Let’s start by asking about the context in which the serpent appears: Eden. There are three quite important clues here, because in the ancient Near East a divine throne-room was typically depicted:
- in a garden;
- at the source of rivers;
- on a holy mountain (the “mountain of assembly”).
This parallels Eden strikingly: we know God was present there (Genesis 2:7; 3:8), in a garden (Genesis 2:8), near the source of four rivers (Genesis 2:10), and on a holy mountain (Ezekiel 28:13–17). Ezekiel also points us to clues about the serpent’s identity, because he is riffing off an earlier taunt in Isaiah 14:12–14, which makes a similar parallel between the serpent and a king. Isaiah describes the serpent as a “morning star” on the mountain of assembly in the heights of the north—which is where the Canaanites thought the heavenly council assembled in the throne-room of Ba’al. The point of both passages is to use cultural-religious “memes” to compare a wicked king to a member of God’s celestial court, who rebelled in Eden.
This court appears in numerous places, like 1 Kings 22:19; Psalm 82:1; 89:5–7; 1 Kings 22:19; Daniel 7:9; Job 1:6. Just as the kings of the ancient Near East had their royal courts, so did the gods—not just in false pagan religions, but also in true Israelite religion. This explains the puzzling comment from God in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make mankind in our image”—and why, in chapter 3, he speaks of Adam and Eve becoming “like us.” Some think this is trinitarian language, which is of course possible, but makes no sense contextually; some think it’s a royal “we”—but Hebrew doesn’t have plurals of majesty for verbs, and make in Genesis 1:26 is plural. The best explanation is that God is speaking to the other members of his heavenly council, which Job 38:7 says were present at the creation of the world—describing them as “morning stars” in the same way as Isaiah 14.
There are also clues that Moses meant the term serpent in Genesis 3 to be a triple entendre that just doesn’t translate into English. The word in Hebrew is nachash, and like some English words (e.g. express or home), it can be a noun, or a verb, or an adjective:
- As a noun, it means serpent.
- As a verb, it means to divine; the nachash means the diviner.
- As an adjective, it means shining; the nachash means the shining one (this is how the ISV renders it).
There are conceptual connections between nachash and other parts of Scripture. Daniel sees an angel whose arms and legs were like the “gleam of polished bronze” (Daniel 10:5–6): in Hebrew, nechoshet—a word derived from nachash. This brazen connection appears with another serpent-word associated with angels: Isaiah 6:2 describes God’s throne as flanked by seraphs; the same word used in Isaiah 14:29 of “fiery serpents” and in Numbers 21:8 of the bronze snake—which is then described in Numbers 21:9 as a nachash. So Isaiah shows us that seraphs can be fiery, not just in bite but in appearance, and links them to the throne-room of God; Numbers reiterates that they are serpentine, draws an association with shining bronze, and treats seraph as synonymous with nachash; Daniel shows us that angels have a shining, bronze-like appearance described with the same root word as nachash; and Genesis 3 describes an intelligent being in the meeting-place of God’s council as a nachash. The conceptual nexus evokes a luminous, serpentine angel. (Interestingly, Egyptian religion depicted winged, serpentine gods flanking the thrones of Pharaohs.)
With all these clues in mind, we can see that they do not lead us to a possessed snake in Genesis 3. Rather, the “memes” in the minds of Moses and his readers point us to the serpent being one of the spirits in God’s heavenly council—the same archangel that Revelation calls the devil and Satan (Revelation 12:9; 20:2).
Objection: don’t Genesis 3:1, 14 clearly show that the serpent was a beast of the field?
This objection has two parts:
1. The serpent is compared to the beasts
Many translations render the serpent as more cunning and more cursed than any other beast (e.g. ESV, LEB, NLT). But the Hebrew does not necessitate such a translation: it can simply mean that he was shrewder than any beast (e.g. NET, NIV, NASB). This part of the objection actually trips over what looks like a deliberate conflation on Moses’ part: if his audience would have immediately understood that the nachash was not a beast, then Genesis 3:1 is really a bit of laconic humor, playing off the triple entendre. Thus, I don’t think the comparison to the beasts of the field is for the purpose of identifying the serpent at all, but rather to create a rhetorical contrast between him, the couple, and the animals. This occurs through two ironic reversals:
- In Hebrew, “shrewd” is arum, “naked” is arummim, and “cursed” is arur. The words are all related, and so create a kind of wordplay: the serpent starts out arum, in a position of power over the couple who are arummim; but he ends up arur, in a position of lowest disgrace. He aims to get dominion over them, but ends up being made lower even than the animals they have dominion over.
- This is further emphasized by the ambiguity of nachash, which frames the serpent superficially in the role of a beast. This magnifies the reversal of authority at the heart of the fall: the creation usurps the couple who were given rule over it, the woman usurps the man who was given rule over her, and the man usurps God who rules over all.
2. The serpent goes on his belly
Genesis 3:14b is also often taken to show that this is how snakes became belly-crawling dust-eaters. But snakes don’t eat dust, so this phrase is surely metaphorical, referring to complete disgrace and subjugation—as it does in places like Micah 7:17; Psalm 72:9; Isaiah 49:23. And if eating dust is metaphorical, then so presumably is going on his belly: it likewise refers to being made low. This corresponds to point (i) above, and cashes out in three ways that unfold through redemptive history:
- A change of domain. Isaiah 14:12–15 speaks of how Satan is fallen from heaven and cut down to the earth. Job 1:7 and 1 Peter 5:8 show us that the earth is his domain now; he spends his time here “in the dirt.” So this is the first sense in which he licks the dust.
- A commensurate change in honor. Although he is still by nature a “god” (Psalm 82:6; 2 Corinthians 4:4), he is both disgraced and sentenced to die. So despite being respected for what he is (cf. Jude 1:8–10), he is despised and dishonored for who he is (cf. John 8:44).
- A complete eschatological subjugation. This is already inaugurated at the cross (cf. Colossians 2:15), and will be consummated at the final judgment, but the point is that Satan is subjugated under a man—Jesus. Thus the ironic reversal for him becomes complete (cf. Psalm 8:5).