As long as we have gone back to the garden of Eden, let's look at the serpent in the garden. Not that long ago, one of my children was a bit upset about the whole snake and garden of Eden story. Why did God curse the innocent snake if he was possessed by the Devil?
See, my child had learned the "Sunday School" version of the tempting of Adam and Eve. It is as follows: Satan became a talking snake with legs. He talked Eve into eating forbidden fruit. Eve gave it to Adam. God came looking for both of them, found them in a sinful state and banished them from the Garden. He cursed the snake to crawl without legs, and this is why the snake has no legs.
In reality, we have allowed the sands of time to etch away the true story of the Bible, and with it, we have changed the scripture into a fable and a myth.
Now, if you are willing to hang onto both the inerrancy of the Bible, and the validity of scientific thought, you will hit a couple of problems with the stereotypical evangelical Sunday School telling of the tale.
The first fact that we must over come is that there were obviously snakes without legs long before Adam came on the scene. For instance a fossilized snake remains that lived over 65M years ago, Dinilysia patagonica, has been recovered in very good shape. These animals lived before man during the late Late Cretaceous period. Earlier fossils have been found, but they lack the fine detail of Dinilysia fossil.
The time of Adam and Eve happened much later. Probably no more than 10,000-20,000 years ago. Therefore, the story as commonly told doesn't make sense.
Let's look at a couple of key touchstones:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
We are told in Revelation 12:9 who the serpent is:
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
In this woodcut, we have a thought of what will be the final battle with the snake, and while John tells us of the final battle, he also ties this back to the beginning of man on the the earth with the snake. Satan is there in the beginning of sin, and the end of sin.
So, here we have a tie into the original story. One way or the other, Satan is the ancient serpent in the Garden, since he is the one that led the world astray.
So, we have this link solid in our interpretation. However, knowing that Satan was in the garden is not the end of our questions. What we want to know is what form did Satan existed in. Was he, as we learned in Sunday school, a snake?
Looking at the text, we should have three possible cases, if you assume that Satan needed some type of a body to talk to Adam and Eve:
1. Satan could become human incarnate on this earth in the Garden, ie he had a body
2. Satan possessed one of the humanoids without a soul.
3. Satan possessed a walking and talking snake.
As already stated, I consider case 3 unlikely due to the nature of the curse. If Satan was a snake, and God took away its legs in the Garden, then we must discard the fossilized evidence. So let's look at the other opinions.
There has been some arguments for the Hebrew word "nachash," to be not translated to snake in this case. The word literally means "to shine." So, in the root of the word, we have this idea of the "Star of The Morning" (Satan or Luficer) as being present.
Let us go back to using the whole Bible to understand the usage of serpents or snakes.
The first thing to note is our Lord's use of the Lord Snake or Serpent when addressing the pharisees:
Matthew 23:33 (New American Standard Bible)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
This should cause us all to pause. He called a man with the wrong intention a snake or a serpent. So, in one reading of the complete Bible, we can start to interpret the Bible as a whole book. Our Lord establishes that serpent or snake can refer to a man in a non-literal way. Indeed, those that cause others to stumble are termed as a serpent. With our knowledge of Satan from Genesis and Revelation, we might even venture to suggest that our Lord was saying "you are fulfilling the role of Satan, who was the original tempter."
Paul also talks of the serpent in 2 Cor 11:3, using the same greek word:
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray...
However, the Bible does not exclusively use the idea of serpent or snake in a metaphorical way. So, there is still room for interpretation in each area. And, indeed, the interpretation of each section of scripture may have multiple meanings. However, let us look at the curses place on the snake:
14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this,
"Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel."
Now, verses 14 would reinforce that the serpent was a snake. After all, the scriptures contrasts him with the wild animals, and it says the snake will crawl on its belly. However, this would be taken out of context with verse 15. Virtually, all scholars of the Bible see this verse as a reference to the messiah to come.
So here we have a most puzzling section of scripture. So the normal "Sunday School" exegesis is to say:
Verse 14: Refers to the physical talking snake.
Verse 15: Refers to the non-physical Satan controlling the snake
I think this is a false splitting. So let's look at reconciling the two.
Now, remember that our Lord called the pharisees "serpents?" Those that would come to kill him later were being called out as the seed of the serpent. They did strike his heel, but he crushed the head of snake.
If the seed of the serpent was men, then in my mind, the serpent must have also been a man. I believe that the best "fitting with the facts" is Satan's possession of one the soulless humanoids that walked the earth.
So, what of verses 14? This verse is always used, as previously mentioned, to describe a snake without legs. I even had some teachers tell me that "eating the dust" referred to the way that the snake flipped out its tongue to smell, since it was eating dirt.
While we can read a snake into it, we can also read it in other ways.
I think we must look at the idea of eating dust first. The Hebrew word for dust "aphar" is used 3 times in the 2 and 3 chapters of Genesis. I will suggest that they are all used as substance of man.
1. Case 1: God makes man from the dust of the earth.
2. Case 2: God tells Satan that he will live on eating the dust or substance of man.
3. Case 3: God tells man that from dust man is made, and man will return to dust.
If you read the Bible in this light, verses 14 and verse 15 are highly related. God is talking to Satan in verses 14. You are going to devour man as your substance. You are going to crawl on your belly, while you do this. (A restriction of his power.) God then goes to say that from this, his seed will fight with the anointed one, the seed of Eve, Jesus Christ.
I believe that when Satan fell from Heaven (illustrated here in a print by Paul Gustave Dore for Paradise Lost), he was not strictly removed from wandering the Universe when first cast out of heaven. Isaiah 14:12 is commonly thought to talk of Satan:
How you have fallen from heaven,
O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
This is reinforce by Job 1:7
One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it."
It may be hinted in both of these instances that Satan is tied to wandering the earth.
So who was the serpent? It was Satan, and he received a just punishment for his offense. It well not have been a snake. And indeed, Satan's tying to the earth and us may have happened in the garden.