The Serpent Would Have Been Viewed as a Chaos Creature from the Non-ordered Realm, Promoting Disorder
Christian readers of Genesis have at times been confused by the serpent. Why did God allow such a creature to infiltrate the garden? How could this creature be in a “good” world? Based on New Testament references, the serpent is easily identified as Satan (Rom 16:20; Rev 12:9; 20:2), raising questions about where he came from and what he is doing in this account.
If we are going to understand Genesis as an ancient document, however, we have to read the text first in ancient terms. That means that we cannot immediately jump to the eventual conclusion that the serpent is associated with Satan, for there is no indication that the serpent was so identified during Old Testament times. Before considering the implications of later biblical interpretation, we should understand the ancient text on its own terms. Furthermore, we cannot read the text as if it is communicating in the world of Adam and Eve’s knowledge because, as mentioned in previous chapters, we have an Israelite storyteller communicating to an Israelite audience. That audience would have made certain associations with the serpent imagery that are not necessarily natural to us.
Serpent symbolism was rich in the ancient Near East. We have already made reference to the serpent who stole the plant of life from Gilgamesh, but that is only the beginning. We have discussed the Tale of Adapa but have not yet referred to the serpent figure there. In that narrative, the serpent is not involved in any temptation and is not a main character. When Adapa responds to Anu’s invitation to meet with him, one of the guardians of Anu’s palace is Gizzida (= Ningishzida, “Lord of the Productive Tree”), who has the shape of a serpent and is accompanied by horned serpents (bašmu). He is known as the guardian of demons who live in the netherworld.
In Egypt, we find serpents everywhere from the crown of Pharaoh to pictures on painted sarcophagi, as well as in the Book of the Dead (as deadly enemies along the path to the afterlife). These creatures are associated with both wisdom and death. Apophis was a serpent of chaos who tried to swallow the sun as it rose every morning. Other elements can be found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead that connect to ideas that are evident in the Genesis account, including crawling on the belly, eating dust, a crushing head and striking a heel. The following entries drawn from the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament address some of the details in Genesis:
Crawl on your belly (3:14). The Egyptian Pyramid Texts were designed to aid the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (end of the third millennium) on their journey to the afterlife. Among the over 700 utterances are several dozen spells and curses on snakes that may impede the king’s progress. These utterances contain phrases that are reminiscent of the curse on the serpent in Genesis 3. For instance, the biblical statement that the serpent will “crawl on your belly” is paralleled by frequent spells that call on the snake to lie down, fall down, get down, or crawl away (Pyramid Text 226, 233, 234, 298, 386). Another says that he should “go with [his] face on the path” (PT 288).
These suggest that when God tells the serpent that he will crawl on his belly, there is no suggestion that the serpent had legs that he now loses. Instead, he is going to be docile rather than in an attack position. The serpent on its belly is nonthreatening, while the one reared up is protecting or attacking. Notice that on the Pharaoh’s crown, the serpent (uraeus) is pictured as upright and in an attack position. Nevertheless, I should also note that there are occasional depictions of serpent creatures with legs. There is no indication, however, of an occasion in which serpents lost their legs.
Eat dust (3:14). Eating dust is not a comment about the actual diet of a snake. It is more likely a reference to their habitat. Again the Pyramid Texts show some similarity as they attempt to banish the serpent to the dust. The serpent is a creature of the netherworld (that is why the pharaoh encounters it on his journey), and denizens of the netherworld were typically portrayed as eating dust. So in the Descent of Ishtar, the netherworld is described as a place where their food is dust and their bread is clay.
Crush your head (3:15). Treading on the serpent is used in Pyramid Texts 299 as an expression of overcoming or defeating it. Specific statements indicate that the “Sandal of Horus tramples the snake underfoot” (PT 378), and “Horus has shattered [the snake’s] mouth with the sole of his foot” (PT 388). This reflects a potentially mortal blow to this deadly enemy. There is no suggestion that the Israelites are borrowing from the Pyramid Texts, only that these texts help us to determine how someone in the ancient Near East might understand such words and phrases.
Strike his heel (3:15). It is true that the ancients were aware that many snakes were not poisonous. But since harmless snakes usually were not seen as aggressive, if someone were bitten by a snake, it was assumed that the snake might be poisonous. Thus the strike to the heel is a potentially mortal blow.
