Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., writer for Foundations by ICM
The Sense in the Serpent
I am quite interested in the work of those who investigate the details of the Genesis creation stories along scientific lines. I wholly support any honest study of the possibilities of things like a global flood1, genetic analysis to see if man really does trace its origins back to a single pair,2 or even questioning whether or not there is some evidence that serpents used to have legs. I do not believe, however, that these studies hold the keys to understanding Genesis.
How to Read Genesis
If you want to understand the theological messaging of Genesis, you have to read it like a pagan. That is to say that Genesis was written within a context of the global dominance of pagan worldview and was intended as a help for those struggling to understand and embrace biblical worldview under the great pressure of that pagan dominance. Stories of creation that sustained the pagan perception of god, man, and reality populated the imaginations of every society, and Genesis is constructed to preach the truth about God, man, and reality in intentional opposition to those stories. Genesis is about the true origin and nature of Divine order. It reveals how the world was made to function so that man could learn how to function best within it.
Let me illustrate by talking about the context for reading about the serpent in Genesis 3.
Only a child imagines that Genesis 3 is some etiological tale about why women don’t like snakes or why snakes have no legs. Given the role of the serpent dragons in so many Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts one would be foolish not to believe that there is a connection between it and them. Indeed, many Scriptures show a keen awareness of these ancient serpent dragon stories. Authors cast enemies in their image,3 and link the serpent figure with Satan Himself.4
The World through Pagan Eyes
My doctoral dissertation demanded extensive contrasts and comparisons between pagan and biblical creation stories and flood stories. We learn much about the pagan view of gods, man, and reality from reading their myths, and discover just how radical the biblical worldview was to them when they encountered it. So, if I were a pagan reading Genesis, let me tell you how it would strike me, and what I would intuit most from the story of the fall of man and the serpent.
In Genesis, the entire nature of Yahweh is radically different from pagan conceptions of God. Rather than being an untrustworthy, powerful but highly limited, self-absorbed, fickle, super-being bound to the created order that was established by someone else wholly unknown and unknowable… i.e. a pagan deity… Yahweh is the One Holy Creator of all. He is omnipotent, omniscient, all-wise, eternal, immutable, omnipresent, transcendent but immanent.5 Yahweh is positively disposed to his creation as a loving and good Creator, can be trusted and personally known, and is the very source of all morals and ethics. All creatures spiritual and material are heading for a trial before the judgment seat of Yahweh to answer for their actions in Yahweh’s world toward Yahweh and Yahweh’s creations.
The World through God’s Eyes
In Genesis, the entire nature of man is radically different from pagan conceptions of man. Rather than being created as a barely tolerable slave of the gods, kept in check by suffering to keep him from proliferating and adding to his general annoyance of the pagan gods… rather than being on his own to work out his destiny for himself by manipulating pagan gods through ritual to achieve his own ends without any dependable moral or ethical guidance from the gods… in Genesis Man is Yahweh’s highest creation. Man was made to be filled with Yahweh’s Holy Spirit as His ruling and reigning image in the world. Man is given a mission and a blessing and declared with all the rest of Yahweh’s beloved creation, to be very good.
In Genesis, the entire nature of reality is different from pagan conceptions of it. Rather than being a random compilation of conflicting pagan gods who are the cosmic forces of the world cycling endlessly and purposely… the world of Yahweh had an intentional beginning and is driving toward an intentional end. In Genesis, nature is a body of material forces wholly subjected to the order of Yahweh and without personal volition. The wisdom of Yahweh is woven into the fabric of reality as a system of natural reward and punishment.
The Serpent’s Role in the Story
As the pagan’s mind reels in the face of such declarations, the role of the serpent appearing late in the creation tale blows his mind. The images of sea and serpent dragon are, in the pagan stories of creation, the very visage of chaos, the amoral destroyer of worlds, the enemy of an active and thriving cosmos. This ruinous force predates the populating cosmos, is at enmity with it, and must be conquered for it to progress. In defeat, the serpent dragon becomes instrumental in the natural world’s establishment as a necessary but ever-threatening part of its foundations. If something could be said to be “wrong” with the world as the pagans conceived it, it would be the idea that chaos is part of the world’s primary wiring and only man is truly looking out for the interests of man in the cosmic battle against it.
Not so, in Genesis. There, the world is very good. Other portions of Scripture will work the poetic imagery of the sea as a barely controlled enemy, but in the Genesis creation, the sea is just one more purely material force among many. The waters of the deep divide at command, above from below, seas from land, just as the darkness flees the light, and the waters and land team when God demands that they do so.
World trouble is born in Genesis 3, not Genesis 1 or 2. The serpent comes as an enemy to entice the man and woman into rebellion against God. As regents over God’s world, the creation is cursed by their sin and not by the presence of the serpent, malicious as he is. The source of world evil, of world chaos, is found not in the sea, serpent, or Satan, but in the rebellious heart of man himself. Satan may tempt and lure, seduce and deceive, but it is man’s own selfish heart that spawns evil in the world. The fault of man is not his failure to create the right kinds of systems, cultures, laws, or institutions, but the fact that none of these are immune to the influence of his corrupt heart. Satan may seek our ruin, but man’s greatest enemy is himself.
You can debate the literalness of the snake and look for scientific evidence of his curse in his namesakes, but I want to understand his role in the creation story, the meaning and influence of his words, and the impact that he had on bringing human evil into God’s good world, and how we, the children of Adam and Eve can find stability, restoration, and redemption in the world that we, and not he, ruined.
1A global flood is not necessary in the Hebrew reading of Genesis 6-8. In fact, evidence, as I’ve seen it, points more strongly toward a massive regional flood in the Black Sea area, though some have brought forth some interesting data in support of the other.
2Some wonderful claims of this have come forth of late by those looking at DNA records, as well as genetic evidence for a spontaneous explosion of species around the same time mere tens of thousands of years ago.
3These serpents are usually the visual double of the primordial sea, the great enemy of creation. Leviathan shows up in Job 41, Psalms 74 and 104, and Isaiah 27. Rahab shows up in Job 9, Psalm 87, and Isaiah 30. Labu appears without name in Ezekiel 29. We have great adversaries rising as beasts from the sea in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. There are more.
4Revelation 12 and 20.
5i.e. standing outside the created order, but wholly present in its operation, flow, and purpose, making Himself known to His creatures.