Christian Scholars Review 31.1 (2001) 31-57.
Copyright © 2001 by Christian Scholars Review; cited with permission.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of
the Serpent: A Canonical Approach
to the Tree of Knowledge
By Nicholas John Ansell
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice? (Prov. 8:1)1
She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
those who lay hold of her will be blessed. (Prov. 3:18)
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to
the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
Say first, for heav'n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep tract of hell, say first what cause
Moved our grand parents in that happy state,
Favored of Heav'n so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the world besides?
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind ... (John Milton, Paradise Lost I, 27-36)
Introduction: On Trusting the Serpent (Within Limits)
This essay has three main aims: to foster a positive attitude to the revelatory
power of creation as symbolized in the Bible by the call of (and to) wisdom; to
develop a radically anthropocentric view of the origin of evil which also entails a
creation-wide view of the nature of evil; and to explore a "canonical" approach to
Scripture that can shed biblical light on these concerns in a way that historical-
Is biblical wisdom the art of hearing the "voice" of creation as the voice of God? Or was God's
revelation countered by temptation and deception from the very beginning? In this essay,
Nik Ansell suggests that a "canonical" appreciation of the serpent of Genesis helps us dis-
cern the human origin and cosmic nature of evil in a way that is missed by most popular and
scholarly approaches to the Bible. Formerly a sessional lecturer in Philosophy of Religion
and Theology at the University of Bristol, England, Nik Ansell is now lecturer in Theology at
Christian Scholar's Review 32
critical and grammatical-historical approaches to the Bible cannot.
To this end, I will offer a rereading of the Fall narrative of Gen. 3, focusing on
the significance of the serpent and its relationship to Satan. This is a test case in
developing a hermeneutic that calls into question some of the predominant ways in
which the Scriptures are read and heard in the Christian and scholarly communi-
ties. Attention to the canonical shape of the Bible, I suggest, reveals a relationship
between the voice of the serpent and the call of wisdom that has major
implications for our own approach to (the tree of) knowledge.
Our view of wisdom and knowledge, and thus our vision not only of scholar-
ship but of life itself, is intimately related to our view of creation. Our ability to
trust creation, however, is closely tied to our understanding of the origin and nature
of evil. In the Scriptures, human history has its beginnings in original
blessing rather than original sin. Evil has neither the first word nor the last word,
yet its reality is seen as all-pervasive. So where does this evil come from? Was the
power of temptation part of the world that Gen. 1:31 describes as "very good"?
Why was there a serpent in the Garden of Eden? In pursuing wisdom today, can
we trust the "voice" of creation? These are some of the questions I wish to explore.
One very influential Christian understanding of the nature of evil (recently
popularized by the best-selling novels of Frank Peretti) assumes that accepting the
biblical account of the existence of Satan, demons, and powers and principalities
commits us to an "otherworldly" perspective in which the "real" battle with the
forces of darkness takes place "above" this world of appearances in a supernatural
realm far beyond our normal experience and natural abilities. In this view, special
knowledge is required if we are to contend with the demonic realities that lie "be-
hind" the various manifestations of evil which we may all encounter but which
only the charismatically gifted may effectively oppose.2 Thus, a particular
approach to "wisdom" goes hand in hand with this view of evil.3 Indeed, our ideas
of wisdom, revelation, creation, and evil are always interrelated.
This kind of severe dualism reflects some key theological distinctions that were
formed in the pre-modern era. By contrast, much contemporary theology is characterized by a focus on our human responsibility for evils such as militarism,
nationalism, and environmental destruction. In modern theologies that have been
shaped by the "wisdom" of the Enlightenment, it is frequently assumed that
1 All biblical quotations will be from the NIV unless otherwise stated.
2 For an example of such a dualistic-supernaturalist approach, see See Frank Peretti, This Present
Darkness (Westchester, Ill.:
Crossway, 1986) and idem., Piercing The Darkness (
helpful overview, see Nigel G. Wright, "Charismatic Interpretations of the Demonic" in An-
Heavenly Realm (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), chap.
8. Here I am merely describing an extreme position within the wider Charismatic movement.
3 Given the obvious links between our view of wisdom and education, it is interesting that
Peretti's Piercing The Darkness focuses on the struggles of a Christian school.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 33
about evil powers and malevolent beings needs to be translated into more "down-
to-earth" categories if it is not to distract us from the tasks at hand.4
This approach, while rightly critical of Christian views that are out of touch
with the all-too-human origins of the problems we face, nevertheless raises ques-
tions about whether we have anything significant and distinctive to say as Chris-
tians to a secular world. In this essay, I wish to propose a "third way" that attempts
to avoid the twin dangers of supernaturalism and naturalism, dualism and reduc-
tionism. I am convinced that we need to develop a view of the origin of evil that
rejects the theology of Paradise Lost without losing touch with the story of the
Garden of Eden. To this end, I will offer an interpretation of the biblical portrayal
of the serpent and Satan that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been suggested
At the level of hermeneutics, I will focus on biblical texts in their final form
and narrative order within the wider canonical context in which they are to be
found. In this approach, Gen. 3 should be read, first and foremost, in the light of
Gen. 1-2, then the Book of Genesis as a whole, and then the Pentateuch as the
canonical unit in which Genesis is situated. Attention should also be paid to the
New Testament development of themes from Gen. 1-3. This approach differs from
that of popular theologies that attempt to build up a view of Satan from a
collection of isolated texts. It is also a departure from much scholarly writing
which tends to be preoccupied with reconstructing the (his)story "behind" the text
rather than with elucidating the story "of" the text as it is presented to us.
Despite the dominant "divide and conquer" approach to the biblical writings,
a focus on the final form of the Scriptures is certainly not unknown in contempo-
rary scholarship.5 Scholars who approach the Bible in this way may be compared
to linguists who choose to study the meaning of words by attending to their usage
4 For a classic example of a naturalistic-reductionistic approach, see Rudolf Bultmann, "New
Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament
and the Problem of its Re-interpretation" in Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth,
trans. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), 1-44, especially pp. 1-2, and
idem., Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), 20-21. For schol-
arly resistance to Bultmann on the biblical portrayal of evil, see Trevor Ling, The Significance
of Satan: New Testament Demonology and its Contemporary Relevance (London: SPCK, 1961),
1ff. Ironically, at the level of interpreting how the New Testament authors see the world,
Bultmann and Peretti are in substantial agreement. This is because neither realizes that the
categories of "natural" and "supernatural" are alien to the Bible. On this point, cf. J. E. Colwell,
"Supernatural," in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright
(Leicester: Inter-Varsisty Press, 1988), 669, and Leonardo Boff, Liberating Grace, trans. John
Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 41.
inter alia, Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (
Fortress Press, 1979), and the different (though not incompatible) approach of James A. Sand-
ers, Canon And Conmrunity: A Guide to Canonical Criticism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). There are many works available in rhetorical criticism and synchronic approaches to
exegesis, the influence of which may be detected in Everett Fox, The Five Books Of Moses: A
New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes (London: The Harvill Press, 1995).
Special note should also be made of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series, the first volume of
which is Terence E. Fretheim, The Pentateuch (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).
Christian Scholar's Review 34
in a living language rather than by seeking to determine their etymological origins,
which may be irrelevant and even misleading for their present purposes. By anal-
ogy, historical or "etymological" questions such as "Where did the notion of Satan
come from?," "How can inter-testamental material shed light on its development?,"
and "Which Egyptian and/or Mesopotamian ideas about serpents have influenced
the biblical authors?" certainly have their place. Nevertheless, I will largely ignore
such questions because, for the purposes of this essay, I am not interested in
reconstructing the various (possibly quite different) ways the ancient Hebrews and
first Christians might have thought about the nature of evil. My concern is with the
message of the Bible as canon that cannot be reduced to the intentions and beliefs
of its authors, their sources, and other influences.
