It is not the devil. It is the serpent.
The only passage I can find in the bible that links the devil to the serpent is in Revelation where the devil is referred to as "the old serpent", which doesn't necessarily mean this serpent. So why was I taught in Sunday school that it was the devil who tempted Eve? Why do most Christians assume that the serpent in Genesis is the devil?
In fact, where is the devil in the old testament? He isn't there! The devil appears to be more or less a new testament concept - certainly, he was not considered in the oldest OT books and the vague references to him in the more recent OT books are, erm, open to interpretation at the very least.
Before you jump up and down and say "What about Job? Look, 'Satan' plays a big role there...", have a look at the character of Satan in Job. This is not the devil as we understand him today. This Satan appears to, essentially, work for God - his job is to be the adversary or the accuser, but it is clear that he only does what God intends. He isn't the devil, he's more like a 'devil's advocate' - the role played by a good guy to test a theory or, in the case of Job, a character.
'Satan' seems to fill this role in all the OT instances where the word is used. Satan works with God rather than against him. Essentially Satan's role appears to make the case for the prosecution - and not all prosecution lawyers are evil...
So when did the concept of the devil make it into Jewish/Christian thought? And (more importantly for us) if the devil is a concept introduced from somewhere else, is there any truth in the concept? Is there a devil?
I suppose we need to define what we mean by 'devil' before we can address if he exists. When I talk about the devil here I am asking if the spiritual being who seeks to undo the things of God and actively fights against Christians is actually a single person. Christians seem to believe that there are many demons or devils, but only one Satan - the prince of demons. And if he is there, where did he come from?
Certainly, the New Testament writers believed he was a real person. But WDJB (what did Jesus believe)? If the gospels are to be believed, Jesus seems to have spoken about the devil and hell more than anyone else, so what does he say?
- Temptation in the wilderness: Matthew speaks of 'the devil' personally tempting Jesus for 40 days, Mark speaks of 'Satan' in the same role.
- When Jesus is accused of driving out demons by satanic powers he asserts that he uses God's power, because why would Satan drive out Satan - if that was the case, satan's kingdom would be divided and would fall. Here Jesus uses the name 'Beelzebub' synonymously with 'Satan'. Beelzebub is referred to as the 'Prince of demons'.
- Parable of the weeds: it is the devil who plants the weeds.
- Jesus once accuses Peter of being 'Satan' - because he was worldly in his thoughts, not heavenly minded.
- Jesus said the 'eternal fire' was prepared for 'the devil and his angels'.
- Parable of the sower - the birds who eat the seed on the path are like the devil who steals the 'word' from people's hearts.
- In John 8 Jesus calls his listeners 'children of the devil' and says this of the devil: "He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
- John speaks of 'the devil' entering Judas at the last supper.
But if the four gospels are taken to be accurate, then it appears that Jesus thought that Satan was a real person. But I'm not sure Jesus spoke of Satan on the same terms as some contemprorary Christians do, or even on the same terms as the epistle writers did. The epistle writers and many Christians today speak of fleeing the devil and engaging in warfare with the devil and give him credit for quite a lot of power. Jesus merely presents the devil as a thief and a liar. He can steal the word away from the hearts of non-believers, he can plant 'weeds' - people who can make life hard for Christians, he can lie. But that appears to be the extent of his powers.
Now it is interesting that Jesus speaks of Satan (the adversary) synonymously with Beelzebub ('Baal-Zebub' the god of the Philistines in 2 Kings 1). In the Old Testament these are clearly two seperate entities - indeed, the god Baal is presented as a false god, merely an impotent idol. But when we get to the New Testament the idol Baal has become a person and the prince of demons. Is this just a case of names getting confused, or the same name being given to two seperate things, or was the 1st Century concept of the devil really based on the OT idol? If so, where did he get his powers?
I have read a few theories about the devil essentially being a borrowed concept. During the Babylonian exile, the people if Israel were mixed up with the Babylonians and there was undoubtedly a mixing of cultures and beliefs there. What happens when you mix a bunch of people who believe in one all powerful God (with no significant enemies) with a bunch of folk who believe in two equal and opposite gods (Zoroastrians - their good god is more or less equally matched by an evil god)? Well, you might end up with a concept of a hugely powerful God with a pretty powerful (but not as powerful) enemy...
So we come back to the question of is there a real devil? And if there is, how powerful is he?
I don't know. I'm not trying to promote one opinion here more than any other. I'm just thinking out loud really. Certainly, Jesus believed in a devil, so as Christians we should follow his example. But is that devil someone to be feared or merely avoided? Please post your thoughts and comments below.
But anyway, I kind of got distracted away from my starting point, which was the Serpent in the garden of Eden. Even if there is a devil, I'm not sure this story speaks about him. So what do we know about the serpent?
Genesis 3v1: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
So here we have some form of (I assume) reptilian being who is 'crafty' and can talk. Furthermore it appears that the serpent is reasonably intelligent, certainly intelligent enough to philosophise. Also note that this serpent is not a snake - it is not until verse 14 that the serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly - I assume it had limbs.
I wonder if there is more here than meets the eye. Science has demonstrated that reptiles were the dominant creatures on the planet for hundreds of millions of years - far, far longer than mammals or humans have been dominant. In the past 60 million years or so mammals have evolved from small rodenty type things to us - intelligent enough to talk and philosophise about the world. Evolution had much longer to work with the reptiles - why couldn't they have developed intelligence, speech and philosophy? If you look at the fossil record, the evolutionary trend in the late cretacious period was towards medium sized, bipedal, intelligent dinosaurs (velociraptors, coelurus, troodon, dimeonychus, etc.) which were more-or-less the dinosaur equivalent of primates, including us. I think it is actually not unreasonable to assume that one or more of these species developed in much the same way that we have. To assume that we are the only possible intelligent species is simply arrogance on our part, others may have gone before, others may come after, indeed, there may be others elsewhere in the universe - and they're unlikely to look like us.
Which brings me back to the serpent in Genesis. Perhaps this is based on a racial memory of intelligent reptiles able to talk? If this is the case, all that survived is the story that they rejected God and were cursed by him as a consquence. Or perhaps there was no overlap of intelligent dinosaurs and intelligent people, but perhaps God revealed the story to his early followers as a warning - 'this is what happened to the last lot who rejected me...' or perhaps I'm just talking a lot of nonsense, sorry, this is what my thoughts are like sometimes.
Are any of you with me on this one?
Personally, I'd like to think that the dinosaurs did reach the stage of intelligence, civilisation and culture. I don't think these qualities are uniquely human - indeed I hope not, just in case we do encounter other life out there when we finally make it out into the universe properly.