Who was the serpent?
Did a snake really speak to Eve?
In the account of the temptation of Eve and the Fall of mankind, in Genesis chapter 3, we are introduced to a creature called ‘the serpent’. Who or what is this creature? Was it a real serpent? Some people try to make out that the story is just symbolic or an allegory, because animals do not speak human language. So who or what is the person who uses the body of this ‘beast of the field’, not only to speak to Eve, but also to persuade her to disobey almighty God?
The cardinal rule in understanding Scripture, and especially those verses which may be something of a puzzle, is to interpret Scripture by Scripture, that is, to see what other verses have to say on the same subject.
So what is there in the rest of the Bible that may help us to identify this serpent?
What Jesus said
On one occasion Jesus said to some Pharisees who were trying to kill him,
‘You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.’ (John 8:44).
To what event, involving lying and murder, from the beginning, could Jesus have been referring?
The temptation of Eve certainly qualifies as being in the beginning, as it is the first recorded event involving Eve after her creation. The serpent lied to Eve when he said, ‘You shall not surely die,’ and as this is the first lie recorded in Scripture, the title ‘father of it ’ [‘it’ = lies or lying] would seem to be a very apt description of the person doing the lying on this occasion.
‘He [Satan] is the great promoter of falsehood of every kind. He is a liar, all his temptations are carried on by his calling evil good, and good evil, and promising freedom in sin.’1
Finally, the serpent’s efforts resulted in the penalty of death falling not only on Adam and Eve, but on the whole human race. Jesus’ term of ‘murderer’ therefore certainly applies to whoever tempted Eve.
The work of the serpent is thus the enactment of everything that Jesus ascribed to ‘the devil ’ in John 8:44. Furthermore, there is no other event in recorded history that better fulfils this description of the devil than does the account of the temptation by the serpent in Genesis 3.
A further tie-up between the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan, or the devil, is given in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2:
‘And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world’
The word ‘Satan" means ‘adversary’—primarily to God, secondarily to men; the term ‘devil’ signifies ‘slanderer’ of God to men, and of men to God.’2
The serpent identified
Was the serpent then Satan? Although the Bible tells us that ‘Satan himself is transformed into an angel of Light’, or ‘masquerades as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14), there are difficulties in assuming that something like this happened in the Garden of Eden. Theologian Henry C. Thiessen comments:
‘… the serpent is neither a figurative description of Satan, nor is it Satan in the form of a serpent. The real serpent was the agent in Satan’s hand. This is evident from the description of the reptile in Genesis 3:1 and the curse pronounced upon it in 3:14 [… upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy Life ].’3
The Bible tells us that, just before Judas left the Upper Room to go and betray Jesus, ‘Satan entered into him’ (John 13:26–27). Likewise demons can, under certain conditions, indwell either human bodies or animal bodies—for example, the time when Jesus cast out a legion of devils from a man, and they then entered a herd of pigs which ran down a steep place into the sea (Mark 5:1–13). It is therefore proper for us to conclude that Satan appropriated and used the body of a specific serpent on this occasion to carry out his subtle purpose of tempting Eve to sin.
It is also clear that the use of euphemisms about the serpent, such as calling him ‘the personification of evil’, or labelling the whole incident ‘myth’ or ‘theological poetry’, will not do. The Bible presents this episode as a personal encounter between Eve and Satan, as real as that between Christ and Satan in the wilderness.
The identification of the serpent as the one whose body Satan used raises further questions, such as does Satan speak audibly?
When Satan tempted Jesus, he did so with words. Jesus replied and their conversation is recorded for us in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels (Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13), although we are not told anything about the way Satan appeared on this occasion.
In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , the description of Christian’s conversation and fight with Apollyon is no surprise to many Christians, who have had similar spiritual experiences. It is said that Martin Luther found conflict with the devil so real that on one occasion Luther threw an inkwell at him.
‘It has been suggested that just as the speaking of Balaam’s ass was a divine miracle, so the speaking of the serpent was a diabolic miracle.’4
Where did Satan come from?
