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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > The Speaking Serpent 


According to the Scriptures “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that YHWH God had made” (Gen. 3:1), but surely it was the craftiness of Satan that caused the serpent to be so cunning. Here is one creature using another creature; Satan, the creature of evil, is using the creature of the field, using it for his own deceptive and nefarious purposes.

This unholy combination (Satan using a serpent) results in the talking serpent. The first two chapters in Genesis do not prepare us for this strange anomaly: a shrewd serpent that is speaking. It is almost incomprehensible. But later accounts inform us that demons possess both people and animals and act through them. Perhaps this is the initial report of such a possession. That which is incomprehensible become understandable when it is accepted that the serpent is being used by Satan, the one known as “that ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9; 20:2).

It therefore becomes necessary to adopt the old, traditional view according to which there were present both a real serpent and a demonic power, who made use of the former to carry out his plan. So far from there being anything impossible in this, it finds a close analogy in the demoniacs of the Gospels, through whose mouths demons speak. Recent archaeological scholarship has at this point vindicated the correctness of the old exegesis, for in the Babylonian representations there appears often behind the figure of the serpent the figure of a demon. Besides, there is amply Biblical testimony for the presence of an evil spirit in the temptation (Vos, BT, 34).

Equally unfathomable as the serpent speaking is the fact that the woman responded to the serpent and entered into dialogue with it. The record of their discussion is found in Genesis 3.

The serpent: The first utterance of the serpent is actually a question, a question that delicately brings into question the actions of God, casting doubt on His goodness and causing unwarranted reflection by Eve on God’s command (v. 1). Satan begins: “Did God actually say,” and with this question appears to suggest that it is unbelievable that God would say such a thing. And in suggesting such a thing Satan is raising the delicate question of whether God excluded something from them that was good for them.

Thus, in his initial statement Satan’s deception is vividly seen. He artfully raises a question that causes the woman to defend God or question God. Note the focus of the Devil’s attack: God’s exclusion rather than God’s provision. In other words, he raises the issue of what God has withheld from them instead of what He has graciously made available for them; his full question is: “Did God actually say,” ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (v. 1).

The woman: Part of Eve’s response is truthful: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden” (v. 2), but the remainder of her response (“but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” [v. 3]) has two suggestive aspects.

First, she did not fully name the tree that was excluded from their eating; it is simply referred to as “the tree in the midst of the Garden” (v. 2), rather than “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:17), as God had referred to it. In so doing, is she deliberately refusing to accept the full meaning that is attached to the tree? Is she minimizing the significance of the tree? Is it a conscious statement on her part that provides insight into her real thinking? Has “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” been reduced to “the tree in the midst of the Garden” because the tree no longer has profound meaning in her reflection? Or are the words an unconscious utterance and without any real significance?

Second, she adds a phrase that is not part of God’s original instruction: “neither shall you touch it” (3:3). If indeed God did not include these words, and we cannot know for sure, then why is Eve including them? Perhaps the conclusion should be drawn that even at this point, very early in the conversation, Eve is already questioning God in her mind. She is making the statement of God have a pointed dimension that it did not have; she is adding to God’s word and making it seem harsher than it actually was.

These two aspects are minor, or are they? Are these simple variations in terminology really revealing and so are provided by the writer to give insight into the downward spiral of Eve? What appears on the surface to be of little consequence actually reveals the beginning of sin in the life of Eve.

The serpent: Satan directly contradicts what God has so clearly said, and by so doing he tells the first lie (see: Jo. 8:44). And the content of his lie is that God has lied. God had informed them that they would die; Satan says to Eve: “You will not surely die” (3:4). For Eve, the issue is simple: believe Satan or believe God.

Always the essence of Satan’s approach is to attack the Truth (see: Truth), either by contradicting it or by offering a spurious substitute that does not appear for what it is. Whichever approach is taken, the conclusion is the same: a lie is offered for the Truth. To reject the Truth is to reject God.

In contradicting God, Satan provides for man the two options that man constantly faces in every situation: believe God or believe something or someone else. There are really only two options (see: Foundations, Starting Point, and Two Options). Eve is faced with the choice between God’s word and the serpent’s word; she must heed and follow the speaking of God or the speaking of the serpent.

Furthermore, Satan affirms selfishness on God’s part; he states that God knew that if they ate the fruit, then they would be like Him (3:5); therefore, God’s prohibition was to keep them from an elevated status. Thus, God was protecting His self-interest by refusing them something that would be beneficial to them.

The irony in this part of Satan’s statement is that both Adam and Eve are already like God, for they were created to be the image and likeness of God. According to the Scriptures they did not have some characteristic that was the image of God, but each one of them in his and her totality constituted the image of God—they did not possess the image, but they were the image (see: Image of God). So Satan is suggesting something for them that they already possess.

Satan also informs them that their eyes would be opened; in other words, there was knowledge available to them that God was keeping from them. By doing this He is appealing to their intellectual pride. Always man is seeking some hidden or esoteric knowledge that will enhance his existence and elevate his awareness. For Satan this increased knowledge is the knowledge of good and evil, the very knowledge that God is protecting them from by placing limitation on their conduct. What they eventually come to know after their sin is not what they anticipated, but they come to know that they are ashamed and guilty before God; it is in this manner that they come to know good and evil.

Satan has seized the advantage; he senses that Eve is wavering, so he presses the issue. He is creating within her a desire to have what God has forbidden and to know what God has hidden from them.

The woman: After the final statement from Satan, Eve finds herself reflecting on his words and contemplating the tree; the text reads: “when the woman saw” (3:6). What the woman saw appealed to her. The writer reports that “the tree was good for food” and “it was a delight to the eyes” (3:6); Satan had succeeded in focusing her attention away from what was permitted to that which was prohibited. Through his deception Satan had made what God had declared unacceptable very desirable to Eve.

Eve was usurping God’s position by determining what was right for her, rather than following the directives she had been given; her authority was slowly replacing God’s authority. Eve’s actions revealed that she believed Satan rather than God, and in her mind she discounted the words of God. The trickery of Satan had succeeded in causing her to move from being submissive to her Creator to charting her own course of action. By her act she also determined that the tree was desirable for wisdom, a wisdom that would replace reliance upon God; temptation comes through the eyes.

Without any deep reflection or profound meditation on what was involved in disobeying God’s command, “she took of its fruit and ate” (3:6); note the progression: “She saw . . . took . . . ate.” How easy it is to sin.

The two words, “with her” (3:6), indicate that Adam was with her throughout the conversation, and his conduct was dreadful: he had listened and said nothing; as a man he had abdicated his leadership in her life; he did not rebuke her and he did not rebuke Satan; and he did not defend God—his silence was deafening. By his silence there is an indication of the time of his inward fall; unlike Eve, Adam was not deceived (I Tim. 2:14).

Eve ate and then Adam ate (3:7), and their eating was a deliberate disobedience. They refused to obey God’s word and chose to live their own way. They rebelled and asserted autonomy.

The Westminster Confession of Faith:

Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory (VI, i).

Note the similarity between I Jo. 2:16 and the account in Genesis:

Good for food – physical or material temptation – lust of the flesh

Pleasing to the eyes – aesthetic or sensual temptation – lust of the eyes

Make one wise – intellectual or egotistical temptation – pride of life

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