is most likely a reference to astral worship as practiced by their neighbors, the Assyrians. The Assyrians were also known to revere and worship serpents. Perhaps the constellation of Draco was connected to a divine being. Perhaps Genesis 3 was partially written to spite the Assyrians. Perhaps there is a Canaanite proto-Heracles myth yet to be uncovered.* Sadly we can only speculate. We can clearly see the connection between the “heel and head” prophecy and the northern constellations, but we may never know why that connection was made. Sometimes understanding will be as out of reach as the Tree of Life.
* The Canaanites did have a Heracles analogue named Baal Melqart. This is actually the same figure as the Baal worshiped by Jezebel and condemned by the prophet Elijah in the Bible. Perhaps the myth of Baal and Yam is reflected in a less grand
As we near the time of Jesus multiple schools of thought emerged on the identity of the serpent, ranging from Josephus (just a talking snake) to the author of Enoch (a fallen angel named Gadreel), to the early church (Satan/The Devil). The intertesamental thinkers seemed as confused as we are.