The Garden of Eden episode is well known among Christians, for whom it signifies profound religious and theological implications. Often, however, Christians are guilty of reading into the Genesis account elements which are only features of the story as it exists in the Christian imagination. For example, that Eve ate an Apple, a fruit unknown to the ancient Near East. Other examples of such non-biblical accoutrements could be the idea that there were three wise men, or that Saul on the road to Damascus fell off his horse. Another feature of the Garden of Eden episode which is often taken for granted by Christians, but does not exist in the text, is the idea that the serpent is the Devil. This interpretation actually only comes much later, and the first book of the Bible to hint at it is the book of Wisdom 2:24 (at least for Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and other Christian Bibles, though this book does not appear in Protestant Bibles). The only explicit verse, however, in the entire Bible, which clearly identifies the serpent as Satan, is actually in the book of Revelation (Rev 12:9; see also Rev 20:2). This raises an interesting point: the Gnostics (a label which is not without its difficulties, but I will make use of it regardless) were among the earliest Christian sects and were often trying to make sense of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus Christ. One very provocative Gnostic text which survived through the Nag Hammadi library and reflects the kind of innovative ways these Gnostics were willing to re-interpret the Genesis account, is The Testimony of Truth. In this book we find the following interesting passage:
“From every [tree] you may eat, [but] from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise do not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” But the serpent was wiser than all the animals that were in Paradise, and he persuaded Eve, saying, “on the day when you eat from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise the eyes of your mind will be opened” and Eve Obeyed… And immediately they knew (Gnosis) that they were naked, and they took some fig leaves (and) put them on as girdles.”
Later God walks through the Garden looking for Adam and Eve and gets to the bottom of what happened. God then curses the serpent calling him ‘Devil’. But the text takes an interesting turn:
“But of what sort is this God? First [he] maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge. And secondly he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge; (otherwise), would he not know from the beginning?…”
The Testimony of Truth thus distinguishes the foolish creator-god of the Old Testament from Christ, who is an emanation of the Divine, and the Gnostics suggest that Christ is actually the serpent: he who came to give us the knowledge which the creator-god has forbidden. The text then turns to the Scriptures to make a prophetic case for itself.
In the book which is called “Exodus,” it is written thus (cf. 7:8-12): “he contended against the [magicians], when the place was full [of serpents] according to their [wickedness; and the rod] which was in the hand of Moses became a serpent, (and) it swallowed the serpents of the magicians.” Again it is written (Nm 21:9), “He made a serpent of bronze (and) hung it upon a pole… for the [one who will gaze upon [this] bronze [serpent], none [will destroy] him and the one who will [believe in] this bronze serpent [will be saved].
Surprisingly, this last passage is used by the Gospel of John as a prophesy of Christ!
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up”
The image is, of course, an apt one. In the episode in Numbers the people are being plagued with serpents because of their rebellion against God (again). Everyone who was bitten died of the serpents’ venom. When Moses prayed to the Lord on behalf of the people, God commanded Moses to “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” This symbol still exists in Christian culture today – the medical profession is usually symbolized by a snake on a cross. Of course, this bronze statue of a snake eventually led the Israelites to idolatry and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). The point is, however, that the people who were bitten by the serpents had only to look to the image of the bronze serpent, which Moses had placed on a hilltop (a point visible from a distance) and the poison would no longer affect them. This signifies Christ on the Cross who Christians believe in a vicarious way took our sins to God on our behalf. In other words, he became the object of sin, for: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).
Thus, although Christians today recognize that identifying the serpent in the Garden of Eden as Christ is un-orthodox, still the Gnostics clumsily stumbled onto an insight which often does go overlooked by Christians today. In some sense, Christ is the ‘true’ serpent; since he is not only rightly prefigured by the episode in Numbers, which the Gospel of John also cites as prophetic of Christ, but he is also, in Christian theology, he who comes to give man true life (from the ‘tree of life’) and to undo the deception of the Devil.
Christ himself invites Christians in the Gospel of Matthew to be like serpents:
““Behold, I am sending you as lambs among wolves; be therefore crafty as snakes and innocent as doves.””
~Matthew 10:16 (Aramaic Bible in Plain English)
Why call Christians to be crafty as serpents unless being like a serpent is to be ‘like Christ’?
Therefore, Christians may say without hesitation that Christ is the true serpent of God, and the Devil is a fraud.