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In Genesis 1, three broad categories of creatures are brought into being before the creation of man:

24And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. ESV

It is possible to read this as a hierarchy. For example, although it is arguable whether the 'beasts' or 'livestock' come first, the 'creeping things' are not 'of the earth' (ie 'on' the earth'), but 'on the ground' (ie lower down).

In chapter 3, the serpent seems to be classified as a 'beast':

3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” ESV

But when he is cursed by God later in the chapter, part of the judgement is that he will now go on his 'belly' and eat 'dust':

14The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. ESV

Should this be understood as an explicit connection with Genesis 1 and read as a demotion in 'rank' from the level of livestock or beast to the level of the 'creeping things'?

  • 1
    Oh boy, you are opening a can of worms here... Are we determining whether the context is Literal or Figurative, and whether or not the 'serpent' is a mere reptile, or the embodiment of Satan? – Tau Aug 25 '14 at 11:35
  • I'm not asking about those issues directly - I don't mind if an answer addresses them if the logic stems from the question I am asking though. fwiw I think that is more likely on the issue of the physical form of the serpent than the identification with 'satan'. – Jack Douglas Aug 25 '14 at 11:39
  • Then I would have even a greater challenge, because the context suggests a "Figurative" interpretation-unless somebody can find an instance where 'serpents'(ie:snakes) walked, and now they don't. If there's no evidence of "de-evolvement"(none that I know of in Scripture), then it's pretty clear God was talking to Satan, which takes us to a "figurative", rather than "Literal" interpretation. – Tau Aug 25 '14 at 11:49
  • The particular issue of interest to me is the connection with Genesis 1 - as long as answers address that I'm likely to find them useful I think – Jack Douglas Aug 25 '14 at 11:52
  • It's clear that Paul saw the context figuratively(Rom. 16:20), and from there we can rightly determine if the text was meant 'literal' vs 'figurative'. – Tau Aug 25 '14 at 12:01
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The Idea in Brief

The “serpent” was a quadruped that became an unclean creature. This creature was to creep on the ground and thrive on “dust,” which connotes what is unclean (to include death). The general imagery in Genesis therefore was that the “serpent” became unclean, and had become a threat to man, whose heel the “serpent” could bite and precipitate his death. In the Hebrew Bible, the “serpent” therefore took on sinister connotations among all the creatures of the animal kingdom.

Discussion

The text indicates that the “serpent” had once been a quadruped.

Genesis 3:1 (NASB)
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?”

That is, the Hebrew phrase “beast of the field” (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה), or its variant in the plural, occurs 31 times in the Hebrew Bible, where these words point to land-roaming quadrupeds.

The Lord cursed this particular quadruped, which had in turn became the creeping creature of the ground destined to thrive on “dust.” This Hebrew word for “dust” is עָפָר, which means powder, dust, ashes, dirt, garbage (Lev 14:41 and Lev 14:45, where the word is translated “plaster”), or even rotting flesh (Job 21:26 and Job 7:5, where the word is translated “crust of dirt”). This Hebrew word therefore has direct correspondence with death as the following passage indicates:

Isaiah 29:4 (NASB)
4 Then you will be brought low;
From the earth you will speak,
And from the dust where you are prostrate
Your words will come.
Your voice will also be like that of a spirit from the ground,
And your speech will whisper from the dust.

Of course, Adam received the news that his own body “would return to dust” (Gen 3:14), and so in the Hebrew Bible this word עָפָר carries correspondence to death and uncleanliness (garbage, refuse, dirt, etc.).

According to the Law of Moses, while some quadrupeds are clean (that is, those with the split hoof and that chew the cud), there are no clean animals among those that creep on the ground.

