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.