As an example of several of these items, see the Pyramid Texts, utterance 378:
O Snake in the sky! O Centipede on earth! The Sandal of Horus is what tramples the nhi-snake underfoot.… It is dangerous for me so I have trodden on you; be wise about me (?) and I will not tread on you, for you are the mysterious and invisible one of whom the gods speak; because you are the one who has no legs, because you are the one who has no arms, with which you could walk after your brethren the gods … beware of me and I will beware of you.
In the above examples, we can see how information about the serpent in the Genesis account can be documented in various ways in the ancient Near East. A separate direction of inquiry could comb the ancient Near East for serpent symbolism, interpret it and then try to bring those elements into an understanding of the Bible without biblical precedent. Unfortunately, such attempts are bound to produce unsatisfactory results because there are just too many different aspects to serpent symbolism. We would have no way to conclude confidently which ones the Israelites would prefer or which would be significant in any given context. Serpent symbolism has been connected to fertility, sexuality, protection, life, death and numerous other important attributes.
While many of these motifs may well have been familiar to the mind of an Israelite, especially one who had been recently in Egypt, we want to explore the question of the nature of the serpent in Genesis 3. If the Israelites would not have thought of the serpent as Satan (and there is no evidence that they did—in fact, they have a far less developed idea of Satan than what we find in the New Testament), then what would they have thought?
We can begin with the description that is given in Genesis 3. The main adjective used there identifies the serpent as ‘ārûm, variously translated as “subtle,” “wily,” “cunning,” “shrewd,” “prudent” or “clever.” It is an adjective that operates primarily in reference to wisdom and is inherently neutral (that is, it is a quality that can be used well—Prov 1:4; 8:5—or in questionable ways—Ex 21:14; Josh 9:4). Ziony Zevit offers a helpful profile of someone who is ‘ārûm:
[They] conceal what they feel and what they know (Prov 12:16, 23). They esteem knowledge and plan how to use it in achieving their objectives (Prov 13:16; 14:8, 18); they do not believe everything that they hear (Prov 14:15); and they know how to avoid trouble and punishment (Prov 22:3; 27:12). In sum they are shrewd and calculating, willing to bend and torture the limits of acceptable behavior but not to cross the line into illegalities. They may be unpleasant and purposely misleading in speech but are not out-and-out liars (Josh 9:4; 1 Sam 23:22). They know how to read people and situations and how to turn their readings to advantage. A keen wit and a rapier tongue are their tools.
Ultimately, such a descriptor does not aid us in determining the creature’s nature. Other than that, we can only identify the serpent as one of “the wild animals the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1). At the same time, we should notice that the serpent is not described as “evil.” This devious creature does not become associated with evil until much later.
Recent study has focused attention on the serpent as a chaos creature. Chaos creatures in the ancient world were typically composite creatures that belonged to the sphere of the divine yet were not deified. Their composite features gave them a combination of attributes. In the ancient world the chaos creatures are not thought of as evil. They are amoral but can be mischievous or destructive. They cause problems if left unchecked but can be domesticated and become associates of gods. Demons also function much like chaos creatures, as do liminal creatures (e.g., coyote, screech owl).
It is true that the Hebrew word for the serpent, nāḥāš, is one of the normal ways to designate a common snake. Furthermore, the snake in Genesis 3 is identified as among the creatures of the field that God created, and nothing in the text suggests it is a composite creature. Nevertheless, all creatures in the Hebrew Bible, including chaos creatures, are created by God (Gen 1:21; Job 40:15–19; Ps 104:26). That nāḥāš can also designate a chaos creature is evident from its usage in Isaiah 27:1, where it describes Leviathan. Such an understanding is confirmed finally in the apocalypse of John in which the serpent, now Satan, is described as a great dragon (Rev 12:9)—the chaos creature par excellence. We could therefore conclude that the serpent in Genesis 3 is a chaos creature on the basis of its role in the story and other supporting contexts.
Richard Averbeck is then correct to observe that this is not just a snake story. “The Israelites would have seen a great deal more in Genesis 3 than a simple tale about snakes and mankind.… From their point of view, this would have been the very beginning of a cosmic battle that they were feeling the effects of in their own personal experience and their national history.” Though I am not ready to go as far as he does to conclude that this also represents the fall of Satan, I believe that entering the text from the ancient Israelite viewpoint should lead us to think of the serpent in terms of a chaos creature.
What is the result of such an approach?
• An Israelite reader would not identify the serpent as Satan. The consequences are far more significant in the account than the agent. The serpent is the catalyst more than the cause.
