Half Right on the Serpent & Satan

by Harry Osborne

Before reading this rejoinder, the reader is asked to read and carefully consider the original article, The Serpent That Was Not There, and brother Marty Pickup’s response. The search for truth is assisted by careful and prayerful consideration of all teaching while searching the Scriptures daily to see if the things said are so (Acts 17:11). The pursuit of truth is the purpose of this discussion and I appreciate Marty’s willingness to discuss the issues involved in an open and honorable manner. If further discussion on these issues is desired, the pages of Watchman Magazine have been offered to publish such.

Brother Pickup began his response by saying, "I apparently expressed myself very poorly," further stating, "I greatly regret my choice of words seeing that those words have been read in such a wrong way." While I appreciate and share Marty’s recognition that hindsight could improve our phraseology, our brother clearly stated his views both in his lecture manuscript and in his response. In the original article, brother Gibson and I understood him clearly the first time, understood him stating the same view to each of us in separate correspondence, and understood his re-affirmation in his response. Since brother Pickup regrets the words used in his Florida College lecture manuscript, it is unfortunate that he chose many of the same words and some synonyms to express the same thoughts in his response. Actually, it was not the "choice of words" that was the problem, but rather the content of the words.Both Satan & a Literal Serpent Were There

Let us make the issue clear. Brother Pickup maintains that Genesis 3 definitely affirms the presence of Satan in the temptation of Eve. On that point, we agree because the Scripture so teaches. However, Marty does not definitely affirm the presence of a literal, beast-of-the-field serpent as speaking to Eve. Our brother believes it is possible to legitimately interpret the Scripture’s reference to the "serpent" as a symbolic reference to Satan. Thus, he denies that we must affirm what the inspired record clearly affirms as fact. The Scripture says the serpent was a "beast of the field" (Gen. 3:1), not a possible "metaphorical name to designate Satan" as Marty postulates. To that serpent, the Lord said, "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" (Gen. 3:14). The text does not use the word "serpent" as "a way of designating the devil himself," as our brother suggests, but to the contrary, the serpent is numbered with the animal creation: "all cattle" and "every beast of the field." Thus, the "serpent" of Genesis 3 was not "a figurative use of a word," as brother Pickup sees possible, but a literal serpent given a literal curse. That is what the text affirms as historical fact. Justifying other "possibilities" amounts to opposing this obvious, literal fact recorded in the inspired record. Brother Pickup cannot claim to defend the historicity of Genesis 3 while denying one of the central, historical figures recorded therein — the literal, beast-of-the-field serpent.

Our brother denies the effect of his teaching by saying, "A figurative use of a word does not mean that its referent is unhistorical or unreal." No, Jesus’ figurative reference to Herod as a "fox" did not make Herod unreal (Lk. 13:32), because the context clearly shows the word "fox" is used in a figurative sense. The figurative use of that passage does not, however, establish a norm for interpreting the word "fox" as a symbolic designation for Herod in passages where the context clearly suggests a literal meaning (Neh. 4:3; Judg. 15:4; Matt. 8:20; Lk. 9:58). The context shows us how to rightly interpret the words, whether literal or figurative. The text of Genesis 3 shows the "serpent" was a literal, beast-of-the-field serpent, not a "metaphorical" one. Notice that brother Pickup does not use the context to show where it demands a figurative interpretation, but he merely speculates that it "may be" or is "possibly" so. It is dangerous to interpret Scripture on possibilities rather than the firm ground of accepting the literal meaning of a passage unless the context demands otherwise. If we reinterpret the word "serpent" in Genesis 3 on the basis of what it means elsewhere, despite the clear indications of the context, can we reinterpret the word "day" in Genesis 1 and 2 to refer to something other than a literal day? After all, it has figurative uses elsewhere in Scripture. Could we do the same with the word "flood" in Genesis 6? Could we make the word "resurrection" metaphorical in 1 Corinthians 15? Contrary to our brother’s claim, when one gives a figurative meaning to a word used literally in Scripture, it does deny the reality of that which the Scripture affirms as literal.

A Possible Maybe or the Certain Truth?

In his response, Brother Pickup reaffirms his "opinion" that "one needs to at least consider the possibility that ‘the serpent’ terminology of Genesis may have been intended as a metaphorical designation of Satan himself." He adds, "I only offered this view as a possibility to be considered by thoughtful Bible students." Yet, one may "consider" a view that denies the literal interpretation of the text and then reject it as false. One does not need to accept a "metaphorical" interpretation to be a "thoughtful Bible student." Indeed, a truly thoughtful Bible student will let his thoughts conform to the text, rather than making the text conform to his human opinion (2 Cor. 10:5). A number of brethren have carefully considered Marty’s manuscript and their thoughtful consideration has moved them to reject what he calls a "possibility" because they accept the literal facts stated in the text.

