Serpent (as Symbol)
SERPENT (AS SYMBOL)
This article considers the symbolism behind the snake that seduced Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of eden.
The Serpent's Actions and Fate. The serpent is introduced at the very opening of Genesis ch. 3, where it is given the epithet in Hebrew of 'ārûm, variously translated as "crafty," "sly," "wily," "cunning," etc., with an obvious reference back to Gn 2.25, where man and woman live in perfect bliss and are unashamed of being naked (’ărummîm ). The epithet is also a foreshadowing of Gn 3.7, where the term 'êrûmmîm describes the naked man and woman, now ashamed of their condition. The serpent is described as a creature (3.1), but the slyest of all the "wild beasts" (H. Orlinsky) that God had made. The serpent (who speaks!) may possibly be described as a "had been" (pluperfect tense) in the Hebrew verb (3.1), but it is nonetheless shrewd enough to strike up a subversive conversation with the woman rather than with the man; and in the lively narrative style of the yahwist, it takes but a moment for the serpent to make the woman see everything in a new light. Soon she has transgressed the very precept that she had explained in an excessively stringent manner to the serpent. The narrator does not allow the serpent to escape when its destructive work is complete. Rather it stays during the arrival of Yahweh and the interrogation scene, and it hears the woman state that "the serpent deceived me" (3.14–15).
The sentence pronounced over the serpent is highly significant, reflecting a religious and moral outlook of the greatest importance. Against E. A. Speiser, who, despite the parallel with 3.17, translated 'ārûr as merely "banned," the serpent is generally understood as being cursed by God and in a way that no other wild animal (literally, beast of the field) is cursed. It must crawl on its belly (with the possible assumption, supported by ancient illustrations, that it once stood erect); it must eat dirt (or dust)—a thing associated with its horizontal and slithering mode of locomotion; it and its "seed" (usually indicating progeny, but possibly having the nuance here of "genus") are to be at perpetual strife with woman (kind), and while it snaps at her heel, she aims at crushing its head (though the precise sense of the same verb that is translated in one case as "striking" and in the other as "crushing" is not certain). The serpent is, then, completely humiliated in 3.14, and this may aid in seeing in3.15 more than a mere struggle to the finish without any references to victory. Although such scholars as S. R. Driver and Speiser see nothing eschatological in this conflict, most Catholic authors (and some of them perhaps excessively) see some kind of victory in the future over the serpent.
Question of the Serpent's Reality. The question of the nature of the serpent and its identity is one of considerable importance. Bound up with this is the equally important question of why it should be a serpent that leads the attack on man and woman. It may be well here to note that later Jewish theology, reflected in Wis 2.24 and the NT (especially in Jn 8.44; Rv 12.9), easily makes the identification of the serpent with the devil or satan, and this matter was taken up with further precision by the pon tifical biblical commission, which declared (June 30, 1909) that there is question in Genesis of the transgression of a divine precept diabolo sub serpentis specie suasore (the devil acting as persuader under the form of a serpent). The decree, however, led to further discussion.
Was the serpent merely a symbol, not real? This question, which apparently betrays a historicizing attitude toward the Yahwist narrative that really spoils much of its unique literary character and fails to grasp the methodology of this most clever writer, was answered more or less affirmatively by so great a scholar as M. J. Lagrange and more or less negatively by A. Bea (though one is hardly justified, especially in the latter case, in saying that this remained the unaltered viewpoint of either author). The view that the serpent is a symbol, i.e., not really a serpent, is the common present-day outlook, but it is usually presented in a way that reflects the whole literary workmanship and genius of the Yahwist. The Yahwist, working in these chapters on matters that are highly illusive and out of all normal historical reach, had little choice but to "theologize" along lines that were both in keeping with his genius and, at the same time, suited to a subject so remote from, and yet so close to, him and us. Hence, there is a heavy and most effective use of symbolism: garden, trees, rivers, rib, and a host of others, all of them clearer in the 10th and 9th centuries b.c. than to the present-day reading audience, whether largely or in no wise familiar with the background of those times. The
more that is known of the Yahwist, however, and the more the ancient Near Eastern background of Genesis ch. 2–3 is discovered, so much the more does it become apparent that the symbolism of these chapters is loaded with reality. It is not empty symbolism or mere symbolism, but highly effective symbolism.
Thus one may refer to the serpent as real, but of a special nature. The narrative entails much more than an individual serpent, miraculously endowed with speech, with razor-sharp wit, and with ability to beguile woman both quickly and completely. Behind the serpent lies a whole ideology about serpents and their significance and about man and woman and what has made them as they are today.
Mythological Monster. The notion, therefore, that the serpent was a mythological monster has been invoked; in Is 27.1 reference is made to leviathan, the fleeting serpent and the twisting serpent, which is mentioned in strikingly similar language in the Ugaritic literature (see ugarit) as Lōtān (see C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual [Rome 1955] 2.011); and in both Am 9.3 and Jb 26.13 mention is made of a serpent that presumably dwells in the sea. It may be noted that in Rv 12.9 the serpent is equated with a dragon. Although this equation need not be conclusive and it may be presumed that there
were no sea serpents in the Garden of Eden, there could nonetheless be a lurking and partial reference to such a monster in the Yahwist's imagery; so, McKenzie, 563–564. The argument that Lōtān was hostile to man from the beginning but that the serpent in Paradise was at first friendly is entirely gratuitous in the second part. Everything points precisely to his hostility, though, as the narrative runs, it is neither suspected by the woman nor manifested by the serpent as hostility.
