August 18, 2018

The Serpent That Still Was Not There

Marc W. Gibson

On behalf of Harry Osborne and myself, I want to thank Marty Pickup for his response to our article entitled "The Serpent That Was Not There" (Truth Magazine, August 7, 2003). Careful and diligent study of any Bible topic or question of controversy will cause truth to shine and error to be exposed. Honorable discussion will encourage brethren to take these issues seriously in their search for truth.

Brother Pickup blames much of the problem on expressing himself "very poorly." I really must disagree with his evaluation of his literary effort. I could not help but notice that his Florida College lecture manuscript was carefully written with lengthy and serious argumentation of key points (including the points reviewed in our article referred to above). His specific arguments clearly suggest the possibility that the "serpent" terminology of Genesis 3 may have been intended as a metaphorical designation of Satan, and not a precise identification of a literal, beast-of-the-field serpent. To be sure of my understanding, I contacted Marty by email, and had a cordial exchange with him concerning what he had publicly advocated. This helped me to more precisely understand his approach to the text and historical details of Genesis 3. Furthermore, when I read his response to our article, I understood him to once again suggest the possibility that the word "serpent" in Genesis 3 might not refer to a literal, beast-of-the-field serpent, but a use of accommodative, metaphorical (non-literal) language.
Brother Pickup states that "some readers have drawn the conclusion that I thought the Genesis account did not record historical fact or that Genesis 3 is a myth." I don't know who these readers are, but let it be clear that brother Osborne and I did not charge him with these conclusions. It was noted in our article that brother Pickup affirmed the historical nature of the Genesis 3 account, and that it was not myth. What we found shocking was the inconsistency of affirming such and then suggesting the possibility that one of the main characters in that historical account was not what the text described as being - a literal, beast-of-the-field serpent!

Our brother reasserts his major point when he writes,

"The possibility that God had Moses use a metaphorical name to designate Satan is all that I was suggesting in my lecture. Using a metaphorical designation to refer to someone does not mean that he is not a real being. A figurative use of a word does not mean that its referent is unhistorical or unreal."

What we need is proof of this "possibility" from the text of Genesis 3! What the text says is that a "serpent," a "beast of the field," confronted, tempted, and deceived Eve (Gen. 3:1). The curse on the serpent was directed to a literal beast of the field: "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life" (v. 14). Where is Satan? From other scriptures we clearly understand that he is behind the scenes directing his evil temptation of Eve through the serpent. Let me be clear: We agree with brother Pickup that Satan was there, but we also believe that a literal serpent was there, as affirmed by the divine text. Brother Pickup has raised, and continues to advocate, the possibility that a literal serpent was not there. This "possibility" is not drawn from the biblical text, but from the conclusions of modern scholarship, and this raises serious issues of interpretation that not only affect the early chapters of Genesis, but also has repercussions on the interpretation of many other portions of Scripture. A metaphorical, figurative use of a word does render a word as non-literal, and this interpretation would eliminate the literal serpent from Genesis 3. What other literal facts and details of scripture will be re-interpreted by this means?

Without a doubt, the Bible does later confirm a connection between Satan and the serpent (Rev. 12:9), but this does not prove that the "serpent" is a metaphorical designation for Satan in Genesis 3. [If it does, I could use the same "proof" and say that "Peter" was a metaphorical designation for Satan because Jesus linked them together (Matt.16:23).] The serpent was a literal beast of the field that became a useful agent through which Satan could tempt and deceive Eve (just as evil men today are useful agents for Satan's evil work), and this is why the curse on the serpent also had certain prophetic consequences for Satan himself (Gen. 3:14-15). This is what the text reveals. Why raise unrevealed "possibilities"? Thoughtful Bible students need only to consider the truth revealed in the oracles of God - no more, no less.

Our brother concludes, "Oh yes, he [the serpent] most certainly was there!" But, as we have learned, Marty does not mean a literal serpent had to have been there. He has offered to us the possibility that a literal serpent was not there, that the word "serpent" may have only been a "metaphorical designation" for Satan. Dear brother and sister, do you not see this subtle change of interpretation, and does it not alarm you? Does it not bother you even a little that teachers in prominent positions are now encouraging brethren, young and old, to consider the possibility that literal historical details could be re-interpreted as metaphorical designations? Remember the alarm that Bert Thompson and Edward J. Young voiced as quoted in our initial article - if the approach advocated by brother Pickup is harmless, why did these men see a serious problem? Will brethren today just dismiss another serious issue as "much ado about nothing" or courageously point out the dangerous, ongoing drift that is taking place from the simple truth revealed in God's word?

The dangers of such an interpretive approach should be apparent. There is no proof in the text of Genesis 3 to suggest that the "serpent" is a metaphorical designation. Other scriptures about Satan and/or the serpent provide no proof of a metaphorical meaning for the "serpent" in Genesis 3. The Scriptures reveal to us that Satan and a literal serpent were there. If we still insist on raising the possibility of accommodative, metaphorical meanings for what is presented as literal, actual characters and events, where shall we stop? Will someone next raise the possibility that "Adam," "Eve," or the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" are not literal, but metaphorical designations? Why should we contend for a literal six-day creation, a universal flood, a great fish that swallowed Jonah, a virgin birth, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus? When we begin to appeal to the esteemed conclusions of human scholarship about borrowed imagery from the mythological culture of ancient days to suggest possible interpretations of the divine text that contradict the text itself, we have pointed "thoughtful Bible students" down a path that will not lead to greater faith in the revealed text of God's word. Frankly, I fear where this type of teaching will lead brethren today and in the years to come. Is it not enough for us that the Spirit has written, "Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made"? That serpent was no metaphor. That serpent was a literal serpent and that serpent was literally there - God said it and that settles it!

Webmaster's Note: This article will be printed in the November 20, 2003 issue of Truth Magazine.