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Garden of Eden Story Elements Connecting Serpent to Satan

What elements of the story of the garden of Eden might have led people to connect the serpent to Satan?

So in the story of the garden of Eden, you have the man and the woman and this forbidden fruit on this tree that they’re not supposed to eat from, and they seem to be playing along with God’s rules until one day the serpent, who apparently can talk, says to the woman, you know, “Did God tell you that you can’t eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden?” And she said, “No. No. It’s just this tree, the fruit of this tree, that we can’t eat or touch or we’ll die.” And the serpent says, “Oh, you won’t die, but God knows that the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods.” With that, the woman sees the fruit; she sees that maybe it’s a source of wisdom, and she takes her from it, and she eats, and apparently her man is with her according to the text, and she gives it to him, and they eat, and their eyes are open. And what that shows us is that the serpent is correct. They don’t die, their eyes are opened, and they realize that they’re naked, and they cover themselves. We don’t have a devil there. We have a talking snake, but it’s very easy to see how later thinkers about this text who were thinking in a very different context, where they’re thinking that it’s not the human’s fault, there’s some outside force acting on them, that then the serpent would get the blame. In this order for the serpent to be that powerful and that wise and able to talk, they sort of conflate the notion of the devil with the serpent. But the thing is that when that story is originally written and whenever you think–there’s a full span the scholars sort of cover when thinking about when that story was written–whenever you think that story was written, it’s written before a time when the Jewish people are thinking about a devil figure at all. And if you read from Gen 1 through Gen 11, you see that over and over and over again the stories are about how people are making bad choices and that it’s because of people that the earth is becoming corrupt. And so right from Gen 2 and 3, the garden of Eden story, through Cain and Abel through the flood through all of these stories, you get people making bad choices, and the biblical authors, the authors of the Hebrew Bible, over and over again blame people for the choices that they’re making. And they make it very clear, you have at the end of Deuteronomy Moses saying, “You have a choice. Here’s the covenant. You can follow it, and everything will go well for you. You can disobey, and everything will go badly for you. But you have a choice.” And there’s never a consideration on the part of any of the Hebrew Bible authors that there’s some outside force acting on them. It’s only after exile, after the trauma, after the diaspora when they’re scattered all over and under the influence of other religions, other cultures that they come into contact with, that their ideas about how God’s justice works begin to change, and they begin to think about an outside force sort of acting on people, influencing people. And the idea that there’s forces of darkness and forces of light and that there’s going to be a final battle … all of that comes in centuries after the story is written. But you can see how it would be very easy to then go back and read these stories and read the devil into the garden of Eden, but he’s not there when the story was originally written.

  • Shawna Dolansky

    Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.