Was the snake in the Garden of Eden a literal walking talking snake or was it something else? Some say yes, others may say no... I'm opening up a very detailed study on the Hebrew word "nachash" translated in English as the word "snake" in Genesis 3 to find a possible answer. This is a bit of a break off another topic in another section of the forum here.
This word study comes from the Hebrew scholar Michael S. Heiser. If you would like, please join in the discussion ....
Michael S. Heiser wrote:
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
It's probably not much of a risk on my part to assume that you've heard of or read the
story of the serpent and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But have you ever
wondered why Eve wasn't scared witless when the “serpent” spoke to her? If you go
back and read the account in Genesis 3, there's simply no indication that she did anything
but suppress a yawn—but why would that be the case? And, more to the point, what
does that have to do with the unfolding drama the Bible began with the creation of
humankind? And why did I put “serpent” in quotation marks? So glad you asked.
Did You Notice the Problem?
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, maybe animals back then could talk.” I've read this
sort of thing before. I hope you'll pardon me when I say that's absurd. This isn't
interpretation of the text; it's evasion of the issue. The only other instance where we
have an animal speaking to a human being in the Bible is that of Balaam's donkey in
Numbers 22:22-41. In that case the speech was prompted by an appearance of the divine
vice regent, the Angel of the Lord, and the text plainly tells us that it was God who
enabled the donkey to speak (v. 28). That certainly isn't the case in Genesis 3 with the
I know calling something absurd might not sound kind, but it's actually nicer than saying,
“If you want to take that view, then I hope you can live with contradictions between
passages in the Bible,” since that's where this view ultimately leads.
There are two other passages in the Old Testament that most scholars would say have
something to do with what happened in Eden in Genesis 3: Ezekiel 28:1-19 and Isaiah
14:1-22.1 In those passages God taunts and pronounces judgment on the kings of Tyre
and Babylon, respectively. To drive the point home that these kings deserve judgment,
the inspired prophet compares them to the supernatural being (a spectacular “cherub” in
Ezekiel 28, and “Lucifer, son of the dawn” in Isaiah 14) whose contemptuous pride
resulted in a failed coup against God.
Notice that these passages refer to a divine being, not a “serpent.” And that gets to the
heart of the issue. In both these passages, the primeval enemy of God, the being who
causes the fall of humankind into sin, is not a snake but some sort of supernatural being.
And it is absolutely certain the event referred to in Ezekiel 28 is that of Genesis 3, since
Ezekiel 28:13 mentions Eden and the garden.
Those who wish to argue that Lucifer appeared as a snake must cope with the fact that
there isn't a single biblical text that says Lucifer (or any other divine being) can change
into an animal. At best, this “solution” is simply a convenient escape hatch. And even if
there was such biblical evidence, it still doesn't answer why Lucifer would need or
choose to speak to Eve as a snake, or why Eve wasn't surprised. Having Lucifer appear
or possess a snake actually complicates matters, since this view still means that prior to
this assumed appearance or possession snakes didn't talk. Put another way, if Lucifer's
presence in the snake is the explanation for its speaking ability, then snakes didn't talk
before this happened. Eve still should have been shocked when the alleged snake started
the conversation. So the question remains: Who or what spoke to Eve—a literal snake, a
member of the animal kingdom, or a supernatural being?
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral…Or Something Else?
Fortunately, there's a simple answer for all this, but you might want to sit down first.
The reason why Eve wasn't shocked that a snake was talking to her is because she wasn't
talking to a snake. She was talking to a luminous divine being and not an animal of any
kind. That being may have had some sort of serpentine appearance, but he was not a
snake from the animal kingdom. To make my case to you we'll need to do two things:
(1) recall the ancient backdrop for the descriptions of the garden of Eden that I noted in
the last chapter; and (2) look at Genesis 3, Ezekiel 28, and Isaiah 14 very closely. We'll
start with the ancient backdrop.
In the last chapter I briefly sketched how the descriptions of the Garden of Eden in the
book of Genesis match descriptions of the location where, in both the Bible and other
ancient Near Eastern texts, the divine council “lived” or met for business.2 Council
gatherings took place on a “cosmic mountain,” the place where heaven and earth
intersected, where divine decrees were given, and kingship was exercised. The cosmic
mountain was not only described as a mountain, but was also a well-watered place, a
beautiful garden.3 I pointed out that Eden is described as both a well-watered garden and
a mountain—and the place where Yahweh announced his decision to create humanity to
his divine council. The description of Eden as a divine mountain comes from Ezekiel
28:13-14. The same chapter refers to Eden as the “seat of the gods” (moshab elohim).
