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Don Stewart :: How Do We Understand the Serpent in the Garden of Eden?

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Don Stewart
In the third chapter of Genesis we have the account of the serpent tempting man and woman in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the drama of the Garden.

Real Or Imaginary

Many questions arise. Was this an actual serpent or some other type of creature? Was this creature real or imaginary? What is the relationship of the serpent to the Devil? Did the serpent actually speak? How was the serpent able to enter the paradise of Eden?

Actual Creature?

In Genesis three, the serpent, or snake, is an actual creature. It is not to be understood as an allegory or as a representation of some other type of creature. This was an actual being who was with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Scripture nowhere gives any indication for this story to be understood symbolically.

How Did Serpent Speak?

If the account is not an allegory, then how can we explain the ability of a serpent to speak? The Bible provides no answer. How Eve heard the serpent is not explained either, but there is no indication that she was shocked to discover this creature could communicate with her. This has led some to speculate that before the Fall, animals had ability to speak. But it is not necessary to hold this view. In the Book of Numbers we find God speaking to the prophet Balaam through a donkey.

Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times (Numbers 22:28).

Identity Of Serpent

We have a similar situation here. Though the serpent is not explicitly identified in the Book of Genesis, he is identified with Satan in the last book of Scripture.

So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast out to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him . . . He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (Revelation 12:9;20:2).

Not Supernatural Being

It does seem clear from Scripture that there was an actual serpent in the Garden-he is described as one of the wild animals that God had made (Genesis 1:25;2,19). The serpent was not a supernatural being. In some way, Satan entered into the body of the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve. Therefore, Satan himself is the personage behind the serpent. The serpent was the instrument the Devil used to do his bidding. Thus we can conclude that the tempter was the Devil who was disguised in the form of a snake.


We should briefly consider what the Bible has to say about this personage. According to Scripture, the career of Satan, or the Devil, has been steadily going down since his creation. Originally he was created as a perfect being without any sin.

Satan Cast Out

At some unknown time in the past, he decided to rebel against God. When he rebelled against the Lord this beautiful creature became the Devil or the adversary. It is clear from Scripture that God did not create the Devil. This creature became the Devil when he decided to rebel against God.

Cast Out

Satan was cast out of God's presence because of his sin. The Book of Job informs us that he now has some access to God's presence but only when the Lord allows it.

God Of This Age

Satan is presently deceiving humankind. The Bible calls him the prince of this world, the god of this age and the prince of the power of the air. Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day:

You are of your father the Devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (John 8:44).

This deception will continue until his future judgment. During the time of the Great Tribulation, he will be cast down to the earth (Revelation 12). After the Second Coming of Christ he will be thrown into the pit for a thousand years. After the thousand years, the Devil will be released for a short time. He will then be thrown into the lake of fire forever (Revelation 20). Thus will be the end of his inglorious career.

More Shrewd

We now come back to Genesis three. The creature is called more shrewd than all other beasts. Shrewd is an ambiguous term. One the one hand, it is a virtue the wise should cultivate (Proverbs 12:16;13:16), but when misused it become wiliness and guile (Job 5:12; 15:5; see also Exodus 21:14; Joshua 9:4).

More Subtle

The Bible, in stressing the craftiness or cunning of the serpent, said he was more subtle than all other creatures. The New Testament also emphasizes this fact.

But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).

By Satan's fall, the wisdom and great intellect that he had was ed into an evil craftiness. Eve, along with Adam, had dominion over all the creatures, was now being tempted by Satan working through an inferior being.

Play On Words

The choice of the term aroom shrewd is one of the more obvious play on words in the text; for the man and his wife have just been described as nude aroam (2:25). They will seek themselves to be shrewd (cf. 3:6) but will discover they are naked (2:25).

Adam and Eve were vulnerable to temptation as Old Testament scholar Allen Ross notes.

Genesis 3:1 is connected with 2:25 by a Hebrew wordplay. Adam and Eve were naked ('arummim'); and the serpent was more crafty ('arum, shrewd) than all. Their nakedness represented that they were oblivious to evil, not knowing where the traps lay, whereas Satan did and would use his craftiness to take advantage of their integrity (Allen P. Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Victor Books, 1985, p. 32).

Why Allowed To Enter?

This brings up an important question. If the Garden of Eden was God's paradise, then why would God allow the Devil the right to enter this place of perfection? How did Satan gain access to Adam and Eve?

Obviously God had to allow the Devil access to the Garden. A similar situation can be found in the Book of Job where Satan had to ask God's permission to test Job. The Lord allowed Satan to tempt him, but only within certain limits.

So the Lord said to Satan, Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person. Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord (Job 1:12).

Our Own Decision

God, therefore, permitted the entrance of Satan into the Garden for the purpose of the temptation of Adam and Eve. However, this does not mean that God wished Adam and Eve to sin, forced them to sin, or kept them unprotected from sin. Though they were tempted by a crafty and intelligent being, they did not have to sin! God told them the consequences ahead of time and they made the choice to disobey Him. Ultimately, as with every sin, it is the person's own decision. Scripture teaches that with every temptation God always provides a means to escape. The Bible says:

No temptation has overtaken you except such is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Consequently, blame cannot be placed upon God for their sin, it was their own choice.


Satan entered the serpent, a real creature, for the purpose of deceiving Eve. The tempter used his craftiness to cause them to sin. God permitted Adam and Eve to be tested, but He certainly did not encourage them to sin or force them to sin. They could have resisted the temptation if they so desired. Ultimately it was their fault for not resisting the temptation.

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