As this is a contentious point in some circles, it might be worth clarifying with
an analogy. The recent British film, The Full Monty (which tells the story of a
group of unemployed steel workers who become male strippers), has not only
received critical acclaim but has also sparked much speculation about the origins
of its title. One oft-repeated suggestion traces this phrase back to the kind of
breakfast enjoyed by Field Marshall Montgomery. Attempts have also been made
to establish a link with a restaurant in the north
comedian Ben Elton, who used the phrase prior to the film. As far as I know, all
these suggestions may be correct. They could even be interconnected. But to
understand what "the Full Monty" now means in our language, one simply must
see the film.
Historical-critical concerns are not illegitimate. If some of these historical
speculations actually shed light on The Full Monty itself and on what people now
mean by that phrase, then they are to be welcomed. Etymologies can provide
important clues to current meanings. But the film, viewed in its final form, must
take priority. What is frequently referred to as the "crisis" in biblical studies6 has
much to do with scholars who believe that researching precisely what and how
determine what the phrase "the Full Monty" really means today. As an approach to
the Bible, such a focus is virtually guaranteed to "lose the plot."7
In rereading the narrative of Gen. 3 and exploring the relationship between the
serpent and Satan within the story that the Bible tells, my intentions are both criti-
cal and constructive. The tendency of dualistic views to locate the staying power
of evil beyond humanity in a supernatural realm is supported by (and reflected in)
the assumption that the Bible sees the primordial origin of evil in the fall of Satan,
6 See, for example, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger et al., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The
Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, edited by Richard John
7 See the apt comments on the "atomism" and "geneticism" of much Old Testament scholar-
ship in David J. A. Clines, "The Theme of the Pentateuch," Journal for the Study of the Old
Testament Supplement Series 10 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978), 7-10. On going "behind" the text,
see the end of "Satan and the Serpent" and also n. 60 below.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 35
who, in the form of the serpent, subsequently seduced Adam and Eve into joining
his rebellion against God. A central aim of this essay is to reject thoroughly this
assumption and the hermeneutic that supports it. Instead, I shall insist that Gen. 3,
unlike all the other accounts of the origin of evil in the ancient world, has been
rightly identified by Paul Ricoeur as "the anthropological myth par excellence."8
The alternative interpretation of the story of the Fall and the origin of Satan
that I offer below can be described as "anthropocentric" because it focuses on the
way in which the entire creation--that is, not only the "natural world" but all that
exists--has been pulled into the vortex of human disobedience. This discussion
links the narrative of Gen. 3 to the nature of idolatry, which is arguably the central
Old Testament category for understanding the nature of evil.
It is my contention that the phenomenon of idolatry--in which we give our
religious allegiance to created realities with the consequence that they gain a
power over us--not only sheds light on the New Testament language of "powers
and principalities" but also helps us elucidate the nature of Satan and the serpent
of Genesis. This perspective honors the important biblical conviction that the
power of evil is not reducible to "flesh and blood" without directing our attention
"beyond" the creation which has become tragically caught up in our sin. At the
same time, my argument assumes that secular naturalistic categories are
thoroughly inadequate for getting to grips with the evils that face us.9
As my title suggests, I believe that this investigation of the nature of evil has
positive implications for our view of wisdom and for how we might approach the
8 See Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil,
trans. Emerson Buchanan (
1967), 232. My exegesis will differ from Ricoeur's, especially with respect to the role of the
serpent. While I am open to the possibility that one or more of the numerous technical mean-
ings of "myth" may shed some light on Gen. 3 and the nature of confessional language in
general, I reject Ricoeur's myth/history distinction, preferring to opt for the "history of a
special type," which he rejects on p. 235, n. 1. Thus, I also reject the approach of Claus
1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (
lishing House, 1984), which is rightly criticized from a canonical point of view by Childs in
his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 154-155. I find myself in basic agreement
here with Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (
1997), 48-62. Another very helpful discussion of this topic, which wisely refuses to oppose the
historical and the symbolic by showing how the symbolism of a political cartoon can capture the
significance of a historical event, see Albert M. Wolters, "Thoughts on Genesis," Calvinist
Contact (14 December 1990): 4. Also very helpful is the concept of "certitudinal history" de-
veloped by James H. Olthuis in his A Hermeneutics of Ultimata: Peril or Promise? (Lanham,
University Press of
9 For a very important example of an attempt to find a third way beyond dualism and reduc-
tionism in this context, special note should be made of Walter Wink's trilogy on the Powers,
Naming The Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (
Press, 1984), Unmasking The Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Engaging The Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a
World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). I am sympathetic to a great deal of
what Wink says, although my own perspective differs from his on a number of points (cf. nn. 50
and 52 below).
Christian Scholar's Review 36
tree of knowledge. I do not wish to read Gen. 3 as representing a positive step in
human development as was popular in German Idealism."' Nevertheless, in advo-
cating a thoroughly anthropocentric view of the origin of evil, I am rejecting the
view that the Fall was a response to a primordial power of temptation. I am thus
not only taking leave of the kind of theology reflected in Paradise Lost but am also
calling into question the host of Bible translations and commentaries of all theo-
logical persuasions that introduce the serpent of Gen. 3 as "cunning" or "crafty."
For us as for Adam and Eve, there is, I suggest, a positive link between the call of
wisdom and the voice of the serpent that must be carefully--indeed wisely--dis-
cerned. When we can make this connection, we should be in a better place to un-
derstand how the voice of creation might be heard in faith as the voice of God.
Towards an Anthropocentric View of Evil
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no biblical evidence for the widespread
belief that Satan fell prior to the disobedience of Adam and Eve. There is, in other
words, no Fall before the Fall. In the Old Testament, there are only three books
that explicitly refer to Satan. His most extended appearance--as "the Satan"--occurs
in the early chapters of Job. Otherwise, there are just two passing references to him
in I Chron. 21:1 and Zec. 3:1-2. His origins are not discussed in any of these texts.
The two Old Testament passages to which appeal is sometimes made for his
primordial fall--Isa. 14:12-15 and Ezek. 28:12-19--are simply mock laments that
celebrate the fall of human kings from power, as both evangelical and non-
evangelical commentators have argued.11 In the New Testament, there are just two
references to a "fall" of Satan (Luke 10:18 and Rev. 12:9), both of which refer to
his defeat in human history.12 Traditionally, Satan is believed to have fallen to
earth with a host of rebellious angels. Yet the very few biblical texts that refer to
angels sinning and/or being ejected from heaven (Rev. 12:9, 2 Pet. 2:4, and Jude
1:6) refer to events long after the disobedience of Adam and Eve.
This leaves only the story of the serpent in Gen. 3, which will be the focus of
our attention. Instead of letting this chapter tell its own story, the traditional inter-
pretation assumes that this account of the Fall contains gaps that must be filled by
10 See Christ of Gestrich, The Return of Splendor in the World: The Christian Doctrine of Sin and
Forgiveness, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 92ff. For a more
recent reinterpretation of Gen. 3 that also differs from my own, see James Barr, The Garden of
Eden and the Hope of Immortality (London: SCM, 1990).
11 For a recent survey from an evangelical perspective, see Sydney H. T. Page, Powers of Evil: A
Biblical Study of Satan and Demons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books; Leicester: Apollos, 1995), 37-
42. For a contemporary Roman Catholic perspective, see Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A.
Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (
Literature, see James L. Mays, ed., Harper's
Bible Commentary (
and Row, 1988), 560 and 686.
12 Some may wish to include John 8:44 and 1 John 3:8 here. These texts are discussed in n. 51
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 37
information allegedly gleaned from later parts of the biblical narrative. Appealing
to various parts of the canon in this way does not amount to what I mean by a
"canonical" approach to the text. The traditional reading does not explore the sub-
sequent deepening of biblical themes that are developed or even implicit in the
Genesis narrative. It reads conclusions based on isolated Old Testament and New
Testament texts back into Genesis. Not only does the traditional reading do vio-
lence to the Genesis text, as I hope to show, but it comes perilously close to imply-
ing that its opening narratives form an inadequate introduction to the biblical
drama. My counter-proposal is deceptively simple: we should begin by reading
(that is, interpreting) Gen. 3 in the light of Gen. 1-2.
