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.