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Satan the Serpent

By Richard Gunther


Before I write anything on this subject I would like to freely and humbly admit that I am no expert on the Bible. I simply read it and try to understand it as best I can, and then pass on what I have discovered in the hope that it may be of some help to other people. This and all my other articles are not an attempt to set up 'once-and-for-all' dogmatic statements. I believe I may be correct in many areas, but I also know that in some points I am in need of some correction. I have, many times, discovered other views by other people which have caused me to run back to my original findings and modify, or even scrap them. I urge you, the reader, to make up your own mind, and not follow my writing as if it is the final statement!

The subject of this essay is the matter of whether Satan appeared to Adam and Eve as a snake or as an angel. Both points of view are defended by Bible-believers with equal sincerity, and I am not interested in picking a fight. As with all peripheral Bible teachings, when it comes to a choice between winning an argument and losing a brother, or conceding an argument and keeping a brother, I always choose the latter.

However, there is much that I would like to say in defense of the view that Satan appeared as an angel.

The first point that must be made is that Genesis is literal, historical narrative. This means that we are not reading some oral tradition, which has been altered as it has been passed down from generation to generation, or a myth, in the sense of Aboriginal 'dreamtime' myths, or fanciful legend in the genre of Zeus and Hercules. What Genesis tells us is a real account, such as we might receive on the television News, with live, actual footage of the events as they transpire. Genesis is so true, we could hop in a time machine and park near the Garden of Eden, and watch Adam being molded from the soil and then spring to life. We could watch the rib pulled from Adam's side and see it transform into a woman. And as Adam and Eve walked through the orchard (this is what "garden" means) we would see a glorious being, Satan himself, approach them. We would hear him speak, and then Eve would speak back, in a language foreign to our ear.

The Bible is full of idioms and figures of speech. This fact may surprise some people, because it may seem quite illogical, to them, for God to use such 'unscientific' language as a means of conveying truth. One would expect (naturally speaking) a more technical and formal method, with less 'colouring'. But God is the Author of the Bible, so we must accept His judgment, and look into the idioms and figures of speech for the treasures they contain. There is, after all, a lot more in a figure of speech, than a technical description of something.


   For example, suppose we described the defeat of some Indians by a group of cowboys in technical language. We could efficiently convey the numbers of cowboys and Indians and the course of the battle, the types of guns used, the quality of the arrows fired, and so on. We could submit the whole thing as a formal entry in the military files, and there it would lie, boring to most people, dry, technical, and just another archive to be kept for reference. Its main interest would be its historical record.

But suppose we told the same story with the use of facts plus idioms and figures of speech? Suddenly the battle would take on a new depth, it would catch the imagination, it would make us wonder. Just the addition of some cliches can make the event so much more interesting: The Indians could 'bite the dirt', the guns might be 'blazing like fireworks', the battle could be 'as wild as a stampede', the cowboys might 'cut the ground from under' their attackers, the battlefield might be visited by 'hungry vultures of death", and the story of the battle might 'spread like wildfire'.

Because God is both Scientist and Playwright, He has peppered His Book with both accurate narrative and creative devices, in order to make it arresting and interesting to us His children. Having said this I must add that there is no serendipitous or randomness about this writing. Everything is consistent, and measured, and balanced. God is God, and His Word is perfect.

Why would God use a figure of speech when referring to Satan in Genesis?

1. To call attention to what He has to say,

2. To emphasize what He has to say,

3. To intensify what He has to say,

4. And to underline the reality of the literal sense of what He has to say.

God wants to force upon us the truth of the historical setting in which His description takes place. He uses highly imaginative language to convey something true, which the picture He uses is not literally true. There are many examples of this through the Bible (For example Deut.32:22, Is. 43:2, Mat.3:12 and Rev.6:16) It is common in our own normal everyday language to use metaphors, such as 'the rain was biting though my jersey', or we 'battled a storm of protest', or we made a 'last ditch' effort. In fact, it is very difficult to relay any information without assuming some imaginative underlying picture. (You see how I used the word 'underlying' as in sub-soil, and 'relay' as in passing something on?)