• An Israelite reader would recognize the deleterious effects of the temptation but would not necessarily consider the serpent to be morally evil or bent on the destruction of humankind. An Israelite would not give any unique status to this serpent—he is just one of any number of chaos creatures rather than a spiritual, cosmic power of some sort.
• The Israelite reader would have thought of the serpent as a sort of disruptive free agent with less of a thought-out agenda. The Old Testament does not give the serpent an ongoing role. Like the serpent in the Gilgamesh Epic who did what its nature led it to do and then disappeared from the scene, no continuing role or place is recognized for the serpent in the Old Testament, though the consequences of the human act remain in place (again as in Gilgamesh).
• The serpent’s insertion of doubt and his nuanced denial of the woman’s understanding of the consequences stated by God would not be interpreted any differently than in our traditional understanding. Deception, misdirection and troublemaking are all within the purview of chaos creatures. It is important to note the syntactical subtlety that is evident in the serpent’s words. He does not say “you will not die.” Instead the placement of the negation results in something more like “don’t think that death is such an immediate threat.” God told the truth: when they ate from the tree, they were doomed to die. The words God used did not suggest immediate death (the syntactical expression that he uses, “on the day that,” is simply the Hebrew idiom for “when”), but the penalty was carried out by removing their access to the tree of life. They were therefore immediately doomed to die (the force of the verbal construction). The woman was not as careful in her wording, and the serpent therefore told the truth when he picked up on the discrepancy and contradicted her (not God) by saying that death was not an immediate threat. In this way the serpent’s deception came in exploiting a misrepresentation by the woman and telling her of a benefit to eating the fruit without likewise including the deleterious effects. Notice that the serpent does not suggest outright that Eve eat the fruit or that she should disobey.
• At the same time there is no room for the suggestion that it was the serpent who told the truth (you will not die, you shall be like gods) and God who was wrong (in the day that you eat from it you will surely die). God’s statement did not indicate immediate death (“in the day” is the Hebrew way of saying “when”). The construction often translated “surely die” expresses only that they will at that time be doomed to die, which is exactly what happened when the way to the tree of life was barred.
• The Israelite reader would understand that the result of the serpent’s role was that evil took root among humanity. This is clear from Genesis 3:15, where an ongoing battle is portrayed between humans (generation to generation) on one side, and the “seed” or “offspring” of the serpent, which does not refer to future generations of serpents but to the evil that had resulted, on the other side. The fact that the two verbs in the verse that describe the antagonistic actions are from the same root (despite the fact that many translations render them differently) shows that the verse does not indicate who the victor will be. Instead it indicates that there will be the ongoing exchange of potentially mortal blows.
• We might well ask what a chaos creature was doing in the garden (the center of order in the cosmos). Surprisingly, when we examine the text closely, we discover that the text never suggests that the serpent was in the garden (let alone in the tree). If we inquire how then Adam and Eve would have encountered the creature, we must note that Adam and Eve’s tasks in the garden do not necessitate their constant presence. Priests serving in sacred space do not live in sacred space. While the placing of Adam in the garden may suggest a more permanent residence, we would have to ask whether that meant he would never leave. Much is unspecified in the text.
• As a chaos creature, the serpent would be more closely associated with non-order than with disorder. Non-order has a certain neutrality to it, whereas disorder is evil in nature and intent. We might describe an earthquake or a cancer as forces of non-order with evil consequences. But they are not inherently evil. We do not control them, and therefore they can have disastrous effects. If the serpent truly is in the category of chaos creature, neither his contradiction of God’s statement nor his deception about the consequences are part of an evil agenda. They are simply the disruptive, ad hoc behavior that chaos creatures engage in. More complete understanding is offered in intertestamental literature and New Testament theology, but if we limit our analysis to the ancient context of the Old Testament, things look very different.
I remain uncomfortable applying the genre label “myth/mythology” to these biblical narratives. The designation has too many definitions, and therefore the words lose their ability to communicate clearly. Furthermore, we have so thoroughly adapted these terms to Western culture that their application to ancient culture becomes inevitably anachronistic. But the issue goes beyond the labeling of a genre of literature; it concerns the process by which literature of any genre is conceived and composed. The ancients think differently; they perceive the world in different ways, with different categories and priorities than we do.
In our culture, we think “scientifically.” We are primarily concerned with causation, composition and systematization. In the ancient world they are more likely to think of the world in terms of symbols and to express their understanding by means of imagery. We are primarily interested in events and material realia whereas they are more interested in ideas and their representation.
