In Genesis 3 there’s a snake in the garden, but a most unusual one. He has legs (soon to be amputated), a brain capable of reasoning, and a vocal system productive of human speech. Although he asks Eve a ‘sneaky’ question, which invites a reassessment of the words, hence, character of God, nothing he says proves to be untrue, for Adam and Eve do not die after their fruit eating experiment, and they do “become like gods”, leading to their expulsion from Eden. The serpent, nonetheless, is equally punished, presumably for displeasing God.
The one descriptive word applied to the snake is עָרוּם (‘arum’ in Hebrew). An intriguing fact, not shown by translations, is that the same word is used of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:25, where it’s translated as “naked”. Biblical Hebrew has only around 8,000 words, and so individual roots can give rise to widely different meanings. ‘Arum’ can either mean naked, or anything, in a downwards direction, from prudent, to shrewd, to downright crafty. Perhaps there’s some connection? In any case, that’s all that’s said, directly, about the snake’s character.
In the mid-1st century BCE, however, in the Jewish book of the “Wisdom of Solomon”, we’re told that death entered the world “by the envy of the devil”. By the time of the New Testament book of “Revelation”, we read about “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan”. Although the snake’s original legs ‘got the chop’, he later ‘grew new arms and legs’, and we now ‘know’ he was the Devil in disguise!
There’s no Devil in the Hebrew Old Testament. There is a שָׂטָן (satan in Hebrew) meaning an adversary or accuser. This figure appears in only two places. (i) In the 1st chapter of Job, he is “the satan”, seemingly indicating a functionary in Yahweh’s divine assembly who has a ‘devil’s advocate’ remit, to make sure that everything is, in demonstrable fact, as it appears on the surface. (ii) In 1 Chronicles 21:1, someone called Satan ”wanted to bring trouble on the people of Israel, so he made David decide to take a census”. Without going into space-consuming details, this ‘Satan’ is reminiscent of the archetypal ‘trickster’ figure, a worldly-wise, cynical mischief-maker who, for his own purposes, will assist others, but otherwise is as likely, delightedly, to deceive and disadvantage them.
In Christian mythology, Satan became a ‘fallen’ angel in rebellion against God, who has been given, in our ‘fallen’ world, time-limited control over a host of evil spirits which can possess people, and create all kinds of mischief and downright evil, pending their eternal destruction when God finally steps in to sort things out. Early Christian thinking was influenced by Greek philosophy (hence the ‘logos’ theology in John’s Gospel), and was also influenced by Zoroastrianism which envisaged a cosmic struggle between the forces of dark and light, good and evil. In patriarchal religions, the male top-god is the source of all that’s good. How are we, then, to explain the existence of evil. Not to worry! Its source is not God, but his principal adversary, Satan, the Devil – very convenient !
The mythology in Genesis 1 – 3 is impressively entertaining, while raising some serious issues, such as the existence of evil. For myself, however, I find more helpful the mythology employed by Carl Jung (mythology being the exact opposite of untruth). For Jung, in the depths of each individual psyche there’s the archetypal figure of the “Shadow”, which embodies all the ‘bad things’ within us that we persistently fail, or deliberately refuse, to face up to. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in the context of the otherwise unremarkable, middle-class civil-servant, Adolf Eichmann, who calmly and efficiently supervised the extermination of thousands of Jewish men, women and children. Any answer to the problem of evil must include our becoming aware of, and accepting, the existence and appalling potential of the Shadow in each one of us. It has to be brought out of the darkness into the un-blinkered light of consciousness, for there alone, hopefully, it can be mastered and repudiated.