Leviticus 20:25 (NASB)
25 You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. [emphasis added]

While as a quadruped the “serpent” may have consumed plants, as the creeping creature of the ground the “serpent” was not a vegetarian. The “serpent” is the snake-scavenger whose diet includes “unclean” creatures such as rodents (mice, rats, etc.); insects (cockroaches, scorpions, etc.); or any other reptiles (to include other snakes) among others. The snake-scavenger will also eat these creatures dead in addition to fecal matter (in both 1 Sam 2:8 and Psalm 113:7, the word עָפָר is juxtaposed in parallel with excrement, which is translated as “ash heap”).

Conclusion

In summary, the “serpent” received the curse that destined him to thrive on “dust,” which included the diet for what is unclean and/or unclean creatures living or dead. The connotation to the uncleanliness of death included the venom of the “serpent,” which was a threat, because his venom could infect and kill man (for example, by biting man on the heel).

Finally, the venom from the mouth of the “serpent” included those words that contradicted the words of God, and therefore precipitated death on man, who as a result was excluded from the Tree of Life that would have assured him continued indefinite mortal life (Gen 3:22).

The “serpent” in the Hebrew Bible therefore optimizes everything unclean to include death.

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In John Gill's commentary on Gen. 3:1, he says,

the words therefore may be rendered, "that serpent"; that particular serpent, of which so much is spoken of afterwards; "or the serpent was become" F20, or "made more subtle", that is, not naturally, but through Satan being in it, and using it in a very subtle manner, to answer his purposes, and gain his point:

Herein lies the discussion: Is it a Literal 'serpent'(snake), that can stand up or have 'feet'? Not only that, but can it be more subtle(clever) than Adam and Eve, engage in a dialogue and be 'cursed' for it; along with being told it's 'seed' would be crushed by the woman's 'seed'?

That the serpent represents Satan is certainly biblical; in Rom. 16:20 Paul says,

And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

In Rev. 20:2 it says,

And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years.

It becomes clear then, that Scripture interprets the 'serpent' as Satan.

But what about the 'serpent/snake'? Can Satan 'inhabit' snakes and suddenly give them speech and intellect?

St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on "The Snake's Question", says

The author of evil, accordingly, seeing an angel who happened to live on earth, was consumed by envy, since he himself had once enjoyed a place among the powers above but had been cast down from that pinnacle on account of his depravity of will and excess of wickedness. So he employed considerable skill so as to pluck the human being from God's favor, render him ungrateful and divest him of all those goods provided for him through God's loving kindness. What did he do? He discovered this wild animal, namely, the serpent, over coming the other animals by his cunning, as blessed Moses also testified in the words, "The serpent was the wiliest of all the beasts on the earth (127a) made by the Lord God." He made use of this creature like some instrument and through it inveigled that naive and weaker vessel, namely, woman, into
his deception by means of conversation. "The serpent spoke to the woman," the text says.
(taken from here)

While it is certainly true that Satan can inhabit animals(the herd of swine-Matt. 8:32), or that animals could talk-witness Balaam's donkey, although the Lord, not Satan, opened the mouth of the ass,(Num. 22:28)

28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

It becomes problematic when a "beast" becomes a specific object of judgment by God for doing what it was created to do by God in the 1st place. Since a reptile does "not chew the cud", it would be an unclean animal, whether it crept along the ground or not. Therefore, the question of whether or not it 'fell' on the order of beasts is moot.

What one must consider is the bible is not a book of 'science', it is a book of truth. The 'truth' of what was recorded in Gen. 3 is that God judged Satan, rightly called a "serpent", since his actions were 'serpentine' and spells out his destruction, as well as the 'animal' he masqueraded in. The fact that snakes slither on the ground is not the issue; the fact that the 'serpent' beguiled the woman through a lie is, and one which must be taken notice of.

Finally, the purpose of this passage is to outline the entire history of man, and the conflict between good and evil. Both Jesus(the woman's seed), and the Antichrist(the serpent's seed) are introduced, and the conflict between them; with the woman's seed ultimately crushing the head of the serpent.

  • @All This is an incomplete answer-I hope to finish it when I get the chance. – Tau Aug 28 '14 at 7:58
  • @All There, I'm finished. – Tau Aug 29 '14 at 9:09

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