The Serpent of Genesis 3
In Genesis 3 we have neither allegory, myth, legend, nor
fable, but literal historical facts set forth, and
emphasised by the use of certain Figures of speech.
All the confusion of thought and conflicting exegesis
have arisen from taking literally what is expressed by
Figures, or from taking figuratively what is literal. A
Figure of speech is never used except for the purpose of
calling attention to, emphasising, and intensifying, the
reality of the literal sense, and truth of the
historical facts; so that, while the words employed may not
be so strictly true to the letter, they are all the more
true to the truth conveyed by them, and to the
historical events connected with them.
But for the figurative language of verses 14 and
15 no one would have thought of referring the third chapter
of Genesis to a snake; no more than he does when reading the
third chapter from the end of Revelation (chapter 20:2).
Indeed, the explanation added there, that the "old
serpent" is the Devil and Satan, would immediately lead one
to connect the word "old" with the earlier and former
mention of the serpent in Genesis 3: and the fact that it
was Satan himself who tempted "the second man", "the last
Adam", would force the conclusion that no other than the
personal Satan could have been the tempter of "the first
The Hebrew word rendered "serpent" in Genesis 3:1
is Nachash (from the root Nachash, to shine,
and means a shining one. Hence, in Chaldee it means
brass or copper, because of its shining.
Hence also, the word Nehushtan, a piece of brass, in
In the same way Saraph, in Isaiah 6:2,6,
means a burning one, and, because the serpents
mentioned in Numbers 21 were burning, in the poison of their
bite, they were called Saraphim, or Seraphs.
But when the LORD said unto Moses, "Make thee a
fiery serpent" (Numbers 21:8), He said, "Make thee a
Saraph", and, in obeying this command, we read in verse
9, "Moses made a Nachash of brass". Nachash is
thus used as being interchangeable with Saraph.
Now, if Saraph is used of a serpent because
its bite was burning, and is also used of a celestial
or spirit-being (a burning one), why should not Nachas
be used of a serpent because its appearance was shining,
and be also used of a celestial or spirit-being (a shining
Indeed, a reference to the structure of Genesis 3
(on page 7) will show that the Cherubim (which are
similar celestial or spirit-beings) of the last verse
(Genesis 3:24) require a similar spirit-being to correspond
with them in the first verse (for structure of the whole
chapter is a great Introversion). The Nachash, or
serpent, who beguiled Eve (2Corinthians 11:3) is spoken of
as "an angel of light" in verse 14. Have we not, in this, a
clear intimation that it was not a snake, but a glorious
shining being, apparently an angel, to whom Eve paid such
great deference, acknowledging him as one who seemed to
possess superior knowledge, and who was evidently a being of
a superior (not of an inferior) order? Moreover, in the
description of Satan as "the king of Tyre"
is distinctly implied that the latter being was of a
super-natural order when he is called "a cherub" (Ezekiel
28:14,16, read from verses 11-19). His presence "in Eden,
the garden of 'Elohim" (verse 13, is also clearly
stated, as well as his being "perfect in beauty" (verse 12)
his being "perfect" in his ways from the day he was created
till iniquity was found in him" (verse 15), and as being
"lifted up because of his beauty" (verse 17).
These all compel the belief that Satan was the
shining one (Nachash) in Genesis 3, and
especially because the following words could be addressed to
him :- "Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty,
thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness:
I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before
kings, that they may behold thee" (verse 17).
Even supposing that these things were spoken to,
and of, an exalted human being in later days (Ezekiel 28),
still "the king of Tyre" is not compared to a being who was
non-existent; and facts and circumstances which never
happened are not introduced into the comparison.
There is more about "the king of Tyre" in Ezekiel
28:11-19 than was literally true of "the prince of Tyre"
(verses 1-10). The words can be understood only of the
mightiest and most exalted supernatural being that God ever
created; and this for the purpose of showing how great would
be his fall. The history must be true to make the
prophecy of any weight.
