The Bible scholar Michael S. Heiser published a video clip on YouTube in which he argues that the ancient Israelite and Jewish readers of the Hebrew Bible would not have understood the serpent in Genesis 3 to be a literal snake, but rather a serpentine deity or divinely possessed serpent.
In the video, Heiser says the following:
“We presume that people living 2,000 years ago or 3,000 years ago would have read this story and really thought that there were talking snakes. Really? This is where I think our elitism gets in the way. Ancient people knew that snakes do not talk. They weren’t stupid. They knew that animals didn’t talk, and so when they encounter this in a story, when they encounter this in a poem, when they encounter this in some epic that tells their story, they’re not gonna think, ‘wow, there must have been a time when snakes talked.'”
It is typical for Heiser to make the argument that the original and intended meaning of Genesis 3 is to tell the story of a divine serpentine being rather than a literal snake. Leaving aside the advantages and difficulties with such a perspective, what is intriguing about this lecture is that Heiser seems to be implying that not only were the original authors thinking of a divine being, but that such a reading of the text would have been universally understood by all ancient readers and interpreters.
However, in contradiction to this claim, a Jewish historian by the name of Flavius Josephus, living about 2,000 years ago, wrote the following about the serpent in Genesis (translated from the original Greek by H. St. J. Thackeray):
“At that epoch [in the Garden of Eden] all the creatures spoke a common tongue, and the serpent, living in the company of Adam and his wife… persuaded the woman to taste of the tree of wisdom, telling her that in it resided the power of distinguishing good and evil….Antiquities of the Jews, I. 41, 50
[God] moreover deprived the serpent of speech, indignant at his malignity to Adam.”
This view, that animals at one time spoke, was shared by a contemporary of Josephus named Philo, who wrote the following (translated by C. D. Yonge):
“It is said that the old poisonous and earthborn reptile, the serpent, uttered the voice of a man.“De Opificio Mundi, LV. 156
The Book of Jubilees, which is believed to predate both Josephus and Philo, held a similar view:
“On that day [of Adam’s exit from Paradise] was closed the mouth of all beasts… so that they could no longer speak: for they had all spoken one with another with one lip and with one tongue.”Jubilees, iii. 28
The reason for mentioning these ancient views isn’t simply to correct Heiser on a technicality, but to demonstrate that the zoological interpretation of the serpent in Genesis isn’t as crazy as Heiser tries to make it sound. Clearly, many educated Jewish readers in ancient Israel were comfortable with the idea that snakes at one time spoke. The idea that the serpent of Eden was part of the animal kingdom seems to be implied in the book of Genesis (3:1), and such a belief is perfectly consistent with the near-human portrayal of animals throughout the Hebrew Bible: animals are included in God’s covenants (Genesis 9:8-10) and are allowed to rest on God’s sabbaths (Deuteronomy 5:14). God speaks to a fish (Jonah 2:11), and young animals cry out to God for food when they are hungry (Psalm 104:21, Job 38:41; cf. Jonah 3:7-8). Balaam’s donkey is not a divine being, nor is she said to be possessed by a deity, but when God opens her mouth she is able to articulate intelligent and logical thoughts (Numbers 22:28-31). (For more on these verses, see my previous blog post on The Moral Worth of Animals in the Bible).
In light of these considerations, I find it odd that Heiser equates the idea that ancient Israelites believed in talking snakes with the sentiment that ancient Israelites were ‘stupid.’ I know many Christians today who believe that the talking snake in Genesis was a real snake who spoke human language, but I wouldn’t say that these people are stupid (although they may be misled on this issue, they’re otherwise knowledgeable people). I have to wonder if Heiser might be participating in a kind of elitism himself: perhaps the ancient view that animals are more or less equal to humans in intelligence but merely lacking the ability to speak is inconsistent with a modern elitist sentiment that humans are in all ways superior to other animals. Regardless, it seems clear to me that the ancient zoological understanding of the serpent in Genesis 3 is a perfectly valid reading of the text.
Josephus, Josephus – With an English Translation, translated by H. St. J. Thackeray (Andesite Press, 2015).
Philo, The Works of Philo, translated by C. D. Young (Hendrickson, 1993).