Monday, May 11, 2020

The Nature, Purpose and Destiny of the Adversary (Part One)

The ancient serpent

In Genesis 3:1-6 (Concordant Version of the Old Testament) we read the following:

Now the serpent, it became more crafty than any other animal of the field that Yahweh Elohim had made. The serpent said to the woman: Indeed did Elohim say, You shall not eat from every tree of the garden?  The woman replied to the serpent: We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; yet of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden Elohim said, You shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it lest you should die. But the serpent said to the woman: Not to die shall you be dying; for Elohim knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be unclosed, and you will become like Elohim, knowing good and evil. Then the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it brought a yearning to the eyes and that the tree was desirable for gaining insight. So she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband with her, and he ate.

In 2 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:13-14, the Apostle Paul referred to the historical event recorded in the above passage as follows:

Yet I fear lest somehow, as the serpent deludes Eve by its craftiness, your apprehensions should be corrupted from the singleness and pureness which is in Christ.”

“…for Adam was first molded, thereafter Eve, and Adam was not seduced, yet the woman, being deluded, has come to be in the transgression.” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8-12)

Just as Paul believed that Adam was created before Eve (1 Cor. 11:8-12; 1 Tim. 2:13) – and that it was through Adam that sin (and, through sin, death) came into the world (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:21-22) – so Paul believed that it was by the craftiness of the serpent referred to in Genesis 3:1-6 that Eve was “deluded.” There is simply no good reason to believe that, for Paul, the account of Eve’s being deluded by the serpent is any less literally true or historically factual than the account of Eve’s creation (it also wouldn’t make sense for Paul to appeal to the creation and subsequent seduction of Eve in order to support the point he was making in 1 Tim. 2:13-14 unless he believed in the historicity of the events to which he was referring).

There are some who, despite affirming the historicity of the account of Adam and Eve’s creation, believe that what we read in Gen. 3:1-6 should be understood as something other than a historical record of events that actually occurred in the way that they’re said to have occurred. However, we have no more reason to interpret Genesis 3:1-6 as a mythological fable or allegory than we have reason to interpret the account of Adam and Eve’s creation in this way. Thus, if one holds to straightforward understanding of the account Adam and Eve’s creation (as I do, and believe Paul did), consistency demands that Genesis 3:1-6 be similarly understood as a historically factual record of how Eve was deluded, and how sin subsequently entered the world of humanity/human society.

But does a straightforward reading of Genesis 3:1-6 necessarily lead to the view that a serpent was involved in the events described in these verses? One biblical scholar who didn’t think so was E.W. Bullinger. In Appendix 19 of his Companion Bible, Bullinger (who, it must be emphasized, firmly believed Genesis 3:1-6 to be an account consisting of historical facts, as opposed to an allegory, myth or fable) argued that the Hebrew word translated “serpent” in Genesis 3 (נָחָשׁ or “nachash”) shouldn’t be understood to mean “serpent” here. Instead, he claimed that the term “nachash” simply means “shining one.” And on the basis of what he believed to be the more literal meaning of the word, Bullinger argued that the “nachash” referred to in Genesis 3 was “a celestial or spirit-being,” and that this entity appeared to Eve as “a glorious shining being.” According to Bullinger’s position, then, the “nachash” who spoke to Eve did not indwell and speak through (or assume the appearance of) a serpent. Rather, the “nachash” who spoke to Eve was a glorious, celestial being who appeared to Eve as “an angel of light.”

Although I’m sympathetic toward Bullinger’s theory (and believe it to be much closer to the truth than the view of those who see the serpent as merely an imaginary being within a fictional tale or allegory), I also think his theory has some major problems. The first problem involves the meaning of the term “nachash.” Although some scholars would dispute Bullinger’s claim that the Hebrew term “nachash” literally means “shining one,” I don’t think it’s necessary to evaluate the validity of this particular claim in order to demonstrate the problematic nature of Bullinger’s position. For, regardless of what the most literal or primitive meaning of the word “nachash” may or may not be, the fact remains that this word is, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the primary Hebrew word for “serpent” ( Thus, if the inspired writer of Genesis had wanted to communicate the fact that Eve was deluded by a serpent, then there was no better and more suitable word he could’ve used than “nachash.” In no other passage of Scripture where the term “nachash” occurs is there any ambiguity as to what kind of creature is in view, or any reason to think that the term means something other than “serpent.” On the other hand, had Moses wanted to communicate the idea that the being who appeared to Eve and seduced her into transgressing God’s command was a celestial spirit-being, there were, arguably, far better ways of more clearly expressing and communicating this fact.

