When discussing the serpent of Genesis 3, it is natural to ask if this is Satan we are talking about here. There has been a certain amount of scholarship of late that has scoffed at Christians “reading the devil back into the Old Testament” (as they would phrase it) – arguing that the specific being discussed in the Old Testament did not at time of writing have overtones of supernatural evil, and that it is only possible to view things that way by back-reading the New Testament. (This, they say, means that the Old Testament does not itself “support” viewing Satan as a supernatural adversary of God).
The issue with this sort of argument is that you could well say that Isiah 52:13ff. (the prophecy concerning the suffering servant), the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14), and Psalm 22 (a Messianic Psalm) are in similar fashion “reading Jesus back into the Old Testament.” Is that an appropriate attitude to take towards God’s truth? Honestly, past a certain point, it is not worth our time debating with people who think it is unreasonable to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, since both are the Word of God. But in this discussion, we will nonetheless examine the personage of Satan in the Old Testament, and how we can identify the serpent of Genesis 3 with him. Even if it means we quote from the New Testament.
Is the serpent of Genesis 3 Satan?
Regarding the main point of this week’s teaching (the importance of the Bible in recognizing the voice of God), our Workbook used the deception of Eve (as recorded in Genesis 3) as an illustration of how important the Word of God is in protecting us from falling prey to false voices. If Eve had stayed firm in God’s actual words (remembering them and trusting them, even when challenged as to their reasonableness), the serpent’s attack would not have found purchase. The mechanism for Eve’s fall was, essentially, a failing in knowledge of and belief in God’s Word = what God had told Adam and Eve at that time. (For us nowadays, the equivalent is the Bible, the written Word of God. That is God’s revelation to us in our current so-called “dispensation” of the truth).
This is an excellent example of the Word’s central importance in our discernment, no question about it. But tangential to this main discussion is that of the exact identity of the serpent in Genesis 3. Our Workbook says “Though Genesis doesn’t identify the serpent as being inhabited by the devil, Scripture later identifies the serpent with Satan (Revelation 20:2).”
This is in fact the correct interpretation (that is, that the serpent in Genesis 3 was Satan and/or was controlled by Satan), but exactly how can we go about establishing the evidence for this identification? Revelation 20:2 alone is a good starting place, but as we shall see, there is certainly more to be said, and this “more” is what we shall now explore.
Who is Satan, according to the Old Testament?
The word Satan (שָׂטָן in Hebrew) is a noun meaning “adversary” or “accuser”. Hebrew as a language uses so-called “triconsonantal roots” to form both nouns and verbs (and so on), and here the root is Sin-Tet-Nun (note that it is Sin not Shin – hence “Satan” rather than “Shatan”). These same three consonants can also form a verb that in the simple form means “to obstruct” or “to oppose.” So the meanings of the noun fit.
The Hebrew noun can be used without a definite article. So, for example, The Angel of the Lord (a Christophany = pre-incarnate appearance of Christ; The Angel of the Lord) opposes Balaam as “an adversary” in Numbers 22:22.
When used with a definite article (הַ), however, the being in view (= הַשָׂטָן now that we have added the article, transliterated ha-satan) refers to the supernatural adversary of God.
This specific being is, somewhat surprisingly, not actually mentioned particularly frequently in the Old Testament. The ha-satan form is used in Job 1:6-9, 1:12, 2:1-4, 2:6-7 to refer to an angelic being in the court of God who accuses Job before God. It is also used in Zechariah 3:1-2 in a very similar manner – a supernatural being leveling accusations. Some exegetes have argued for seeing these instances as an elect angel serving in a “divine prosecutor” sort of role, but the problem with that idea is the being’s apparent antagonism towards both God and (for example) Job – why would an elect angel be interested in trying to get a human whom God took pride in to stumble, in a seeming bid to prove God’s words false? Moreover, Revelation 12:10 says that Satan is “the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night.”