God has chosen not to tell us very much about the origin and apostasy of Satan.5 From the Bible we learn that he is the chief of the fallen angels (called demons or devils), and is the great adversary of God and man (Job 1:6–12; 2:1–6; 1 Peter 5:8).
He fell through pride (1 Timothy 3:6), and we deduce that this event must have been after the sixth day of creation, when God ‘saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good ’ (Genesis 1:31), and before the Fall of man, recorded in Genesis 3.
Concerning his present abode, it is incorrect to think of Satan as the ‘ruler of Hell’, as the Bible makes no such reference. Rather, Jesus called him ‘the prince of this world’ (John 12:31: 14:30; 16:11), and the Bible also calls him ‘the god of this world’ [or ‘age’] (2 Corinthians 4:4), and ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Ephesians 2:2). It speaks of Satan ‘going to and fro in the earth, and … walking up and down in it’ (Job 2:2; 1 Peter 5:8), and of his activity ‘in the heavenly places’ [or ‘realms’] (Ephesians 6:11–12).
Question: If God knew that the being we now call Satan6 and some of the other angels and finally Adam and Eve would rebel against Himself, why then did He ‘interrupt’ eternity and proceed with creation in the first place?
Answer: The short answer is that we do not know. However, some observations can be made.
- God determined to permit sin, and He did so although He knew what would be the nature of sin, what it would do to His creation, and what He would have to do to save us from it.
- God determined to overrule sin for good. This does not mean that God permitted sin in order to bring about good, but rather that God permitted sin to occur for other reasons, and He decreed to overrule it for good.
- God determined to make salvation from sin available. This He does on the grounds of the shed blood of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19; 1 John 1:7).
- God determined to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and to display His own righteousness by the judgment and punishment of the wicked (Acts 17:31; Revelation 20:10–15).
- God determined to form that body of believing people known as the Church. This body of individuals, from both Jews and Gentiles, is called ‘the bride of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 19:7); they will share in God’s glory as God’s children, they are called heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, and they will reign with Him for ever and ever (Romans 8:16–17; Revelation 22:5).
Concerning this, God in the Bible issues an invitation. It reads,
‘And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will let him take the water of Life Freely’ (Revelation 22:17).
References and Notes
- Matthew Henry, Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Moody Press. Chicago. 1983. p. 786. Return to text.
- A H. Strong, Systematic Theology, Judson Press. USA. 1907. p. 454. Return to text.
- Henry C, Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, Revised edition, Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 1979, p. 180. Return to text.
- J. Oswald Sanders, Satan is No Myth, Moody Press. Chicago, 1975, p. 42. Return to text.
- The two Bible passages that are usually invoked on this subject are Isaiah 14:12–15 and Ezekiel 28:13–17. Although both of these passages are in the context of prophecies about earthly kings (of Babylon and Tyrus), and no explicit reference is made to Satan in either passage, they both contain references of mystical significance to behaviour that transcends human abilities and conduct, such as, ‘You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven … I will make myself like the Most High’”’ (Isaiah 14:13–14): and ‘You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.’ (Ezekiel 28:15). For this reason some theologians say that the verses refer to Satan’s original state (wherein he was named Lucifer) and the sin which led to his downfall (a view propounded by some of the church Fathers as early as the third century). The alternative view, that these passages refer only to earthly kings, is held by some other theologians, as well as by those who reject the concept of the existence of a personal devil. Return to text.
- The name Satan means ‘adversary’ or ‘enemy’. It is inappropriate to suggest that God created Satan in a state of enmity against Himself, as God could then be considered as the author of evil. For this reason some theologians say that Satan’s name originally was Lucifer (meaning ‘light-bearer’) and that after he was created he rebelled and dragged a portion of the angels with him into apostasy. The word ‘Lucifer’ occurs only once in Scripture, in Isaiah 14:12. See further discussion under footnote 5. Return to text.