In a recent article for the 2003 Florida College Lectures, I discussed Genesis 3 and the curse that God pronounced on the serpent in the garden of Eden. I apparently expressed myself very poorly, however, because some readers have drawn the conclusion that I thought the Genesis account did not record historical fact or that Genesis 3 is a myth. Nothing could be further from the truth. I greatly regret my choice of words seeing that those words have been read in such a wrong way. So let me now be very clear: the Genesis account of Satan’s temptation of Eve is completely historical in every way. The being identified in the Bible as the serpent was really in the garden and he really tempted Eve . I never intended to suggest anything to the contrary.
The confusion has arisen because on one page of my article I raised the possibility that Moses’ reference to Satan as “the serpent” may not have been intended by the inspired author as an indication of the form that the devil took when he appeared to Eve, but rather as a way of designating the devil himself by using the language that the people of Moses’ day would use when speaking of the devil. In later biblical history this spiritual opponent of God is called by various names, e.g., the devil, Satan, Beelzebub, the tempter, the dragon, etc. But the earliest appellation may have been “the serpent,” a term that, while metaphorical, appropriately designated this wicked being who , with great subtlety, brought the chaos of sin into the garden of Eden. 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.
Harry Osborne and Marc Gibson have criticized me publicly for suggesting the above view. In a recent article entitled, “The Serpent That Was Not There,” Brother Osborne and brother Gibson charge me with rejecting what Scripture says about the existence of the serpent of Genesis 3. They assert that the only sound conclusion to draw from the text is that Satan used the form of a snake when he tempted Eve, particularly since Genesis 3:1 and 3:14 connect the serpent of the garden with “the beasts of the field.” That is a reasonable way of reading the biblical text, and I believe that it may indeed be correct. But in my opinion, 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. This understanding of the text has long been held by many Bible believers who see it as the meaning indicated by other statements of Scripture – particularly by God’s promise to the serpent that the seed of woman “shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15). I only offered this view as a possibility to be considered by thoughtful Bible students. (I myself have drawn no definite conclusion about the matter.) It is not a view that springs from a modernist approach to Scripture. In fact, I have never known of a modernist to entertain it; only believers in the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture espouse it.
Still, these two brethren are critical of me for suggesting the view, and they categorically reject it as a possibility. That is their prerogative. Yet as far as I can see, the view is not in conflict with any of the express statements of Scripture. The inspired writers of the Bible say “the serpent deceived Eve” (2 Cor . 11:3), or “the devil … the father of lies” deceived her (John 8:44). They speak of “the serpent of old, who is called the devil and Satan” (Rev. 12:9). But the biblical writers never state that Satan took the form of a serpent when he deceived Eve; that is simply an interpretation of what they say. Brother Osborne and brother Gibson believe that even to suggest another interpretation, namely, that God intended the words “the serpent” as a designation of Satan himself, will lead people to reject the historicity of Genesis and adopt modernism. As someone who has spent his academic life fighting modernists face-to-face, I can say with confidence that people adopt modernism for other reasons than this. Furthermore, brother Osborne and brother Gibson admit that elsewhere in Scripture the word “serpent” is used symbolically to designate Satan (viz., in Rev. 12:9 and 20:2), so I fail to see why they deem it sinful for someone to ask if the same might not also be true in Genesis 3. Seekers of truth should never be afraid to consider an interpretation of a passage that differs from the interpretation that they or others have previously thought. Truth can always withstand the closest scrutiny.
Every word of the sixty-six books of the Bible is the inspired word of God. Because I believe this so strongly, I have spent my entire life studying the Bible, proclaiming it publicly, and refuting modernists who impugn it. I acknowledge my human weaknesses and I recognize my personal limitations when it comes to reading the Scriptures and communicating my thoughts to others. Yet I take comfort in the fact that we serve a God who is willing to pardon our human frailty. Let me now state categorically that I believe whatever God’s word says about any subject. Genesis 3:1 says, “The serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” I believe that! 2 Corinthians 11:3 says, “The serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness.” I believe that! Revelation 20:2 speaks of “the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan.” I believe that! “The Serpent That Was Not There”?? Oh yes, he most certainly was there! And how wonderful it is that, in accordance with God’s promise, the serpent of the garden is crushed by the heel of Christ.