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). Despite this patristic link, nothing in Israel’s Scriptures or the New Testament associates the Edenic snake with Satan.

At this point, many Christians would object by citing the connection between the “serpent” and “Satan” in Revelation (12:9; 20:2). This response 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).

Associating 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 of 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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220 COMMENTS

    • Not quite sure of the implication behind your comment, Jeff, but here are a few points to note: The snake doesn't "destroy God's creation," nor is the snake's proximity to God a choice that it makes as a means of achieving such destruction. If a being is in Eden, that being is close to God by default. The first humans are in Eden, so if the snake were to convince them to eat from the tree, then the snake would need to coerce them in Eden (i.e., close to God).

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    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
    • True or not, it’s said the difference between us, and the animals is the ability to reason. If true and if being the divine presence gives animals the ability to speak, would it necessarily give the ability to reason and know good and evil before eating from the tree?
      J.

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    • In the beginning, there was only one language which is spiritual and spoken by every living thing including animals. This special privilege was taken away from animals so as to reduce the case of being used by Satan as it happened to Eve. Occasionally God gives animals the opportunity.
    • Revelation 12:9 (NAS): And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan.

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    • Is closeness to God enough for animals to talk and not behave according to their instincts (e.g., avoid violence), but not to restrain them from thinking and acting maliciously? Not only does it sound really weird, but it makes no sense at all!

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  1. Is it suffice to say that the serpent was just an instrument used by God in testing Adam and Eve, whether they will obey or not the commands of God? If so, in proximity with Divine presence, animals can speak regardless of its content and consequences?
    • Thanks, Rico. Genesis never states (or even hints) that God uses the serpent to test Adam and Eve. The narrative describes a willful and crafty snake that acts on its own accord (as other snakes do in the literature of Israel's neighbors). Scripture reflects animals' ability to speak in proximity to God, and the later Jewish tradition affirms this view. As with humans, the content and consequences of speech before God can vary. Balaam's donkey speaks rightly, and the garden snake's speech turns out to be detrimental.

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  2. Dear Dr. Nicholas, would you please make a conclusion for your interpretation. Where is the role of Satan in the Chaos created?
    • Thanks for your question, Tamirat. Satan has no role in "creating" the chaos described in Genesis -- at least no role that Scripture clarifies. When God begins to create in Genesis 1, the "chaos" (e.g., formlessness, darkness, deep) is already there, and God has to organize it. God continues this organization process in the maintenance of beings with free will, such as the first humans and the garden serpent. Satan does not feature as an originator of chaos, but Satan is a being with free will who can add to the chaos that the "God of peace" must correct (Rom 16:20).

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    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
    • I am very happy to be part of this conversation. I would like prof. Shir to help guide me more on this. Qn.was animals speaking the same language as human? Thanks. Shalom

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  3. Dear Sir, its always a delight to read your article to deepen my understanding of the Scripture. I have 2 questions, a) How did the serpent have the foreknowledge of the consequence of eating the fruit? who are the seeds of the serpent who would be in enmity with woman's
    • Thanks for your questions. The text doesn't explain how the serpent had foreknowledge about the consequences of eating the fruit, but it does allude to the snake's singular wisdom or understanding in calling it "arum" (ערום) -- usually translated "crafty" or "shrewd," but also refers to someone who is "prudent" or "knowledgable" and having foresight that others do not (cf. Proverbs 12:16; 12:23; 13:6; 14:8-18; 22:3; 27:12). The "seed" at enmity with the serpent (Gen 3:16) refers to all the descendants of Eve who would be at odds with snakes throughout biblical history (e.g., Exodus 4:3; Num 21:4-9; Deut 8:15; Eccl 10:8-11).

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  4. My law shall be taught in Israel my words; not the words of men. My works & rewards are with me; it is I who will reward you & I will give to each & everyone one of you according to your works. Have I forgotten you Jerusalem? Have I?
  5. Whether is the snake or serpent, the devil, leviathan the sea monster or the dragon, the ancient serpent (of old); I the Lord your God will crush the enemy(devil) under the feet of my beloved. For out of Zion shall go forth the law & out of Jerusalem the word
  6. Have I forgotten you oh! Jerusalem? Have I? may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I forget you; Immanuel will come to you oh! captive Israel! The Lord your God will come & the holy ones with him.
  7. Thanks Doc for the article. i don't have problem accepting that animals could speak in the garden of Eden. My question: was sin there before Adam & Eve? If yes, wasn't satan the source of sin? If so, would a snake cause man to sin and not satan?
    • Thanks for your question, Kingsley. Genesis doesn't mention "sin" until the Cain and Abel story (Gen 4:7, 13), but God's words to Cain suggests that sin existed before the murder of Abel (4:7). Paul says that "sin came into the world through one man" (Romans 5:12). Thus, for Paul, the "source" of sin is Adam, not the serpent or Satan. The Bible never asserts that Satan had any role in the origination of sin. Nor does the snake cause Adam and Eve to sin; their own desire for the fruit and its benefits seems to have been the "cause" of their transgression (see Gen 3:6).

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  8. Read Legend of the Jews. Animals once possessed the ability to speak. That being said, Satan convinced the serpent to be a vessel for him, which is possession. They lost those abilities because there was a sort of regression in nature because of the fall of man. Things converted to a lesser state.
  9. Of course, the explanations one is forced to invent all depends on the assumed starting point. Is this history or allegory. I opt for the latter.
    • What about the book of Adam and Eve, there is a part that narrates that the snake was denied speech by God when it wanted to attack Eve after they left Eden and when they were about to get to the west gate of the garden
      What about the book of Adam and Eve, there is a part that narrates that the snake was denied speech by God when it wanted to attack Eve after they left Eden and when they were about to get to the west gate of the garden

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