When we first meet the serpent in 3:1, there is no textual evidence whatsoever
that anything bad has happened in or to the good creation described in Gen. 1-2.
To assume that we are supposed to understand a "fallen angel" in this context is
unwarranted.13 The text describes the serpent as the "wisest"14 of "the wild
animals," a phrase that refers back to the previous chapters. By this we are meant
to understand a creature made on the sixth day as described in 1:24-25 and named
by Adam in 2:19-20.
Gen. 1:24-25 refers twice to "creatures that move along the ground" of which
the serpent is clearly one (see 3:1415). It is thus of great significance to our under-
standing of the creature introduced in 3:1 that God says in 1: 26: "Let us make
man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the
birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures
that move along the ground." The connection with the serpent is reiterated in 1:28,
when God tells humanity: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and
13 Although there is biblical warrant for linking the serpent and Satan, to be explored in "Sa-
tan and the Serpent" below, and although Paul tells us that Satan "masquerades as an angel
of light" (2 Cor. 11:14), Satan is never defined as a fallen angel in the Bible. Many major
commentaries on Genesis stress that the serpent is not a satanic figure, especially given its
description as a creature of God in 3:1. See, inter alia, Claus Westermarm, Genesis 1-11,
237-238, and Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks, revised edition
(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 87. For commentaries that accept this while still
emphasizing the sinister nature of the serpent, see Victor P. Hamilton, The Book Of Genesis
Chapters 1-17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (
1990),187-188, and Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, volume 1 of Word Biblical Commentary
(Waco, Texas: Word, 1987), 72-73. For an example of the traditional identification of the serpent
as the instrument of Satan, see Meredith G. Kline, "Genesis" in D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer, eds.
New Bible Commentary, third edition
(Leicester: InterVarsity Press;
1970), 84. Satan seems to be identified with the serpent prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve in
Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, but I do not consider this a challenge to my position as this text is not
in the Protestant canon.
14 On the NIV translation of 3:1 which describes the serpent as "more crafty than any of the
wild animals," see n. 29 below. The connotations of serpents in the Pentateuch are explored
towards the end of "Satan and the Serpent" below.
15 That God declares in judgment that the serpent will crawl on its belly (3:14) does not mean
that it had not done so before. God is simply, though forcefully, doing what Adam and Eve
should have done already: putting the serpent in its place (cf. Isa. 65:25).
Christian Scholar's Review 38
Rule over the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the
ground" (my emphases). The fact that the serpent not only moves on the ground
but is described as "wild" suggests that it represents (and perhaps symbolizes16) all
creatures and all aspects of the world beyond
cated.17 Yet the text makes it clear that Adam and Eve are called and empowered to
rule over it.
Although it is a mistake to see the serpent as an evil being at this stage, it is
nevertheless important to recognize that the opening chapters of the Bible do not
portray anything in creation as "absolutely" good in the etymological sense of be-
ing "absolved" from or immune to the relationships in which it stands. When Gen.
1 speaks of a "very good" creation, we should not understand this in terms of a
Greek philosophical notion of static perfection. The biblical account is thoroughly
dynamic, viewing life before the Fall as on the move towards an eschaton, a fulfill-
ment (in and) of history.18 It is also thoroughly covenantal or relational. The ongo-
ing goodness of human culture and the non-human creation, which includes those
realities symbolized by the serpent, depends on whether Adam and Eve will exer-
cise the authority that they have been given and to which they are called.
Read as an introduction to the whole biblical drama, the opening chapters of
tell us how the Creator began to fill and subdue the earth by making
into a home for Adam and Eve and by blessing and empowering humanity to do
the same for God with the world beyond the Garden. To this end, they were to
extend the work of creation, thus making the whole of existence into a place where
God might dwell. The call to "fill" the earth (as well as to "subdue" it) goes beyond
human reproduction to include the "cultural mandate" or the call to make history.19
To fill the earth humanly is a calling to let the earth be filled with God, to let the
light of God's presence fill the darkness (Gen. 1:3). In Old Testament language this
is the hope that one day the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the
waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14).
16 In my view, this text should be read as an example of symbolically intensified history writ-
ing that is focused on questions of ultimate significance. Cf. n. 8 above. On the choice of a
wild animal and more specifically a serpent as a symbol, see "Satan and the Serpent" below.
17 On the significance of wild rather than domestic animals later in the biblical story, see Rich-
ard J. Bauckham, "Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark 1:13): A Christological Image for an
Age," in Jesus Of
Testament Christology, eds. Joel B. Green and
Max Turner (
18 On this point, see Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming Of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM, 1996), 264.
19 This task is closely related to the meaning of humanity being made in the "image of God"
(Gen. 1:26-27). While all the other creatures are made after their "own kind" in Gen. 1, this is
not said of humans because we are made after "God's kind." On the "cultural mandate" of
Gen. 1:28 as being as broad as life itself, see the quotation from Ludwig Kohler in Hans Walter
Wolf, Anthropology of the Old Testament, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM,-1974), 164. See
also Albert M. Wolters,
"The Foundational Command: 'Subdue The Earth!"' (
tute for Christian Studies, 1973).
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 39
In the New Testament, the theme of "filling" the earth is picked up most ex-
plicitly by Paul in the context of his claim that God will become "all in all." For
Paul, God "fills everything in every way," but this fullness is presently concen-
trated in Christ and his Body (Eph. 1:22-23)--a limitation that will be removed when
evil is finally overcome (1 Cor. 15:28). This process is now tied to the redemption
and restoration of creation. But for Paul, God becoming "all in all" does not signify
a return to a state that existed prior to the Fall. Arguably, Paul assumes that God
was not "all in all" in the beginning, even though the original creation was very
good. While the coming of the eschaton to a fallen world will involve the eradica-
tion of the evil that we have introduced into history, it does not result in the clock
being turned back. Instead, it will mark the completion of a calling and process that
had barely begun before the eschatological movement of history was closed down
by our disobedience.
Paul's language about God as the One who "fills everything in every way"
(pleroumenou, Eph. 1:23) echoes the language used to describe the original call to
humanity to fill the earth (plerosate, Gen. 1:28 LXX).20 Furthermore, the subduing of
evil and the filling with God's fullness that is now being accomplished by Christ
and his Body in 1 Cor. 15:24-28 is explicitly linked by Paul to Psalm 8 and thus to
the imago Dei and cultural mandate (by means of the quotation of Ps. 8:6 in Eph.
1:22). Thus, Paul would seem to understand the original call to image God, filling
and subduing the world beyond the confines of
ative work by bringing the whole world to its divine "fulfillment."
But, to return to Gen. 3, Adam and Eve fail to rule over the serpent. The cre-
ation that should have been blessed by humanity as humanity was blessed by God
is now cursed. The serpent thus goes awry, no longer occupying its proper place in
creation. To keep it in its true place as a creature that crawls along the ground will
now be impossible without violence and suffering (3:14-15). Similarly, the thorns
and thistles that were once easy to keep in check will now flourish and be out of
control (3:17-18).21 The darkness, which was not evil in the beginning (Gen. 1:3),
now resists being penetrated and filled by the light of God's glory (John 1:5).
In Rom. 8:20, Paul tells us that "the creation was subjected to frustration, not
by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it." Although New
Testament scholars disagree about whether it is God or Adam who is referred to
here, this may be a false dilemma. God tells Adam that the ground is now cursed
because of him (Gen. 3:17). God's judgment, as I read it, only describes and ratifies
what humans have done, though the promise of redemption is added. The scope of
20 LXX denotes the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament (and other writings)
frequently cited in the New Testament. For a helpful discussion of the Old Testament (rather
than Gnostic) background to pleroma in this passage, see Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduc-
tion, Translation and Commentary on Chapters 1-3, volume 34 of The Anchor Bible (Garden
City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 203-205. While Barth does refer to the creaturely filling of creation
in Gen. 1 (see p. 204, n. 317), the link with the cultural mandate is not developed.
