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We read in Genesis 3:14, of the curse given to the serpent that he would crawl on his belly and eat dust all his life. Those who watch snakes sticking out their tongue while moving on the dusty ground are quick to believe that snakes do eat dust. In fact, a snake sticks out its tongue to collect information for its Jacobson’s Organ, an organ strategically located in front of the roof of the snake’s mouth that functions as a chemical receptor. Each time the snake flicks out its forked tongue, it snares chemical particles in the air, which latch onto or dissolve in the moisture of the snake’s tongue. Once the animal reels in its tongue, it inserts the tips of the forked tongue into the two awaiting openings of the Jacobson’s Organ where the particles — especially those that have to do with animal body odours — are identified, analysed, and acted on. In sum, snakes do not consume dust as a food item.

Why does Genesis 3:14 say that snakes would eat dust?

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    In Greek Septuagint LXX it’s “γῆν” - a word not just for dust but matter generally. It’s also used to oppose ουρανός - heaven, and thus can mean literal biological genes that program each earthly being, as opposed to their mind, that’s transient and comes from „heaven“.
    – grammaplow
    Nov 24, 2023 at 9:41
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    Also arguable “γῆν” shares the same root with “woman”, “impregnation” and “birth” in Greek. This then logically relates to further sentences describing the opposition of Snake and Woman.
    – grammaplow
    Nov 24, 2023 at 10:49
  • It is also contrasting with the creation of Adam whom God began as dust, and was dust outside the garden and then elevated to the highest place in the garden. The began as the craftiest beast of the field snake was then (presumably) cast out of the garden and placed lower than any animal of the field and crawling in and eating dust.
    – Steven
    Nov 25, 2023 at 1:57
  • This suggests the ancient writer observed the snake's tongue but never its mouth, i.e. never saw it open or eating prey. Because then it would be clear the snake eats with its mouth.
    – Matthias
    Nov 25, 2023 at 14:26
  • Thanks, Matthias. There are folklores all across the world on how animals developed certain attributes . There could be some on why snakes have forked tongue continuously coming out . You appear to suggest that the writer of Genesis had such a folklore in mind when he wrote down the narrative of First Sin and its outcomes. But we believe that Genesis like every other text if the Bible was inspired. How could it contain a factual error simply based on a folklore ? Nov 27, 2023 at 6:37

3 Answers 3

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Before answering this question, let me set out the literary structure of the surrounding passage of Gen 3:14 to show the ingenious design of this part of Gen 3:

  • A: V8: - Adam and Eve act together (to hide)
  • . B: V9-12 - God talks with Adam
  • . . C: V13 - God talks to Eve
  • . . . D: V14, 15 - God speaks to, and curses the serpent, and prophesies about Messiah (who would destroy the serpent)
  • . . C: V16 - God speaks to Eve
  • . B: V17-19 - God speaks to Adam
  • A: V20 - Adam and Eve act together

The point of this part of the chapter is the center of the chiasm and shows the great care with which this part of Genesis was written. The literary structure of Gen 3:14 is also helpful. Note the double repetition it contains (my translation) -

So LORD God [said] to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed [are] you

  • (a) more than all livestock and (b) more than every beast of the field
  • (a) on your belly you shall go and (b) dust you shall eat

all the days of your life.

Note that the curse is doubled - "more than all livestock" is parallel to "more than every beast of the field". And, "on your belly you shall go" is parallel to "dust you shall eat". This is quintessential Hebrew repetition for emphasis.

Therefore, to answer the OP's question, "eating dust" is simply a Hebrew idiom for "crawling on the belly", ie, with the mouth and face on the ground (ie, as if eating dust). That is, serpents do not literally eat dust, their mode of travel simply is suggestive of this because they crawl in their belly.

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  • RE "they do not literally eat dust" --- perhaps not intentionally, but by virtue of being so close to the ground, dust will be ingested because it clings to their food and otherwise gets in their mouth. So in a way they do eat dust as a side effect of crawling on their belly.
    – Matthias
    Nov 25, 2023 at 14:30
  • @Matthias - good point. But the same can be said (in that sense) of lizards and dogs, to say nothing of humans who eat a few grams of dust per day in contaminated food.
    – Dottard
    Nov 25, 2023 at 20:43
  • True, Dottard. Fifty tonnes of cosmic dust falls on the earth per day on an average.That together with the dust emanating from the earth , makes a good dose ! Nov 26, 2023 at 13:14
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Neither snakes nor serpents eat dust, which means the verse is best understood figuratively. Eating dust here symbolizes being brought low. It begs the question as to whether the serpent itself was a literal snake/lizard/dragon or a symbol of a spiritual being, namely Lucifer. Indeed, that is the traditional Christian interpretation of the story, based on Isaiah 14:

Maggots are the couch beneath you, worms your blanket. How you have fallen from the heavens, O Morning Star, son of the dawn! How you have been cut down to the earth, you who conquered nations! 13 In your heart you said: “I will scale the heavens; Above the stars of God I will set up my throne; I will take my seat on the Mount of Assembly, on the heights of Zaphon. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will be like the Most High!” 15 No! Down to Sheol you will be brought to the depths of the pit!

This "taunt" (vs. 3) is directed against the king of Babylon but Christians often interpret it to refer to Lucifer, the archangel. The dynamic of this taunt parallels the curse of the serpent in Genesis, who seduced Eve out of ungodly ambition but was condemned to crawl on its belly and eat dust.

Jewish commentators do not usually equate the serpent with Lucifer but they share with Christians the interpretation that the serpent's ambition led to his fall:

Avot D'Rabbi Natan 1:7

The Holy Blessed One said to him (the serpent): You said, I will kill Adam and marry Eve. Thus, “I will place hostility [between you and the woman]” . You said, I will be king of the whole world. Thus, “you will be the most cursed of all the animals”. You said, I will walk tall and upright. Thus, “you will crawl on your belly”. You said, I will eat all the delicacies of the world. Thus, “you will eat dirt all the days of your life”.

Conclusion: The story of Genesis is not merely an origin story like "How the Leopard Got Its Spots, explaining how serpents lost their legs and literally came to eat dust. It is meant to explain how sin entered the world. In Christian tradition the serpent being cursed to eat dust is analogous to the King of Babylon, the "ruler of the world," being cast down to Sheol and becoming food for maggots. Similarly, in Jewish tradition the serpent's ambition to possess Eve sexually and make himself king of the world led to his being cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust

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God created man from the earth/dust Gen 3:19(dust you are and to dust you shall return) as well as the animals from the earth Gen 1:24, and so it likey just means the serpent was cursed to eat flesh. I mean maybe there's a snake out there that eats fruit but if so I for one have never heard of it, guess snakes used to walk/have feet and perhaps they ate fruit too; otherwise how'd the serpent know what the fruit even tasted like? eve would have been all like "you've never eaten that fruit how would you know about it".... of course one could simply make the argument that God was just telling the serpent to "eat my dust" Gen 3:15 lol.

Great question.

  • Word to herd
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  • You are right, ROD. We have Jesus telling the disciples before sending them away to preach, to take off the dust of their shoes where they are not welcome. Here dust refers to the least valuable thing available in a place. Nov 25, 2023 at 2:28
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