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The subtle snake (Genesis chap. 3, verse 1)

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

Now we comment the third chapter of Genesis. The first two chapters dealt with the creation of the world and of man, while the third chapter focuses on the first two human beings who live in the Garden of Eden. Have you ever noticed that the Bible does not say that God also placed the woman in Eden, but only man? (cf Gn 2:8.15). Why, then, the woman is in the garden of Eden? It may be that the first man brought her in the garden? There is no response. However, there is no Eden without man and woman, because, perhaps, there is no communion with God except between him and the pair of male and female. All of this reveals that these chapters don’t represent a coherent narrative. But the important thing is that the first creature that is mentioned in the chapter is not an human being but an animal, though very special.

The adjective “subtil” – in. Hebr. arom – is used with persons and not with animals. Why now it is used with the serpent (in Hebr. nachash)?  It is still early to discuss it. Now we can say that the snake is not an animal, because the texts says that it/he make a question.  In the history of religions, the serpent is one of the most important anthropomorphic symbols. It indicates the rebirth or awakening, the transition from one condition to another. Just think of the fact that the snake changes its skin. The value of this symbol is not necessarily bad. But in the eyes of those who wrote this passage, obviously it represents something of negative. In this case, in fact, the transition between a condition to another will be – as we shall see – from a state of happiness/original naivete to a state marked by evil and sadness.

In the Bible, the snake is the embodiment of evil, and this results from a holistic reading of Sacred Scripture, including especially its latest book – the Book of Revelation – where the snake is clearly identified as the evil itself (Rev 12:9). However, its malignant nature is not immediately evident. Indeed, at the beginning of the chapter the serpent is presented as “the friend of man”, the one who really is interested in him, of his true and deep desires. Asking the woman if God had really ordered not to eat of every tree of the garden, the serpent profoundly distorts reality. Besides the fact that God had only ordered not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (cf. Gen 2:17), the serpent addresses the wrong interlocutor.

In fact, God had forbidden Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to man when the woman hasn’t been created! Then the snake choose the right person to pour out his version of the facts. It/he is very persuasive, because the question it/he made implies that God is a bad and despotic being that does not allow one to even eat fruit. It was a senseless prohibition because man and the woman had a strictly vegetarian diet! Therefore the woman was fascinated by this strange being who spoke and offered her existential perspectives very different from those of God …

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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