21 I think it is a mistake to see 3:18 as speaking of the origin of thistles and thorns as such. Cf.
Isa. 5:3-6; 7:23-25 and n. 15 above.
Christian Scholar's Review 40
human responsibility is indeed awesome: what we bind on earth will be bound in
The bondage or curse of creation is linked in Genesis to Adam and Eve's deci-
sion to eat of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." This tree, as I under-
stand it, does not simply represent a limit which humanity must not transgress, as
if its role in the story is entirely negative. It also has a positive significance, I sug-
gest, that has gone unnoticed. Given the highly anthropomorphic nature of lan-
guage for God in Gen. 2-3 (such as God "walking in the garden"), it makes good
sense to see this as the tree from which God eats, forming a counterpart to the tree
of life from which humanity is to eat. Both trees are in the center of the Garden,
providing food for the covenantal meal God and humanity were to enjoy together.
While this interpretation may sound strange, it coheres well with the fact that
Abraham is portrayed as providing food for Yahweh in Gen. 18:1ff. near the "great
trees of Mamre," which
may allude to the trees of the
explicitly compares the surrounding area with "the garden of the Lord" (Gen. 13:10).
This takes place just before God reveals that the promise made in 15:5 about Abram's
descendants will also involve Sarah (18:9ff.). Thus, Abraham and his wife are to be
the new Adam and Eve whose offspring will fill the earth. The meal also sets the
stage for Abraham and God's discussion of justice and judgment with respect to
the future of
strikingly "mutual" that after Yahweh reveals his plan to destroy the cities, Yahweh
stands in the presence of Abraham awaiting his response (18:22)23 thus repeating
the pattern of Gen. 2:19-20 where God waits to see what names Adam will give to
the animals. A meal eaten in the context of covenant thus leads to God and human-
ity grappling together with the knowledge of good and evil.
It is also significant for my interpretation of Gen. 2 that meals were viewed as
the occasion for teaching in the ancient world. This is evident in Prov. 9:1-6. The
figure of Wisdom who sets her table is also described as a "tree of life" in Prov. 3:18
(see 11:30, 13:12, 15:4), thus linking this material canonically to Gen. 2:9.
The fruit of the tree of life symbolizes the fruit of human fidelity to the cov-
enant. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is also good food,
providing genuine wisdom (see 3:6). But it symbolizes something that belongs first
and foremost (and perhaps exclusively) to God's side of the covenant. If eating
from the tree of knowledge is understood as gaining the ability to define good and
evil, then the story is telling us that (in contrast to the naming of the animals in Gen.
22 The Hebrew term for "trees" in Gen. 18:1 differs from that used in Gen. 2, but this is not
decisive for a thematic allusion. The relevance
be seen in the allusion to the fruit, cursing, and nakedness of Gen. 2-3 in Gen. 9:20-25. On the
nakedness of Joseph (Gen. 39:12), see below.
23 That the Lord stands before Abraham is an ancient Hebrew scribal tradition that, according
to many commentators, has been reversed in the Masoretic Text. See the discussion in Walter
Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 168.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 41
2: 19-20) the distinction between good and evil may only be established by God.24
Alternatively, if it is seen as gaining the ability to discern the difference between
good and evil,25 then this may be viewed as the kind of wisdom that God might
share with humanity in a covenantal meal. This fits well with the interaction be-
tween God and Abraham in Gen. 18. Adam and Eve are thus like the children of
1:39 who "do not yet know good from bad" (or "good and
Hebrew for this phrase being the same as that used in Gen. 2-3).
If this latter interpretation is correct, then God may have originally intended
the prohibition concerning the tree of knowledge to be temporary. This possibility
coheres well with the fact that God will soon be leaving the Garden, to return "in
the cool of the day" (3:8). The Hebrew of Gen. 2:26 stresses the fact that humanity
can eat very freely from the rest of the trees of the Garden. But the tree of knowl-
edge was something humanity could not "handle" (to paraphrase Eve in 3:3)--at
least not while God was away.
The temporary nature of the prohibition may also be supported by an impor-
tant incident in the Joseph narrative that contains a number of allusions to Gen. 2-
3. When Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar's wife, he protests that his master
has entrusted him with everything he owns, withholding nothing but his wife, thus
echoing the Gen. 2 narrative in which God gives every tree of the Garden to Adam
and Eve with only one exception. There is thus a thematic link (and contrast) be-
tween Joseph's subsequent nakedness (Gen. 39:12) and that of Adam and Eve (Gen.
3:7). The temporary--or better, contextual--nature of the prohibition is highlighted
by the fact that in resisting the wife of Potiphar, Joseph eventually marries the daugh-
ter of Potiphera (Gen. 41:46). Thus, in refusing to break covenant, Joseph later enjoys
sexual intimacy--a form of knowledge according to the Hebrew of Gen. 4:1--at the
right time in the right context. Taken on its own, this does not prove that the prohi-
bition of the tree of knowledge is not absolute. But it is the kind of subtle textual
interplay that should prompt us to consider whether the traditional reading is so
It is significant that the serpent's claim that the wisdom to be gained from the
tree would indeed make Adam and Eve like God (Gen. 3:5) is confirmed by God in
Gen. 3:22. This kind of wisdom, I suggest, might be appropriate for those made in
God's image. The disobedience and the deadly consequences come, however, in
treating something that is only God's to give as a possession, as ours by right. In-
stead of being "like" God by "imaging" God, following the pattern of 1:26, Adam
and Eve attempt to become like God without respecting the covenantal nature of
24 For this view, and for a good overview of other suggestions, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11,
25 See the commentary in
Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible
Zondervan, 1985), 9, which rightly refers to Deut. 1:39 and Isa. 7:15-16. We might combine
these two interpretations by saying that to grasp at the fruit of the tree in autonomy is to
attempt to "define" the difference between good and evil, whereas to recognize that the fruit
is God's to give is to begin to "discern" the difference between good and evil.
Christian Scholar's Review 42
their existence. A potential gift of grace leading to great wisdom, but which has not
yet been offered, is thus violated as it is grasped autonomously outside of the cov-
enant context.26 (Here we might compare the royal "wisdom" of Ezek. 28, a chapter
with many echoes to Gen. 2-3.)
A serious objection to this reading of Genesis could be made on canonical
grounds if it were to be shown that John's vision of the New Jerusalem includes
only the tree of life and not the tree of knowledge. That this appears to be the case
is, I suspect, because the theological tradition that I am rejecting here has distorted
many of our translations. The NIV translation of Rev. 22:1-2 reads as follows:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from
the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On
each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit
every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) is strikingly different, however. It reads:
Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the
Lamb and flowing crystal-clear. Down the middle of the city street, on either bank of the
river were the trees of life, which bear twelve crops of fruit in a year, one in each month,
and the leaves of which are the cure for the nations.
The NJB is closest to the literal meaning of the phrase enteuthen kai ekeithen
xylon zoes (22:2b), which could be rendered as "here and there a tree of life." The
NIV is closest to a literal translation of ta phylla tou xylou (22:2c) as "the leaves of the
tree." At least two points can be made in favor of the NJB here.27 Firstly, its transla-
tion removes the logical difficulty of how a single tree of life could be on both sides
of the river at once. Secondly, the section that it has placed in italics is intended to
draw our attention to the presence of a (free) quotation from Ezek. 47:12, where the
prophet has a vision of the temple, which alludes strongly to the Garden of Eden-
a vision that includes "every kind of fruit tree." The significance of John's vision
would seem to be that all of the trees of the Garden are now trees of life (the refer-
ence to "the tree" in v. 2c being understood as either grammatically28 or symboli-
26 By contrast, Jesus is given the status of equality with or likeness to God by not grasping at it
in Phil. 2:6-11. Although much traditional theologizing about the Fall shows up in C. S. Lewis'
Narnia stories and in his science fiction trilogy, the theme of eating good fruit "at the wrong
time and in the wrong way" is present in The Magician's Nephew (
27 See the discussion in R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation
28 Cf. J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary,
volume 38 of Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 346.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 43
So the serpent is right; eating from the tree of knowledge does not of itself lead
to death as if the fruit is simply unpalatable for humans. God himself observes that
it makes Adam and Eve like him, as the serpent had suggested (3:22). As I read the
story, the consequences are deadly for Adam and Eve because their eating from
God's tree in this context is an act of disobedience. Death, which should be under-
stood here not as mortality but in the sense of Deut. 30:15ff., comes not so much
from eating of the tree of knowledge per se as from breaking covenant and thus no
longer being able to eat from the tree of life (see 3:22). For those who grasp autono-
mously at life or knowledge, the fruit of covenant faithfulness (understood in Deut.
