19 THE SERPENT OF GENESIS 3
In Genesis 3 we have neither allegory, myth, legend, nor fable, but literal historical facts set forth, and emphasised by the use of certain Figures of speech (see Ap. 6).
All the confusion of thought and conflicting exegesis have arisen from taking literally what is expressed by Figures, or from taking figuratively what is literal. A Figure of speech is never used except for the purpose of calling attention to, emphasising, and intensifying, the reality of the literal sense, and the truth of the historical facts; so that, while the words employed may not be so strictly true to the letter, they are all the more true to the truth conveyed by them, and to the historical events connected with them.
But for the figurative language of verses 14 and 15 [Gen 3:14, 15] no one would have thought of referring the third chapter of Genesis to a snake: no more than he does when reading the third chapter from the end of Revelation (Rev. 20:2). Indeed, the explanation added there, that the “old serpent” is the Devil and Satan, would immediately lead one to connect the word “old” with the earlier and former mention of the serpent in Gen. 3:14 and the fact that it was Satan himself who tempted “the second man”, “the last Adam”, would force the conclusion that no other than the personal Satan could have been the tempter of “the first man, Adam”.
The Hebrew word rendered “serpent” in Gen. 3:1 is Nācḥāsh (from the root Nācḥāsh, to shine), and means a shining one. Hence, in Chaldee it means brass or copper, because of its shining. Hence also, the word Neḥushtān, a piece of brass, in 2 Kings 18:4.
In the same way Sārāph, in Isa. 6:2, 6, means a burning one, and, because the serpents mentioned in Num. 21 [Num. 21:6] were burning, in the poison of their bite, they were called Saraphim, or Seraphs.
But when the LORD said unto Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent” (Num. 21:8), He said, “Make thee a Sārāph”, and, in obeying this command, we read in v. 9, “Moses made a Nācḥāsh of brass”. Nācḥāsh is thus used as being interchangeable with Sārāph.
Now, if Sārāph is used of a serpent because its bite was burning, and is also used of a celestial or spirit-being (a burning one), why should not Nāchāsh be used of a serpent because its appearance was shining, and be also used of a celestial or spirit-being (a shining one)?
Indeed, a reference to the structure of Gen. 3 (on p. 7) will show that the Cherubim (which are similar celestial or spirit-beings) of the last verse (Gen. 3:24) require a similar spirit-being to correspond with them in the first verse (for the structure of the whole chapter is a great Introversion). The Nācḥāsh, or serpent, who beguiled Eve (2 Cor. 11:3) is spoken of as “an angel of light” in v. 14 [2 Cor 11:14]. Have we not, in this, a clear intimation that it was not a snake, but a glorious shining being, apparently an angel, to whom Eve paid such great deference, acknowledging him as one who seemed to possess superior knowledge, and who was evidently a being of a superior (not of an inferior) order? Moreover, in the description of Satan as “the king of Tyre” it is distinctly implied that the latter being was of a supernatural order when he is called “a cherub” (Ezek. 28:14, 16, read from vv. 11–19). His presence “in Eden, the garden of ’Elohim” (v. 13) [Ezek 28:13], is also clearly stated, as well as his being “perfect in beauty” (v. 12) [Ezek 28:12], his being “perfect in his ways from the day he was created till iniquity was found in him” (v. 15) [Ezek 28:15], and as being “lifted up because of his beauty” (v. 17) [Ezek 28:17].
These all compel the belief that Satan was the shining one (Nācḥāsh) in Gen. 3, and especially because the following words could be addressed to him:—“Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee” (v. 17) [Ezek 28:17].
Even supposing that these things were spoken to, and of, an exalted human being in later days (in Ezek. 28), still “the king of Tyre” is not compared to a being who was non-existent; and facts and circumstances which never happened are not introduced into the comparison.