It is therefore theologically irresponsible to even entertain the possibility that the accuser mentioned in the Job and Zechariah passages is anyone other than Satan. There is no “literary development of the Satan character”, no “Jewish legal conception of ha-satan improperly retconned by later Christians to be supernatural evil”, no “borrowed characterization based upon literary parallels in other Near-East cosmologies.” Regardless of what false things others might say (as additional examples, you might also see here or here), the accuser mentioned in the Old Testament has always been the devil – a very real, very powerful spiritual force for evil, not some legal bureaucrat angel just doing his job – even if people of the past may not have been as aware of him as we are today, now that we have received the New Testament. The greater nuance over time in our understanding of Satan’s true nature is just so-called “progressive revelation” at work. (More on that in a moment).
There is one more Old Testament passage that interpreters typically take to be Satan proper (rather than a “small s satan” = an adversary generally, rather than the adversary), and that is 1 Chronicles 21:1. If you check the Hebrew, you might expect to find the definite article as with the other usages, but… not here. For whatever reason.
The interpretation of this passage (1 Chronicles 21:1-6ff.) is rather vexing for multiple reasons. 2 Samuel 24:1-9ff. is directly parallel. 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God moved David to take the census, not an adversary (who we interpretively ought to take as the the adversary even despite the lack of definite article – it’s the only thing that makes sense). Isn’t that a contradiction since 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that it was Satan who incited David?
It really isn’t. For example, God states explicitly that He used Assyria to punish wayward Israel (Isaiah 10:5-7), and this Isaiah passage makes it crystal clear that God is using Assyria despite what Assyria (personified, or “the Assyrian” if you prefer) intends – compare “this is not what he has in mind”, verse 7. God is simply so smart (in fact, Omniscient) and so powerful (in fact, Omnipotent) that he can use evil people in His Perfect Plan, and there’s nothing they can do about it, no matter what evil they intend. Like ha-satan in Job 1 and Job 2, evildoers can never do a single thing except that which God explicitly allows. They are dancing completely in the palm of His hand, to borrow a metaphor.
So, to reconcile 1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 only requires that you take the interpretive leap that God allowed Satan to incite David to take the census, that God used Satan. Satan was the agent; God was the architect. We might assume that Satan knew that taking the census would be a sin against God (for reasons we shan’t get into here – this is “the other reason” why the interpretation of this passage is vexing), and thought that getting David – a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) – to stumble would somehow damage God’s plans (compare Satan’s desire to trip up Job in Job chapters 1 and 2). This thought was, of course, utter madness… as sin always is. Satan, a mere creature, thought he could somehow successfully raise his hand against his Maker? What a joke. We may laugh at his foolishness, yet who are we to talk? We all sin (Romans 3:23, James 3:2), and our sin is just as insane for this very same reason.
Anyway… these are the Old Testament references to Satan. What remains to be established is how we know that the supernatural being referenced in these other places is the same as the serpent in Genesis 3, and that is to what we shall turn next.
If you’d like to read a second analysis of Satan in the Old Testament, you might have a look at this page. I should note that I do not agree with certain things this page, but am just linking it because it covers similar topics, so may be good as a point of comparison.
On progressive revelation, and scriptural evidence for drawing the equivalency
I shall dismiss a great deal of scholarship with a wave of my hand in this next sentence: that some scholars wish to say that there is supposedly “no evidence” that the accuser of Job and Zechariah is the same being as the serpent of Genesis (or even the being mentioned in Revelation 12) is neither here nor there in terms of it being actually true. You get rather used to this sort of thing if you have a lot of respect for biblical inspiration and inerrancy and substantially less respect for comparative mythology and literary criticism and other such pursuits that exercise the academy.
To elaborate a bit more on why we can be so dismissive: there is a concept in theology called “progressive revelation.” It holds that God is not obligated to reveal to humanity all of His Plan all at once, but can space out revelation over time. So it is that when Jesus (the Messiah) came on the scene, the Jews were expecting a King to throw out the Romans, not the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13ff. Jesus will indeed come in radiant glory to crush the enemies of Israel (as prophesied all over the place in the Old Testament – which is from where the Jews got the idea of the Conquering King Messiah)… but not until Armageddon, at the second coming of Christ. It was not at all obvious to the Jews that there would even be a first coming, much less that its purpose was for Jesus to go to the cross as the propitiation for the sins of the world, bearing the iniquity of us all upon His blameless shoulders, taking God’s judgement in our place as the Sacrifice of all Sacrifices.