Again, the word rendered "subtle" in Genesis 3:1
(see note) means wise, in a good sense as well as in
a bad sense. In Ezekiel 28:12 we have the good sense, "Thou
sealest up the sum, full of wisdom"; and the bad sense in
verse 17, "thou hast corrupted thy wisdom" (referring of
course, to his fall). So the word rendered "subtle" is
rendered "prudent" in Proverbs 1:4; 8:12; 12:23; 14:8; and
in a bad sense in Job 15:5. 1Samuel 23:22. Psalm 83:3.
The word "beast" also, in Genesis 3:1, chay,
denotes a living being, and it is as wrong to
translate zoa "beasts" in Revelation 4, as it is to
translate chay "beast" in Genesis 3. Both mean
living creature. Satan is thus spoken of as being "more
wise than any other living creature which Jehovah
Elohim had made". Even if the word "beast be retained, it
does not say that either a serpent or Satan was a
"beast", but only that he was "more wise" than any other
We cannot conceive Eve as holding converse with a
snake, but we can understand her being fascinated
by one, apparently "an angel of light" (i.e. a glorious
angel), possessing superior and supernatural knowledge.
When Satan is spoken of as a "serpent", it is the
figure Hypocatastasis or Implication; it no
more means a snake than it does when Dan is so called in
Genesis 49:17; or an animal when Nero is called a "lion"
(2Timothy 4:17), or when Herod is called a "fox" (Luke
13:32); or when Judah is called "a lion's whelp". It is the
same figure when "doctrine" is called "leaven" (Matthew
16:6). It shows that something much more real and truer to
truth is intended. If a Figure of speech is thus employed,
it is for the purpose of expressing the truth more
impressively ; and is intended to be a figure of something
much more real than the letter of the word.
Other Figures of speech are used in verses 14,15,
but only for the same purpose of emphasizing the truth and
the reality of what is said.
When it is said in verse 15, "thou shalt bruise
His heel", it cannot mean His literal heel of flesh and
blood, but suffering, more temporary in character. When it
is said (verse 15), "He shall crush the head", it means
something more than a skull of bone, and brain, and hair. It
means that all Satan's plans and plots, policy and purposes,
will one day be finally crushed and ended, never more to mar
or to hinder the purposes of God. This will be effected when
Satan shall be bruised under our feet (Romans 16:20). This,
again, will not be our literal feet, but something much more
The bruising of Christ's heel is the most eloquent
and impressive way of foretelling the most solemn events;
and to point out that the effort made by Satan to evade his
doom, then threatened, would become the very means of
insuring its accomplishment; for it was through the death of
Christ that he who had the power of death would be
destroyed; and all Satan's power and policy brought to an
end, and all his works destroyed (Hebrews 2:14. 1John 3:8.
Revelation 20:1-3,10). What literal words could portray
these literal facts so wonderfully as these expressive
Figures of speech ?
It is the same with the other Figures used in
verse 14, "On thy belly shalt thou go". This Figure means
infinitely more than the literal belly of the flesh and
blood; just as the words "heel" and "head" do in verse 15.
It paints for the eyes of our mind the picture of Satan's
ultimate humiliation; for prostration was ever the
most eloquent sign of subjection. When it is said "our belly
cleaveth unto the ground" (Psalm 44:25), it denotes such a
prolonged prostration and such a depth of submission as
could never be conveyed or expressed in literal words.
So with the other prophecy, "Dust shalt thou eat".
This is not true to the letter, or to fact, but it is all
the more true to truth. It tells of constant
continuous disappointment, failure, and mortification; as
when deceitful ways are spoken of as feeding on deceitful
food, which is "sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth
shall be filled with gravel" (Proverbs 20:17). This does not
mean literal "gravel", but something far more disagreeable.
It means disappointment so great that it would gladly
be exchanged for the literal "gravel". So when Christians
are rebuked for "biting and devouring one another"
(Galatians 3:14,15), something more heart-breaking is meant
than the literal words used in the Figure.