The word “seat” of course refers to the place of administration, even in our own language
(“county seat”). The imagery is quite consistent. The only significant difference is that
in Ezekiel the enemy of God is a shining divine being, whereas it is a serpent in Genesis.
I'm arguing, of course, that this difference is only apparent.
But what about the plain wording of Genesis 3? Isn't the chapter crystal clear that the
thing talking to Eve was a snake? Actually, the vocabulary is clear, but the meaning that
traditional interpretation has given it is not, and has in fact produced the “snake” problem
noted above. The Hebrew word translated “serpent” or “snake” in Genesis 3 is nachash
(pronounced, nakash). More specifically, the word is ha-nachash. The prefixed “ha” is
the way Hebrew denotes a definite article (the word for “the”). So ha-nachash may be
said to mean “the nachash.”
The word nachash is a very elastic term in Hebrew. It can function as a noun, a verb, or
even as an adjective. When nachash functions as a noun it means “snake,” and so the
traditional translation is possible—but it yields the contradiction with Ezekiel 28 and
Isaiah 14 noted above.4 When nachash serves as a verb it means “to practice
divination.”5 That meaning could also be possible in Genesis 3 due to the deception or
going on—Lucifer claiming to have the “real” word from God. When a verb receives an
article attached to it, the action of the verb is then transformed into a person doing the
action. Hence the word ha-nachash would then best be translated “the diviner.”
The third option—the adjectival meaning of nachash—is the solution to the contradiction
problem. When nachash serves as an adjective, it's meaning is “shining bronze” or
“polished” (as in “shiny”). By adding the definite article to the word, ha-nachash would
then quite easily mean “the shining one.” Angelic or divine beings are elsewhere
described in the Bible as “shining” or luminous, at times with this very word, nachash.6
We often don't think about how common this vocabulary of “shining brilliance” is for
angels and other divine beings. The Bible abounds with descriptions of such beings as
“flashing” or “as lightning,” or uses the brilliance of jewels to describe the blazing
appearance of such beings. This has important ramifications for solving the “snake”
What's so significant about translating ha-nachash as “shining one” and not “snake” in
Genesis 3? Very simply, “shining one” is the literal meaning of “Lucifer.” The name
“Lucifer” is actually Latin and comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Hebrew
Old Testament. In Isaiah 14:12, the Hebrew name of primeval conspirator against God is
“Helel ben-Shachar”—“Shining One, son of the Dawn.” Translating ha-nachash as
“Shining One” removes the contradiction of seeing a snake vs. a supernatural being in
Eden since it provides an explicit parallel between the two passages.
We have words like this in English if you think about it. The very same noun / verb /
adjective interplay is evident here:
(Noun): “The cleanup is going to take a long time.”
(Verb): “We must clean up this oil spill.”
(Adjective): “The cleanup procedures need to be followed.”
What results from this approach is that Eve was confronted by a member of the divine
council “on the way to work,” so to speak. She wasn't surprised, because she saw these
beings come and go with regularity. We get the flavor of this context in Genesis 3:22.
Following Adam and Eve's sin God laments that now the two “have become as one of
us”—the same plural language as in Genesis 1:26. Eden was the place where council was
held. It just happened that on this day, one of them had a score to settle.
Personally, I think it quite possible that the choice of the word nachash in Genesis 3 was
designed as a double entendre. The enemy of God was a shining divine being that also
had a serpentine appearance. No, I'm not contradicting what I said above. Saying that
Eve was speaking to a divine being of serpentine appearance is different than saying she
was dealing with a snake from the animal kingdom. Ezekiel 28 supports this notion.
A Closer Look at Ezekiel and Isaiah
Neither the name “Helel” nor the word nachash appear in Ezekiel 28, but we do have a
corresponding description of Eden's villain. Note the underlined portions of Ezekiel
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your
covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald,
and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the
day that you were created they were prepared. 14 You were a shining7 guardian
cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the
stones of fire8 you walked.
The point of the description is the same as Isaiah 14 and Genesis 3. The appearance of
the supernatural rebel in the garden of Eden is described with brilliant, shining jewels.
