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In Search of the Serpent


Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


As Creation unfolds, God creates a variety of species and presents them to Adam, who in turn gives them names. The curious partnership thus forged between the all-powerful and infinite God and finite man will continue to unfold until the end of time. Adam is endowed with numerous gifts; he is animated by the breath of God, and is created in God's image. The power of speech which he has been given is used to give names to all the animals, indicating man's additional ability to conceptualize and categorize.

God Almighty formed form the earth all animals of the field and all birds of the sky, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them, and whatever man called the living creatures is their name. Adam gave names to all the animals and birds of heaven and animals of the field... (Genesis 2:19)

But man is lonely. In a strange juxtaposition, the same verse in which Adam named the animals also states that he was alone. Apparently, Adam was seeking something, and the verse tells us what it was that he did not find: an appropriate partner.1

...The man did not find a help mate (Genesis 2:19).

And yet, this comes as no surprise to the reader. God Himself notes and comments upon Adam's solitary state in the preceding verse:

God Almighty said, "It is not good that man is alone; I will make for him a helpmate" (Genesis 2:18).

We might be tempted to describe the topic of Adam's loneliness as having been interrupted in the narrative by the naming of the animals, but this textual 'curiosity' leads to some rather unconventional insights.2 The impression that the reader is left with, is that Adam may have sought a solution for his dilemma among the animals. Rashi (commenting on a later verse) reports that Adam did, in fact, seek a mate among the animals but did not find an appropriate match.3 All of Creation was new and unexplored. Boundaries were not yet clearly defined or fully grasped. Adam sought to classify and become familiar, to understand and empathize. Through this process, he understood what we now take for granted: The lines were solidified, the boundaries drawn. Similarities were explored, and the significance of the differences between the species was brought into focus.4

Aside from the "newness" of the world, there may be another factor that made this seemingly irrelevant tangent of naming the animals a necessary element in the development of the narrative. Homo-sapiens clearly have much in common with the animal kingdom, though man would like to believe that the similarity is limited to certain aspects of physiology.


When man is created the Torah describes the new creature as follows:

The Almighty created Adam in His image, in the image of the Almighty he was created, male and female they were created (Genesis 1:27).

Man is created in the image of the Almighty, and man is male and female. Neither of these statements is easily understood: What does it means to be "in the image of the Almighty"? Furthermore, if Eve is introduced later in the narrative, what does the reference at this juncture to "male and female" imply? What is it about this creation that is "male and female"?

In the following chapter, Adam is re-introduced, with some striking differences. The second chapter describes "formation" of man, as opposed to "creation" described in the first chapter. The two terms are far from synonymous: Creation implies something totally new, ex-nihilo, from nothingness. The second chapter describes the formation of man from pre-existing matter:

God Almighty formed the man (Adam) from the dust of the earth and blew in his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

Instead of "creation from nothing", man is formed out of the earth. This form is then given a divine spirit. Man is a hybrid, composed of earthly and divine stuff.5


This two-stage creation described in the second chapter is perplexing: Whereas the first chapter told of a male and female, in the second chapter the female is nowhere to be found. Whereas the first chapter describes ex nihilo creation, the second chapter tells a seemingly different story, a story of formation, of shaping physical material and imbuing it with a divine breath.

It is possible to reconcile these differences with a very literal reading of the text: God did indeed create man (and woman) as He created everything else - ex nihilo. Yet unlike all the other creations, God perfected this particular one at a subsequent stage, with the additional act that separated man from the rest of creation: God took this (previously created) man and breathed into him a divine breath - gave him a soul. This man, this more perfect, more elevated version of the earlier creation, is estranged from all of creation.

The act of naming the animals is, in a sense, Adam's declaration of independence from the animal world. The divine breath within him creates a spiritual void. Adam is no longer satisfied with an instinctual,6 pedestrian existence. He seeks existence of a higher order; he seeks meaning. By imbuing this being with a soul, God lifted him above all the other creatures He had created - including the earlier version of man, the unelevated, soul-less men and women who peopled the created universe. This is the Adam who is unable to find an appropriate mate within the existing framework. Adam experiences a spiritual crisis when he studies and classifies the animal world, and comes to the realization that the other humanoids are no less primitive: Although they, too, are created in the image of the Almighty, and are endowed with great capabilities, they lack the "breath of God" that he has been given. They lack souls. He understands that it will be impossible for him to find a mate for himself among them. There are no others who possess a soul, and Adam is existentially, though not physically alone.

