What was the serpent of Gen 3:1?

A critic might first insist on exploring the plausibility of a talking snake, but in fact before confronting the critic we must clarify what exactly is going on here. The real issue here is: considering that this apparent snake could speak and indeed tempt Eve so as to precipitate the disastrous Fall, how was that possible, considering that snakes cannot speak? Was it a real, then-ordinary snake, albeit one with legs or wings, since it was later cursed to go on its belly? Or was it, as a popular theory has it, Satan in the form of a snake? Josephus even suggests (groundlessly) that all animals before the Fall could talk, so that this was a then-ordinary snake. Now, we already know from much else in the Bible that God permits Satan to test us, as he tested Job and Jesus, and surely we would expect none less than Satan to be the cause of our downfall. Moreover, John identifies “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Rev. 12:9); so we had better say the same, i.e., that the serpent in the Garden was Satan appearing in the body, or perhaps only the apparent form, of a snake.

But Satan was a fallen angel, so how did he come to take the form of a snake in Gen 3:1?

There are two ways to make sense of this theory. One is the common way: Satan is a spiritual being, like angels, which might at least sometime be spatio-temporally located, but which lack a body. Indeed, sometimes, perhaps they lack any spatio-temporal location (more on that further down). In the same way that demons could inhabit the bodies of pigs (see Matt. 8:30-33), presumably Satan could inhabit (or otherwise animate) the body of a snake, and even make it speak, or seem to speak. The other theory begins from the observation that the “seraphim” (a kind of angelic being, but probably not the sort of entity normally called an “angel”) were actually flying serpents, since the Hebrew word, seraphim, meant (at least in one sense) “serpents.” So the serpent might have simply been a seraph,and then maybe the suggestion, according to the theory, is that Satan was originally such a seraph. The three enormous problems with this are (a) when the heavenly seraphim are actually described in Isaiah 6:1-8, they are described as beings with six wings, human appendages, and voices, and certainly not flying snakes; (b) Satan and other deadly and evil things are called “serpents,” and it seems unlikely that the visual appearance of any holy thing in God’s presence would be associated with such a symbol of death; and to really clinch the matter, (c) Ezek 28:14 has a figure called “Lucifer,” often taken as referring to Satan, described not as a seraph but as a cherub, and nobody thinks cherubim were serpentine. So I suggest we stick with the common theory.

But the origin of seraphim, and thus Satan taking the form of the snake in Gen 3:1, might have been with some pagan flying snakes, no?

Serpents, indeed even flying serpents, were a feature of ancient pagan cults, but the mere fact that the word seraphim was used hardly means the angelic beings were took serpentine form. Indeed, as some like to point out, there are other uses of “flying fiery serpent” (שָׂרָ֥ף מְעוֹפֵֽף׃ or saraph me’owpeph; Isa. 14:29). But the origin of Isaiah 6’s concept of a seraph, if you actually believe the Bible, is with the creatures called the seraphim themselves; you look for another origin only if you believe that explanation lacks credibility. Never anywhere in the text of the Bible is there the slightest indication that any of the inhabitants of heaven take a serpentine form, apart from the mere name seraphim; and again, in the one place where those beings are described, they are not described as snaky at all. The point is that the Hebrews who wrote and read the Bible clearly did not conceive of seraphim as snakes, whatever role snakes might have played in their notions of other-worldly realms. Therefore, the correct explanation of the fact that Satan took the form of a snake is probably not that he was previous a (snake-like) seraph.

What exactly is the serpent up to here (Gen 3:1)?

Briefly stated, he is doing at least two things. First, he is falsely and maliciously suggesting that God’s rule is unreasonable. Second, by suggesting that the rule is unreasonable, he is setting Eve up to prefer her own judgment to God’s law.

Is Eve’s reply in Gen 3:2-3 correct? Is there anything to note in it?

Eve repeats back a version of the Lord’s rule, contradicting the snake; but she does not rebuke the snake for making this clearly false and malicious suggestion. But then, being new to the world, and being wholly unacquainted with evil and not having tasted of the tree thereof, she has the trusting nature of a child.

How did Eve learn the rule she repeats in Gen 3:3?

The rule is “God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” (Gen 3:3) Interestingly, we do not know how she learned it. Eve was not yet made when God gave Adam the rule (2:16-17). So either Adam told her, or God himself told her. God never said “neither shall you touch it,” as Eve says at Gen 3:3, so where did she get that? Again, interestingly, we do not know. She could have been told this by Adam or God. In either case, one of them would perhaps have trusted her even less than Adam to avoid the temptation of the forbidden fruit, and perhaps felt it appropriate to strengthen the rule for her benefit. If so, then it would be ironic that the stronger version of the rule did not help her. It is worth noting that in another holy place of God, the Israelites at Mount Sinai are sternly instructed to “go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it” (Ex 19:12).

What is the meaning of the serpent’s claim that the woman would not “surely” or “certainly” die (Gen 3:4)?

Literally, the Hebrew says something like “Dying, you will not die,” which is an instance of the Hebrew use of repetition for the sake of emphasis. That being the case, there are two things the serpent might mean: first, that it is certain that they would not die (here the certainty attaches to the whole claim); second, that it is not certain whether or not they would die (here there is simply a denial that the consequence was certain). Naturally, the first is the much stronger claim, and amounts to a positive claim that Eve would remain immortal even after eating; both claims are lies, but the first is a much worse lie. Still, even if the second claim, “Maybe you won’t die after all,” is the one meant, the lie is terrible, because it invites Eve to take a risk for the forbidden fruit.

Eve does not reply after Gen 3:5. Is this significant?

Her silence bespeaks her assent. Although perhaps she did reply and we are not told, still, we are told her thoughts in the next verse, and considering that she says she was “beguiled” (Gen 3:13) by the serpent, she trusted what he said. Hence we have here not just the first lie, but also the first deception.