The description of this shining being as “shining, guardian cherub” points to a serpentine
appearance for this divine being, and therefore another parallel to Genesis 3. It is
common among Bible scholars to suppose that the cherubim were sphinx-like creatures,
based primarily on some carved depictions of thrones from Egypt and Phoenicia. Certain
carvings portray thrones that are, as in Ezekiel 1, supported by creatures with wings and
four faces. This perspective, while possible, isn't terribly coherent in Ezekiel 28. It
cannot account for why the being in Eden—and so parallel to the entity in Genesis 3—
isn't described as sphinx-like, or leonine, or having four faces. The reality is that the
meaning and derivation of the Hebrew word for “cherub” is uncertain.9 The most likely
possibility is that the term refers to a spirit being who guards or blesses (praises), or
which serves as the gatekeeper to the divine throne room, without respect to physical
Curiously—and perhaps tellingly—those beings whose station is in God's throne room
and who are portrayed in the Old Testament as praising God in the throne room do have a
serpentine appearance (Isaiah 6). These beings are known to us as seraphim. Decades
ago scholars believed that the word saraph (the plural is seraphim) meant “burning one”
or “fiery one” since there was a Hebrew verb of that spelling with that meaning.
However, the common Hebrew noun saraph means “serpent.” Numbers 21:8 is but one
of the more obvious examples of this word and that meaning. For our purposes,
seraphim were not mere snakes from the animal kingdom—they had hands, feet, and
wings, and could speak (Isa 6:2, 6). They were apparently something both human-like
and serpentine.10 If “cherub” is merely a generic term for a being whose appointment
was in the throne room of God, this would account for why the adversary of Eve in Eden
is described with that term and yet as nachash in Genesis 3.
But what about the curses of Genesis 3? Surely those rule out a translation of “Shining
One” and help us salvage the traditional view, despite its problems. This approach is a
bit misguided, since the curses describe the nachash in terms of what he would be after
he was punished, not before. In fact, the curses make far more sense if they are directed
at a fallen divine being than a mere snake. Why? Let me point out a couple of the most
First, consider the cursing of the nachash with respect to Eve. God tells the nachash that
there will be “enmity” or some sort of adversarial relationship between the offspring of
Eve (human beings, not necessarily female) and the offspring of the nachash. What are
we to make of this if the nachash is only a snake from the animal kingdom?
Commentators have danced around that issue for millennia. The fact is that all humans
do not hate or fear snakes, and snakes do not by nature exist to attack or harass humans.
In Gen. 3:14 we read that God curses the nachash to eat dust all the days of his life.
Snakes do not eat dirt as a means of sustenance, and so the curse is not meant to be taken
literally. This of course has given rise to the notion that before the Fall snakes were
upright animals—an idea for which I have even seen some Christian commentators
appeal to evolutionary biology! If this kind of literalism is brought to the passage, then
one is pressed to answer questions like: “How do we know which parts of the curse are
figurative and which are literal?”; “In what way is it the worst curse to crawl on the
ground? (“cursed are you above all livestock”). Other creatures crawl on their belly, and
so their “fate” is at least as bad. And there are worse fates in the animal kingdom. Some
creatures live only to be eaten by others. I would suggest that snakes were created by God
the way we know them today and that their method of propulsion has nothing to do with
what happened in Genesis 3.
Lastly, in case you're still stuck on the first verse of Genesis 3, I need to let you in on a
secret. Check a variety of English translations on Genesis 3:1. Many will have something
like, “Now the serpent was craftier than any of the other beasts of the field . . .” Surely
the fact that Genesis 3:1 says “the other beasts” means that the serpent was an animal,
right? I could agree with that, but the secret is that the word “other” isn't in the Hebrew
text! It's supplied by translators interpretively. The text literally says, “Now the serpent
was craftier than any beasts of the field,” to which I say, no kidding—he was a divine
being, so he ought to be smarter! Rather than argue in favor of the nachash being a
snake, a member of the animal kingdom, Genesis 3:1 implies that the nachash was a
Frankly, I think a more serious question in all this should be put to those who want a
snake in the garden: “How can this curse in Genesis 3:14 be reconciled with the
punishment of Eden's divine rebel described in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28?” A look at the
passages below will tell you immediately that there is nothing like what is traditionally
imagined in Genesis 3 in these other Eden passages. In Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 the rebel
is punished by banishment to “Sheol” (the Hebrew place of the dead and punishment, see
below) or being “cast to the earth.” These descriptions are hopelessly irreconcilable with
Genesis 3 if one has an animal, a snake, in view. Note the specific underlined
Source: http://www.michaelsheiser.com/MHeiserCh ... achash.pdf