The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
We now turn to Scripture’s record concerning the temptation and fall of our first parents in Paradise the First, and in particular to the record of Scripture concerning the tempter, the agent in that temptation and fall. He is described in the opening words of Genesis 3: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”
The first fact which must be emphasized in this connection is that the tempter was a real serpent.
There are many modern theologians and teachers who in one devious manner or another want to deny this and want to maintain that this narrative of the Fall is a bit of mythology. They point to what they claim is the obvious impossibility of a narrative like this, and they go on to assert that it does not really matter whether you believe in those wonderful stories literally. The important thing is that you retain the kernel of truth that is conveyed by the stories. What is that so-called kernel of truth? This, that somehow man was tempted to sin.
But we call your attention to this, that the fact of sin is “somehow” not a bit of mythology, but a terrible and real fact. That fact of sin certainly took place. It certainly has its origin in fact, not in a bit of mythology. It consisted in some deed; it involved an actual temptation. If this is not true, then there is no such thing as the fact of sin. If it is true, then why is it not literally as Scripture informs us?
Moreover, we call attention to the fact that there is absolutely nothing in the simple and matter-of-fact narrative which leaves the impression that Scripture intends to relate myths or to put forth parables or allegories. The Bible indeed uses parables and allegories, and even fables, but when it does so, it leaves no doubt about the fact that it is doing so. Here in Genesis there is not even so much as a hint of this. There is only one possibility open, and that is to accept what is written here literally.
Moreover, it must be emphasized that this is a very serious thing, not a matter of theological hair-splitting and something about which the church ought not to concern itself. We must not be deceived about this in this age of alleged tolerance. The truth comes to the parting of the ways with the lie at this point. Those who deny the literal character of the narrative and the factualness of what is related are denying the reality of the fall into sin. They are denying sin. When you deny sin, you must needs deny salvation also: for there is no room for salvation where there is no sin.
In addition, they are doing the very thing that the devil did according to this narrative. God had said, “Thou shalt surely die.” The devil said, “Ye shall not surely die,” contradicting God. Thus it is with the question under consideration. God says — for the Bible is the Word of God — that the serpent was the tempter, and that the serpent spoke to Eve. Men say, “No, this is myth; there was no serpent, and there was no speech of the serpent,” contradicting God. This is the seriousness of the matter. A theory like this is the lie of the devil over against the truth of God.
There are others who attempt to explain that the name “serpent” here is a mere symbolical name for the devil. Certainly, they say, the “serpent” spoke, but, they say, all the rest of Scripture plainly tells us that the serpent is the devil.
Now it is certainly true that the Bible elsewhere alludes to the serpent and his poison figuratively, as symbolizing the power of evil and the influence of the devil. Thus, you read in Psalm 140:3, a passage which is quoted in Romans 3:13, where the apostle is describing the depravity of the natural man: “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips.” The Lord Jesus addresses the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees in the following language, according to Matthew 23:33: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” But references of this kind do not prove the point. For, in the first place, these very figurative references are only possible because of the fact that the serpent, the real serpent, was the instrument of the devil in the first temptation. In the second place, it is obvious from the text in Genesis that this serpent was not a symbolical serpent. According to verse 1, he is classed with the beasts of the field, “He was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” According to the curse pronounced upon him in verse 14, this serpent is the same creature that we now know as going on his belly in the dust of the ground.
Hence, there can be no question about it, that the Word of God here is speaking of a real serpent.
However, we must remember that it was the serpent not as we know the snake today. We know him as he has been humiliated and cursed because of his speaking against God and against man, as he is described in 3:14: “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”
This does not mean that we are able to determine in detail the former appearance of this creature. Nor is this necessary. There may, in fact, be many questions which we cannot answer, but also which we need not answer, except for curiosity’s sake.
On the other hand, we may well take note of some significant points in the light of Scripture.
1)The Bible tells us that the serpent was the most subtle of the animals. We must not understand the term “subtle” in the evil sense, but in the favorable sense. This points to the fact that the serpent was endowed originally with a high degree of animal intelligence. Although we can hardly imagine this today, after the radical change which was wrought through the curse, it is not impossible that originally the serpent was closest to man among the animals and somehow represented the animal world with man.
2)It is evident that the serpent possessed some form of speech. If you ask whether the serpent had the power of human language, we would have to answer that this is obviously limited to human beings. If you ask whether the serpent spoke, whether he was able to communicate with man, the answer must needs be: yes, for the Bible tells us this. If you then ask whether this is not impossible, then the counter-question is in order: why should it be impossible, when God Himself tells us that he spoke to Eve? Is the fact that the serpent does not now so speak a reason why he should not have had some power to communicate with man originally, or a reason why the devil could not have used that power for his end? For while we must remember that the devil was the moral, rational subject speaking through the serpent in Paradise, yet we must also remember that the devil could not give to the serpent the power of speech. The devil is not God! Besides, the narrative certainly does not leave the impression that Eve was taken by surprise, that she considered it extraordinary that the serpent spoke to her. At least, the narrative tells us very matter-of-factly that Eve replied to him.3)As we already pointed out, later in the chapter we learn that originally the serpent did not belong to the “creeping things,” but that the curse pronounced upon him reversed his status from the most subtle among the beasts to that of the lowliest. Again, if you inquire whether originally the serpent had wings or legs, there is no answer. But surely, Scripture leaves the impression that the serpent was originally among the higher animals, those which would be classed as most nearly akin to man, and that he was originally noble in form and stature, not lowly and crawling on his belly in the dust of the ground.
All this brings us to the question: why did the devil employ the serpent in the temptation of our first parents?
In answer to this question, we should note, in the first place, that the devil had need of some external form and some external instrument in order to approach Adam and Eve with his temptation. With sinful man this is different. The devil has access to our hearts and minds. He has an ally in man’s sinful nature. This is also true of the Christian in this life, even though he is regenerated and is principally a new man. The foe is within the gate, in the Christian’s flesh, his old nature. Because of this situation, the devil can tempt us from within. But that was not the case with Adam. Adam was perfect, even though he was fallible. He was filled with the knowledge of God and righteousness and holiness. There was no corruption and no inclination toward corruption in his nature. The avenues of his mind and heart were closed toward the devil. Hence, he could only be approached from without. For this, the devil, who is a spirit, had need of an outward form, of an instrument, an agency, from the realm of man’s earthly sense-experience.
This meant, of course, that the devil was limited to some created form. The devil cannot create a form for himself; he is but a creature himself, and does not have the power to create. Certainly, God does not create special forms suitable for the devil’s nature: for the devil is the enemy of God. Satan was, therefore, limited to some created form. Then he would naturally choose the animal. For this was the creature nearest to man. It was through this creature that he could most easily approach man and the subject of the forbidden tree. If then we remember that the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field, and that the serpent had the power of communication with man, and was perhaps of all the animals nearest to man originally, then we can somewhat understand that Satan saw in the serpent the instrument most fit to serve him in his wicked purpose.