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Why Did the Serpent Speak?

Why Did the Serpent Speak? By Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser

In Christian tradition, the serpent in Eden is associated with Satan. Justin Martyr (c. 160 CE) attributes satanic behavior to the garden snake, writing, “The devil stood on the right hand of Joshua the priest, to resist him [Zech 3:1]. And again, it is written in Job… that the angels came to stand before the Lord ‘and the devil came with them.’ [Job 1:6; 2:1]. And we have it recorded by Moses in the beginning of Genesis that the serpent beguiled Eve and was cursed” (Dialogue with Trypho 79).

At this point, many Christians would object by citing the connection between the “serpent” and “Satan” in Revelation (12:9; 20:2). This retort is understandable, but please read this article before referencing Revelation. Alternatively, readers might invoke Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28. Again, please click here and here before leaving a comment on Lucifer or proffering the prince of Tyre.

Beyond the biblical data, a common objection comes from the biological arena: If the Edenic serpent was only an animal, then how was it able to speak?! A popular answer is that the animal was “possessed” by the devil or was in league with otherworldly forces. However, the Bible does not suggest that the serpent was the victim of demonic possession—this conclusion comes from conflating the concept of possession that appears throughout the New Testament with the experiential presupposition that snakes can’t talk. Genesis does not equate the serpent with Satan or any denizen of the demonic realm. There is a far better, and more biblical, rationale for Eden’s voluble viper.

According to Israel’s Scripture, animals can speak when they are in proximity to God. A biblical example of this phenomenon occurs when an angel appears before Balaam and his donkey: “When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam, and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” (Numbers 22:27-28). The donkey goes on to dialogue with Balaam just as Eve engages the snake in Eden (cf. Num 22:29-30; Gen 3:1-5).

Not only can animals speak during divine visitation, but they can also behave in ways that are completely contrary to their natures. According to Isaiah, when the kingdom of God appears amidst a new heaven and earth, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent (נחשׁ; nahash)—dust (עפר; afar) shall be its food!” (Isaiah 65:25; cf. 11:6). The prophet asserts that while fearsome wolves and lions will change their carnivorous ways and abandon their predatory instincts, the crafty old serpent will continue to swallow “dust” (עפר) all the days of its life—just like God had declared in Eden (Gen 3:14).

While the snake will not enjoy an exciting diet in the last days, God’s eternal presence on earth will completely upend the animal kingdom just as it did in Eden. If a wolf can eat with a lamb at the eschaton—without eating the lamb (!) — then a talking snake in the garden of God starts to sound less scandalous.

The Jewish literature around the time of Jesus supports the idea that the Edenic snake spoke due to divine presence. Recalling Eden, the first-century historian Josephus states, “all the living creatures had one language at that time. The serpent, which then lived together with Adam and his wife, showed an envious disposition at the idea of their living happily and in obedience to the commands of God” (Antiquities 1.41). It is not demonic possession, but rather divine proximity that grants utterance to every living being in Eden.

On the day that Adam and Eve are expelled, so a Second Temple tradition goes, the animals lose their ability to speak outside Eden: “On that day, the mouths of all wild animals, livestock, birds, whatever moves about, and whatever creeps, were made unable to speak. For they all used to speak with one another, with one language and tongue…. All mortal creatures were scattered, each according to its kind and each according to its nature” (Jubilees 3:28-29).

These ancient Jewish authors do not find it odd that animals could talk in God’s presence, and they never even hint that the serpent’s speech was the work of Satan. To the contrary, the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo states plainly that the snake spoke on its own, without any satanic support: “The old, poisonous, and earth-born reptile, the serpent, uttered the voice of a person” (On the Creation 156).

The association of the serpent with Satan may seem like a simple solution to a perceived problem, but it only sounds plausible if one is unfamiliar with biblical theology and Judaic thought. For the Bible’s authors and Jews living in the Second Temple period, a talking snake was not a problem in the first place; rather, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that animals would be able to speak in such close quarters with God.

Based on the ancient Jewish data, if contemporary readers wish to maintain that the serpent spoke due to demonic influence, then they also need to conclude that all the garden’s animals were similarly satanic — not a complimentary view of God’s earliest creation. Instead of invoking Satan to explain Eden’s loquacious wildlife, it is better to let Scripture speak for itself.

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