Brethren, it is not commendably "open-minded" to present as equally viable a metaphorical interpretation and a literal interpretation for facts stated literally in the Scripture. Over the past few years, we have heard an ever-growing number of Bible truths being downgraded to possibilities. As God views it, there is no other acceptable "possibility" than accepting literal truths of Scripture as literally true!

When Shane Scott and Hill Roberts affirmed a non-literal interpretation of the creation account, Ferrell Jenkins said we could not be sure whether the "days" of Genesis 1 were literal days or ages. Thus, we were asked to tolerate the possibility of a figurative interpretation. We were told it was academically preferred to present the various views of the creation account as mere options, leaving it to students to decide which of the viable options to pick without showing that one is true and exposing the others as false.

As noted in the original article, The Serpent That Was Not There, Marty Pickup took the same approach saying he thought 2nd Peter and Jude should be included, but then added, "I can’t just be dogmatic about that, I’m not a hundred percent certain about that" (The Canonicity of the General Epistles, Florida College Annual Lectures, [8 Feb. 2000]). One wonders what would happen if a student in brother Pickup’s class "thoughtfully considered" those points which made Marty "not a hundred percent certain" about the authenticity of 2nd Peter and Jude, and concluded that he would reject those books of the Bible. How would brother Pickup non-dogmatically deal with that student? Do not be deceived, sharing doubts and presenting multiple options will result in others adopting such to the destruction of their faith. We build faith in people by exposing and refuting the various possible errors, while teaching and defending the certain truth of God’s word.

Similarity with Modernism?

After denying the necessity of accepting the presence of the literal serpent in the garden with Eve, brother Pickup assures us that such a view is totally unconnected with modernism. Yet, as noted in our original article, Dr. Bert Thompson reacted to Marty’s lecture manuscript saying, "Modernism has indeed hurt us deeply." Another well-known opponent of modernism among evangelicals, Edward J. Young, said:

"If there were no snake but merely an appearance, we might very well question the historicity of the narrative, for if the Bible spoke of a snake but did not mean a snake, we might justifiably wonder whether it did not do the same thing with other objects mentioned in this chapter. If the word ‘snake’ is simply a symbol for something else, how do we know that other things which we meet in this chapter are not also mere symbols? It is not amiss then to lay our stress upon this first word, and to insist that the chapter begins by directing our attention to a real snake" (Genesis 3: A Devotional and Expository Study, pp. 7-8).

Why would these men, who have no personal axe to grind with our brother, see the effect of his teaching as aiding modernistic ends? When brother Pickup claims that only a believer in the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture would take his position, we are left to wonder what the position of a full-fledged modernist would be with regard to the reality of a literal serpent in the garden with Eve. If Marty’s view assists acceptance of the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture, would a modernist oppose that inspiration by affirming the presence of a literal serpent in the garden with Eve? No, a modernist would merely take Marty’s "possibility" of denying a literal serpent to its logical next step, denying it absolutely.

Battling Modernism?

In his response, brother Pickup also noted that he "has spent his academic life fighting modernists face-to-face," also adding, "I have spent my entire life studying the Bible, proclaiming it publicly, and refuting modernists who impugn it." We certainly accept our brother’s desire to oppose such views that deny the clear teaching of God’s word, but we must test the fruit of all claims by the actions seen (Matt. 7:16-20). Where was Marty in helping to refute the error taught by Hill Roberts and Shane Scott regarding non-literal interpretations of the creation account? Surely, as one so adept at fighting modernism, our brother knows that those views clearly aid modernist concepts. Was he leading the efforts to rebuke such errors or was he defending the right of such men to continue advancing their doctrine? After the Florida College lecture where Hill Roberts handed out a CD calling the "Big Bang Theory" the "Bible believer’s friend," Marty defended Hill in conversation with this writer despite efforts to get brother Pickup to see the destructive effects of such error.

The above questions take on added seriousness given brother Hill Roberts’ teaching that the temptation account of Genesis 3 is to be interpreted predominately as figurative, not literal. In a series of 19 lessons on Genesis 1 through 3 (posted at www.lordibelieve.org), brother Hill Roberts also appealed to the concepts of paganism to reach conclusions about the exegesis of this passage. He noted,

Serpent – shows up "out of the blue" – Who is this Serpent? Remember, this story is being given by God through Moses to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. They descended from the paganism of Mesopotamia, they were raised in the paganism of Egypt. Save for a few individuals, as a people, they were pagans! Throughout the rest of the OT, their paganism is their downfall. In paganism of the time, the Serpent was a well known character. Needed no introduction. The Serpent (nahas) was a common phallic representation of pagan practices. He was the magician (nasa’), the sensual beguiler, the master of deception (Lesson #16).