There is more about “the king of Tyre” in Ezek. 28:11–19 than was literally true of “the prince of Tyre” (vv. 1–10) [Ezek 28:1-10]. The words can be understood only of the mightiest and most exalted supernatural being that God ever created; and this for the purpose of showing how great would be his fall. The history must be true to make the prophecy of any weight.
Again, the word rendered “subtle” in Gen. 3:1 (see note) means wise, in a good sense as well as in a bad sense. In Ezek. 28:12 we have the good sense, “Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom”; and the bad sense in v. 17 [Ezek 28:17], “thou hast corrupted thy wisdom” (referring, of course, to his fall). So the word rendered “subtle” is rendered “prudent” in Prov. 1:4; 8:12; 12:23; 14:8; and in a bad sense in Job 15:5. 1 Sam. 23:22. Ps. 83:3.
The word “beast” also, in Gen. 3:1, chay, denotes a living being, and it is as wrong to translate zōa “beasts” in Rev. 4 (Rev 4:6, 7, 8], as it is to translate chay “beast” in Gen. 3. Both mean living creature. Satan is thus spoken of as being “more wise than any other living creature which Jehovah Elohim had made”. Even if the word “beast” be retained, it does not say that either a serpent or Satan was a “beast”, but only that he was “more wise” than any other living being.
We cannot conceive Eve as holding converse with a snake, but we can understand her being fascinated by one, apparently “an angel of light” (i.e. a glorious angel), possessing superior and supernatural knowledge.
When Satan is spoken of as a “serpent”, it is the figure Hypocatastasis (see Ap. 6) or Implication; it no more means a snake than it does when Dan is so called in Gen. 49:17; or an animal when Nero is called a “lion” (2 Tim. 4:17), or when Herod is called a “fox” (Luke 13:32); or when Judah is called “a lion’s whelp”. It is the same figure when “doctrine” is called “leaven” (Matt. 16:6). It shows that something much more real and truer to truth is intended. If a Figure of speech is thus employed, it is for the purpose of expressing the truth more impressively; and is intended to be a figure of something much more real than the letter of the word.
Other Figures of speech are used in vv. 14, 15 [Gen 3:14, 15], but only for the same purpose of emphasising the truth and the reality of what is said.
When it is said in v. 15 [Gen 3:15], “thou shalt bruise His heel”, it cannot mean His literal heel of flesh and blood, but suffering, more temporary in character. When it is said (v. 15), “He shall crush thy head”, it means something more than a skull of bone, and brain, and hair. It means that all Satan’s plans and plots, policy and purposes, will one day be finally crushed and ended, never more to mar or to hinder the purposes of God. This will be effected when Satan shall be bruised under our feet (Rom. 16:20). This, again, will not be our literal feet, but something much more real.
The bruising of Christ’s heel is the most eloquent and impressive way of foretelling the most solemn events; and to point out that the effort made by Satan to evade his doom, then threatened, would become the very means of insuring its accomplishment; for it was through the death of Christ that he who had the power of death would be destroyed; and all Satan’s power and policy brought to an end, and all his works destroyed (Heb. 2:14. 1 John 3:8. Rev. 20:1–3, 10). What literal words could portray these literal facts so wonderfully as these expressive Figures of speech?
It is the same with the other Figures used in v. 14 [Gen 3:14], “On thy belly shalt thou go”. This Figure means infinitely more than the literal belly of flesh and blood; just as the words “heel” and “head” do in v. 15 [Ge 3:15]. It paints for the eyes of our mind the picture of Satan’s ultimate humiliation; for prostration was ever the most eloquent sign of subjection. When it is said “our belly cleaveth unto the ground” (Ps. 44:25), it denotes such a prolonged prostration and such a depth of submission as could never be conveyed or expressed in literal words.
So with the other prophecy, “Dust shalt thou eat”. This is not true to the letter, or to fact, but it is all the more true to truth. It tells of constant, continuous disappointment, failure, and mortification; as when deceitful ways are spoken of as feeding on deceitful food, which is “sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth shall be filled with gravel” (Prov. 20:17). This does not mean literal “gravel”, but something far more disagreeable. It means disappointment so great that it would gladly be exchanged for the literal “gravel”. So when Christians are rebuked for “biting and devouring one another” (Gal. 3:14, 15), something more heart-breaking is meant than the literal words used in the Figure.
