13] And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.” 14] Then the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you did this / More cursed shall you be / than all cattle / and all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl / and dirt shall you eat / all the days of your life. 15] I will put enmity / between you and the woman, / and between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.” (Genesis 3:13-15)
Who is this serpent? In the broadest sense, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (15th century, Spain) explained that the serpent foretells the future moral and spiritual calamity of humankind. In the more limited sense in the Garden of Eden, the serpent, seemed initially to have held an exalted position as the ‘Lord of the Central Two Trees’. He was among the most intelligent of creatures, so much so that God gave him the ability to speak. However, he was so jealous of the human’s special gifts and status with God, that with deceit and cunning he sought to cause a breach between them by instigating the first sin in the Bible, resulting in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. The serpent would pay dearly for his lies, deceit and deception. He lost his legs and speech, was forced to eat dirt, and became the enemy for all time with humankind.
The Chatam Sofer (19th century, Slovakia) noted that the serpent’s greatest sin was that he sought deliberately to undermine God’s uniqueness as the Creator and Sovereign of the Garden by referring to the Holy One only by the name Elohim, whereas throughout the Eden narrative God is referred to always as Adonai Elohim. In doing this the serpent demoted God by comparing him with lesser entities, such as angels and judges, and he planted doubt about God’s Ineffable power in the minds of the first humans.
The Zohar identifies the serpent’s soul with God’s and Israel’s greatest enemy Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind as they left Egypt where the most vulnerable people were marching. Amalek’s attack was timed in the period before the people had a chance to meet God at Mount Sinai and receive Torah thus enabling Israel to represent holiness in the world. This is why Amalek came to represent all of Israel’s and God’s most vicious enemies (i.e. Rome, the Inquisitors, the Nazis, etc.). Amalek’s name equals 240 the same as is the Hebrew word safek (doubt).
The mystical tradition adds complexity to the meaning of the serpent by suggesting that there are not one but two serpents – a holy serpent and an evil one. As evidence, Kabbalah points to the numerical value of nachash (serpent) as 358, just as is the numerical value of mashiach (messiah). This suggests that the only path to redemption lies through a battle between good and evil, between the yetzer tov and yetzer ha-ra. In this final battle the Zohar says that the “holy serpent” will kill the evil one and merit marrying the Divine princess, thus uniting with the origin of the souls of Israel and bringing about redemption to the world.
This remarkable myth explains much about human nature and our complex and often difficult relationship with God. The serpent is a potent symbol of the attractions of the physical world, of temptation and particularly sexual temptation, which was uncovered when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, recognized their nakedness, and covered themselves out of shame.
In a conversation with Bill Moyers towards the end of his life, Joseph Campbell explained that this story represents duality in the world, the world of physicality on the one hand and the eternal nature of the soul on the other. For many commentators the story is about the nature of the afterlife. Campbell, however, retells the story by explaining that “the ability to throw off life and to continue to survive is represented by the snake who sheds its skin [and is renewed]… just as the moon sheds its shadow [and a new moon emerges]. The snake isn’t good or bad,” he said. “It’s necessary.”
He continued: “I don’t think [this story is about] seeking meaning for life [in the hereafter, as has been suggested by many]. Rather, I think what we are seeking is the experience of being alive [in the here and now], so that the experiences we have on purely the physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality…[affording us] the rapturous experience of being alive… [Life’s meaning doesn’t come when you] peak your head under a rock or [consider a new] philosophy…. Rather, the meaning of life is about the experience of realizing that your dreams have come true, that your make-believe world has become reality.” And he concluded that we should all “envision our dreams and embrace them.”