30:15-20 as life, prosperity, land and longevity, compare Prov. 2:22, 3:2, 3:14-16) be-
comes something that is beyond their reach.
The covenant is broken when the human couple eat from the tree, not when
they converse with a fellow creature. The serpent does not have to be understood
as lying, deceptive, or seductive. Gen. 3:1, I suggest, introduces the serpent as a
genuinely "wise" creature, using the Hebrew word (‘arum) that appears frequently
in the book of Proverbs to denote a wisdom to which we should aspire.29 Adam
and Eve break covenant not because they trust the serpent but because they turn to
it in a way that involves turning away from God's prior revelation. A parallel may
be instructive: When God tells Adam that the ground is cursed "because you lis-
tened to your wife" (3:17), the point is not that husbands should distrust their
29 The NIV translation of 3:1--"Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild ani-
mals"--is unnecessarily negative. In its attempt to put the serpent in a bad light, it cannot
avoid implying that all of the wild animals are to some degree deceptive. The Hebrew term
translated "crafty" here (cf.
12:16, 23,13:16,14:8,15, 18, 22:3, 27:17, where a positive meaning is beyond dispute. The only
clearly negative uses of the term in the Old Testament occur in Job 5:12 and 15:5. (For an
example of a conservative exegete who insists on a positive meaning in Gen. 3, see G. Ch.
Aalders, Genesis, volume 1, trans. William Heynen, Bible Student's Commentary, [Grand Rap-
ids: Zondervan, 1981], 98). The term sounds similar to the Hebrew word used in the previous
verse for Adam and Eve's nakedness. We might say that the humans are "nude" while the
serpent is "shrewd" (cf. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 72). In my view, a close parallel may be main-
tained as neither quality was a cause of shame before humanity's Fall (2:25). Admittedly, Paul
refers to the serpent's "cunning" in 2 Cor. 11:3, using a Greek word (panourgia) that does tend
to have negative connotations (although Paul uses the adjectival form of himself positively in
12:16). However, in my view the serpent's wisdom does become misleading and deceptive,
though only in relation to Adam and Eve's sin (see below). While my position is thus consis-
tent with what Paul says, my emphasis on how the serpent's positive wisdom became per-
verted would not have been germane in his context, especially as the (Jewish-)Gnostic ven-
eration of both the serpent and autonomous wisdom, allegedly based on Gen. 3, could have
been prevalent in some of his churches. On the possibility that this forms the background to
1 Tim. 211ff., see Richard
Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (
House, 1992). Such factors highlight why a canonical reading of the Old Testament in the
light of the New Testament should not focus on isolated texts stripped of their context, but
should look, first and foremost, to the way Old Testament themes are developed in the New
Christian Scholar's Review 44
spouses. Neither does God insinuate that women are inherently prone to evil.30 The
problem is that Adam listened to his wife while simultaneously not listening to
God's commandment (see 3:17). The voice of creation must always be heard in the
light of the voice of God. Only then may it be heard as the voice of God.
In other words, creation prior to the Fall is not inherently seductive. Neither is
there anything suspicious about the fact that the serpent can "speak" in Gen. 3, as
this is a common way of talking about creational revelation in the Bible (for ex-
ample, Ps. 19:1-4, Prov. 1:20, 8:1-36).31 The goodness of creation emphasized repeat-
edly in Gen. 1 implies that Adam and Eve may be thoroughly open to the world
provided their ultimate faith is in Yahweh. In the covenantal dynamics of life, hu-
manity is called to experience the world in the light of God's prior (and ongoing)
revelation. Creation is then able to fulfill its own calling, referring human beings to
God as the true Origin and Destiny of existence and expressing God's presence
with us. If humans keep covenant with God, creation is revelation.
But the ongoing goodness of creation depends on humanity being faithful. In
the Fall, Adam and Eve grasp at the knowledge of good and evil rather than re-
specting it as a gift that God may give in God's time. Similarly, they treat the ser-
pent not as a wise creature of Yahweh but as an autonomous source of revelation.32 As
a result, the dialogue with the serpent is cut short. Its potential gift to humanity is
violated. The chance to explore why Yahweh has told Adam and Eve not to eat of
the tree of knowledge is missed. Although its perspective is clearly finite, the ser-
pent raises good questions and makes accurate observations. Contrary to what the
traditional interpretation might lead us to expect, it nowhere actually suggests that
the human couple should eat from the tree of knowledge. But through human dis-
obedience and foolishness, the wisest of the wild animals can no longer mediate
God's wisdom. The pedagogical process has gone horribly wrong. The serpent's
voice is now heard as the voice of temptation.
30 Sexist interpretations of Gen. 1-3 are shown to be unfaithful to the text in Phyllis Trible, God
and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, volume 2 of Overtures
to Biblical Theology (
1978), 72-143. Cf. my The Woman Will Overcome the Warrior: A Dialogue
with the Christian/Feminist Theology of Rosemary Radford Ruether
inferiority. In fact, this is a term of strength used elsewhere in the Pentateuch only of God (see
Gen. 49:25; Ex. 18:4; Deut. 32:38 [implied]; 33:7,26,29).
31 Here we might also compare the positive role of Balaam's ass, who is the only other animal
to engage in direct speech in the Pentateuch. For similarities between Gen. 2-3 and Num. 22-
24, see G. Savran, "Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam's Ass and the Garden of Eden" in
Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 64 (1994): 33-55, reprinted in John W. Rogerson, ed.,
The Pentateuch: A
comparison of the serpent with Balaam's ass could have yielded a number of positive points
of contact had a traditional reading of Gen. 3 not been assumed throughout.
32 We might say that Adam and Eve's grasping at the knowledge of good and evil is not sim-
ply a result of the way they related to the serpent, but symbolizes what they were doing in
relating to this creature as if it was an autonomous source of revelation.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 45
In turning away from God, Adam and Eve allow themselves to be misled by
what must now function as a partial truth and must therefore now be a lie.33 Rather
than allowing an inherently deceptive creature to seduce them into evil, they allow
the serpent to become a deceiver. As a creature that becomes inextricably caught up
in human disobedience, it may only be described as fallen and cursed from this
point onwards (in keeping with Gen. 3:14). The Fall is anthropocentric, yet the con-
sequences are cosmic.
Eve attempts to "pass the buck" in 3:13 by telling God, "The serpent deceived
me, and I ate." While the traditional interpretation might tend to agree with her, it
would be wise not to trust her (now fallen) perspective entirely. Perhaps the best
way to express the complexity of the situation is to say that the serpent is impli-
cated in what is still human evil (compare Lev. 20:15-16). For although the serpent is
told by God that it is now cursed "Because you have done this" (3:14) following
Eve's accusation of deception, it is significant that unlike Adam and Eve it is not
interrogated about its motives--a fact that is most strange if God knows that he is
dealing with a fallen angel (or his mouthpiece) intent on inciting the whole creation
to rebel against him, but quite understandable if
God knows that there is no
cious intent to be uncovered. As I read the story, the serpent, together with the
other wild animals and the earth (see 3:1434), is now fallen and cursed. It has become
a source of temptation. But it is no more punished for being the origin of evil than is
the rest of creation, which is also cursed. The difference between God's conversa-
tion with the snake and with Adam and Eve reveals that, unlike the human couple,
this creature has not sinned.