God intervenes: Adam is presented with Eve. Though forged from his own body, the more salient aspect of their relationship is that she is - literally -Adam's soul mate. The physical unity, both in terms of their origin and the subsequent consummation of their reunion, is seen as a physical expression of their spiritual identity; they are one, and they are unique in that they possess a soul. It is one soul, divided between the male and female bodies God forms for them. The mate which God forms for Adam is, like him, shaped from pre-existing material, but endowed with so much more.

While the suggestion that there were other humanoids with whom Adam felt no spiritual or existential kinship may seem antinomian, at odds with mainstream rabbinic doctrine, we are taught that the Torah's truth exists on many levels, and the text of the Torah may be legitimately understood in many ways.7 In fact there are rabbinic teachings which may only be understood in light of this suggestion.8 As we shall see (below), many rabbinic authorities, including the Rambam, were of the opinion that there were "animals in human shape and form", devoid of the soul that set Adam apart, lacking that divine breath which Adam and Eve shared between them.

When Adam and Eve are introduced, it is love at first sight:

Adam said, "This time the bones are of my bones and the flesh of my flesh; this one will be called 'woman' for she was taken from man. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh." 9 (Bereishit 2:23)


Despite their physical and spiritual unity, Adam and Eve each possess a unique personality. Each represents a unique aspect of the soul with which they are imbued. Aside from their gender, there is a major difference between them: Adam has had experiences which Eve has not shared. Adam has already explored the animal kingdom thoroughly, and has gained insight into the differences between the species and a firm grasp of his own place within the larger framework of Creation. Adam has acquainted himself thoroughly with the world, has attempted to live as one with the other creatures, and has found that life shallow and unfulfilling. Eve is less experienced, more innocent. She does not share Adam's knowledge of the boundaries between the various orders of creation. Therefore, she is more easily led astray by the first slick paramour that entices her.

Adam immediately grasps the nature of their relationship, because he has seen more and experienced more. But what was Eve's reaction to meeting Adam? The text is silent. Eve does not speak, but her actions tell us more than words: Adam and Eve are joined. They are intimate, joined physically, and their union is a totally natural coming together of body and soul:

The two of them were naked; man and his wife and they were not embarrassed. (Bereishit 2:25)


They knew one another, to the exclusion of everything else in creation - but they were not alone. There was someone who spied upon them from a distance, and he was jealous; he had designs on Eve.10 The Serpent was a walking, talking, upright creature, capable of sophisticated communication, of manipulative speech, of advanced planning and tactical maneuvering, of posing and arguing. Although we tend to imagine the "Serpent" as a "serpent", we should keep in mind that the creature who seduced Eve assumed its lowly, legless, slithering form only as a result of its sin.11 At the point at which the Serpent presents himself and his seductive arguments to Eve, this "proto-serpent" had far more in common with Adam and Eve than we might care to imagine.12 Perhaps this walking, talking Serpent is best described as a soul-less humanoid. Because he, too, was created in the image of the Almighty, the Serpent possessed great capabilities of speech and reasoning, but he uses these gifts as weapons of destruction in order to satisfy his own desire.

Eve is the object of his desire, and he intends to be rid of Adam in order to have her for his own.13 The Serpent uses cunning speech - truthful, yet deceptive, to deliver a message which seems to pass through Eve to Adam. The Serpent attacks the very idea of the limitations set forth by God:

The serpent was more devious than all the animals of the field which were made by God Almighty, and he said to the woman, "For the Almighty has said not to eat of every tree of the garden." (Bereishit 3:1)

In the Serpent's mind, limits are deleterious; they run counter to his instinctual sensibilities. In truth, God had allowed man to enjoy every tree with the exception of the one tree that would bring death into the world. It is this limit that the Serpent abhors: if man cannot have everything, he essentially has nothing. The very fact that there is a limitation - even one that protects man from death - drives the Serpent's desire. There is one other limitation that haunts him, another object of his desire - the only woman who is off limits to him, the one and only woman in all of creation who was married, in a ceremony performed by God and attended by the angels.14 This one woman that he cannot have is the one he lusts for.

