What Was the Serpent?
What exactly was the Serpent of the story of Adam and Eve? What it a snake as we think of it? Or was it Satan or some mythical creature? The Torah also teaches us that it was cursed for tempting man to sin. But if it was a heavenly messenger, was it rebelling? Can it become deserving of punishment?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for your profound questions. The Serpent was a physical animal which was part of the natural world. In fact, according to the Talmud, it was much more humanlike before its sin (Sanhedrin 59b). However, it was given a mission from God – to tempt man to sin, to cause Adam and Eve to transgress the one commandment they had been given.
Before Adam and Eve sinned and ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they had no inner desire to sin. Their “evil inclination” was an external force, embodied in the Serpent. (Some Midrashic statements alternatively depict Satan as a separate entity, riding the Snake which was in its service.)
After Adam and Eve sinned, the desire for evil entered them and man became a mixture of good and evil. There was no longer a need for a physical creature on the outside to convince man to sin. From then on, there is a little voice (sometimes unfortunately not so little) in our own heads luring us to evil.
This is one reason why death was decreed on man after the Sin. Human beings were no longer completely pure creatures, good on the inside with evil as an external force. The evil had entered us. And so, man’s body could no longer strive for perfection. There are seeds of decay within us. Our bodies are no longer eternal. They would have to die and decompose first – to be recreated on a higher level at the Resurrection – and only then could they live forever (The Way of God I 3:9).
If the Serpent was merely an agent of God, doing its job so to speak, why was it punished? The answer is that what was done to it was not punishment per se. What God did was lessen its power. Since the evil inclination would be within our very beings, it would be that much harder to resist it. Man would henceforth have two voices within him – and would often only with difficulty discern which is the voice of goodness and which the voice of evil. Our only hope of survival is if Satan would be weaker. Cutting the snake’s legs off was symbolic of its lessened power and mobility, giving man the chance to prevail.