Added 6 January 2001
It seems to me that most if not all books on reptiles that I have read, especially those on snakes, contrast the "Western" cultural attitude towards the scaly creatures of this earth unfavourably with that of the more enlightened "Eastern" attitude, where snakes are venerated as the source of all wisdom, as are the mythical dragons. In particular the Garden of Eden story seems to be singled out for blame. Thus it becomes a stick with which to beat Judaeo-Christian belief, a fairly cheap and easy move in this day of political correctness and New Age vagueness. In this article I want to explode this myth of the inherent hostility of the Bible to snakes and other reptiles, and hopefully point to a more balanced attitude.
Most people, when they think of the Garden of Eden story, have a vague recollection about two naked humans, a snake, an apple and some fig leaves. If their recollection is particularly hazy they may imagine that sex had something to do it, although this was in fact not the case.
The actual story as reported in the Bible bears repeating as it has a powerful message for all eras, but particularly the technologically-led times such as our own. God, having created the entire universe from nothing, completes it by creating man in his (God's) image. Since the Hebrews who wrote the Genesis story were absolutely forbidden from portraying God in the physical likeness of any creature including man, we can only conclude that being made in God's image does not imply some sort of God-given mammalian superiority over reptiles, but rather having both rational and moral powers. Man was then placed in a place of paradise and given a sort of delegated authority over this garden, including, interestingly, power to name the animals. Genesis 3 implies that God was in a very close relationship with them in some way, and indeed the only thing that was forbidden them was the fruit (not necessarily an apple) of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The nakedness and lack of shame of Adam and Eve implies that they enjoyed an intimate communion with each other too, including full sexual relations (since God had also commanded them to "be fruitful").
From the above, then, we can see that the story takes place in a very different world from our own, a world of beauty uninhibited by either wrong behaviour or ugly laws and conventions. In that case, what are we to make of the snake? In most Bible translations I believe the snake is more poetically referred to as the serpent. It is interesting that in many cultures the snake is portrayed both as a symbol of wisdom and of cunning, and here it seems to play both roles too. Something else we must be clear on is that the snake was as much a part of God's creation as the rest of the creatures living in the Garden, including man himself. There is no suggestion that the snake was somehow created by the devil or some other malign power and smuggled into the Garden like a virus. That may have been the belief of some Gnostic philosophers, but it is certainly not the Biblical view.
Why, then, did the snake play the evil part and tempt Eve successfully? There seems to be no easy answer to this question. Part of the problem, remember, is that this story is in a very different sort of world. Theologians and Christian authorities seem to have given a variety of answers to this question, some unfortunately reflecting a phobia towards snakes as much as any Bible-based answer. However, two traditional answers seem to recur, both of which involve the personality known in the Bible as Satan (aka Beelzebub, the devil, Lucifer and so forth). According to traditional Christian theology, this character was in fact another part of God's creation, but a being much higher in some ways (certainly at least in supernatural power) than man. This being unfortunately was not content to play second fiddle to God, and in trying to play God himself found himself instead "cast out of heaven", as the saying goes. One view holds that Satan then somehow lured or otherwise controlled the serpent, much in the same way as he did Judas Iscariot a long time later. The other view, which may be more conducive to X-files fans but which I think is not so well supported by the Bible, is that the devil took on the appearance of the snake, being in essence a shape-shifter (this view was expressed in one of a recent series of Russian animated Bible stories). In defence of the latter view, St Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 11 that the devil can even pass himself off as an "angel of light", while Christ himself notes that Satan is a deceiver ("the father of lies", John 8). Elsewhere the devil is described as "that ancient dragon" (Revelation 12), while St Peter likens him to a "roaring lion" (1 Peter 5) looking for someone to devour. These passages would appear to indicate several things: firstly, that animal imagery is often used to describe the devil; secondly, that this evil being rarely assumes his own shape (unlike in certain horror movies) but seems to operate by disguising his true identity or (as in the case of Judas Iscariot, a human rather than a reptile!) using somebody else to do his work for him. So the thrust of the Bible seems to be not that the serpent in the Eden story was itself evil, but rather that it did an evil thing, either because it was actually the devil himself in a different form, or because it volunteered for the job or was coerced. In the gospels Judas goes a similar way, having certain character flaws (stealing, greed) and then deciding to betray Jesus, after which the devil enters him. Although we read that in some mysterious way Judas, in doing these things, actually fulfilled what was destined to happen, there is no indication that he was born different from any other man.
