So we all know the story: God creates Adam and Eve, tells them they can eat from every tree, except for one. Then he goes off to do whatever it is he does. Shortly after, a serpent comes along and convinces Eve to eat from the tree. She does. Then she convinces Adam to eat from the tree. He does. They realize they’re naked and a wave of shame and embarrassment washes over them, so they hide their junk behind fig leaves. When god returns, he realizes Adam and Eve aren’t naked and he punishes them.
Christians interpret the scenario as having been orchestrated by Satan, who took the form of a serpent to manipulate Eve. The Jews never interpreted the scene to be a power play between God and Satan. If you read the scene yourself, you’ll see that Satan was never even so much as implied in the text. The serpent-as-Satan scenario was a late invention by the Christians—and it takes some imagination, and some selective reading, to inject Satan into the text.
For example, in addition to punishing Adam and Eve, God also punishes the serpent. But he doesn’t punish the serpent-as-Satan. God doesn’t call out Satan, he doesn’t disown the son of god, he doesn’t remove him from the divine counsel. Instead, he punishes the serpent as a serpent—that’s the part Christians overlook. In Genesis 3:14-15, God punishes the serpent for his part in the crime:
“So the Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, ‘Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.'”
Now, if you’re a Christian and you believe the serpent represents Satan, then these two verses might baffle you. But if you accept the serpent as nothing more than a serpent, then it’s easy to understand these two verses.
All serpents were punished, in perpetuity, to crawl on their bellies, to eat dust, to be hated by women and men, and to hate them in return. This is a myth meant to explain the relationship of people and serpents.
But why this enmity toward serpents? What did the authors have against serpents?
After all, according to the Torah, God used the serpent as a symbol of his power. When God first told Moses to go before Pharaoh, he told Moses to throw his—Moses’—staff on the ground. Moses did, and the staff turned into a snake and writhed around. (Exodus 4:1-3) Then, in Egypt, Moses and his brother Aaron visit Pharaoh and they tell Pharaoh to let their people go. To prove that they’ve been sent by God, Aaron throws down the staff. It turns into a serpent and writhes around. But Pharaoh isn’t impressed. He calls his sorcerers and magicians, and they throw down their staffs; their staffs turn into serpents and writhe around, but Aaron’s serpent eats the other serpents. (Exodus 8:10-12)
Why these theatrics? Going back to Exodus 4, after Moses’ staff turns into a serpent: God said to Moses, “‘Reach out and grab it by the tail.’ He reached out and grabbed it—and he was holding his staff again. ‘That’s so they will trust that God appeared to you, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.'”(Exodus 4:4-5)
(The serpent, obviously, isn’t the point of this story. The conjuration is the point. But it’s interesting that god chooses to manifest his power in the form of a serpent.)
Later, when the children of Israel are wondering the desert, they speak against God and against Moses. To punish them for their lack of faith, God sends fiery serpents to bite the people, and many of them die. Then the people run to Moses and apologize, and Moses prays for them.
“And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
Fast forward several centuries (according to the Bible): after centuries of cycles of piety and apostasy, Hezekiah becomes the 13th king of Judah. At this time, the Judahites and Israelites had fallen into a period of apostasy—they built altars in the highlands and sacrificed there, they worshipped other gods, built temples, made idols and graven images, etc.
During his reign, Hezekiah instituted religious reforms. He destroyed the temples, the idols, the graven images, etc.
Inside the inner court of the temple, the famed temple supposedly built by Solomon, the people had erected a bronze idol of a serpent. This was called Nehushtan. People worshipped this idol and they made offerings to it, a sacrilege to a believer of YHWH. So Hezekiah destroyed it by breaking it into pieces. (2 Kings 18:4)
After Hezekiah died, he was succeeded by his son, Manasseh. Manasseh was an apostate who reversed his father’s reforms and reintroduced polytheism into the kingdom, including allowing idols back into the courtyard of the temple. This reintroduction of idols presumably included Nehushtan.
After Manasseh died, Josiah became king, and Josiah reinstated Hezekiah’s reforms by purging the kingdom of temples, idols, priests, etc.
It’s important to understand that Josiah’s reforms were influential. The book of Deuteronomy was written, or at least compiled, in this period; it recast earlier lore and practices to coincide with Josiah’s reforms. Also, some of the source material for the Torah was written during this period.
Then, in 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and burned much of it to the ground, including the temple. As additional punishment, the Babylonians exiled many people to Babylon, where they remained until the Persians defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus the Great allowed the children of Israel to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple in 539 BCE.
It was during the exile that the Torah was first compiled. Judahites in Babylon edited together many sources and filled in some blanks and wrote some passages to connect various sources (in a process scholars call “redaction”).
It’s important to keep in mind the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple were psychologically devastating. For people in the ancient world, a temple wasn’t simply a place to worship—it was a place in which their god literally resided. God’s presence, according to the ancient Judahites, literally filled the temple—in the form of smoke. So when the temple was destroyed, they felt their god had abandoned them.
But why? Why had God abandoned them? These questions are what inspired the redaction, these questions are why the Torah was put together—to try to make sense of this catastrophe.
Apostasy, that God’s chosen people had so freely worshipped other gods, was one of the reasons the exiles attributed to the destruction of Jerusalem. In not heeding God’s words, in not following his commandments, in placing idols in the temple, in worshiping other gods in the temple, the people, according to the redactors, brought the destruction on themselves.
As a result of this interpretation, you find polemics throughout the Bible—throughout the Torah and in other places, such as Job’s bleak view of God and suffering in the book of Job, part of which was written in the post-exilic period.
So what does all this have to do with the serpent, you might ask? Well, I would respond, in light of the reasons for compiling the Torah, to account for the destruction of Jerusalem, for example, the redactors polemicized, and criticized and condemned, people who worshipped other gods and idols. By placing the serpent at the scene of the crime, so to speak, and making it a party to the actions that led to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, the redactors were attempting to discredit Nehushtan and its worshippers.
Even though serpents played a role in the Moses myth (and it’s possible that the tradition associating Moses with serpents was an old tradition), worship of idols, like Nehushtan, was also one of the reasons the redactors assumed Jerusalem was destroyed.
The serpent had nothing to do with Satan—that was superimposed centuries later, five or more centuries later, when the Christians came onto the scene. And, ultimately, it’s an interpretation you can discredit.