But after Jesus was crucified, died, and was resurrected (thereby positionally defeating death and overcoming the grave), what had previously been a mystery was now revealed to mankind. Our salvation was won on the cross, redeeming sinful humanity to a perfect God once for all. That this was what God had meant all along only became clear later, not when the prophecies were initially written. Hence “progressive revelation.”
This is relevant in our case primarily because of Genesis 3:15, the second part of the judgement against the serpent. The Hebrew word for serpent is nachash (נָחָשׁ), and this is the common word for a literal, physical snake in Hebrew.
To sidetrack for just a moment, the fact that we are dealing with what appears to be a literal, physical snake has a couple interesting implications. First off, it is notable that Eve is not recorded as being weirded out by the fact that a snake is talking to her, which is itself noteworthy. It is also fantastic inferential evidence for the snake being supernaturally possessed by a spiritual being (i.e., a fallen angel – cf. the demons possessing the pigs in Matthew 8:28-34). Why is that? Well, while we don’t know exactly what language Adam and Eve and their offspring spoke (things obviously changed after the Tower of Babel – it is likely Abraham spoke Hebrew, and then obviously his descendants did), unless snake physiology has somehow changed quite drastically (well, more than being cursed to crawl upon the ground, per Genesis 3:14), snakes cannot even form any human-like sounds to begin with. (Obviously).
You might take the position that God “allowed Eve to speak snake” (or animal languages generally). We have literally nothing to go on in terms of scriptural evidence one way or the other, so why not? Such a view does have the advantage that it would explain why Eve wasn’t surprised when an animal spoke to her. On the other hand, you then have to deal with the fact that this ability certainly didn’t persist. So was it revoked after the fall? Did it die out after Adam and Eve, even if they retained it for their entire lives?
While the above sounds like it would be an interesting premise for a work of fiction (and actually, cf. Dr. Dolittle – that’s already a thing), the more realistic explanation, to my mind, is that Eve wasn’t weirded out by the random communication à la snake because Adam and Eve probably spoke directly to not only God (that much we have directly from the text in Genesis), but also angels (that’s more of an inference). After all, why not? We humans will certainly speak to angels when we share eternity together with them in the final paradise (the New Heavens and New Earth and New Jerusalem) – so why couldn’t Adam and Eve likewise have spoken to them in the initial paradise (Eden), as in the setting of this passage? If we assume that this communication with angels was actually something that happened, it follows that while Eve may have been puzzled as to why an angel had possessed the body of an animal (or maybe that part was normal enough too – who knows?), the really strange bit about the snake speaking would be no major matter. That is to say, if Adam and Eve were already used to communicating with angels, then that clears up the interpretive question mark of the talking snake quite neatly.
More importantly, it supports a reading of the text that holds that the snake was possessed by an angel, not acting of its own accord as an animal. There are people who make this argument – “Since the Genesis text only says nachash, it must really have only been a snake, nothing more and nothing less.” I can’t exactly disprove this directly – as what I just went through is essentially just speculation on my part – but the passage does make perfectly good sense if you hold that the snake was being possessed by a fallen angel (that is, Satan).
At any rate, back to progressive revelation and Genesis 3:15. Upon an initial reading it may seem like this verse is just a literal curse against snakes. After all, snakes do strike at our heels as humans, and we do crush their heads (that is, interpreted, we kill them). But why emphasize the seed of the woman then? Is that just a poetic way of saying “humanity in general?”
Perhaps. That’s what the doubters say. But what is actually the case is that the “seed of the woman” mentioned in Genesis 3:15 is Jesus Christ, making Genesis 3:15 a prophecy. Jesus crushed Satan’s head with his victory on the cross – Satan has already lost! Satan is thus the serpent whose head is crushed.
