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Thorny problems with the serpent being a talking snake

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4 minutes to read This surprisingly common YEC interpretation of Genesis 3 is problematic for at least seven reasons.

Many Christians have historically interpreted Genesis 3 as a case of animal possession. However, I’ve met young earth creationists who go a step further, and take it as evidence that animals could talk before the Fall—focusing especially on Genesis 3:1, 14. Under this view, the snake is not necessarily possessed by Satan, but is simply an agent on his behalf. This is not a modern view; Jubilees 3:28 says the same thing, as does Josephus (Antiquities, 1.1.4). However, it is a very problematic view. I’m going to briefly outline some reasons why this simply makes no sense. Many of these overlap with the animal possession interpretation, but that isn’t my main concern here.

  1. There is no evidence that animals could talk before the Fall. You might say Genesis 3 is evidence, but that is the very question in dispute. What evidence outside of Genesis 3 is there, whether in the Bible or in the world? Even if you accept the standard YEC view of a perfect prelapsarian paradise, why would that paradise entail animals with completely different brains and vocal chords?
  2. The curse does not include a removal of speech. When God curses the serpent and the couple, he is quite specific about what is going to happen. These specifics do not include removing the ability to talk—not even for the serpent, let alone for animals in general. Moreover, why would God curse all animals for something the serpent and the couple did?
  3. There’s no clear reason for a talking animal to tempt the couple. Genesis says the serpent was shrewd, but what is shrewd about him trying to get the couple executed if he is just an animal? What would he have to gain by that? Conversely, there is every reason for a member of God’s heavenly council to tempt them: he is motivated by envy. Adam was given dominion over the world despite being made lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7). So it’s easy to see how a high-ranking angel like the serpent would bristle at this, and plot to have Adam executed so that dominion could “rightfully” pass to him.
  4. Going on his belly does not refer contextually to locomotion. If Genesis 3 was written on the tail of leaving Egypt, its original audience would never have thought to read this as a loss of limbs—they would have been familiar with such language since it was common in Egypt, where spells against serpents would often command them to go on their bellies. A serpent rampant is raised up and threatening to bite; a serpent recumbent is unable to do so. Thus, the curse on the serpent would be read not as an etiological fable about snakes, but rather as a restraint on Satan’s combative power, for the sake of his weaker foe, humanity (which dovetails cleanly with the point below, but cf. Job 1:7–12; 2:6).
  5. Snakes don’t eat dust. If this part of the curse, like going on his belly, is intended literally, then the Bible is simply in error. The curse should have, according to the YEC view, condemned the serpent to eat meat. Since snakes do not eat dust (though they do lick it), we are forced to conclude that this phrase is actually metaphorical—as it often is in Scripture, referring to complete disgrace and subjugation (Micah 7:17; Psalm 72:9; Isaiah 49:23). But since the curse is of a piece, if eating dust is metaphorical, then so is going on his belly: it likewise refers to being made low. This makes complete sense, given that prostrating oneself was exactly how one indicated complete deference and submission in the ancient Near East; cf. Psalm 44:25; 119:25; Lamentations 3:16.
  6. Snakes are not the particular enemies of people. Again, reading Genesis like a newspaper here falsifies the Bible. There are many species of animals which are far more inclined to attack humans than snakes, which for their part typically avoid us. And in terms of phobias, arachnophobia is far more prevalent than ophidiophobia. Moreover, a literal interpretation here also eliminates the Protevangelium—the first announcement of the gospel—from Genesis 3:15, by making it a pointless remark about animals, instead of a prophecy about the outcome of the struggle between the sons of the devil and the Son of God.
  7. Genesis 3:14 and 3:15 are directed to the same person. A response by some creationists at this point (and remember, I am a creationist too), is that the curse on the serpent is actually broken into two parts: verse 14, on the snake, and verse 15, on Satan. But if ever there were a clear case of eisegesis this would have to be it. There is no indication of a second person being cursed along with the serpent; the statement is straightforwardly directed toward one character. Bad enough to impose a lot of extra baggage onto the curse that isn’t there; even worse to impose another character who isn’t even mentioned!

This kind of newspaper exegesis of Genesis is not only destructive to the meaning of the text, but also to the effort of making and keeping disciples. By turning Genesis 3 into something like a children’s etiological fable, we dull ourselves to the subtle rhetorical ironies and contrast in the text, and replace a grown-up theology with something more like skim milk. As Ron Swanson would say, there’s only one thing I hate more than lying, and that’s skim milk—which is water lying about being milk.

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