Was the Snake Who Tempted Eve Really Evil?

 

Evil green snake head with yellow eyes

Evil, or just mischievously restless?

Think of the Genesis snake and images rise up of a snub-nosed reptilian with fire in his eyes and the downfall of humanity on his mind. We assume this guy was the embodiment of Satan itself, or at the very least a slimy and unpleasant creature we can’t imagine Eve giving the time of day.

Millennia of cultural depictions have reinforced such notions about the notorious creature whose testy oratory was more appealing to Eve and Adam than a loving Creator’s one prohibition. It’s no surprise that in a 2001 Gallup poll, 51% of American adults reported that snakes were at the top of their fear list. Let’s face it: We all love a scapegoat, and the snake who whispered sweet somethings to Eve back in the day seems fair game as a villain in that story.

Innocent until proven guilty

But was that infamous serpent really serving as a tidy camouflage for Satan as we so often assume? Was it evil in itself? According to Professor John H. Walton, in his head-exploding book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, ancient Near East peoples had a relatively undeveloped idea about Satan compared to today, so they may never have associated the two. Serpents in their cultures symbolized both positive and negative things. Genesis 3:1 only says, “the serpent was more clever than any other creature that the Lord God had made.” And it had the novelty of being able to speak in a way Eve understood, which makes me wonder if this snake was a sort of Big Mouth of the day. Its statements to Eve are wily but not untrue, for it was a fact that Adam and Eve would not die on the very day they sinned, and that their eyes would in fact be opened to good and evil, making them in certain ways like God. The serpent reminds me of the kids in my neighborhood who once dared me to rub the mean neighbor’s dog’s nose with lipstick to see what would happen. I can tell you, there was fire and brimstone from that neighbor in the aftermath, while the other kids slunk away. Like the snake, they weren’t out for blood; they just wanted to find out what would happen if I bit on their dare.

An expert in ancient Near East beliefs, cosmologies, and languages, Dr. Walton proposes that people of the day understood snakes to be in the category of “chaos creatures,” which were simply more mischievous, less subdued animals who were part of the undeveloped earth that early people had been commissioned to manage and rule over (Genesis 1:28). In other words, the world may not have been in the pristine state we assume it was at creation. God’s intent was for human beings to co-create something amazing with him, including the arrangement and cultivation of the sacred space of Eden.

The snake gets even more interesting

In his chapter focusing on the serpent, Dr. Walton asserts that, “neither his contradiction of God’s statement nor his deception about the consequences are part of an evil agenda.” It was Adam and Eve who preferred the I Dare You irreverence of a smart-aleck creature over the holy wisdom of God. Like us, those two people had everything, yet they wanted more. The buck always stops here.

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Three Little-known Facts About Adam and Eve That Prove They Were Really Sorry

Adam and Eve are tempted

Byzantine mosaic, Adam and Eve in paradise

Did you ever wonder what life was like for Adam and Eve after they were exiled from Eden for eating from The Wrong Tree? Imagine having to leave paradise, a place where your feet barely skimmed the earth because the human body was more spiritual than physical then. Where your skin shimmered with angelic “bright nature” and your eyes were powerful enough to see beyond the stars and deep into the earth to marvel at hidden treasures there. Brilliance of mind and love of all creatures was effortless, and work was easy. No unrequited longings or doubts gnawed at each day’s bliss. You breathed in sync with the Eternal Now, while the One who had created you spoke with you face to face.

When you think post-Eden, think PTSD

Picture then Adam and Eve’s shock when the gates of Eden slammed behind them (metaphorically or otherwise). Their bodies were naked and coarsened, while shame, fear, back-breaking work and above all, remorse, now plotted their every step. They blamed the snake, each other, probably God. Did they ever recover from the shock of what happened? I’ve always wondered.

So when I discovered the ancient, pseudepigraphal work titled The First Book of Adam and Eve, a fabulous life-and-times account of Adam’s and Eve’s struggles outside Eden, I got a whole new bead on how those two might have responded to how bad it really was. The stories in this brief work have a larger-than-life quality to them (remember, our mythology is full of heroes, giants, and gods for a reason) and I’ve got a hunch we postmoderns with our blasé sensibilities might benefit from a dose of this kind of preoccupation with unholy shortcomings.

To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. On every page of The First Book of Adam and Eve, we feel the passionate sorry-ness of these two people in proportion to the gravity of their sin. For after all, it isn’t everyday somebody upsets the equilibrium of the entire cosmos with one act of disobedience. Here are a few of our forebears’ actions that moved me with their pathos and sweet sincerity.

Getting creative to show you’re sorry

  1. In chapter 5, God sends Adam and Eve into a dark cave for forty days, to symbolize the darkness they had brought on the universe and into their own selves. Adam prayed with such fervency that he fell into a sort of coma from the shock. “So he cried and beat his chest hard, until he dropped, and was as dead.” Is this a foreshadowing of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the severity of his prayers against temptation caused him to sweat drops of blood?
  2. In chapter 32, after other adventures, Adam and Eve journey to a holy sea where they stand up to their necks, praying for 35 days. “And they stood praying; and besought the Lord to forgive them… and to restore them to their former state.” Notice that God didn’t remind them that they could never go back to Eden. He let them do what they needed to do. Maybe a month standing in cold water made them more sorry than ever for what they had done.
  3. Later, in chapter 72, fallen angels visit Adam, tempting him to “marry Eve,” and filling his heart with lustful thoughts. Though it’s suggested that God had intended celestial celibacy. Adam lays out his case as he asks God about it: “Because if you do not give us permission, we shall be overpowered, and follow that advice of Satan; and you will make us… perish.” God replies, “O Adam, if only you had had this caution at first, before you came out of the garden…” Adam was learning his lesson. One ousting from God’s graces was enough.

 

What ideas do you have about the Adam and Eve story?