Thursday, July 13, 2006

The serpent and the devil

Read the first few chapters in the bible. Read them again. Who is it who tempts Eve?

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.
In some of these instances, I think Jesus is talking about Satan (or the Devil or Beelzebub) as a concept - I don't think that Jesus meant that Peter had actually become Satan on that occasion, but rather he was taking on the role of the adversary.

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.


Anonymous said...

Hey dude, Gareth pointed me to your page, and you seem to have quite similar beliefs to me, so I've subscribed to this blog, its a really interesting read.

This post was pretty fascinating. I always like it when my ingrained perceptions are challenged, as you've done here.

The thing I thought about, when I was reading what you've written, is that we are told Satan rebelled against God, but maybe this occurs later than we thought, like only at the New Testament or something, and prior, Satan had a role to play, or was merely rebellious in some ways, but useful in others, so was tolerated by God, until his betrayal, where he became the enemy.

I very much agree with your point about people giving Satan too much power nowadays. It seems anything that goes wrong for some Christians is caused by Satan, but that seems to give Satan equal power with God, with seems both rather worrying and untrue. Thinking of Satan as a fallen angel is a nice thought, as it gives him some level of power above us, but is very much below God, and helps to explain why it was inevitable that God would be victorious against him. Reading Revelation, didn't look like it was a huge challenge for Satan to get overthrown, which should perhaps indicate the amount of power he has now.

Anyway, also just thinking out loud, but keep on blogging about this stuff, its really good!

Ricky Carvel said...


Welcome. I'm currently being sceptical about the whole Satan-rebelled-against-God idea. Most of what Christian's believe about the origins of the Devil is built on inference rather than anything explicit. And all the inferences come in passages that are told in 'picture language' anyway, eg Ezekiel 28 (has anyone considered that maybe this is actually about the King of Tyre and not about Lucifer?)

And where does Lucifer come into it? The name's not in my concordance.

Anyway, I am coming more to the conclusion that the contemporary concept of the devil is not the same as the concept that Jesus had as it has become intertwined with other beliefs to create a much more powerful opposition than is actually there.

But I'm still thinking this through...


Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

> Where does Lucifer come into it?

Isa 14:12 in the good ol' KJV:
"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!"

cf. Lk 10:18

> Anyway, I am coming more to the conclusion that the contemporary concept of the devil is not the same as the concept that Jesus had.

That all depends on whose concept you take as contemporary. The discrepancy is more between those who give the devil too much credit (verging on the outright dualism of Zoroastrians, Gnostics etc) and both testaments of scripture, rather than between Old and New.

Both Old and New Testaments proclaim God as the sovereign Lord who is master of all things, even Satan and the fallen angels. The demons obey Jesus' command in the gospels just as Satan obeys the command of God in Job.

> Why do most Christians assume that the serpent in Genesis is the devil?

Various reasons

a) Satan is linked to the serpent in other scriptures outside of revelation: Lk 10:18-19

b) The serpent was the first deceiver, but Jesus says that the father of lies is the devil: Jn 8:44

c) Revelation explicitly joins the dots revealing Satan as the ancient serpent and the deceiver: Rev 12:19

What is significant in the fall is that God's intended line of delegated authority was turned on its head. Instead of God -> Man -> Woman -> Animals and all creation, we have Animal(Serpent) -> Woman -> Man -> God. This was not just a prank gone wrong, but the scheme of one diametrically opposed to the purpose of God.

If the serpent is not the devil then he's his twin brother!

Ricky Carvel said...

See also
this blog posting...

Anonymous said...

Most of the theories posted here and elsewhere on the web take more faith to believe than the simple Biblical accounts. We're not so smart!

Ricky Carvel said...

Probably true, Anonymous. But this post, more than most, is just mind-rambling speculation, and not claiming to be the authoratitave truth.

Wht should we take anything 'on faith' with no evidence?

Anonymous said...

You clearly don't know your Bible. He's in the very first book. Genisis. Chapter 3 in fact..
He's in all of the books in the old testiment.

Ricky Carvel said...

Hello Anonymous.

Did you even read my post?

'The Serpent' is in Genesis 3. 'The devil' isn't. Now it may be that these are one and the same, but this isn't clear in the text. Which is kind of the point I am making here.

And no. He's not in all the books in the old testament. Not by a long shot. Unless you see the world through 'devil tinted sunglasses' of course.

malmarie said...

This was a very interesting blog. I have been studying my bible very closely and this question of the "serpent" being satan or not kept tugging at my nerves.

I presented this very question to my 10 year old son, who is very smart and full of reason. I also asked him because he has not been filled with thouthts of dogmatic doctrine and questionable interpretation of the bible.....He simply said, "Mom isn't it clear that the serpent is a beast ranked higher than the other animals?? Therefore being able to speak would then be reasonable. Afterall, Eve was not alarmed that this serpent could speak to her."

The term Serpent means "deciever", Satin means "advisary" and the term "Devil" is in reference to a slander. These are mere titles that describe the actions of the those that fall from God's direction and concil. There is deep parallel beween the serpent and the devil and satin, but that only leaves us to our best guesses(perhaps all this guessing and thinking is only caused by the inherited "knowlege" from the forbidden tree). There is good reason as to why we didn't need to know or be aware of certain things... It seems to me that our reasoning only gets us more confused and frustrated.

I think it is unfortunate that man's pride has brought about so many religions (more confusion) ,....Everyone thinks THEY are right. I have a hard time knowing whether or not the bible reads as it should. It is very possible that much has been lost in translation..........

Even if you put faith into what is written, we have to be careful not to allow apostate interpretation to cloud what is right there in black and white! A great example of terrible interpretation is that of the Cherubs. Uhhh, they are nowhere near the cute little chubby angel that artists depict!!! Quite the opposite (according to the bible)! These are fiece, strong angels that guard and protect gates. They are described as haveing 4 heads, each of a different beast....Doesn't sound so sweet to me!

O.k. I didn't mean to write a book. My point was that even though we have many questions, we shouldn't get caught up in demanding to have the answers. I think the ONLY thing that Christians should put their trust in, is the example of the perfect peacful life of Jesus. I don't recall him toiling with all of these details because they are not important. We all posses this peace, I believe it is only revealed to those that truely seek it.

Madison said...

seems like the simplest thing to do would be to go ask a rabbi. after all the jews would know how jews think. they do pride themselves on "never changing" their faith like the catholics. so ask a arabbi what they believe about the devil. what do they say their tanak and talmud say... seems odd to argue what it means when jews are so readily available to ask.

Anonymous said...

"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..."

The answer you seek is within the above passage from your blog. The Babylonian exile is a major event in Jewish history. That is where they borrowed their cosmogony from Zoroaster. Zoroaster is also the inventor of astrology. Seek Adam(Bootes), Eve(Virgo), and the serpent(Serpens) there (the night sky), not the Bible, for that is their true origin. Most Jews believe at least the first 10 chapters of Genesis to be folklore.