Natural Snake Regarded as Having Magical Powers. The notion of the serpent as having magical powers may already be seen in description of the creature in Gn3.1 as cunning or crafty. Then, too, in the preliminaries to the Exodus from Egypt there is a description of how both Moses and the Egyptian court magicians changed their wands into serpents and again back into wands (Ex7.8–12). Even the standard Hebrew word for serpent, nāḥāš, is used, whether by authentic etymological connection or not, as a verb form niḥēš meaning both to practice divination and to seek an omen. The link may be only through folk etymology, but the identity of the nominal and the verbal roots cannot be denied. The phrase in Mt 10.1.6, "as shrewd as serpents," also conveys a notion that must have remained prevalent into the time of Christ. The words of Prv 30.19, though less telling, at least point to the mysterious aspect of the serpent. If the serpent symbolizes magic to some degree, its humiliating sentence in Gn 3.14–15 would, at the same time, be the condemnation of and polemic against magical practices only too prevalent in Israelite history (Ex 22.18; Lv 19.31;20.6, 27; Dt 18.10–14; 1 Sm 28.3; 2 Kgs 17.17; 21.6;23.24; Is 8.19; Ez 13.17–23). (see magic [in the bible].) Such a symbolism attached to the serpent would be in keeping with the therapeutic powers attributed to the bronze serpent (still venerated during Hezekiah's reign: 2 Kgs 18.4) in Nm 21.8–9, but explained as symbolizing God's healing powers in Wis 16.6–8 and as typifying Christ's salvation of mankind through His being raised up on the cross in Jn 3.14–15. One may note in this, as far as the serpent of Genesis ch. 3 is concerned, a probable polyvalent symbolism: magic power, illicit acquisition of knowledge, healing, and hence life itself.
Fertility Symbol. In keeping with this same rich background of the serpent's imagery in the ancient Near East, a number of scholars have stressed the notion of fertility. This is not merely because the serpent shows some affinity to fertility by shedding its skin, thus taking on new life, but also because there is some connection with the sexually oriented fertility rites as practiced, among other places, in Canaan. There is, of course, a danger of making out of Genesis ch. 2–3 little more than a mysterious sex story and passing over other factors of the highest importance. But there is the danger also of missing what was obviously a grave concern of the guardians of pure Yahwism while the Israelites were gradually settling down in Canaan, where the fertility cults were widely practiced. One may note that, at least indirectly, the serpent led the woman toward motherhood in tempting her, for the fruit of the tree of knowledge is obviously linked to an awakening of sexual desire and to the explicit mention of carnal knowledge in Gn 4.1, an act that may have taken place before the expulsion from the garden (as the story goes), since the verb may well be translated as: "Now the man had known Eve, his wife." It is of interest, too, that the Talmud, Philo Judaeus, and Clement of Alexandria all identified the serpent with concupiscence or evil thoughts. Their reasons for this were probably drawn from their own experience with mankind as well as from the texts of the Bible. In an age of archeology and of the discovery of ancient texts, however, there are added reasons for seeing in the serpent, in addition to other things, a symbol of fertility and hence of sex.
Symbol of Life. Closely bound up with these notions is the concept of the serpent as the symbol of life. It should be stressed that these notions often overlap, for the Semites were inclined to universalize, to see things as a whole, rather than to departmentalize or neatly categorize. One may assume from figurines found at such famous Canaanite sites as Megiddo, Thaanack (Taanach), Tell Beit Mirsim, and Gezer, not only that the reproductive function of the human female was greatly stressed, but also that the serpent served either as a phallic symbol (its position with relation to the figurines can hardly be regarded as accidental) or as a symbol of fertility and life. The evidence amassed by Canon Joseph Coppens of Louvain in this regard is highly indicative, although some outstanding Catholic scholars have not been influenced by it; see R. de Vaux; H. Renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning, tr. C. Napier (New York 1964) 272–282. Nevertheless, even apart from extra-biblical sources, Gn 3.7, 16 and the so-called sexual milieu
of the account (placed against the Yahwist's contemporary background) have seemed sufficient to other leading scholars for the admission of an inclusively sexual interpretation of the serpent. The figures in S. H. Langdon's Semitic Mythology are extremely interesting in this regard, as are those in J. B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton 1954), No. 469–474, 480, and others (see serpent). In Egypt the serpent called 'nḫ is pictured with the plant of life in its mouth, thus bringing out the symbolism of both life and wisdom (mouth).
From what has been said it may be seen that to speak of a "real serpent" or to confine one's analysis of the serpent to one phase of symbolism is to fail to exhaust the rich background that such an image plays in the Yahwist's account, which is so cleverly organized and has so many fine nuances of thought. Whatever line of interpretation is followed, one may say, judging from the sacred text and from these few representative artifacts and texts
from the ancient Near East, that the Yahwist had ample reason to present the tempter under the guise of a serpent.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 2174–79. o. biehn et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 9:408–409. l. f. hartman, "Sin in Paradise," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958) 26–40, esp. 39–40. j. coppens, La Connaissance du bien et du mal et le péché du Paradis (Louvain 1948), and the important though partially dissenting review of r. de vaux, Revue biblique 56 (1949) 300–308. j. l. mckenzie, "The Literary Characteristics of Genesis 2–3," Theological Studies 15 (1954) 541–572, esp. 563–572. e. a. speiser, Genesis (Garden City, N.Y. 1964) 21–28.