Some might suggest that the Israelites who crafted the early chapters of Genesis are historicizing myth (as can potentially be seen in Is 27:1), that is, presenting real events using imagery as a rhetorical means to capture the full range of truth as it is commonly conveyed in the world in which they live. Since the concept of myth (mythic/mythical/mythological), however, is so volatile and diversely understood, we need to use it in connection with other qualifying terms. The word group image/imagery/imagination/imaginative would work well (though imaginary would be incorrect). A rhetoric using mythical imagery is easily discernible in biblical poetry (e.g., “from the heavens the stars fought” or “crushed the heads of Leviathan” [Ps 74:14]), and it becomes formalized in the genre of apocalyptic. Nevertheless, it is not absent from prose. To describe this sort of thinking, I would like to adapt the term imagistic. It offers a distinction that is easy to understand in today’s culture as we find that students are increasingly visual learners—a fact that compels us to be more imagistic in our teaching and communication.
Rather than attempting to define it, in accordance with true imagistic thinking, I will instead describe it by illustrations. Imagistic thinking and representation would stand in contrast to scientific or analytical thinking. We can see the difference if we compare two visual representations of the night sky—one taken by the Hubble telescope, the other presented by Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. People would never consider doing astronomy from the van Gogh and could not do so even if they wanted to; the image contains nothing of the composition or position of stars. At the same time, we would not say that it is a false depiction of the night sky. Visual artists depict the world imagistically, and we recognize that this depiction is independent of science but not independent of truth. The ancients apply this same imagistic conception to all genres of literature, including those that we cannot conceive of as anything other than scientific. Imagistic history, like that preserved in Genesis, is to history as The Starry Night is to a Hubble photograph.
As another example, we would not try to reconstruct historically the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the war of 1812 by a detailed analysis of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Note how our national anthem is set in a historical context but uses the rhetoric of imagery and the power of symbol (the flag) in an artistic way to convey an enduring truth and value that reaches far beyond the War of 1812.
A modern-day example of terminology that offers an alternative to scientific/historical thinking would be what Lutherans today refer to as “sacramental” thinking, a highly controversial term that includes the mystical aspects of the sacraments but goes beyond it into the wider realm of religious thought. In such a context, they find it quite a natural way of thinking. In those traditions people realize that such thinking is not subject to scientific verification, and historicity is simply not a category that would have any meaning. People who are used to sacramental thinking (however defined) find it very hard to describe it (or defend it) to those who are not so inclined. The fact that this seems like a new and unfamiliar way of thinking to some readers who are not Lutheran (or connected with other traditions at home with sacramental thinking) demonstrates the point I am making.
Imagistic thinking presents similar difficulties. Israelites found no problems thinking about Ezekiel’s vision of Egypt as a cosmic tree (Ezek 31). This does not warrant labeling the literature mythology, nor does it concern questions of reality or truth. Some might consider the trees, the garden and the snake to be examples of imagistic thinking without thereby denying reality and truth to the account. The author understands trees in a way that does not simply indicate a botanical species of flora with remarkable chemical properties. When we put these elements in their ancient Near Eastern context and recognize the Israelite capacity, and even propensity, to think in imagistic terms, we may find that we gain a deeper understanding of important theological realities.
Some scholars today believe that Israel was in the habit of borrowing other people’s myths and transforming them into a mythology of their own. I do not share that perspective. What is sometimes perceived as a shared mythology is more often a shared propensity to think imagistically about the same issues using a shared symbolic vocabulary. Nicolas Wyatt distinguishes between those who use the oral discourse of story to represent reality and those who analyze the observed world and formulate hypothetical paradigms to explain that which is observed. Imagistic thinking is not only to be contrasted with causation analysis. It also stands in contrast to metaphysics, which, though not a science, is a product of scientific thinking in that it is also interested in intermediate causation and systematization. These are varying ways to communicate ideas about identity and coherence.
This discussion quickly becomes very esoteric and is both out of my area of expertise and out of the range of this book. I have raised this issue not to solve the questions it entails but to elevate our consciousness of yet another way in which we think quite differently from how people in the ancient world thought. This generates the repeated warning that we have to take care not to impose our categories of thinking on the literature that was more at home in the ancient world than in ours.
Walton, J. H. (2015). The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.
Exported from Logos Bible Software, 10:16 AM December 18, 2019.