When the Serpent has Eve's ear, he presses on with a curiously male-oriented seduction; he speaks of power:

For the Almighty knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like a deity knowing good and evil. (Bereishit 3:5)

The promise was power, but this is not what speaks to Eve. Her reaction resonates with desire of a totally different sort:

The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and lustful to the eye, and pleasant to learn, she took of its fruit and ate, and she gave also to her husband and he ate. (Bereishit 3:6)

When the Serpent speaks of power,15 Eve seems strangely indifferent; indeed, someone interested in power would not immediately share it.16 Eve is enticed by the aesthetics, by the beauty. Her reaction is not greed for power but lust for beauty and experience. As is their wont, our sages look into the words that are said, but also learn from the silences in the text: In the Midrash, the Rabbis allude to the source of Eve's lust by noting that one important character was absent during most of this episode. Where was Adam? The Rabbis have an interesting answer: The Midrash says he was sleeping:

And the woman said to the Serpent: "Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat" (Bereishit 3:2). Now where was Adam during this conversation? Abba Halfon b. Koriah said: He had engaged in his natural functions [sc. intercourse] and then fallen asleep. (Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 19:3)

After they consummate their union, Adam falls into a satisfied slumber, leaving the Serpent to work his wiles on Eve, who has been left alone, aroused and unsatisfied. The Serpent speaks of power, but Eve responds with lust. According to Rabbinic literature, the Serpent took full advantage of her vulnerability, and successfully seduced Eve.17 The object of his desire was won.


As in so many cases, we may gain great insight into the sin by carefully examining the lessons of the punishment. Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that God does not punish indiscriminately; there is always a correlation between the sin and the punishment. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say that God does not "punish" as much as provide man with the spiritual antidote to effectuate the healing ("tikkun") which man needs to be spiritually whole. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Eve's sin was an attempt to have a meaningless "fling". She knew that Adam, and no other, was her soulmate, yet she followed the enticements of her own thirst for experiential satisfaction, to satisfy her own desire for esthetic enrichment. Therefore the "punishment" that she receives involves childbirth and emotional dependence. The lesson for Eve is that relationships have consequences, both in a very physical way, but also on an emotional, spiritual plane. The meaningless "hookup" is at odds with the Divine Will as well as with her own spiritual identity.

From Adam's punishment - to work the land and find sustenance through the sweat of his brow - we may deduce that the Serpent's message was, indeed, communicated through Eve and internalized by Adam. The promise of power won Adam over; he did, indeed, wish to be a god. Adam's punishment/tikkun, is to do what God has done until this point in Bereishit - to work, to be creative.

The Serpent is deemed unredeemable. He may no longer share man's form or stature; the Serpent becomes a serpent, forced to crawl on the earth. His form is reduced to something that no longer reflects the Divine Image. His body now reflects the animal element alone, devoid of any higher element. He is brought down to the most elemental level - a creature of the earth alone, a strangely phallic symbol of lust devoid of spiritual or emotional connection.


But this is not the end of the story. There was a relationship between Eve and the Serpent - a relationship which, according to a number of rabbinic sources, bore fruit. There are those among our sages who taught that one of Eve's children was not fathered by Adam, rather the father was the Serpent.18 That child's name was Cain:

The mixed multitude are the impurity which the serpent injected into Eve. From this impurity came forth Cain, who killed Abel the shepherd. (Zohar Bereishit 28b19)

Many rabbinic masters insist that these mystical sources should only be understood as a commentary on the thematic relationship between the behavior of Cain and the behavior of the Serpent, to explain a spiritual dynamic and not to be understood literally.20 Whether the Zohar explains Cain's murderous, jealous outburst by pointing to his actual, physical father, or only to his "spiritual father" is for the reader to decide. But if these sources are read literally, many more questions arise, and our neatly organized concepts of biblical man may require revision.

As we have noted, the Rambam himself believed that there were once humanoids, devoid of the "breath of God", walking this earth:

Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not "the form of the Almighty." With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said, "he (Adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form." It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says: "During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits," i.e., demons; when, however, he was again restored to divine favor "he begat in his likeness, in his form." This is the sense of the passage, "Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begat in his likeness, in his form" (Bereishit 5:3). (Guide for the Perplexed, Book 1 Chapter 7)

This "animal with human form" is a creature without the more perfected essence given to Adam and Eve, and even they, after their sin, did not pass down this soul to their offspring automatically. None of their descendents before Seth rose above the human form to achieve a more elevated existence, and many, many offspring of these soul-less beings populated the earth. The description of the generation of the flood describes these powerful, humanoid brutes.

And when man began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them; the sons of the powerful (or, those created int eh form of the Almighty) saw the daughters of man for they were fine, and they took women from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:1-2)

We sense two different classes or species: man - Adam and his children; and the powerful brutes who, like the Serpent, desired these women and "took them" by force.

When the flood came, all these "animals in human form," devoid of souls but formed in the Divine Image and graced with the power of speech, were wiped out. The world was cleansed21 of them all - but for one exception.

