After a series of diversions large and small I’m back to looking at the snake in Genesis 3 in detail. As some abnormal readers may remember I’ve struggled off and on with the semantic range and specific meaning in context of ערום. It’s generally translated “subtle, cunning, crafty” or the like in Genesis 3:1a. Of course, context is always the final arbiter of meaning but other elements contribute to a full understanding. For example, in Genesis 3:1a ערום, “crafty,” informs and in turn is informed by a pun with עירם, “naked.” In dealing with usages in the Hebrew Bible it is sometimes helpful to look at the Septuagint and the Targumim to see how they dealt with a word or phrase.
Let’s start with the Septuagint. The LXX glosses ערום, (crafty) in Genesis 3:1a with φρονιμώτατος. Here’s the whole passage:
Ὁ δὲ ὄφις ἦν φρονιμώτατος πάντων τῶν θηρίων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, ὧν ἐποίησεν κύριος ὁ θεός,
Now the snake was the most sage (φρονιμώτατος) of all the wild animals that were on the earth that the Lord God made.
I need to do a more systematic search but I think this is the only place in the Bible where the Old Greek version renders ערום with a derivative of φρονίμευμα. The Old Greek for Proverbs and Job glosses ערום with συνετὸς, intelligent, wise (Proverbs 12:23); πανοῦργος, good sense (Proverbs 13:16, 14:8, 22:3, 27:4); φρονήσις, purpose, intention (Job 5:12) and δυναστεία, power, domination (Job 15:5).
Before we go further, it should be noted that the first meaning for φρονίμευμα in LSJ9, 1956, is “to be wise, prudent.” It can also reflect practical wisdom. But they cite several passages where the word is applied to animals in a way that I think relevant to a fully nuanced understanding of our text (at least the Greek version of our text). I’ve never been completely sure how much one should rely on Classical usages when dealing with a Helenistic text like the LXX but one passage from Sophocles, one from Plato and three from Aristotle caught my eye. Here they are with an occasional intervening comment.
Sophocles, Electra 1058-1070:
Why, though we see the birds above, most thoughtful
(φρονιμωτάτους) creatures, taking care for the sustenance of those from whom they derived life and enjoyment, why do we not pay these debts in like measure? No, by the lightning-flash of Zeus, by Themis throned in the sky, we are not long unpunished. O Voice of the underworld that reaches to mortals, shout for me a piteous cry to the sons of Atreus below. Carry the reproaches not appropriate to my dancing! [Richard Jebb’s translation; my insertion of φρονιμωτάτους]
Abnormally interesting, φρονιμώτατος is used here in the context of divination. I like that but I’m a little leery of confirmation bias on my part. I need to think about this a lot more before I make too much of it.
Plato, Statesman (Politicus) 263d: The stranger speaks,
But indeed, my most courageous young friend, perhaps, if there is any other animal capable of thought (φρόνιμόν), such as the crane appears to be, or any other like creature, and it perchance gives names, just as you do, it might in its pride of self oppose cranes to all other animals, and group the rest, men included, under one head, calling them by one name, which might very well be that of beasts. Now let us try to be on our guard against all that sort of thing. [Harold N. Fowler’s translation; my insertion of φρόνιμόν]
Aristotle, History of the Animals 488b12-20:
Animals also differ from one another in regard to character in the following respects. Some are good-tempered, sluggish, and little prone to ferocity, as the ox; others are quick tempered, ferocious and unteachable, as the wild boar; some are intelligent (φρόνιμα>) and timid, as the stag and the hare; others are mean and treacherous, as the snake; others are noble and courageous and high-bred, as the lion; others are thorough-bred and wild and treacherous, as the wolf: for, by the way, an animal is highbred if it come from a noble stock, and an animal is thorough-bred if it does not deflect from its racial characteristics. [D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s translation; my insertion of φρόνιμα]
Aristotle, On the Parts of the Animals 648a8 concerning animals,
Noblest of all are those whose blood is hot, and at the same time thin and clear. For such are suited alike for the development of courage and of intelligence (φρόνησιν). [D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s translation; my insertion of φρόνησιν]
The whole context of this passage involves supposed correlations between the nature of the blood of various animals and various of their other characteristics.
Aristotle, On the Parts of the Animals 687a2-15:
The reasons have now been stated why some animals have many feet, some only two, and others none; why, also, some living things are plants and others animals; and, lastly, why man alone of all animals stands erect. Standing thus erect, man has no need of legs in front, and in their stead has been endowed by nature with arms and hands. Now it is the opinion of Anaxagoras that the possession of these hands is the cause of man being of all animals the most intelligent (φρονιμώτατον). But it is more rational to suppose that his endowment with hands is the consequence rather than the cause of his superior intelligence. For the hands are instruments or organs, and the invariable plan of nature in distributing the organs is to give each to such animal as can make use of it; nature acting in this matter as any prudent man would do. For it is a better plan to take a person who is already a flute-player and For give him a flute, than to take one who possesses a flute and teach him the art of flute-playing. For nature adds that which is less to that which is greater and more important, and not that which is more valuable and greater to that which is less. [D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s translation; my insertion of [D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s translation; my insertion of φρόνησιν]
This passage is interesting both for what it contributes to our understanding of φρονιμώτατος in the LXX but for how Aristotle understood animal develop and how he saw humans in that development. The statement that of all the animals humans are the most φρονιμώτατον is striking for several reasons.
What we see here is the φρονίμευμα of animals is comparable to that of humans, if always to a lesser degree. But we need not necessarily see “intelligence” as indicated by the translations; skill, craftiness and prudence will all work nearly as well.
Tomorrow I’ll take a look at Targum Onkelos for Genesis 3:1a.
Update: I suppose one should also consider in this regard φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις, “be as wise as serpents,” in Matthew 10:16.