Even more problematic for Bullinger’s theory is the fact that, when the “nachash” is first introduced in Genesis 3 :1, it’s said to be (or to have become) ”more crafty than any other animal of the field that Yahweh Elohim had made.And later, in Gen. 3:14, we read that God declared the following to this creature: “Cursed shall you be away from [or “over”] every domestic beast and from every animal of the field!What would be the point of informing the reader that a celestial spirit-being or angel was (or had “become”) craftier than “any other animal of the field” that God had made? What would be the point of God’s cursing a celestial spirit-being “away from” (or “above”) “every domestic beast and from every animal of the field?” These statements imply that the kind of creature being referred to in these verses belonged to, or was in some way closely associated with, the category of earthly, field-dwelling creatures with which it was being compared (and “away from” which it was cursed).

Significantly, when quoting from Gen. 3:1 in his article, Bullinger left out the phrase “of the field.” I suspect that this omission on Bullinger’s part was not unintentional, for the phrase not only undermines the very point he was trying to make when quoting from Gen. 3:1, but it exposes the weakness of his entire position concerning the nature of the “nachash” of Genesis 3. In any event, the fact remains that what we read in Gen. 3:1 and 3:14 implies that the “nachash” being referred to belonged to the same earthly realm as the “domestic beasts” and “animals of the field.” What’s being said in these verses would simply make no sense if the “nachash” in view was a creature that belonged to a completely different realm than that which is inhabited by “every animal of the field,” or to an order of beings that, in accord with what we read in Psalm 8:5 and Heb. 2:7, is higher than that to which humans belong. However, when we understand the term “nachash” to simply mean “serpent,” no such difficulty arises.

But if the “nachash” of Genesis 3 was, in fact, a serpent, how do we account for its extra-ordinary intelligence and speaking ability? It’s reasonable to believe that no other serpent in earth’s history has ever possessed the ability to do what we’re told the serpent in Eden did. Does this mean that, when serpents were first created by God, they naturally possessed both the intelligence and the speaking ability manifested by the serpent by which Eve was deluded? This view would imply that serpents lost these abilities at some point subsequent to the time at which the event described in Genesis 3:1-6 occurred. In support of this position, some have appealed to the unusual incident involving Balaam’s donkey that we find recorded in Numbers 22:21-39. Based on what we read in this passage, it’s suggested that God simply restored to Balaam’s donkey an ability that all animals once naturally possessed (but eventually lost, after creation was cursed).

Although this is an interesting theory, I think it’s more likely (and more in keeping with what Scripture reveals elsewhere) that the serpent by which Eve was deluded had, at some point prior to the exchange recorded in Gen. 3:1-5, come to be indwelled and controlled by another, more intelligent being. According to this view, the serpent’s “craftiness” (and ability to speak) was not inherent in the serpent itself, but rather was derived from an unseen source which inherently possessed the “craftiness” manifested by the serpent’s words. It was by means of this unseen intelligence that the serpent, on this particular occasion, “became more crafty than any other animal of the field that Yahweh Elohim had made,” and was enabled to speak the seductive words that it spoke to Eve.

It has been objected that, if this were the case, then there would’ve been no good reason for God to curse the serpent. Why would God have cursed the serpent if it was simply the unwitting instrument of another being? In response to this objection, it should first be noted that, although the serpent’s curse apparently involved a change in its physical condition, we have no reason to think that the curse involved the infliction of pain and suffering upon the serpent (let alone that the serpent felt any kind of resentment – or any other negative emotions – as a result of its being cursed). Second, if we understand God’s cursing of the serpent as illustrative (and as prophetically pointing to the future judgment of the unseen being who indwelled and spoke through the serpent), God’s curse makes more sense. The fact is, however, that we don’t have to know why, exactly, God cursed this creature in order to believe that he had a good reason for doing so. Since a straightforward reading of Genesis 3:14-15 indicates that God did, in fact, curse the serpent – and since God doesn’t do anything without a good reason – then it necessarily follows that God did have a good reason for doing so (even if we’re unsure as to what, exactly, that reason was).

