Serpent Symbolism

Genesis 3 begins by introducing us to the serpent: “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.”

Modern Christianity almost exclusively sees serpent symbolism as evil. Consequently, the serpent of Genesis 3 is identified as Satan without much further thought. However, the authors of this text had no concept even remotely similar to our later concept of Satan. In addition, many positive meanings were associated with the serpent at this time. (See the book, The Good and Evil Serpent) Jesus himself admonished that we should be wise as serpents. And this theme of wisdom associated with the serpent will be explored here in Genesis 3 as well.

I am not suggesting that the serpent symbolism is good instead of evil, but rather that it is diverse, capable of symbolizing both good and evil and it is part of a story in which the serpent itself undergoes a change. The Genesis text in fact introduces this character as a beast made by God and in addition, wiser than all other creatures. If it was to be understood as the symbol of evil only, this creature would not have been introduced this way. Both God and the serpent will present questions to the man and the woman that will draw the conversation forward and eventually produce a man and a woman who we recognize as being like ourselves.

Wisdom and vulnerability

We ended the previous chapter with these words:

“…they were both naked (arôm), the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”

Chapter three begins with:

Now the serpent was more cunning (arÛm) than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.

A more common noun to describe wisdom would have been ‘hkm’. But the author artfully draws our attention to the connection between ‘nakedness’ and ‘wisdom’. In other instances, arôm is used to describe vulnerability. Wisdom too requires a certain vulnerability, an openness to new ideas and suggestions.

Vulnerability communicates two ideas at once. Without it, one cannot truly be intimate, for it is this openness, this nakedness that allows another to cross one’s borders of isolation and penetrate the self. Yet this openness to intimacy also opens us to pain.

Similarly, openness to learning is undoubtedly required to gain wisdom, but such receptiveness to new ideas can also produce confusion… even deception, with unintended consequences. This is an unavoidable conundrum: to gain wisdom one has to open yourself up and in so doing risk deception, and to be intimate we have to be vulnerable and remove all protective borders.

The serpent, being more wise and vulnerable than all the other creatures, can be seen as the personification of this exploitation of vulnerability. It is this openness, which is essential to our humanity, that creates the opportunity for seduction.

In the figure of the serpent, the Yahwist may have been dramatizing an important aspect of the experience of temptation—the experience of quasi-externality. Temptation would be a sort of seduction from without; it would develop into compliance with the apparition which lays siege to the “heart”; and, finally, to sin would be to yield…. The serpent, then, represents this passive aspect of temptation, hovering on the border of the outer and the inner; the Decalogue calls it “covetousness” (Tenth Commandment). (Symbolism of Evil, 256)

Suggestion and Desire.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Gen 3:1-7 NRSV)

At this stage no reference is made to Eve, but the more generic term, woman, is used. This helps to show the universal relevance of the drama, instead of isolating it to one specific event.

A whispering voice begins to test the boundaries of Isha’s vulnerability. Desire and questions are inseparably connected. It is the unknown, the possibility of what might yet be that stirs desire. Similarly, desire multiplies questions and awakens the imagination to untold possibilities. And so this twisted process poses the question to the woman that opens up a conversation about that which is prohibited.

After the woman clarifies that there is only one tree they should not eat from, the serpent answers: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

The serpent offer knowledge in the place of relationship. “God knows” implies that I (the serpent) knows what God knows. And the offer that is made, is exactly this knowledge.

These words also imply that God is withholding something (likeness) that they are lacking. This sense of lack-of-being is then used to suggest the desirability of the fruit.

Notice that before this suggestion, no desire is expressed by the woman. But after the suggestion, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” Desire does not spontaneously erupt between the woman and the fruit, but is mediated by another. Everything now becomes more sensual. Contemplation on the fruit awakens desire and this desire becomes the lens through which she now sees and imagines.

Recommended Resources

The Good and Evil Serpent

The Genesis of Desire

The Murmuring Deep


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