The Serpent Genesis 3:1


Genesis 3:1

In the sad history of the fall, there is scarcely any one incident which more exercises our thoughts than the nature of the creature, by whose baneful suggestions that ruin was brought to pass.
The sacred record, in the third chapter of Genesis, says plainly enough that it was “a serpent,” described as being  “more subtle than any beast of the field;” and the final curse also indicates the serpentine condition—“Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”
Hence, some have regarded the tempter as a serpent, and nothing more. This opinion has many more advocates than the reader might suppose; or, rather it has had them, for there are few who now entertain this opinion. To the question, How could a mere serpent tempt Eve? it is answered, that it lay in the repeated use by the serpent of the forbidden fruit in her presence, without any of the apparent effects upon him which she had been taught to dread. The influence of this example, and the thoughts that hence arose in her mind, are then represented, agreeably to the genius of oriental and figurative language, in the form of a conversation. The great objection to this is, that the alleged figurative style here, is adverse to the literal tone and character of the whole narrative; and, what is far more conclusive, that another agent is clearly pointed out in the New Testament, and may, by the light thus afforded, be discovered even in the original account.

That agent is the devil, or Satan; and the general opinion is that he employed, or actuated, the serpent as his instrument. Thus the latter appears to reason and to speak; the woman converses with him; and she is led, by the artful representations which the devil enables him to make, to break the Divine law. No mere animal could have taken the part this serpent did. But it may be doubted whether Eve knew this. It is possible that the intuitive perception of the qualities of animals which Adam possessed, was not shared by Eve, but was to be imparted to her by him; and it is highly probable that he had not yet communicated to her all the knowledge of this kind which had been acquired by him before she had existence. It is far from improbable that the knowledge of this fact was among the considerations which induced Satan to apply himself through the serpent to the woman rattier than to the man, She,  being continually making new discoveries in the animal creation, would be little surprised in at length finding one creature that could speak, and even reason. Or supposing she did know that animals could not do either, it has seemed to us possible that the serpent, by eating the fruit in her sight, may have led her to conclude that his superior gifts were owing to his having partaken of this sovereign food. This supposition is quite in harmony with the general drift of the fatal argument. The curse pronounced upon the deceiver is plainly addressed to an intelligent agent, designedly guilty of an enormous crime, and would have been unmeaning and unworthy of the Divine character, if addressed to a mere animal, which, in following the instincts of its nature, had unconsciously raised seductive thoughts in the mind of the woman.

That, however, the phraseology of the curse is in its outer sense applied to the condition of the serpent, while in its inner meaning terribly significant to the intelligent agent, seems to us very clearly to show that the serpent was really, and not figuratively, employed in this awful transaction. The more closely the language of the curse is examined, the more real its purport, as addressed to the intelligent agent of the temptation, under forms of speech adapted to the serpentine condition, will be apparent. The closing portion of it, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: it (he) shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel,” could have no significance with reference merely to the serpent; but to the real tempter it was of awful importance. They were words to shake hell, and to fill the arch-fiend with consternation. It is not at all likely that the fallen pair understood these words nearly so well as he did. Yet even to them it must have appeared that it promised some great and crowning triumph to “the seed of the woman,” and perhaps a recovery from the fall, after the enemy had seemed for a time to triumph over him, and to “bruise his heel.” But we know its meaning better, probably, than either the first pair or even Satan did then. We  can see that it was the first gospel promise, foretelling the sufferings of Christ and his final triumph over the evil one—his victory in our behalf, by suffering.

There is, however, another explanation, which supposes that there was no serpent at all engaged in this transaction but that Satan acted without any such instrument, being himself called the serpent, by way of contempt, and with reference to his insidious nature, just as Christ calls Herod a fox. This title is certainly applied to him in the New Testament; but it seems to us that the choice made by him of the instrumentality of the serpent in this transaction, and the curse pronounced upon him in the person of that creature, sufficiently explains his being so named in the later Scriptures.

But there arises the further question, If Satan did not use the instrumentality of the serpent, how did he act? Did he appear at all, or in what likeness did he appear? Some think that he did not make any visible appearance, and that the temptation was in the way of suggestion to the mind of Eve. But that a personal presence is expressed in the curse, and that, as we think, that presence was embodied in a serpent, we should deem this a reasonable explanation. We see no harm in it, but that we cannot think it true. Some, however, who agree so far as to hold that “the serpent” is merely an epithet to designate the great enemy of man, contend yet for his personal appearance, and consider that appearance to have been as “an angel of light.” This seems to be founded on the text, 2Co_11:13-14, where Paul says, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” It seems very doubtful that this passage at all applies to the history of the temptation; or, if so, it admits of being applied to the serpent, for some species of these animals are very beautiful, and one gifted with speech and reason, must have seemed as engaging an object as creation could well supply. But that the presence of a serpent is too clearly set forth to  be evaded, many minds might rest with pleasure in this explanation. There is every reason to think that the walks of the first pair in Eden were cheered by the society of angelic visitants, and that Satan should have appeared as one of these to Eve, might seem a most reasonable and probable form of the temptation. But it is probable that the Almighty would not allow them to have the excuse of so plausible and forceful a temptation as this. At any rate here is the serpent in the third chapter of Genesis. We cannot but see a serpent there. It may have been a very fine serpent—a very plausible serpent—but still a serpent, we conceive, it must have been.