In a previous series of posts I made the case that the biblical literature does not yet identify the Edenic serpent with the Satan figure of the fallen angel legend. The conflation of these myths—the fall of man (cf. Genesis 3), on the one hand, and the descent of the wicked angels (cf. Genesis 6:1-4), on the other—was a post-biblical, or perhaps a para-biblical, development. Neither Genesis 3, nor the rest of the Hebrew Bible, nor the earliest Christian writings recognize the garden snake as the ringleader of the fallen angels and tormenter of the righteous.
If, then, the Devil is to be exorcised from the Garden of Eden, from the Genesis narrative as a whole, new questions emerge. For, when deprived of the sweeping messianic sense built atop the Yahwist’s etymological account (i.e. Protoevangelium), what becomes of the story? What meaning remains when the story of Eve and the serpent no longer satisfies cosmic and spiritual questions? Why, moreover, is it a snake, a “beast of the field” even, that introduces trouble into the world? And why, as a result, are humans and snakes forever locked in battle: “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:14-15)? Or, as the Septuagint puts it: “he will watch out for your head, and you will watch out for his heel.”
From our modern introspective, even philosophical, vantage, interest in snakes simply as animals may appear unsophisticated—especially for those who have become accustomed to finding profound spiritual insight in the Bible. It is worth reiterating, therefore, just how different the ancient mindset is from the modern, and just how much greater a threat the natural world posed to ancient man than it does to his modern counterpart.
Prior to the advent of medicine, pesticides, and, no doubt, firearms, wild animals in general and snakes in particular were a significant cause of death. Since most people spent most of their time working outside in rural settings, farmers, shepherds, craftsmen, and the like, were often exposed to the caprice of venomous creatures. That a snake might “strike” at one’s heel was thus a regular and fearsome occurrence in Antiquity. Jacob’s tribal blessings, for instance, likens the Danites to a snake that bites the “heel” of the rider’s horse and thus incapacitates Israel’s invaders (Genesis 49:17, cf. Isaiah 14:29). Dan would serve the Israelite confederation as a snake defends her brood, ambushing those who tread too close. The people of the ancient Near East understood this dynamic intimately and sometimes at great personal cost. Explaining the presence of these death-dealing serpents in God’s good creation was no insignificant matter.
Unsurprisingly then, ancient Israelite writers looked forward to a time when God would deliver his people from the machinations of snakes and all evil animals. During this golden age when Israel would be completely devoted to their God, Heaven would no longer send “wild animals” to “rob you of your children and destroy your livestock” (Leviticus 26:22). At this time God would not arouse the “fangs of the wild beasts… with the venom of vipers that slither in the dust (Deuteronomy 32:34, Jeremiah 8:17). Infants and children would no longer succumb to cobras and vipers as they roamed outside (Isaiah 11:8). Instead, the Lord would once and for all rid the land of “dangerous animals” (Leviticus 26:6). Snakes would then subsist on dust and dust alone, no longer permitted to harm God’s righteous people (Isaiah 65:25, cf. Psalm 91:13). In other words, Israel’s hard-fought war with serpents, having begun in the primordial wilderness of the Exodus (cf. Numbers 21:4-9, Deuteronomy 8:15), would finally come to a close.
In light of these practical hopes and fears, the story of the Edenic serpent communicates information that, while insignificant to most of us, would have been relevant to ancient readers. For such people the snake symbolized the intractable hostility between man and nature, representing death in its all too common form: sudden, unforeseen, tragic. It is therefore fitting, and perhaps inevitable, that the Yahwist locates the origin of human pain, toil, and mortality in the cunning of a serpent. From the beginning, so it seems, man and snake were destined to hate each other.