If Gen. 3 does not present us with the traditional view of the serpent, neither
does it lend clear support to the "free will defense," which is probably the theodicy
that is most popular with philosophers of religion who aim to root their views in
the Scriptures.35 When Adam and Eve sin, God's reaction is not that of a Deity who
knows full well that disobedience is always a possibility with creatures who have
been given sufficient autonomy that they may choose to reject God rather than freely
love him. Instead, God shows surprise, calling out "Where are you? ... Who told
you that you were naked? ... Have you eaten from the tree?" (3:9-11). Divine in-
comprehension in the face of evil (compare Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32:35) highlights the fact
33 In a biblical, covenantal view of truth (rather than in a modern, correspondence view), all
truth is God's truth. In other words, for statements and (other) actions to be in the truth, they
must ultimately take (their) place in covenant with God. In this view, truth and troth (com-
mitment, fidelity) are closely related. Truth is nothing less than the creaturely manifestation
and human incarnation of God. Error (cf. Latin, errare) is straying from the Way and the Life
(cf. John 14:6).
34 The Hebrew min--"above" in the NIV-should be taken as comparative not partitive, thus
meaning "more than" rather than "from" in line with the similar phrase in Gen. 3:1. Cf.
Wenham, Genesis 1-15,78-9.
35 See Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) and Stephen
lanta: John Knox Press, 1981), chap. 3 for two clear examples of this theodicy.
Christian Scholar's Review 46
that the Fall of creation is not an "accident waiting to happen." There is no hint in
the text that it is somehow "permitted" (let alone part of some secret divine plan).
The origin of evil is deeply mysterious, as evil has no legitimate place in the order
of things. The text of Genesis simply narrates. It does not explain. We may wish to
speculate. What we are actually told, I suggest, is that human beings alone are re-
sponsible for the historical origins of evil,36 while God takes responsibility for liberat-
ing us and the rest of creation from the effects of our disobedience (beginning with
providing clothes for the naked couple in 3:21). The movement of the biblical nar-
rative towards the Cross has begun.
The serpent, on my reading, is caught up (and in that sense implicated) in
human disobedience, as creation has been ever since.
In attempting to possess
dom while God is absent from the Garden rather than being prepared to receive it
as a gift and calling in the context of covenant, Adam and Eve play out the dynam-
ics of what the Old Testament as a whole sees as the origin of evil in the world: the
sin of idolatry, an evil which always involves our abuse and distortion of human
and non-human realities. The serpent of Genesis, in other words, was the first vic-
tim of human evil.
Idolatry should not be understood as the sin of listening to the voice of cre-
ation when we should only pay attention to God, as if creation is inherently mis-
leading. The parallels between Gen. 2-3 and Prov. 8-9 are instructive here.37 While
space prohibits a detailed discussion of the various ways in which Old Testament
scholars have interpreted the female Wisdom figure who calls out to humanity in
Prov. 8-9, I will briefly set out my own proposal by interacting with two of the most
helpful suggestions that have been made.
Thirty years ago, Gerhard von Rad discussed this topic in his famous work
Ma'at, the Egyptian goddess of law, justice and primeval order, he also stressed
how this powerful figure had been transformed within the Hebrew worldview.
36 Because I am stressing human responsibility, it might sound like I am advocating the "free
will defense" myself. Although one could say that humanity was given the freedom to dis-
obey (which in a biblical understanding of freedom would have to mean the "freedom" to
lose its own freedom), I would not wish to offer this as an explanation of the origin of evil,
which it tends to become in many (perhaps all) forms of this theodicy. Evil can't be explained
without being legitimated, that is without being placed within a framework that makes sense
of it. Here, Blocher, Original Sin, 56-58 is very insightful. When all is said and done, I do not
want to "make sense" of the evil of innocent suffering. To say that humanity had the "free-
dom" to disobey does not explain why humanity chose the path of destruction. Unfortu-
nately, a full discussion of these issues lies beyond the scope of this essay. Encountering Evil,
cited in the previous note, provides a very useful collection of essays on this vital topic.
37 The links between wisdom literature and creation have been increasingly recognized by
Old Testament scholars. See, for example, Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom And Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 47
Unlike Ma'at, this Wisdom calls out to humanity. She is also clearly created rather
than divine, an observation that militates against the traditional Christian interpre-
tation of her as an attribute of God. Von Rad thus suggested that she represented a
kind of "creation order," a conclusion reflected in his chapter title "The Self-Revela-
tion of Creation."38
While appreciative of von Rad's proposal, Roland Murphy has suggested the
following modification. He writes,
The call of Lady Wisdom is the voice of the Lord. She is, then, the revelation of God, not
merely the self-revelation of creation. She is the divine summons issued in and through
creation, sounding through the vast realm of the created world and heard on the level of
Murphy also resists von Rad's tendency to identify Wisdom too narrowly with a
mysterious kind of creation "order." He thus puts further distance between biblical
Wisdom and the Egyptian Ma'at in this respect. While noting that "One need not
deny that the presumption of regularity underlies the observations of the sage,"
Murphy argues that the metaphors used hardly suggest an understanding of Lady
Wisdom as Ordnung. "Who has ever sued for, or been pursued by, order," he asks,
"even in the surrogate form of a woman?"40
We can accept the thrust of Murphy's suggestion while also maintaining von
Rad's emphasis on the creatureliness rather than divinity of Wisdom, I suggest, if
we understand her to be a personification of creation's capacity to reveal God.41 If
von Rad's notion of order is problematic, his emphasis on mystery is insightful.42
Wisdom not only reveals the presence of God but also the direction that God would
give to human existence. Wisdom is thus the key to abundant life, a mystery that
remains hidden except to those who "fear the Lord" (Prov. 1:7,9:10, 31:30).
As I understand the call of Wisdom in Proverbs 8-9, true revelation is mediated
by creation, having its origin in God. Life is thus first of all a gift, promise, and
calling (Auf/Gabe and Pro/Missio) "before" it is received and worked out in human
existence. This is why the Wisdom that calls out to us can be described as the "first"
38 See Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Martin (London: SCM, 1972), chap. 9.
39 Roland E. Murphy, "Creation and Wisdom," Journal of Biblical Literature 104.1 (1985): 9-10.
40 Ibid., 9.
41 Roland Murphy comes very close to this in his more recent work The Tree of Life: An Explora-
tion of Biblical Wisdom Literature, The Anchor Bible
Reference Library (
1990), 139, where he writes, "One does not have to choose between God and creation in Lady
Wisdom, as von Rad does. Ultimately the revelation of creation is the revelation of God. God
speaks through wisdom/creation, which is turned to human beings and speaks in the ac-
cents of God. Such is the thrust of Prov. 8."
42 Ironically, this mystery is intensified by a number of difficulties in translating some key
terms. Is wisdom the "craftsman" at God's side or a "little child" (Prov. 8:30)? Is she "ac-
quired" or "created" in the beginning (8:22)? See the helpful discussion in Kathleen A. Farmer,
Who Knows What is Good? A Commentary on the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 53-5. I prefer the latter
of each of these translation possibilities.
