What about the snake in the Garden of Eden?
I have a Genesis Bible question: When God ‘found out’ that the serpent had deceived Eve, He cursed him and commanded him to crawl on his belly from now on. Now, I take it that the ‘serpent’ was a snake. But Satan was only using the FORM of a snake for his purposes. Why curse an entire species of animal for something Satan did? And did this mean that snakes didn’t ‘crawl on their bellies’ before God cursed them?
It certainly is a good question and worth some Biblical reflection. Indeed, the entire story of the temptation and Fall is somewhat confusing at points and can present various questions in people’s minds. So, let me deal with his questions one at a time.
His first question is ‘But Satan was only using the FORM of a snake for his purposes. Why curse an entire species of animal for something Satan did?’ It needs to be noted from the outset that Satan certainly did use a real, literal, physical snake as his instrument for tempting Eve. Satan is the master as posing himself as something else and not tempting someone with his full identity exposed.
In terms of why God would ‘curse’ the snake for what Satan did, let me offer the following considerations:
a. The snake would be a forever symbolic reminder of the Fall.
Everytime man would see a serpent he would be reminded that it was the instrument by which he fell into sin. Man was to have dominion and rule over the animal kingdom and yet it was through an animal that he was led astray! That tells man something about the seriousness of the original Fall and also about how culpable he really is.
b. The snake would be a symbolic reminder of Satan’s future destruction.
The snake imagery is picked up in Genesis 3:15 when the snake is told: ‘he [the woman’s seed] will crush your head and you will strike his heel.’ The snake was cursed to crawl on the ground and therefore susceptible to man’s heel crushing its head (this vulnerability is a direct result of Satan’s sin). This is a foreshadowing of what will really happen to Satan someday. The seed (Jesus Christ) of the woman will crush the head of Satan and His heel will be struck (the crucifixion) in the process.
In addition, the curse upon the physical snake was reflective of the actual curse upon Satan himself: crawling low on the belly was a mark of deep degradation (Lev 11:42) and eating dust was also a sign of despair (Micah 7:17). All these factors combine to form very vivid symbolism of what awaits Satan in the end.
c. Animals were culpable when used as instruments of sin.
Interestingly, elsewhere in the OT when an animal is an instrument in sins against nature he is to be slain along with the man (Lev 20:15,16). Is that because there is real blame and guilt on the part of the animal? No, but because the instrument is often broken/punished along with the actual perpetrator. Chrysostom summed this idea up well:
‘Just as a loving father when punishing the murderer of his son, might snap in two the sword or dagger with which the murder had been committed.’
d. God is the potter and can use some clay for common purposes and other clay for noble purposes (Romans 9).
God has the right to curse an animal in a specific way due to the sin of another; He did that very thing in regard to Adam’s sin. When Adam sinned and threw all of creation into chaos, God cursed the ground so that it produced thorns. Was the ground to blame? Was it actually guilty? No, but it was rightly punished due to the sin of another and is a symbolic reminder to us of that very sin.
The second question posed in the letter was: ‘And did this mean that snakes didn’t “crawl on their bellies” before God cursed them?’
The simple answer is: yes. It is clear from this passage that a physical change took place in the serpent as a result of Satan’s actions.
Now, it is very difficult (and perhaps impossible) for us to reconstruct what the snake looked like originally with the amount of information Genesis gives us. It would simply be speculation. However, it need not be an intellectual difficulty to imagine physical changes in creation as a result of sin. In fact, real physical change took place in the woman’s body so that she produced pain in child birth (3:16); physical change took place in the land so that it was more difficult to cultivate (3:17-18), and physical change took place in plants so that they produced thorns (3:18).
It must be remembered that imagining a world not cursed by sin is a very difficult thing. Can you imagine a world with no death, thorns, pain, disease, difficulty, struggle for survival? The world before the Fall was radically different. So, there is no difficulty in imagining the serpent as changing to crawl on its belly even though we are not totally sure what he was like before.
The hope is that someday this curse will be reversed; in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no more pain, disease, sickness or thorns. The wolf will lay down with the lamb and the lion will eat straw like an ox (Isaiah 11). And a little child will lead them.