Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Who is the serpent in Genesis, and is it an actual snake?

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5 minutes to read Several different strands of evidence point to the serpent being not an animal, but a shining, serpentine angelic being.

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:

  1. in a garden;
  2. at the source of rivers;
  3. 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:

  1. As a noun, it means serpent.
  2. As a verb, it means to divine; the nachash means the diviner.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).



Forgive the additional question, but in what way is the serpent in subjugation to humanity? If in this moment humans have, in essence, given over the keys to the kingdom of man to the serpent, how is man not in subjugation to the serpent? This subjugation is to be all the days of his life, so it must not be in this sense…

The only thing I can come up with is that the serpent is in subjugation to Jesus (her offspring), but he was, anyway – that’s not new because of what happened here.

I know I can be a bit dense, so your help in thinking through this is greatly appreciated!


I suppose the subjugation you’re referring to may not be to humanity, either. So your clarification here would be helpful.

Tim Bulkeley

Thanks for an excellent post that presents clearly and concisely the case for understanding the nahash in Gen 3 as far more than a snake. I think you handled complex questions with admirable simplicity.

I wonder if you overstate the case for understanding nahash as ‘shining one’, unless you know of evidence I don’t (I have not researched this passage for this question), and even for diviner (we only have examples of the verb used this way in the piel and the piel participles ‘one who divines’ is formed differently. So, though I am convinced that the word in Gen 3 carries overtones of these two senses, and the chapter is as you note full of word echoes and plays, the referent seems clearly to be a ‘snake’.

Having said that, of course, elsewhere in the Bible snake is used to speak of powers of evil devil/satan/…

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hey Ryan, good question. The serpent’s plan ultimately succeeded for a while (although not immediately)—as you note, mankind is in subjugation to him. But there are three ways in which the curse cashes out here:

  1. A change of domain. Isaiah 14 speaks of how he is fallen from heaven and cut down to the earth. Job 1 shows us that the earth is Satan’s domain now—although he still has access to the throne of God, he apparently spends most of his time here “in the dirt.” So this is the first sense in which he licks the dust.
  2. A commensurate change in honor. Although he is still by nature a “god” (Psalm 82:6), 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).
  3. 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 as you say, Satan is subjugated under Jesus. This is more significant than you realize because Jesus is a human king. So it is not just that Satan is beneath God, but also that Satan is beneath man. That’s a complete reversal of the created order (cf. Psalm 8:5).

If you haven’t checked out my series on the kingdom of God, you’ll probably find it really helpful for tracing these threads out in a bit more systematic detail.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hey Tim, thanks for your comment.

To clarify, I don’t think that הנחש should be translated as “the diviner,” or even necessarily as “the shining one”—although I think there’s more justification for that given the translation of the ISV here. I’m not a Hebrew expert so I rely on other scholars like Michael Heiser at this point.

As I said in the article, I think Moses is actually employing a bit of laconic humor here, using the fact that נחש can just refer to an animal to present Satan in a rather poor light, and set up the ironies of the passage. But the humor trades off his audience understanding the connotations of נחש pulling away from the superficial denotation.


Thanks for the response! I actually am working my way through your series on the kingdom of God for a second time. It’s such a paradigm shift for me, it’s hard to work through so many thoughts at once (as evidenced by my questions here) and keep even simple things straight!

Stretching me, for sure!

Tim Bulkeley

Dominic, thanks for responding. I think with your last remark we are in agreement, the passage talks about a ‘snake’ but in ways (and not least by using a word) that suggest the Satan/Devil. I also fully agree with you that the wordplay and echoes in this passage are powerful and rich.

Chris D

Greeting Bronn…

I’m not sure if this is the correct venue, but is there any way I could contact you privately? I’m in need of some help and guidance if I could say so…

With Regards


The word for mud/dust is very similar to the word for Adam, who came from mud.
I wonder if ‘you will eat dust’ should really be ‘you will eat (or bite) Adam’.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Erik, yes, if I were to write this article now I would certainly include that insight. Like so many things in Scripture, there are layers of meaning. Satan will lick the dust in defeat, but he will also devour man.


Hello! I have another question regarding satan as a cherub, rather than a seraph. Did he negotiate with a seraph for the temptation in the Garden, or is the word “cherub”, which has four wings, interchangeable with a seraph that has six?


Dominic Bnonn Tennant

I don’t think cherub is the same kind of word as seraph. Seraph basically means serpent. But cherub basically refers to a holiness-keeper; i.e., a guardian of sacred space. So there is no reason a seraph cannot also be a cherub, even though the most cherubs are depicted as chimeras rather than serpents. Satan is explicity described as a cherub in Ezek 28:14.

Vicki Taylor

So Satan could have been a seraph who functioned as a holiness-keeper. Their angelic “titles” are related more to their function than their form.

I appreciate this! Thank you.