To be continued...22



1. Rashi 2:20 notes that God showed him the animals, male and female; upon seeing that each species had a mate Adam sensed his own loneliness. Also see Rashi's comments on 2:18, for a theological consideration.

2. Many of the textual oddities pointed out in this essay were noted by my teacher Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik. See "Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships," Me'Otzar Harav (2000), pages 3-30.

3. Rashi 2:23, based on Talmud Yevamot 63a, says that Adam was intimate with all the animals. The Alshech in Torat Moshe (2:19-20), says this should not be taken literally; rather Adam in his imagination conjured such an image. Maharal in Be'er Hagola also insists that this teaching should not be taken literally.

4. Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna in Sefer HaBrit part 2 chapter 12, says anyone who takes this passage literally is a "fool."

5. Eloquently described by the Baalie Tosfot Bereishit 2:7, "the soul is from above and the body from below."

6. See Haktav V'hakabbalah Bereishit 2:19.

7. The Rabbis say there are seventy faces to the Torah see Midrash Rabbah B'midbar Parsha 13, there are other places in rabbinic literature that speak of other numbers, apparently this is also subject to the different understandings or "faces."

8. Regarding the permissibility of interpreting verses in a manner which is against accepted rabbinic tradition - in non legal areas - see Ohr Hachaim Bereishit 1:1, Vayikra 19:3, the commentary of Rav Shmuel Shtarshun in the Rashash to Shabbat 70b, Rav Yom Tov Heller found in Tosfot Yom Tov commentary to Nazir 5:5, Rav Asher Weiss Minchat Asher D'vraim page 181.

9. It is unclear who makes this declaration; according to the conventional understanding that Adam is the only humanoid on the planet, this would be a very curious statement for him to make, therefore some commentaries suggest that it is God who makes this declaration. See Rashi's comments. Others believe that it is the continuation of Adam's statement see Toldot Yitzchak. Yet others say that it was added later when the Torah was written, but was not part of Adam's soliloquy, see Radak who cites this opinion, but settles on Adam as the speaker.

10. Rashi 3:1, based on Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 18:6: AND THEY WERE NOT ASHAMED. NOW THE SERPENT WAS MORE SUBTLE, etc. Now surely Scripture should have stated, And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin (Bereishit 3:21) [immediately after the former verse]? Said R. Joshua b. Karhah: It teaches you through what sin that wicked creature inveigled them, viz. because he saw them engaged in their natural functions, he [the serpent] conceived a passion for her. R. Jacob of Kefar Hanan said: It is thus written in order not to conclude with the passage on the serpent.

11. The serpent was cursed that it would need to crawl on its belly, Bereishit 3:14. Rashi infers that it had legs which were amputated.

12: See Yalqut Shimoni Yishayahu chapter 65 remez 509, where God is cited as saying to the serpent, "I created you two stand on two feet like man…but you wanted to kill him in order to marry Eve. See Bereishit Rabbah 19:1: NOW THE SERPENT WAS MORE SUBTLE THAN ANY BEAST OF THE FIELD. R. Hoshaya the Elder said: He stood out distinguished [erect] like a reed, and he had feet. R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: He was an unbeliever.

13. Rashi 3:15.

14. See Midrash Rabbah 8:13: R. Abbahu said: The Holy One, blessed be He, took a cup of blessing and blessed them. R. Judah b. R. Simon said: Michael and Gabriel were Adam's best men.

15. See Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, "Family Redeemed" page 23.

16. See Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, "Family Redeemed" page 24.

17. See Talmud Bavli Shabbat 146a and Rashi's commentary.

18. This idea is found in many sources see Yalqut Shimoni Bereishit chapter 4 remez 35, Pirki D'Rebbi Eliezer chapter 21:22.

19. This idea is found in many other places in the Zoharic literature see Zohar Shmot 231a, Vayikra 76b, Bereishit Hashmatot 253b, Zohar Chadash Megilot, Shir Hashirim 6a, Zohar Chadash Sitrie Otiot Bereishit 15b: Zohar Sh'mot 231a - But when Adam and his wife sinned and the serpent had intercourse with Eve and injected into her his venom, she bore Cain, whose image was in part derived from on high and in part from the venom of the unclean and low side. Hence it was the Serpent who brought death into the world, in that it was his side that was the cause of it. It is the way of the serpent to lie in wait to slay, and thus the one that sprang from him followed the same course. So Scripture says: "And it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him" (Bereishit 4:8).

20. See Ramban Torat Hadam section 123.

21. See Rabbi Meir ibn Gabbai, Avodat Hakodesh part 4 chapter 14.

22. B'li neder..

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