Genesis 3 begins with a remarkable conversation between Eve (“the woman”) and a snake (“the serpent”):
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Try chatting to a snake
Some immediate and obvious questions arise. Did a snake really talk? Why wasn’t Eve surprised by this? Are snakes capable of logical reasoning and debate? Could God have been speaking through the snake? etc.
First, let’s establish some basic facts. Snakes do not have vocal chords or hearing organs — they hear through their jaws picking up vibrations which are transmitted to their brains. Thus, they hear footsteps due to ground vibrations but are not so good at hearing sound waves transmitted through the air. They are incapable of distinguishing the subtle differences in sounds that make up human words, and incapable of processing the speech. At the risk of stating the obvious, they are also incapable of logical thoughts, reasoning, and argument, and are incapable of vocalising words. In short, this story is impossible.
Therefore, if we are to take the passage literally, then God must have miraculously caused the snake to speak these words. But that raises further problems. Eve apparently was not surprised by the snake casually chatting to her as she wandered through the garden, suggesting that this was a common occurrence. So was God in the habit of putting words in the mouths of snakes to give Adam and Eve some company? Yet, these particular words were an incitement to sin, and we know that God does not tempt people to sin (James 1:13). So it can hardly be God speaking through the snake.
But if it was the snake’s own idea (as is suggested by the introduction “the snake was more crafty than any of the wild animals”), then we have a very advanced form of life that is nothing like the snakes that exist today. Yet the outcome of the events in Genesis 3 is that all snakes are cursed. Also, if the snake was capable of such reasoning, then surely it was responsible to God for its behaviour. After all, we consider children responsible for their behaviour long before they are capable of the type of reasoning demonstrated by this remarkable snake.
Finally, the purpose of punishment is meant to teach someone to repent and learn from their errors, but I doubt that there are any snakes around who are thoughtfully contemplating the sins of their ancestor.
Whichever way you look at this story, it cannot be taken literally without becoming mired in a logical mess.
A helpful parallel
Many people have noticed some close contrasting parallels between the events in Eden and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
Adam and Eve were tempted in the leafy and fertile garden of Eden, while Jesus was tempted in the desolate, barren wilderness of Judea.
Adam and Eve had plenty to eat (Gen 2:16), while Jesus had fasted for 40 days (Matthew 4:2).
Adam knew and named all the animals in Eden (Genesis 2:19-20), Jesus was with wild animals in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).
Adam and Eve failed the temptation, while Jesus overcame his temptations.
Eve experienced three temptations: “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). Jesus experienced three temptations: turning stones into bread, jumping off the high point of the temple, and bowing to Satan in order to receive all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:1-11). It is possible to compare these two sets of temptations with the description of sin provided in 1 John 2:16
For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.
In the record of Jesus in the wilderness, we usually take Satan to be the thoughts of Jesus (see The Way of Life, chapter 25 for discussion) We see the conversation between Jesus and Satan as the inner dialogue going on inside Jesus head as he battles the temptation to use the Holy Spirit he had received for inappropriate ends. Even though everything else in the passage is literal, we accept that Satan is a literary device to personify the thoughts of Jesus and so bring out the drama of the temptation. A similar device is used by cartoonists when they picture someone with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each trying to convince the person of what to do. We call this the battle of conscience, and it is helpful to picture it as a debate between our good selves and our evil selves (aka Satan). Paul describes the same battle in other words in Romans 7:15-21.
I suggest that a similar literary device is being used in Genesis 3. Just as Satan voiced the thoughts of Jesus, the snake is voicing the thoughts of Eve. For the purpose of the story, the words are put in the mouth of a snake, but they are really just a voice in Eve’s head.
Taking the snake to be a personification of Eve’s thoughts is not without its own problems. However, I don’t think they are as difficult to overcome as the problems that arise from a literal talking snake.
The first problem is that the text clearly describes the snake as one of the “wild animals the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1). So, yes, the passage treats the snake as real. But I wonder if we are making a genre mistake by assuming that it therefore has to be taken literally. Jesus told parables that described people in real places (e.g., the Good Samaritan), but that didn’t make them real people. The passage reads more like a Rudyard Kipling “Just So” story than a historical narrative, and perhaps that’s the way it is meant to be read.
The second problem is that the curse applied to real snakes. However, remember, the purpose of that curse was not to punish snakes, but to remind human beings of what happened. The reminder works just as well with a metaphorical snake in Eden as it does with a real snake.
The famous prophecy in Genesis 3:15 supports the idea proposed here:
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
This prophecy has two meanings — snakes (the offspring of the serpent) and people (the offspring of Eve) would be enemies, and people would kill snakes by crushing their heads, while snakes would be bite people on their heels. But the more important meaning refers to Jesus (the offspring of Eve) and sin (the offspring of the snake). He killed sin by his death, but was injured in the process. A parallel verse is Hebrew 2:14
by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.
Even more directly, in Revelation 12:9, the dragon is described as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan”. The only ancient serpent it could refer to is the one in Genesis 3, thus providing another link between the serpent and the personification of human temptation that is often represented in the Bible as “Satan”.
Your inner snake
We have long resisted the identification of the snake with Satan. Certainly, those who think that Satan is a supernatural evil being who is using the snake for his nefarious purposes are wrong. There is no such being. The biblical Satan is a personification of sin and temptation, and in that sense I think the snake can reasonably be equated with Satan — Eve’s human mind wandering into thoughts of disobedience, just as the mind of Jesus did many years later. Jesus banished such thoughts immediately, saying “Go away Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). Eve persisted with the temptation, and succumbed. We too have an inner snake called Satan who talks to us — don’t listen to him, despite the clever arguments he concocts. Being friends with snakes only leads to trouble.