   Another aspect of the way God uses figures of speech and so on is the actual revelation of Himself to us! The fact that He uses idioms and metaphors tells us something about Him because His words convey His thoughts. Every writer betrays him or herself the moment they put pen to paper. Something of our own personality is revealed as soon as we begin to write, and it is the same with God. Suppose, for a moment, that God was a machine. We might expect the Bible to be written in machine code. Or suppose He was a cruel, heartless tyrant. His Word would be a catalogue of rules and punishments. Or what if God was like some of those invented gods of the nations? He would be morally slack, inconsistent, and in most ways just as bad, and fickle as the humans who invented them. So it is quite unrealistic for us to presume that God should obey our whims and write contrary to His own choice and nature. His Book is written the way He wanted it written. It is up to us to accept it as such and obey His rules of interpretation.

The following is quoted from Bullinger's 'Companion Bible':

"Figures are never used but for the sake of emphasis. They can never, therefore, be ignored. Ignorance of Figures of speech has led to the grossest errors, which have been caused either from taking literally what is figurative, or from taking figuratively what is literal.

The Greeks and Romans named some hundreds of such figures. They may be divided into three classes:

Figures which involve (1) omission; (2) the addition;

or (3) the alteration or change, of a word, or words, or their sense.

In Gen.3:14, 16 we have some of the earliest examples. By interpreting these figures literally as meaning "belly "," dust"," heel", or "head ". we lose the volumes of precious and mysterious truth which they convey and intensify. It is the truth which is literal, while the words employed are figurative".

(He goes on to name 181 types of Figure of Speech with examples from the Bible)


When we look through Genesis chapter three we find many figures of speech. For example "eyes were opened", "they knew that they were naked", "upon your belly you shall go", "dust shall you eat", "bruise your head", "bruise his heel", "thorns and thistles", "sweat of your face", "you are dust", "to dust you shall return". In every case, God is trying to convey more than just the bare facts. By "eyes were opened" He is conveying the sudden shock and intense reaction which Adam and Eve experienced as they realized the implications of what they had done. By "thorns and thistles" we understand that God was condemning the world to many "problems and difficulties", as well as literal changes in creation of course. By "dust you shall eat" we understand that God was placing Satan under a humiliating punishment.

In Revelation 20:2 we have two references to Satan which link him to his first appearance in Genesis: "And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him". Revelation 12:9

"And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan . . ." Revelation 20:2

In both references the word "old" is used, which, taken literally means that Satan must be at least 6000 years old (minimum) but it also links his 'oldness' with the fact that he is also the "serpent".

The Hebrew for "serpent" is 'nachash' which means 'to hiss, mutter, whisper' as enchanters and those involved with the black arts do. The secondary meaning of 'nachash' is 'to divine, to enchant'. In other words, Satan's name means something like 'to entice by enchantments', which is consistent with his first act of enticement when he deceived Eve into sin. All through the Bible Satan's methods have been much the same. He entices through false doctrine, false Christians, false Bibles, false witnesses, false evangelists, false everything. In every area of life we find the trail of the serpent - not just in the pulpit, but also in the Arts, in Science, in Philosophy and so on. His goal is to draw people away from God's Word and into alternatives, any alternatives will do, provided they contradict what God has said.

"And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light". 2 Corinthians 11:14 Satan is, of course, already an angel of light. What this verse means is that he appears to those he wants to deceive as a member of the church, or as a good pastor, or as a wonderful Bible teacher, or as a Christian musician, or whatever. He comes as a wolf dressed as a sheep. See 2Cor. 11:1-15.

If you took the time to read the above reference you will have noticed verse three, which says that "as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety . . ." This verse is explained by verse 14, quoted above, which refers to Satan as "an angel of light". By this we see that it was not a snake which beguiled Eve, but a glorious being, an angel, to whom Eve paid great attention. She assumed that because of his appearance, he must have possessed superior knowledge. It is hardly likely that she would have paid as much attention to a snake - a mere created animal over which she and Adam were to have dominion.

Now look at Ezekiel 28. In this passage we have a description of the "king of Tyre". By comparison, this "king" is not the same as the earlier "prince of Tyrus" at the beginning of the chapter, or "Tyrus" in chapters 26 and 27. Beginning at verse 11 God describes the "king of Tyrus" as "the anointed cherub" - which cannot refer to any human, and as the one who "has been in Eden". The description of this "king" is of a supernatural order -"full of wisdom, perfect in beauty" etc and in verse 15 we are told that he was "perfect in his ways from the day he was created until iniquity was found in him". He also corrupted his wisdom "by reason of his brightness" (v.l7. Put together, all these verses refer to Satan the anointed cherub, not a man, and certainly not a mere snake.

