Friday, May 27, 2016

Genesis Notes: Intimidation

To me a serpent is a serpent is a snake. But that is not the case in Genesis. I knew the serpent had a way with words but I never considered that part of his power of persuasion might have been a fearsome appearance or the fact that he directly bypassed the chain of command to strike at a weak link.

A 17th-century carved depiction of the serpent in the Book of Genesis,
Stokesay Castle, taken by Nick Hubbard
The serpent is "that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world." He is described as a great red dragon, with seven crowned heads and ten horns. In the heavenly vision from Revelation, the crowns and horns represent his tremendous power-he is a creature that strikes fear and dread into the souls of mere men. There are several treacherous or intimidating elements in this scene. To begin with, the serpent’s appearance is frightening. Even if he did not appear as the dragon of Revelation, it was certainly not as a common snake. In Hebrew the same word is used for serpent and dragon. It was a frightening figure in Hebrew thought. If you can’t imagine a dragon, picture a coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike.

Apart from his appearance, the serpent’s presence is intimidating: where did this creature come from? He also is treacherous in his words: he contradicts the only source of knowledge Adam and Eve have, the Creator they know as Father who has been nothing but good to them. And he is intimidating in his method: the snake, as one of the beasts, is presumably under Adam’s dominion. Yet here he is presenting himself as a creature with superior knowledge and information. Not only that, he completely by-passes Adam, who was in charge of the garden, speaking instead to Eve. He appears to be no respecter of authority-a usurper, in fact. Suddenly, things are not as they had seemed.


  1. I don't agree with the author's conflating of the serpent of Genesis (and some parts of Revelation) with the dragon of Revelation (and some parts of the Old Testament). There are distinct words in both Greek and Hebrew for serpents and dragons/monsters. The frightening appearance of the dragon should not be brought to the Genesis story. I think of it as looking like a lizard (since God curses the serpent to crawl on its belly as punishment, there is some assumption that it had legs).

    But for the ancient Hebrews, a serpent WAS just a snake, without moral implication. After all, the serpent on Moses' staff was a good sign, and is held up as a type for Jesus in John 3:14. Serpents in the ancient world were a symbol of wisdom and cleverness. I think that's the reason that the serpent tempts Eve - do we trust worldly knowledge? or God?

  2. You make interesting points but I don't know Hebrew and the best I can do in this conversation is to look at a concordance which seems to not show the word snake being used for Genesis. There is the whole leg issue after all, as you mention. And I think we also have to think about how snakes were viewed in the ancient cultures which surrounded the Hebrews and which obviously influenced their story telling, as you mention also.

    My Archaeological Study Bible points out that, although snakes were revered for wisdom, healing, etc. they also played prominent roles as adversaries of both humans and gods. Egypt, Sumeria, and Mesopotamia all have stories where the snake's role was very similar to the serpent in Genesis. Although Genesis is different in having the snake simply be a creature instead of a mythological power.

    Perhaps it is hindsight to connect the dragon in Revelation with the serpent in Genesis, but I don't know if it is really wrong. It is like Jesus on the road to Emmaus showing everyone where scripture talked of him and no one realized it because it had more than one connection and meaning.

    I realized that I tend to think of the serpent as being like Randall Boggs, the lizard in Monsters Inc. Probably also very wrong! :-D