The Devil You Say!

I’m working on a compulsory “See, I know the history of interpretation” footnote for a paper on the snake in Genesis 3. One weirder part of that history of interpretation is the identification of the snake with Satan or the Devil. I’m trying to find early unambiguous references that make that equation. But with the exception of 2 Enoch (and that one isn’t perfect), these are somewhat hard to come by.
Among the earliest ancient works that scholars sometimes cite is Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, “. . . through the devil’s envy death came into the world [NRSV].” Hmmm. It’s not completely clear to me that this is an allusion to the snake in Genesis 3. It may be but it also may not be. While the context is creation, it might refer to the murder of Abel for example.
2 Enoch 31:3-6 probably provides the clearest example of the identification,

And he [Adam] was continuously in paradise, and the devil understood that I wanted to create another world, because Adam was lord on earth, to rule and control it. The devil is the evil spirit of the lower places, as a fugitive he made Sotona from the heavens as his name was Satanail (Satan), thus he became different from the angels, (but his nature) did not change (his) intelligence as far as (his) understanding of righteous and sinful (things). And he understood his condemnation and the sin which he had sinned before, therefore he conceived thought against Adam, in such form he entered and seduced Eva, but did not touch Adam. [Forbes and Charles]

Even this doesn’t explicitly mention the snake.
Some Christian apologists see the equation in Revelation 12:9, “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down to the earth [NRSV].” I really don’t know enough about the Apocalypse to have more than the slightest clue as to what this means even in its larger context. [I suppose that qualifies me to preach on it.] But as far as it may identify the snake in the garden with Satan that identification is at the very best oblique. To my poorly informed mind, this ancient serpent, this deceiving Satan, is as likely Rome as it is the crafty snake in the garden. But considering the nature of the Apocalypse, its author may have had both (or sometime else completely) in mind. The same goes for Revelation 20:2.
The next oldest in order possible identification of the Genesis 3 snake with Satan that I’ve seen cited occurs in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 103.

Or He meant the devil by the lion roaring against Him: whom Moses calls the serpent, but in Job and Zechariah he is called the devil, and by Jesus is addressed as Satan, showing that a compounded name was acquired by him from the deeds which he performed. For ‘Sata’ in the Jewish and Syrian tongue means apostate; and ‘Nas’ is the word from which he is called by interpretation the serpent, i.e., according to the interpretation of the Hebrew term, from both of which there arises the single word Satanas.

While this isn’t quite as explicit as I’d like, it does seem, in its wildly crazy etymology of Satanas, to reflect an identification of some snake(s) with Satan. I’d bet, if asked directly, Justin would agree that it reflects the Genesis 3 snake along with other snakes like Moses’ snake.
I haven’t been able to find the identification in early (or even late) Rabbinic traditions at all.
It may turn out that I don’t mention the identification of the snake with Satan at all. It isn’t given any credence by serious contemporary scholars and there are a plethora of other interpretations of the snake that can’t be so easily dismissed. But I like to base decisions to exclude something on knowledge rather than on ignorance. Can anyone direct me to other texts that make the equation between the snake of Genesis 3 and Satan. Anything more than thousand years older than Milton would be helpful. It feels like I’m missing something.

9 thoughts on “The Devil You Say!”

  1. In the Apocalypse of Moses (or the Life of Adam and Eve) Satan “possesses” the serpent and tricks Eve into eating the apple:

    16
    1 And the devil spake to the serpent saying, Rise up, come to me and I will tell thee a word
    2 whereby thou mayst have profit.” And he arose and came to him. And the devil saith to him:
    3 “I hear that thou art wiser than all the beasts, and I have come to counsel thee. Why dost thou eat of Adam’s tares and not of paradise? Rise up and we will cause him to be cast out of paradise, even
    4 as we were cast out through him.” The serpent saith to him, “I fear lest the Lord be wroth with
    5 me.” The devil saith to him: “Fear not, only be my vessel and I will speak through thy mouth words to deceive him.”

    The Apoc. of Moses might have been written in the 1st century.

  2. I have heard one more NT allusion cited: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16.20). The similarity with Genesis 3.15 may or may not be conscious, but many have understandably inferred a connection.