The link between Satan and the Garden of Eden is made in the passage in Ezekiel, which again shows that it was Satan as an angel who deceived Eve.

In defense of the 'Satan was a snake' point of view, some people quote Genesis 3:1 which says "the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made." However, the word "subtle" means 'wise' ( The Hebrew word is 'aw-room' which means 'cunning (usually in a bad sense) - 'crafty, prudent'.) and the word "beast" means "living creature", so what the verse is saying is: "Satan was wiser than any other living creature created by God". This makes harmony of what we have already concluded.

Moving away from the purely Scriptural view, let us suppose that Eve, in all her perfection and great wisdom, actually held a conversation with a literal snake. On the face of it this is most unlikely. The snake was just one of many beautiful creatures created by God, but it was, after all, just a creature. Eve was a brilliant creation, glorious and wonderfully made, far superior to the snake. She may have been attracted to it aesthetically, but hardly intellectually. If there was anything resembling an angel of light in the garden, perhaps a large bird would have been more likely, but not a mere snake. However, if Satan behaved like a snake, then the comparison is quite understandable. (We have many similar comparisons in the Bible, such as Herod, whom Jesus called a fox, and Egypt, which is called a great-scaled creature. Nero is called a lion, Judah is called a lions' whelp, doctrine is called leaven, and, in our own language we refer to people as 'dogs' or 'pigs' and we say that someone 'ate like a horse'.)

When we read in Genesis 3 that Satan would "bruise his heel" we understand this "head" to be more than just skin and bone. It has something to do with character, and it will be only temporary. When we read that "he shall crush your head" we understand this to mean more than literal hair and skin and skull. It means that Satan's plans and plots, activities and purposes, will one day be crushed and finished. Referring to this very passage Paul says "And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly". Romans 16:20 Again, in Malachi: "And you shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, says the LORD of hosts". Malachi 4:3 And Jesus warned Christians about throwing wisdom at the ignorant:

"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you". Matthew 7:6

The prediction that Satan would one day 'bruise the heel' of the seed of the woman was a wonderfully compact description of what followed. In just those few words God foretold the temptations and injuries done to the Son of God, plus the associated sufferings shared by His followers. The crucifixion set the seal on Satan's doom, because by orchestrating the death of Jesus, Satan made the way for the resurrection. The moment Jesus rose from the dead, Satan's entire object (world domination among other things) was utterly defeated - his head was about to be crushed. Through the death of Christ, he who had the power of death would be destroyed, and all Satan's power brought to an end, including all his works - Heb.2:14, Uohn 3:8, Rev.20. Thanks to figures of speech, much more than a mere technical description of the facts is conveyed to us.

Gen.3:14. "upon your belly shall you go". If this were literal, then Satan, the angel must be sliding about on his stomach, but of course this is quite absurd. He is also called the "prince of the power of the air" Eph.2:2. What this figure of speech means is that Satan has been humiliated. He has been brought down, demoted, disgraced. God has reduced his rank and standing and authority from a high place to a very low place. In a similar setting we read in Psalm 44:25 "For our soul is bowed down to the dust: our belly cleaves to the earth". This expression tells us a lot more than mere facts could. We understand the feeling of prostration and submission of the writer. We enter into his sense of prolonged subjection to oppression or sorrow.

Gen. 314 "and dust shall you eat all the days of your life". If this were literal, then we know what Satan eats - the dirt which we grow plants and vegetables in. Soil. Minerals. If we take a figure of speech literally we come to many absurd conclusions. But if we take the expression as pointing to some underlying fact, some more important truth, we understand that Satan judgment was to be always disappointed, always a failure, always a loser. Proverbs 20:17 picks up on this 'eating dirt' idea: "Bread of deceit is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel". Again, in the New Testament, Christians are rebuked for "biting and devouring one another:" (Gal.5:14,15) something more heart-breaking and terrible is meant.

Other examples of these 'dirt" type of expressions are:

"He has also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he has covered me with ashes". Lamentations 3:16

"And Abraham answered and said. Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak to the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:" Genesis 18:27

"He raises up the poor out of the dust" 1 Samuel 2:8

"Then did I beat them as small as the dust of the earth, I did stamp them as the mire of the street, and did spread them abroad". 2 Samuel 22:43

"My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust" Job 7:5

"Let the enemy persecute my soul, and take it; yea, let him tread down my life upon the earth, and lay mine honour in the dust". Psalms 7:5

"My soul cleaves to the dust" Psalms 119:25


When we read that the enemies will "lick the dust" (Psalm 72:9) we are not supposed to think of them down on their hands and knees licking away at the ground with their tongues, but rather to understand that the enemies are prostrated in defeat, subdued, brought down to complete submission. The expression is far more effective at conveying the meaning than a mere statistical analysis of the battle campaign.