One other question remains: the curse placed on the serpent in Genesis 3 for its part in getting humankind expelled from the garden. The poetic nature of the passage implies that the serpent loses its legs and goes on its belly, eating dust, and furthermore speaks of emnity between it and mankind, the snake bruising Eve's heel but her offspring finally gaining the upper hand. In fact this can be, and probably has to be, read at two levels. Firstly, it has to be understood as a symbolic prophecy. If the serpent and its deeds in the story stand for what the devil has done, then the enmity of the serpent has to be understood as the enmity of the devil towards mankind and the hold he has over much of the human race, certainly in Old Testament times. The eventual triumph of Eve's offspring points a long way into the future, to the fact that Jesus was born a man (and therefore a distant descendant of Adam and Eve) but triumphed as God on the cross, thus destroying the power of Satan. The other parts of this passage are much easier. The leglessness of the serpent can be read as a punishment of a creature for doing Satan's work, but also interestingly ties in with the fact that although serpents are held to be much-modified fossorial lizards that emerged millions of years later from their underground existence, the "missing links" (fossil evidence) have not yet been found to make the transition. As for eating dust, this is obviously not referring to the snake's diet (although it might have appeared so to a casual observer watching a snake in the arid areas of Palestine!), but to the fact that it would be moving along the ground on its belly, figuratively "eating dirt" (to use a modern expression).
What is often ignored (partly, I think, because the Bible is less read these days) is that elsewhere in the Scriptures (especially the Old Testament, which is the source of the oft-criticised Eden story) reptiles are actually praised. I give the relevant passages below.
"Three things are too wonderful for me; four things I do not understand; the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden." (Book of Proverbs, 30:18-19).
"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." (Jesus' words in Gospel of Matthew, 10:16).
It is true that in the Book of Leviticus, various lizards are listed as unclean for the Jews (Leviticus 11:29-30). However, so are many other animals in the same chapter, including many familiar birds (eg eagles, falcons and owls) and mammals (mice, weasels, and of course pigs). Apart from the ritual aspect of this ban to impress on the Israelites the idea of holiness, there may have been some practical sense in not allowing the consumption of lizards since many in the wild do carry a heavy load of parasites which if consumed could cause problems to the eater (as indeed can parasites carried in the pig).
"Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in summer; the ants are a people not strong, yet they make their homes in the rocks; the locusts have no king, yet all of them can march in rank; the lizard you can take in your hand, yet it is in kings' palaces." (Proverbs 30:24-28).
The most famous crocodile passage in the Bible is in the Book of Job, a very profound book that deals with the problems of suffering and evil. In one of the final dialogues with Job, God draws his attention to first the hippopotamus (actually a dangerous animal if you get in its way) and then the crocodile. Earlier, when referring to the hippo, God says, "Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you" (Job 40:15) and after praising the virtues of this mammal goes on to praise the reptilian crocodile:
"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue
with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant for ever?
Will you play with him as a bird, or will you put him on leash for your maidens?
Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons, or his head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on him; think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed; he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up. Who then is he that can stand before me?
Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
"I will not keep silence concerning his limbs, or his mighty strength,
or his goodly frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment? Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?
Who can open the doors of his face? Round about his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields, shut up closely as with a seal.
One is so near to another that no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
His breath kindles coals, and a flames comes forth from his mouth.
In his neck abides strength, and terror dances before him.
The folds of his flesh cleave together, firmly cast upon him and immovable.
His heart is hard as a stone, hard as the nether millstone.
When he raises himself up the mighty are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail; nor the spear, the dart, or the javelin.
He counts iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee; for him slingstones are turned to stubble.
Clubs are counted as stubble; he laughs at the rattle of javelins.
His underparts are like sharp potsherds; he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
He makes the deep boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake; one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon the earth there is not his like, a creature without fear.
He beholds everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride."
(Book of Job, 41:1-34)
It is probably worth noting that in the days before firearms, crocodiles throughout the world grew to greater sizes than is usual today. The Nile crocodile (the species which Job and the Israelites would probably have been acquainted with) is one of the larger crocodilians, and in the Ancient Middle East this would have been reinforced by the fact that the Ancient Egyptians revered crocodiles and did not dare harm them.
In chapter 29 of the Book of Ezekiel, God denounces the then Pharaoh of Egypt
as a "great dragon" which may be referring to the Nile crocodile.
Once again the denunciation is not of the crocodile (or great dragon) as such
but of the human, Pharaoh, for his attitude.
The Bible makes it clear that God himself created all creatures on earth, and that therefore none of them is intrinsically flawed or evil. It is true that since the expulsion from paradise many of them (from single-celled protozoans to large crocodiles and tigers) have caused problems for mankind, just as we have for them through our own sins and failures. But God is still pleased with his creation and calls upon mankind to likewise delight in what he has made (one laboratory had Psalm 111:2 over its doorway, "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who have pleasure in them."). In addition, Christians live in hope that one day the present imbalance and struggles of nature will be redressed and restored. More on that another time!