  3. It’s my understanding that Origen was the first to explicitly identify the serpent of Eden with Satan. He was also, I think, the originator of the “unified theory of Satan”: bringing many OT and NT references to snakes, deceivers, etc., under the name of Satan. See especially Contra Celsum 6.43 and De principiis 1.5.

  4. I thank everyone who so far has offered suggestions. They are all useful.
    I find J. Quinton’s reference to the Apocalypse of Moses passage particularly interesting. I think this is from the Greek version and I need to look at the text. I’m curious what Greek word is translated as “wise(r).” Is it the same as the LXX uses or is it different and, if different, does it reflect some Semitic usage that is different from the MT’s Hebrew?
    Steve, Of course the Rom 16.20 may reflect Gen 3:15 is some way or other but, on my reading, it is even less explicit than the Rev examples.
    Bob, I know very little about intertextuality in Rev but you may well be correct.
    Robert, Yeah, Origen seems to offer the first completely explicit form of the snake/Satan equation. Your “unified theory of Satan” made me smile.

  5. Annette Yoshiko Reed (in Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity) examines how the myth of responsibility for cosmic evil begins with the Watcher/bene elohim episode (which blames the angels), and is progressively transferred in later literature to Adam and Eve (and so to humankind). In the revised human-centered account of the origins of evil, beginning in the second century BC with Gen 2-3 (to a limited extent) and Jubilees, the concern is often to show that the humans are responsible for cosmic evil independent of angelic or demonic provocation – and so to transfer blame to humans. So there is a motivation here not to associate the serpent with Satan, as that would absolve humanity from blame to some extent. That motivation might explain why you can’t find the association at an early stage. At the same time, there is more and more cosmic significance imputed to Adam and Eve’s actions in later texts, which imports this (cosmic) aspect of the fallen angel myth, without having the fallen angels themselves. The motivation to dissociate Satan/fallen angels and humans is eventually overcome with the Vita, Origen, Augustine, etc.

  6. …on my reading, it is even less explicit than the Rev examples.

    Yes, I agree. I suppose my point was more that our being unable to locate an explicit NT-era-or-before attestation of the serpent/Satan identification does not necessarily mean that the identification post-dates them. The 2 Enoch, Rom., and Rev. passages taken together almost seem to suggest a lost source, perhaps mostly oral, to which they all obliquely allude. “Seem to,” I say. But that doesn’t really help your footnote, does it? 🙂

  7. Deane,
    Thanks. That is interesting stuff. I’m not sure what to make of it in the context of my own thesis concerning the snake. I don’t see that my view (which I’ve hinted at but not exposed in all its glory) is necessarily contradictory with want Reed relates. I need to spend some time with Reed and think about it some more. Shocking as it may seem to some, I see the snake in Genesis 3 as a rather ordinary snake that the storyteller(s) dressed up a bit. I’m worried that from a presentation point of view it will be impossible to interact with every interpretation of the snake. Some ideas, particularly those that my thesis does not address directly one way or the other, I will need to handle in a rather cavalry manner if I handle them at all. My draft “See, I know the history of interpretation” footnote is already more than a little unwieldy. It approaches too long from the too long direction. Of course, knowing what to exclude is the hardest part of any paper and I’m not there yet.
    Steve,

    The 2 Enoch, Rom., and Rev. passages taken together almost seem to suggest a lost source.

    I agree, something sure seems to be going on here. But what? My footnote is evolving into a paper in its own right, a paper that I am ill prepared to write. 🙁

  8. I think we (incl Annette Yoshiko Reed) are all in agreement that the Genesis 3 snake is just a snake. Genesis 2-3 is not originally the locus for the introduction of full cosmic evil, only in a limited sense in introducing death (ambiguously) and loss of idyllic conditions (expulsion from Eden, a few weeds, childbearing pains, etc). The Adam and Eve story later accrues some more of the cosmic dimensions of the Genesis 6 story, and later still picks up Satan/the Devil/Belial/Fallen Angels/Azae’el/etc. Reed’s understanding compliments your own here, I’d say.

Comments are closed.