Another problem which arises if we think that Satan was a literal snake is the simple biological impossibility of a snake talking. It has no larynx, or 'voice box'. Even if it wanted to, it couldn't speak. It has no organs of speech, no lips, no mobile tongue, no speech center in its brain. On the other hand, where was the wisdom in Satan taking a mere creature, and certainly not one of the most beautiful in creation, and using it like a glove-puppet to beguile Eve? She was intelligent enough to see through something as stupid as this. Whatever would she have thought if a real snake has started talking to her? She would have been instantly suspicious. Why would God created a mere animal which had such wisdom? If snakes could talk, what else in the Garden had the same ability? Monkeys? Elephants? Moths?

Traditions are very powerful. They can be so strong that even when the Word of God is presented, they still prevail. Jesus, in anger, told the religious leaders of his day: You make "the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things you do". Mark 7:13. Many Christians, despite having Bibles available, still think that Jonah was swallowed by a 'whale', that Noah's Ark was quite small, and that Eve was tempted with an 'apple'. The Reformation was a fierce battle fought over traditions. Many churches elevate man-made rules and traditions above the liberty of God. Traditions lead us away from what God says and blind us to the truth. About this we are told to: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ". Colossians 2:8

If we dig into the figures of speech and look for the underlying truth we find a picture which conveys many wonderful things. We see two beings, the first humans, both glorious and perfect. They already have language and science built into them. They already understand many things. They live and rejoice in a perfect world. Suddenly an immensely glorious being appears to Eve. He challenges her to go beyond what God has said and she does. It is this great disobedience - adding to and taking from the words of God - which caused the Fall. Not some silly story about a woman eating an apple. The traditional story, with equally absurd illustrations, have smothered the real meaning of what happened and it is the Church (the only organization on earth entrusted with the preaching and teaching of God's Word) which has failed to consistently proclaim this truth, hi this way Satan's deception has been successful for thousands of years.

When Satan said "Has God said . . .?" Eve should have been immediately alerted to the danger. Her reply should have been to quote exactly what God had said. Or Adam, who was "with her" should have done this. Just as Jesus responded to Satan's "If you are the Son of God . . .?" with quotes from the Word, Eve should have remembered precisely what God had said and Satan would have been defeated.

But Eve committed several errors. She omitted the word "freely" and added the words "neither shall you touch it" and then she altered the words "you shall surely die" into "lest you die". In this way Eve misrepresented the Word of God, but when Jesus was tempted He presented the Word of God faithfully.

From this temptation of Eve we understand that Satan's main sphere of influence is in any area where he can influence people to doubt the word of God. We see his activity in the pulpit - perhaps his main area of deception (by this I mean through false teachings, traditions, cults religions, New Age mystical ideas, and sectarianism). There are of course many fine Christians who love and cherish the Bible. We see Satan in the newspaper and other forms of media, in professorial chairs, in universities and colleges, in Institutes of higher learning, in the unsaved academia. We know that Satan has a dominant control over the media - this is why anything which calls into question the Word of God has ready admission into the newspapers and so on, and also why anything which strongly supports God's Word is resisted and omitted from the same organizations. The man or woman who claims to have found the body of Jesus (or some such thing) is given air time and treated seriously, while the creationist is held up as a 'flat-earther' and depicted as 'controversial'. Sinful Mankind tolerates Christianity, but will not receive it as the revealed Word of God. The unsaved will talk about the Bible as 'literature' but they will not believe it to be anything more than that.

If we continue to follow traditions, we (by default) join the crowd who think in terms of snakes and apples. By doing this we help to hide God's truth. We take part in the jeering of unbelievers and we pat the critics on their backs. We also provide a stumbling block to the weak in faith because we help to propagate a tradition which Satan himself has fostered. Better by far rather to stand on God's Word and present it as it is written, with understanding and faith. That way, on the Day of Judgment, we will not be ashamed of our witness, and the ungodly will have no excuse.

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