After setting up his point about the identity of the serpent in Genesis 3, brother Roberts concluded, "Remember this is Satan The Snake, not snakes in general" (Lesson #17). What brother Pickup leaves as a "possibility," brother Roberts is ready to openly affirm. Since brother Pickup defends this as a viable option, he could not rebuke that affirmation. (Might he even see it as evidence of brother Roberts’ thoughtful Bible study?) If you have no problem with that conclusion, please consider the next step taken by brother Roberts. Regarding the two trees specifically mentioned in Genesis 3, Hill said the following:

Do you suppose that there was (or is) some literal "magic" fruit which, if Adam could just get his hands on it to eat it once, would inoculate him against God’s sovereign will concerning justice for his sins? Point: by the time we get to the end of chapter 3, the trees seem more symbolic than literal. What is more important: 1) to understand the exact physical appearance of these two trees as experienced by Adam and Eve, or 2) to understand what the trees meant to them, to the Israelites, and to us? (Lesson #14).
The tree image is highly apocalyptic: they show up not only here, but also in Ezekiel and Revelation. That something is symbolic does not mean it isn’t real. Symbols are often based on reality. The trees were and are very real. They may not always be made of literal cellulose and chlorophyll, but the objective imagery clearly conveys their reality (Lesson #14).

Again, do you suppose there is literally some "magic" fruit one can eat that will transform a human into God? It must be understood symbolically (Lesson #14).

The symbolical "possibility," defended by Marty, has been changed to a symbolical "must" by Hill. Does brother Pickup see a danger worth fighting yet? Neither does brother Roberts stop with trees that are not there. In the second lesson of brother Roberts’ series, he quotes from J.M. Houston to set forth his basic presumption that much of the creation and temptation accounts are not literal, but must be interpreted as a symbolic "polemical against the false cosmogonies and cosmologies of the ancient world" (The New International Bible Commentary with the New International Version, ed. F.F. Bruce, 50). This basic premise leads to this claim:

At times, the mention of mythical sea-monsters suggest deliberate denial of their existence as deities, but more usually they are mentioned allegorically as being no more than God’s creatures (Lesson #2).

Dear brother or sister, does it alarm you to see Hill Roberts set forth teaching which says a creature was "mythical" despite the Bible’s presentation of it as literally existent? Such concepts are at the very foundation of incipient modernism. While it is true these views are held by many so-called "conservative" scholars in Evangelical circles, we would do far better to stand with the Bible text and refute such teaching, rather than adopting or defending their conclusion. Where can we find brother Pickup’s "fighting" and "refuting" such teaching? If Marty would openly battle such error "face-to-face" as he desires to do, it would certainly help in opposing that which strikes at the foundation of true faith in God’s word. Will brother Pickup oppose this teaching by Hill Roberts or is it just the next "possibility" to be tolerated?

Brother Pickup has posted his reply on brother Ferrell Jenkins’ web site which has also been repeatedly used to defend and commend the work of Hill Roberts. Surely brother Jenkins must see that his defense of brother Roberts must cease in the light of such blatantly false teaching. We will ask that he also post this rejoinder in fairness allowing both sides of the issue to be heard and considered by his readers.


It should alarm faithful brethren to see the growing willingness to label literal Bible truths as "figurative," "metaphorical," "symbolical," "allegorical," or even, as Hill Roberts admits, "mythical." How do we effectively fight and refute the encroachment of error? We oppose and expose it at the very outset before it gains a foothold from which to assault faith. A nation does not aid its defense by tolerating the thoughts and concepts of the enemy to be accepted as equally viable options to its own fundamental beliefs and principles. (Surely, of all people, we should understand that fact in post-9/11 America.) A church does not aid defense of the faith by tolerating various forms of doctrinal error to be accepted as equally viable "possibilities" to the inspired truth of the word. An individual does not aid the defense of his own faith by seeking various metaphorical options to literal truths found in God’s word. Faith is not aided by filtering Scripture through the interpretive funnel of pagan thinking. Faith is aided, strengthened and defended by a total and complete dependence upon God’s word as the final authority and absolute truth in every matter whereof it speaks. May God help us to "esteem [His] precepts concerning all things to be right, and hate every false way" (Psa. 119:128).