When “His enemies shall lick the dust” (Ps. 72:9) they will not do it on their knees with their literal tongues; but they will be so prostrated and so utterly defeated, that no words could literally depict their overthrow and subjugation.
If a serpent was afterward called a nāchash, it was because it was more shining than any other creature; and if it became known as “wise”, it was not because of its own innate positive knowledge, but of its wisdom in hiding away from all observation; and because of its association with one of the names of Satan (that old serpent) who “beguiled Eve” (2 Cor. 11:3, 14).
It is wonderful how a snake could ever be supposed to speak without the organs of speech, or that Satan should be supposed able to accomplish so great a miracle.
It only shows the power of tradition, which has, from the infancy of each one of us, put before our eyes and written on our minds the picture of a “snake” and an “apple”: the former based on a wrong interpretation, and the latter being a pure invention, about which there is not one word said in Holy Scripture.
Never was Satan’s wisdom so craftily used as when he secured universal acceptance of this traditional belief: for it has succeeded in fixing the attention of mankind on the letter and the means, and thus blinding the eyes to the solemn fact that the Fall of man had to do solely with the Word of God, and is centred in the sin of believing Satan’s lie instead of Jehovah’s truth.
The temptation of “the first man Adam” began with the question “Hath God said?” The temptation of “the second man, the Lord from heaven” began with the similar question “If Thou be the Son of God”, when the voice of the Father had scarcely died away, which said “This IS My beloved Son”.
All turned on the truth of what Jehovah had said.
The Word of God being questioned, led Eve, in her reply, (1) to omit the word “freely” (Gen. 3:2, cp. Gen. 2:16); then (2) to add the words “neither shalt thou touch it” (Gen. 3:3, cp. Gen. 2:17); and finally (3) to alter a certainty into a contingency by changing “thou SHALT SURELY die” (Gen. 2:17) into “LEST ye die” (Gen. 3:3).
It is not without significance that the first Ministerial words of “the second Man” were “It is written”, three times repeated [Mat 4:4, 7, 10]; and that His last Ministerial words contained a similar threefold reference to the written Word of God (John 17:8, 14, 17).
The former temptation succeeded because the Word of God was three times misrepresented; the latter temptation was successfully defeated because the same Word was faithfully repeated.
The history of Gen. 3 is intended to teach us the fact that Satan’s sphere of activities is in the religious sphere, and not the spheres of crime or immorality; that his battlefield is not the sins arising from human depravity, but the unbelief of the human heart. We are not to look for Satan’s activities to-day in the newspaper press, or the police courts; but in the pulpit, and in professors’ chairs. Wherever the Word of God is called in question, there we see the trail of “that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan”. This is why anything against the true interests of the Word of God (as being such) finds a ready admission into the newspapers of the world, and is treated as “general literature”. This is why anything in favour of its inspiration and Divine origin and its spiritual truth is rigidly excluded as being “controversial”.
This is why Satan is quite content that the letter of Scripture should be accepted in Gen. 3, as he himself accepted the letter of Ps. 91:11. He himself could say “It is written” (Matt. 4:6) so long as the letter of what is “written” could be put instead of the truth that is conveyed by it; and so long as it is misquoted or misapplied.
This is his object in perpetuating the traditions of the “snake” and the “apple”, because it ministers to the acceptance of his lie, the hiding of God’s truth, the support of tradition, the jeers of the infidel, the opposition of the critics, and the stumbling of the weak in faith.
Bullinger, E. W. (2018). The Companion Bible: Being the Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Notes, Critical, Explanatory and Suggestive and with 198 Appendixes (Vol. 2, pp. 24–25). Bellingham, WA: Faithlife.