Christian Scholar's Review 48
of God's creatures (8:22ff.).43 Idolatry consists in treating creation as the ultimate
source and referent of revelation rather than as that which may reveal God to those
who fear him (9:10). The fearful attempt to gain power over life via idolatry thus
stands in contrast to the wisdom that comes to those who fear the Lord.44
In this context, Adam and Eve can be seen to exemplify the core dynamics of
idolatry by attempting to wrest the ability to distinguish good and evil from the
very creation to which they were supposed to give guidance. In their disobedience,
they oppose the true "meaning" of creation by not allowing it to be a gift of God
and a revelation of God's wisdom. To the extent that creation is distorted by human
sin, the gift and calling of life becomes the curse and temptation of death. The voice
of Wisdom must now compete with the voice of Folly (who is also personified in
Prov. 9). Through human disobedience, the food and wine that Wisdom has pre-
pared for us (Prov. 9:1-12) is exchanged for stolen water and food eaten in secret
Idolatry not only violates non-human creatures and prevents God from be-
coming all in all, but it also violates our own humanity. It should be pointed out
that, strictly speaking, idolatry is not the worship of idols as such. In the Old Testa-
ment period, idols or graven images were used to localize or make present a divin-
ity beyond themselves. Thus, the idol stood in the same relationship to the false
god as human beings were meant to stand in relation to the True God. In fact, the
Hebrew word for image and idol (selem) is often the same (see Gen. 1:26-7, 9:6 [im-
age] and Num. 33:52, 2 Kings 11:18, 2 Chron. 23:17, Ezek. 7:20, 16:17, Amos 5:26
[idols]). Idolatry fails to recognize not only that there is only one True God but also
that there is also only one true image of that God: humanity.45
Just as human beings were supposed to receive the knowledge of good and
evil from God and thus fill the earth and subdue it, enabling God to become all in
all, so by investing features of the creation with ultimate significance and autono-
mous revelatory power, we have allowed what are (in effect) false gods to fill and
subdue the world. The creation that we were supposed to rule has thus been given
the power to rule over us, making humanity in its image. While humans were made
to be spirits--by which I mean flesh and blood creatures capable of guiding cre-
ation and making history46--tragically, through our disobedience, created realities
that should have been within our care and subject to our control are given this
43 Wisdom, which comes to us through (or as) the revelatory power of creation, would thus
seem to be identified with the light created before all else in Gen. 1:3. This I take to be the light
of God's glory/revelation that penetrates and fills the darkness. (Cf. Murphy in The Tree Of
Life, 135, who asks of Wisdom, "Is this the glory of the Lord that fills the earth [Isa. 6:1]?")
44 On these two different kinds of fear, see Ex. 20:20.
45 See Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian
Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 64-5, and Crispin Fletcher-Louis, "Com-
mentary: Genesis 1:26 and
Exodus 20:4f." in
46 Cf. Hendrik
Hart, Understanding Our World: An
Integral Ontology (
make history in a unique way.
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 49
power. The idols or evil spirits of Militarism, Nationalism, the fertility religions of
are not "flesh and blood" realities that can be reduced to the humans who have
unleashed them or who now serve them. Such spirits are complex human and non-
human phenomena that have been sinfully invested with a power that was origi-
nally entrusted to us as spirits or imagers of God. It is in this way that they have
become "spiritual" powers.48
In the New Testament, a common way of speaking of such idolatrous spiritual
forces is as "powers and principalities." Paul uses such language to refer, not to
"demons"49 as is commonly believed, but to realities that include (or are closely
associated with) the power of death, the present and the future, human offices and
titles, the world atmosphere, religious rules and regulations, traditions, and even
the Law--all features of creaturely life that today frequently need to be subdued
and put back in their proper place.50
Satan and the Serpent
In the New Testament, Satan is identified with or closely related to the serpent
to lend support to the traditional interpretation that I have been arguing against.
By contrast, I would like to suggest that this identification can best be explained by
47 For an incisive analysis of contemporary idols, see Bob Goudzwaard, Idols Of Our Time,
trans. Mark Vander Vennen (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984). Cf. Walsh and
Middleton, The Transforming Vision, chap. 9, and John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism,
Marxists and Nationalism (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1994). Many Christian scholars (in-
cluding Goudzwaard) have also made a connection between idolatry and reductionism in
the various academic disciplines. See Walsh and Middleton, The Transforming Vision, 180. This
important insight also informs much of the discussion of reductionism in Roy A. Clouser, The
Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Notre
48 I believe that the "personal" nature of evil powers and Satan could be explored along these
lines. Thus in what follows, I will sometimes refer to Satan as "he." However, I will often
refer to Satan as "it" as this is the pronoun we typically use for the creation. The personal
nature of demons is more complex and is beyond the scope of this study. See the following
49 I hope to address the nature of demons, which I distinguish from the powers and principali-
ties, in a future essay. In that context, I will also develop a "charis-matic" (grace-oriented),
creation-affirming view of power and spirituality, a view of angels that does not see them as
"matterless spirits," and a fresh understanding of the relationship between heaven and earth.
some comments on heaven, see my "Commentary: Colossians 3:1" in
1999): 22. On angels see my "Commentary: Luke 20:27-36" in
50 See Rom. 8:38, 1 Cor. 2:8, 15:24-26, Eph. 1:19-21, 2:2, 3:10, 6:12, Col. 1:16, and 2:25. This
approach to the powers fits well with the exegetical suggestions of Wink in his Naming the
Powers. But while he also uses the category of idolatry (for example, ibid., 5, 77, 85, 105), he
does not make its connection with the powers of the New Testament as central as I would
Christian Scholar's Review 50
seeing the serpent in the Garden as symbolizing a reality which was created good
but which, in the Fall of creation, became that reality we are referring to when we
speak of Satan, the Devil, or the Evil One.51
Virtually absent from the Old Testament, Satan rises to prominence in the world
of the New Testament. If we focus our attention on the story "behind" the text, we
will want to know what outside influences brought about this change or develop-
lical drama, however, our attention is drawn to the possibility that this Satanic real-
ity is itself developing, perhaps increasing in power and influence as human sin
increases over time.52
Viewed from this latter perspective, I would like to suggest a three-stage de-
velopment. In the first stage, the serpent of Genesis symbolizes a creation (or cer-
tain aspects of that creation) that is full of wisdom or revelatory potential. Origi-
nally intended as a gift and blessing to humanity that we were supposed to bless
by our loving rule as imagers of God, this reality becomes cursed through our dis-
obedience. It thus comes to symbolize the creation inasmuch as our world is caught
up in human idolatry. The choice of a serpent as a symbol in this context can be
explained in part by the fact that one of the most basic ways in which humans
would have experienced alienation from God was in terms of their conflict with the
wild animals (hence the portrayal of sin as crouching like a wild beast in Gen. 4:7).
In the second stage, we meet "the Satan" in the opening chapters of job, a story
that (regardless of when it achieved its final literary form) would seem to be situ-
ated in the Patriarchal period. Here, the Hebrew term is not a proper name, but
refers to "the accuser" in a law court who brings a case against Job, the defendant,
in the hearing of the Judge, who is God. "The Satan" does not represent outright
evil; otherwise, God's tolerance of its presence would be hard to explain. I would
like to suggest that in the Satan, we see a creation that has been abused by human
51 While New Testament authors were not addressing problems that necessitated teaching (or
even recognizing) the distinction that I am making in their use of Gen. 2-3, nevertheless the
claim that "from the beginning" the Devil was “sinning” (1 John 3:8) and was "a murderer"
(John 8:44) would seem to be a reference not to some evil that the serpent supposedly en-
gaged in prior to Adam and Eve's disobedience (which the text somehow fails to record), but
to a time that began with the first sin (Gen. 3) and the first murder (Gen. 4). Neither New
Testament passage is interested in ancient or contemporary acts of Satan that are or were
independent of human sin. Rather, the focus is on how certain people reveal themselves to be
like their father the Devil (1 John 3:10; John 8:41, 44). For a grammatical argument against the
latter text being read as referring to a fall of Satan, see George R. Beasley-Murray, John, vol-
ume 36 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 126, note h.
