Genesis Three (Pt.4): “The Serpent:” A Talking Snake
Verse one of Genesis chapter three introduces the reader to a fallen angel and a talking snake. This is the first record of the spirit world engaging with the material. Lucifer and one-third of the angels had already rebelled and had been cast out of heaven. Lucifer now initiates phase two of his rebellion against God—operation humanity. We will see this in the next couple of installments.
Two problems arise in the first verse which we need to clear up before we get to the temptation of the human couple. First, was this a real snake or a symbol of Satan, as some think? Or was the woman reasoning with herself, her evil impulses, being represented by the snake, as taught by some ancient Jews (Young:13)?
It is clear from Scripture that this was a real snake, particularly from the narrative before us. The serpent is identified as being among the “beast[s] of the field” (Vs. 1) and “cursed above all cattle” (Vs. 14). The frequent references to the serpent in the New Testament also put this beyond dispute. (John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 John 3:8; 1Timothy 2:14; Revelation 20:2).
The second problem on the surface of the text is that the snake talked. Now, we know that snakes don’t talk, so there is something out of place here. We will come to that later. But as far as animals talking is concerned there should be no difficulty if we accept God as the supernatural being, and sovereign of his creation.
As the sovereign Creator, God can use, permit or sanction the use of the animal kingdom as He wills. He used a donkey to speak to Balaam (Numbers 22:21-30; 2 Peter 2:15-16) a whale to swallow Jonah and spit him out again (Jonah 1:17, 2:10, Matthew 12:40). In Matthew 17:27 the Lord Jesus received his tax money from the mouth of a fish.
So, having cleared that up, we are introduced to Satan through a talking snake. Nowhere in this chapter do we read explicitly of Satan. It is “the serpent” who is described as “more subtle,” speaking and reasoning with the woman. It is to “the serpent” that God speaks in verse fifteen. It is clear of course, that Satan is in view, but is it significant that the only name used to refer to Satan in this chapter is the word “serpent.”
The serpent was an instrument of Satan’s treachery, (Vs. 1-3) possessed, if you will, by Satan to carry the message to the woman. The Bible does not describe the process by which Satan entered into the serpent. We are simply and abruptly told that the serpent was “more subtle…”
This raises the question as to whether the subtilty of the serpent was a natural subtilty of serpents in general, or because Satan had entered into this particular serpent. Probably both.
It is strange that the woman could not see a problem with a talking snake. Were there no red flags raised when the snake uttered audible and intelligible words? There was obviously more going on than meets the eye. Indeed this, as E. J. Young argues, is what is implied in the word “subtle.” There may have been some natural craftiness in the snake, but the woman is dealing with more than a snake (Young:9-10). There was a cunning usurper, a skilled enemy who had entered into the snake and convinced the woman that it was fine to talk to the snake.
A sinful work had overturned the proper order of creation and Adam and his wife was convinced that all was fine.
The serpent was a symbol of evil, enmity and subtle danger (Genesis 49:17; Proverbs 23:32) and of terror (Exodus 4:2-3) and of low-life, dust-licking defeat (14-15).
Don’t forget that Moses, the author of Genesis was brought up, trained and educated in the land of Egypt. Snakes were familiar to him and the Israelites also. They were closely associated with evil and the pagan worship of false gods. Moses and the Israelites also knew that the God of creation had control over the snakes of Egypt when Aaron’s rod, which turned into a serpent, swallowed up the magician’s rods, which turned into serpents (Exodus 7:8-12).
As the Israelites read this part of Genesis for the first time, they did so with the knowledge that the serpent had been cursed and was under the sentence of death. God was in control.
The destruction of the serpent, that we read in verse fifteen, becomes a type of ultimate victory—he will “lick the dust” (Psalm 72:9; Micah 7:17). For the fledgling nation of Israel (the people of God) the defeat of the serpent pointed to the destruction of evil and the restoration of good and order in the world. They had seen a demonstration of this with the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 7:8-12).
From this story, at the beginning of biblical history, we follow through to the end and discover that the serpent is there also in the book of the Revelation.
The Bible begins and ends with the serpent. In Genesis he is cunning, subtle and deceptive—and he finds a measure of success. But that “success” is given him only to reveal God’s gracious salvation. In Revelation, he is defeated and cast into the bottomless pit.