SATANIST BIBLE STUDY: WHY IS THE SERPENT SATAN?
Satan’s temptation of Eve by way of serpent cosplay remains the most famous Bible story that never happened.
In historical term of course, most of the stories in the Bible never happened. That’s why they’re in the Bible instead of a plausible history text. (Texas school boards notwithstanding.)
But when I say that the story of Satan putting Eve on a literal paleo diet never happened, I mean that it’s not even actually in the Bible. It’s a story too bogus even for Genesis, a book in which god cheats in a wrestling match.
Still, the myth about this myth persists. So why? The answer, as I’ve come to find out, is deceptively simple–as befits a deceptive reading.
Even if you’ve never so much as picked up a Bible (presumably because you don’t have the heavy gloves and industrial tongs necessary for the chore), you may well know these verses by heart:
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath god said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, god hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, lest ye die.”
That’s a very long way of just saying “no,” but Eve couldn’t possibly imagine the hurry future readers might be in given the length of this book.
You probably also know some of the more conspicuous inconsistencies in the text, first being that Eve and Adam actually do not die when they eat the forbidden fruit.
Apologist and intellectual whoopee cushion Ken Ham alleges this is because the Hebrew text actually employs a phrase that remains impervious to English interpretation, the closest equivalent being “dying, you shall die.” Oh, of course.
The old Blue Letter Bible waves the problem away with the maximally miraculous argument that there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Eve actually does die you see, but in some vague way that leaves her, well, alive. Which is quite a racket if you can manage it.
Religions scholar Reza Aslan–generally my second least favorite Christian Aslan–offered a comparably straightforward interpretation in the Washington Post: “Neither die. The serpent was right.” This reading has the built-in advantage of corresponding to what the text actually says, which of course is why nobody favors it.
Similarly, nowhere does Genesis identify the serpent as Satan. Satan doesn’t appear in Genesis for the same reason Spider-Man doesn’t: Neither character had yet been invented, and also Joe Quesada did not yet exist to insist on crossing the two over.
Revelation, the rambling, chemically compromised capstone to the modern Bible, does name Satan “that old serpent […] which deceiveth the world.” But Shawna Dolansky, coauthor of The Bible Now, writes that in that time and place it was standard to compare spiritual villains to serpents, and “there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake.”
In fact, “the reference in Revelation 12:9 to Satan as the ancient serpent probably reflects mythical monsters like Leviathan rather than” a reference to Genesis, leaving us once again in a land of confusion.
UC Berkeley’s Ronald Hendel suggests in the Huffington Post that “to some early interpreters, the role of the snake was too important, too momentous, for the snake to just be a smart reptile. He had to be more.”
Thus “it was only natural to see a link between Satan.” Which is to say, once you’ve decided something for no reason, the only possible way to interpret it becomes obvious.
The towering 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides had his own reading: The serpent wasn’t the devil, actually. In fact, he wasn’t even a serpent, because this story never actually happened, as evidenced by the fact that, you know, snakes don’t talk.
Likely the first person to conclude that Satan was the serpent was Justin Martyr, the father of Christian apologetics. A title like that should perhaps induce a person to rethink their life, but it’s too late for Justin, as he was in fact martyred. (What are the odds?)
“Martyr thought that when Jesus named the devil ‘Satanas’ he was calling him ‘Satah Nahash,’ which means ‘apostate serpent’ in Hebrew,” says UCLA Professor Henry Kelly.
That still doesn’t say anything about Genesis of course, but Justin seemed to somehow think it did, and nobody bothered to interrogate him that closely about it. You can probably tell from his name that Martyr was, ah, a tad influential, so his non-arguments carried on.
So you see, a Greek-speaking Samaritan misread one word attributed by anonymous scribes to a dead itinerant Jewish preacher in another language from 150 years prior, and from that we get a cornerstone of modern mainstream religious doctrine. If this annoys you, here’s a mosaic of the Romans chopping Justin’s head off to make up for it.
What have we learned? First, that it would hardly matter if any holy book actually were the inerrant word of god, since errors of words are apparently at least as persuasive a source for most believers.
Second, that although most religions take refuge in tradition to reinforce their beliefs, traditions can be based on anything at all–or on nothing.
We should be critical of folks for going along with things without ever examining their sources. But at the same time, look how much trouble it was to answer this seemingly simple question–who needs it?
Maybe if more people responded to such disparities by just closing the book then it wouldn’t matter so much. After all, there are plenty of other Good Books to read instead.