In other words, the ancient Near Eastern mythical concept of semi-divine dragon-like creatures may reflect the nations’ faint memory of that primeval serpent-like creature in Eden. The fact that the angelic guardian-creatures called “cherubim” (כרובים) were also present in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24; Ezek 28:12–16)29 lends further support to the view that the “primeval serpent” (Rev 20:2, NJB) was not an ordinary snake but an angelic being who was about to lead the vice-regents of Yahweh-Elohim into cosmic mutiny.30
Perhaps what Adam and Even saw and heard in the Garden was no mere snake but a serpent-like creature belonging to a higher order than the ordinary “beasts of the field.” Several considerations lend support to this view.
More Than a Mere Beast of the Field
First of all, the serpent obviously bears qualities that are superior to the animal life, namely, intellectual, communicative, and moral capacities. The use of the min (מן) comparative to describe the serpent as wiser than the ordinary animals (מכל חית השדה) indicates a contrast and need not imply that the serpent in fact belonged to the same class of beings with which he was being compared.16 Thus, when Solomon pledges to build Yahweh a great temple, “for our God is greater than all gods [מכל האלהים] (II Chr 2:5), he does not intend to place God in the same class as the false deities of the pagan nations. When the Psalmist declares, “I have more understanding than all my teachers [מכל מלמדי],” he views himself as a pupil, not as a teacher (119:99). Similarly, “the serpent” of Genesis 3:1 may appear to belong to the class of animals with which he is compared but in fact does not. Hence, the narrator’s syntax seems to place the serpent into a class of his own. Rowland Ward agrees and remarks
the words may be read as placing the serpent outside the category of “the wild creature of the field,” in which case another cunning creature, but not an ordinary snake, is meant. The creature is Satan himself, a fallen angel.17
Moreover, one may read the so-called etiological allusion to the ordinary snake’s legless locomotion (“on your belly you shall go”) and earthy diet (“dust you shall eat”) in Genesis 3:14 as, instead, a metaphorical description of disgrace and defeat. For instance, the Solomonic Psalm 72 prays that Yahweh would cause the king’s human enemies to bow to the ground and eat dust (72:9). The prophet Micah heralds God’s judgment upon the nations and depicts their defeat in terms of “lick[ing] the dust like a serpent, like the crawling things of the earth” (7:17). Similarly, the woman’s offspring crushing the Serpent’s head with his heel in Genesis 3:15 need not constrain the picture of a human stepping on the head of a literal snake since the same language is used elsewhere of the human victor and the human vanquished:
Then Joshua said, “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me from the cave.” And they did so, and brought those five kings out to him from the cave, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon. And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Joshua 10:22–25, ESV).18
Second, the superiority of the serpent over the humans also suggests an angelic creature. In Genesis 2, Adam is portrayed as wiser than the animals in that he is appointed to rule over them (1:26, 28) and has the capacity to name them (2:19–20). Indeed, among all the livestock, birds, and beasts, there was found no equal to Adam (2:20).20 But in chapter 3, “the serpent” assumes the role of humankind’s teacher and superior. As many commentators point out, the description of the serpent as “crafty” (ערום) is probably a word-play on the previous description of Adam and Eve as “naked” (ערומים) that connotes not only innocency but also naiveté.
Although Adam and Eve are portrayed as wiser than the animals, they are also depicted as lacking a higher kind of wisdom, symbolized by the Tree of Knowledge (2:9, 16–17; 3:5–6).21 Accordingly, the reader should interpret their “nakedness” as a reference to ethical innocency and immaturity.22 They do not yet possess that Elohim-like quality and prerogative that characterizes angelic beings (2 Sam 14:17) and some earthly monarchs who function as judges (2 Sam 14:17; 1 Kgs 3:9).23 The serpent, however, does possess that quality. Although the Hebrew ערום may sometimes convey negative connotations (Job 5:12; 15:5), it predominantly denotes one who possesses wisdom (Prov 14:8) and is contrasted with ethical folly (Prov 12:6, 23; 13:16; 14:18) and naïveté (Prov 14:15; 22:3; 27:12).24 So the narrator portrays the serpent as wiser than the humans.25
That Well-Known Primordial Dragon
Third, the use of the definite article with the noun “serpent” (הנחש) suggests an entity already well-known to the original Israelite audience.26 Of course, this may imply nothing more than that the Israelites already knew the Genesis 3 story about a talking serpent that tempted the first humans. On the other hand,