We can keep going, too. Genesis 3:14 speaks of the serpent being driven down to the earth. That sounds an awful lot like Revelation 12:9.
In the Greek in Revelation 12:9, we have “ὁ δράκων ὁ μέγας ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος ὁ καλούμενος Διάβολος καὶ ὁ Σατανᾶς.” That’s a lot of articles!
καὶ ἐβλήθη ὁ δράκων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, ὁ καλούμενος διάβολος καὶ ὁ σατανᾶς ὁ πλανῶν τὴν οἰκουμένην ὅλην, ἐβλήθη εἰς τὴν γῆν, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐβλήθησαν.
The adjectives μέγας (great/large) and ἀρχαῖος (ancient) go with δράκων (dragon) and ὄφις (serpent), respectively. The particular construct being used here follows the format “article > noun > article > adjective”, putting the adjective in the attributive position.
After those, καλούμενος is a participle and also in the attributive position, although this time just between the article and the proper noun Διάβολος. This is a different construct – that is, “article > adjective (participle here) > noun” – but has the exact same grammatical meaning.
Finally, we have the conjunction καὶ (and) and then an article and another proper noun in Σατανᾶς. Because of the coordinating conjunction, we are to take καλούμενος with ὁ Σατανᾶς as well.
Putting it all together, we then get “the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan.”
It might be a bit of a jump to identify the serpent of Genesis 3 with Satan just on account of “ancient serpent” being equated with “Satan” in Revelation 12:9 (cf. also Revelation 20:2), although that’s strong enough all on its own. What really seals it is the parallel of being driven down to the earth.
Some people still somehow explain all this away… but, well, they explain away a lot, as you can see. Once you see the typological connections between Jesus and the seed of the woman who crushes the head of the serpent, Satan and the serpent whose head gets crushed, and Satan as the serpent driven down to the earth, the only reasonable course in interpretation is to accept the clear prophetic typology.
I should note that prophetic typology and dual-application is super common in Old Testament prophecy. For example, another dual-application passage typologically related to Satan is Ezekiel 28:1-19 (note especially verses 11 through 19). These words (at least many of them) applied to the literal King of Tyre (i.e., a historical human being), but the passage also very clearly shifts into talking about Satan, and what brought about his fall. We might also here note that once again Satan is said to be “thrown to the earth” (verse 17), fitting right in with Genesis 3:14 and Revelation 12:9.
I will close off this discussion by noting that properly interpreting things the way that we have laid out here makes Genesis 3:15 a powerful promise of Satan’s defeat (because all prophecies of God truly are promises), alongside the promise symbolized by the so-called “protoevangelium” = “first gospel” (the animal skins God gave to Adam and Eve to cover their sin – blood sacrifice provided by God to redeem them). When Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, while they lost paradise, they were not left completely bereft, for God had already even at this point told them through these things (that is, the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, and the animal skins of the protoevangelium) that they – representing humanity – would always have salvation so long as they believe. Even despite the curses of the fall!
Even more importantly, all of this shows that God was not surprised by the fall. He is not reacting to Satan, remember? (Cf. again when God used Satan in the events of 1 Chronicles 21:1-6ff.). Quite to the contrary: Satan, being a mere creature, is actually just serving as a pawn in God’s plan (despite the fact that he does not want this to be so), all the while inexorably marching ever onwards towards his inevitable defeat, his eternal destiny of being cast into the Lake of Fire forever.
So no, to reiterate again, God was not at all surprised by the fall. When God created mankind, the cross that very instant became inevitable, and He knew that. Before His first creative act, the Son (the second member of the Trinity) had already committed Himself to taking on weak human vesture – eternally tying Himself to us – and even more than that, committed Himself to living a life full of suffering, committed Himself to dying for the sins of the whole world, dying for the sins of all humans who ever have and ever will live. It was planned from the very beginning. Even knowing this, God created us anyway, thereby cementing the necessity of the cross, and the sacrifice of His Son. That is how much He loves us. We ought to always remember these astounding things, and the price that was paid to redeem us – the price that Jesus willingly paid to save us, even though we are unworthy.