That the serpent by which Eve was deluded was indwelled by, and under the control of, a more powerful and intelligent entity who had essentially made the serpent an extension of itself is, I believe, supported by what the apostle John wrote in Revelation 12:7-12. Here is how these verses read in the CLNT:

And a battle occurred in heaven. Michael and his messengers battle with the dragon, and the dragon battles, and its messengers. And they are not strong enough for him, neither was their place still found in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, the ancient serpent called Adversary and Satan, who is deceiving the whole inhabited earth. It was cast into the earth, and its messengers were cast with it. And I hear a loud voice in heaven saying, “Just now came the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of His Christ, for the accuser of our brethren was cast out, who was accusing them before our God day and night. And they conquer him through the blood of the Lambkin, and through the word of their testimony, and they love not their soul, until death. Therefore, make merry, ye heavens, and those tabernacling in them! Woe to the land and the sea, for the Adversary descended to you having great fury, being aware that brief is the season that he has.”

A few verses earlier, the “great dragon” referred to in this passage was described as ”a great fiery-red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads seven diadems” (Rev. 12:3). As is the case with the seven-horned, seven-eyed “Lambkin” (Rev. 5:6-7) and the seven-headed, ten-horned “wild beast” (Rev. 13:1-2), the fiery-red dragon is most likely a composite symbol or figure that represents both a single individual as well as a particular group of beings with whom the primary individual represented is closely associated. In the case of the seven-eyed, seven-horned “Lambkin,” for example, the immediate context makes it clear that the primary individual being represented is Jesus Christ. However, we’re also told that the seven horns and eyes of the Lambkin represent “the seven spirits of God, commissioned for the entire earth” (Rev. 5:6). These seven spirits were first represented by “seven torches of fire” which John saw “burning before the throne” (Rev. 4:5), and which are later referred to as “the seven messengers who stand before God” (Rev. 8:2; cf. Luke 1:19). Their inclusion in the “Lambkin” symbol is, evidently, due to the fact that these spirits/messengers will play a key role in executing the judgments associated with the opening of the seven-sealed scroll by Christ (who, by virtue of his sacrificial death, is revealed to be the only created being worthy of opening the scroll and breaking its seal; see Rev. 5).  

That a single individual was primarily being represented by the “great dragon” (as is the case with the “Lambkin” and the “wild beast”) is confirmed by the fact that John referred to the dragon as a “him” and a “he” in the above passage. Specifically, the particular individual represented by the “dragon” (and with whom we’re told Michael and his messengers will be battling) is the entity whom John referred to in v. 9 as “the ancient serpent called Adversary and Satan.” The expression ”the ancient serpent” is undoubtedly a reference to the serpent by which Eve was deluded, and is actually the first of two occurrences in Revelation in which this expression was used by John (the second occurrence being found in Rev. 20:1-3). In both occurrences, the expression is used to identify an entity referred to by John as “(the) Adversary and Satan.”

But if “the ancient serpent” by which Eve was “deluded” was simply the visible guise of another being who temporarily indwelled and controlled the serpent (and who inherently possessed the intelligence and “craftiness” manifested in the serpent’s words), then why is the being who indwelled the serpent – i.e., he who is “called Adversary and Satan” – referred to as if he were the serpent itself? Answer: John was likely using the figure of speech “metonymy” here. According to this figure of speech, something that’s closely associated with something else – e.g., something that serves as the instrument or means through which something else acts – is referred to as if it were the thing with which it’s associated (see the following entry for an expanded explanation of this figure of speech: In the case of Rev. 12:9 and 20:2, the serpent through which the being who is “called Adversary and Satan” acted and spoke is referred to by John as if it were this being.

But what is the true nature of the entity to whom John was referring in these verses? The position I am going to be defending in the next few installments of this study could be briefly summarized as follows: the being whom John said is “called Adversary and Satan” belongs to the general order of superhuman, heaven-dwelling beings referred to in Rev. 12:7-12 as “Michael and his messengers” (and who are included among those said to be ”tabernacling in the heavens”), and was created by God to be the chief antagonist/opponent of God and humanity during the eons.

Some have objected to this understanding of the nature of this being by arguing that we’re not provided with any clear and explicit account of his origin. According to this objection, if the being referred to in Rev. 12:7-12 as “Satan” and “the Adversary” should be understood as a created, superhuman being (as opposed to, say, a personification of something impersonal), then God would’ve provided us with an account of his creation. However, this argument is undermined by the fact that Scripture is just as silent concerning the origin of every other created, superhuman being referred to in Scripture. Whether they’re referred to by name or not, their creation is simply a fact that is taken for granted in Scripture. It would be absurd to argue that “Michael and his messengers” (or the “heavenly host” referred to in Luke 2:13) are personifications just because Scripture provides us with no account of their origin. And the same could be said of the being with whom this study is concerned.

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