When "His enemies shall lick the dust" (Psalm
72:9) they will not do it on their knees with their literal
tongues; but they will be so prostrated and so utterly
defeated, that no words could literally depict their
overthrow and subjugation.
If a serpent was afterward called a nachash,
it was because it was more shining than any other
creature; and if it became known as "wise", it was not
because of its own innate positive knowledge, but of its
wisdom in hiding away from all observation; and because of
its association with one of the names of Satan (that old
serpent) who "beguiled Eve" (2Corinthians 11:3,14).
It is wonderful how a snake could ever be supposed
to speak without the organs of speech, or that Satan should
be supposed able to accomplish so great a miracle3
It only shows the power of tradition, which has,
from the infancy of each one of us, put before our eyes and
written on our minds the picture of a "snake" and an "apple"
: the former based on a wrong interpretation, and the latter
being a pure invention, about which there is not one word
said in Holy Scripture.
Never was Satan's wisdom so craftily used as when
he secured universal acceptance of this traditional belief:
for it has succeeded in fixing the attention of mankind on
the letter and the means, thus blinding the
eyes to the solemn fact that the Fall of man had to do
solely with the Word of God, and is centered in the sin
believing Satan's lie instead of Jehovah's truth.
The temptation of " the first man Adam" began with
the question "Hath God said ?" The temptation of "the second
man, the Lord from heaven" began with the similar question
"If thou be the Son of God", when the voice of the Father
had scarcely died away, which said "This IS My beloved Son".
All turned on the truth of what Jehovah had said.
The Word of God being questioned, led Eve, in her
reply, (1) to omit the word "freely" (3:2, compare
2:16); then (2) to add the words "neither shalt thou
touch it" (3:3, compare 2:17); and finally (3) to alter
a certainty into a contingency by changing "thou SHALT
SURELY die" (2:17) into "LEST ye die" (3:3).
It is not without significance that the first
Ministerial words of "the second Man" were "It is written",
three times repeated; and that His last Ministerial words
contained a similar threefold reference to the written Word
of God (John 17:8,14,17).
The former temptation succeeded because the Word
of God was three times misrepresented ; the latter
temptation was successfully defeated because the same Word
was faithfully repeated.
The history of Genesis 3 is intended to teach us
the fact that Satan's sphere of activities is in the
religious sphere, and not the spheres of crime or
immorality; that his battlefield is not the sins arising
from human depravity, but the unbelief of the human
heart. We are not to look for Satan's activities to-day in
the newspaper press, or the police courts ; but in the
pulpit, and in professors' chairs. Wherever the Word of God
is called in question, there we see the trail of "that old
serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan". This is why
anything against the true interests of the Word of God (as
being such) finds a ready admission into the news-papers of
the world, and is treated as "general literature". This is
why anything in favour of its inspiration and Divine origin
and its spiritual truth is rigidly excluded as being
This why Satan is quite content that the letter
of Scripture should be accepted in Genesis 3, as he himself
accepted the letter of Psalm 91:11. He himself could say "It
is written" (Matthew 4:6) so long as the letter of
what is "written" could be put instead of the truth
that is conveyed by it; and so long as it is misquoted or
This is his object in perpetuating the traditions
of the "snake" and the "apple", because it ministers to the
acceptance of his lie, the hiding of God's truth, the
support of tradition, the jeers of the infidel, the
opposition of the critics, and the stumbling of the weak in
NOTES : 1
Ezekiel 28:11-19, who is quite a different being from "the
Prince of Tyre", in verses 1-10 who is purely human.
It is remarkable that the verb nachash always means
to enchant, fascinate, bewitch; or of one having and using
occult knowledge. See Genesis 30:27; 44:5,15. Leviticus
19:26. Deuteronomy 18:10. 1Kings 20:33. 2Kings 17:17; 21:6.
2Chronicles 33:6. So also is the noun used in Numbers 23:23;
Greater than that wrought by God Himself, who opened the
mouth of Balaam's ass.