52 For the difference between viewing this topic "within" the biblical drama and attempting to
tell the story "behind" the story, see the introduction above. For examples of the latter, see
follows, see Wink, Unmasking the Powers, chap. 1. See also Kirsten Nielsen, Satan--The Prodi-
gal Son: A Family Problem in the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 51
sin and has thus become hostile towards humanity, even though it still maintains
something of a positive relationship with God at this stage. Its legal role is compat-
ible with this suggestion as all of creation is understood to be in covenant with God
and thus able to call out to him for justice (see Ps. 96:12-13, 1 Chron. 16:33, Luke
"angelic" being or status. Access to heaven is presupposed in the covenant rela-
tionship. Thus, the creatures of the earth (or their representatives) are pictured in
heaven in Rev. 4:7, while believers are said to be in heaven during their earthly
lives in Eph. 2:6. At the same time, it is important to note that the Satan is not just
doing its job or insisting on its covenant rights. Its cynicism, hostility, and destruc-
tiveness (compare the Satan in Zech. 3:1) point to a creation that has become pro-
In the third stage, we meet "Satan" as portrayed in the New Testament. Here,
its nature has become so identified with the role of the accuser or prosecutor that it
has become a proper name (as in 1 Chron. 21:1). This created reality, under the
impact of idolatry, has become so distorted that it loses the positive covenant bond
with God and is ejected from heaven (see Luke 10:18, Rev. 12:9). An ambiguous
reality in the Old Testament, this is now an outright enemy of God and his people.
This Satan is also a far more powerful reality than his Old Testament precursor
or manifestation. If an idol represents the way in which a creaturely reality (such as
fertility or national identity) has been made into a perverse substitute for one of the
many ways God may originally have wished to bless us and be present to us, Satan
may be seen as a substitute for God in a more general sense as ruler over the whole
creation (1 John 5:19, Mt. 4:8-9). Thus, he is called "the prince of this world" (John
16:11, 14:30,12:31)54 and even "the god of this age" (2 Cor. 4:4).
The nature of Satan as a "god" sheds light on the fundamental unity experi-
enced behind or between what might otherwise appear to be very diverse manifes-
tations of evil.55 Humanity, through sin, gives the power and calling with which it
has been entrusted over to created realities that it should have shaped but which
now shape it. Such powers and principalities, united in their (our) rebellion against
53 0n the covenantal agency of creation, see Brian J. Walsh, Marianne B. Karsh, and Nik Ansell,
"Trees, Forestry and the Responsiveness of Creation," Cross Currents 44.2 (Summer 1994):
149-162, reprinted in Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment
(New York/London: Routledge, 1996), 423-435.
54 The word "world" in the Johannine literature seems to refer at one and the same time to
the perversion of its priestly calling.
55 Unity is fundamentally a matter of following one and the same religious direction. Thus,
the true unity and the true diversity of our world (as correlates) will only become a full real-
ity when all creatures are liberated to respond to God. By analogy, the Powers or idols, de-
spite their great variety and (on one level) mutual hostility, are nevertheless fundamentally
united when viewed in terms of their service to the god of this age. Thus, in colluding to have
Jesus crucified, Pilate and Herod become friends when they had once been enemies (Luke
23:12). Similarly, the powers and authorities all work together to put Jesus to death (1 Cor. 2:8
but cf. Col. 2:15).
Christian Scholar's Review 52
God, in turn give power to, even as they are empowered by, the god of this world in
whom they come to live and move and have their being.
In the three stages that I have outlined, creation, inasmuch as it is caught up in
human idolatry, becomes increasingly distorted by the growth of human sin until it
becomes a power that is totally opposed to the coming of God's Kingdom. The
ontological status of Satan in this model is that of an active reality that is external to
human beings. This is not a figment of the religious imagination. Neither is it re-
ducible to flesh and blood. But it is not a fallen angel. And it would not have come
into being without us.
The serpent, in this view, is seen as a good creature that symbolizes those as-
pects of creation that call us to wisdom. Through Adam and Eve's sin, however, it
becomes seductive and deceptive, thus symbolizing a world that has been cursed
by human evil. This perspective not only enables us to connect Gen. 3 with the
central biblical theme of idolatry, but it also coheres with the way serpents are viewed
in the Pentateuch (the basic canonical unit in which the Book of Genesis is situ-
As proponents of a more traditional interpretation might also wish to draw on
pentateuchal material to make their case, it may be profitable to reiterate what I
mean by a "canonical" rather than historical-critical or grammatical-historical ap-
proach to the Bible at this point. One argument in favor of the claim that the serpent
of Genesis is a sinister figure from the beginning appeals to the fact that snakes, as
creatures that crawl on the ground, are classified as "unclean" in Lev. 11:41ff. The
author of Gen. 3, so the argument goes, deliberately used the serpent as a symbol
because he knew that his audience would associate it with death and unholiness
rather than with God and life.
This is an argument that rests on the hermeneutical assumption that the best
way to determine the meaning of a text is to get "behind" it to the intentions of the
author, which are then said to be expressed in what has been written--an approach
I have eschewed in developing my own position. If we evaluate this interpretation
from "within" the story, however, it can be seen to be guilty of "putting the cart
before the horse." The basic narrative order of the biblical story has been ignored.
Canonically speaking, the first reference to the clean-unclean distinction occurs af-
ter the Fall in Gen. 7:2. There is also a close verbal parallel between God's cursing of
the serpent with the words "You will crawl (halak) on your belly (gahon)" (Gen.
56 This argument does not rest on positing a single author for the Pentateuch (though it should
carry considerable weight for those who accept that position). But it does presuppose the
canonical approach referred to in the introduction. For a pentateuchal reading of Genesis, see
John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). While he also argues that the serpent's wisdom is positive (p. 103), he
does not support this by connecting the serpent of
Pentateuch (see, for example, pp. 402-3), thus failing to put his own canonical approach into
practice. Fretheim's brief discussion in The Pentateuch, 77, and Blocher's section on "The Eden
Story and Biblical Inter-textuality" in Original Sin, 42-48, are also disappointing in this re-
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 53
3:14) and the command in Lev. 11:42 that "You are not to eat any creature that ...
moves (halak) on its belly (gahon)."57 This links the uncleanness of the serpent in the
Levitical legislation to its fallenness but not to its original nature.58
The appearance of serpents in the narrative material of the Pentateuch sug-
gests that using Lev. 11 to bolster the traditional reading of Gen. 3 is, at best, highly
selective. In some references, serpents are clearly viewed as dangerous (Gen. 49:17,
Deut. 8:15), yet they may also be agents of God's judgment in this context (Gen.
49:17, Num. 21:6, 7).59 Harder to reconcile with the traditional view is the very posi-
tive role of the staff of Moses that turns into a serpent to demonstrate God's power
and authority (Ex. 4:3, 7:15).60 More surprising is the story of the bronze serpent
that God commands Moses to make so that the Israelites may look at it and be
healed from the deadly effects of the serpents sent in judgment (Num. 21:8, 9).61
This snake plays such a positive role that it is compared to Jesus himself in John
In fact, the ongoing story of what happens to the bronze serpent provides us
with the most startling canonical confirmation of the approach that I am suggest-
ing. I believe that it also holds the key to understanding why the specific symbol of
a snake (rather than any other wild animal) appears in Gen. 3. In 2 Kings 18, we are
introduced to Hezekiah, a King of Judah without equal (v. 5) who "held fast to the
Lord and did not cease to follow him, keeping] the commands the Lord had given
Moses" (v. 6). In telling us how Hezekiah "did what was right in the eyes of the
Lord, just as his father David had done" (v. 3), the writer says, "He removed the
high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke
into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been
burning incense to it" (v. 4, my emphases). So here we have a clear example of a
snake which was made under Yahweh's orders and given to his people to bless
57 This is noted by Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 79. These are the only two occurrences of the
Hebrew word gahon (belly) in the Old Testament.
58 In an interesting variation on the kind of argument I am rejecting, P. Wayne Townsend in
"Eve's Answer to the Serpent: An Alternative Paradigm for Sin and Some Implications in
Theology," Calvin Theological Journal 33.2 (November, 1998): 399-420, argues for a link be-
tween Eve's (correct) insight that the tree is not to be touched (Gen. 3:3) and the prohibition
against touching unclean food in, for example, Lev. 11:8. This too ignores the distinction be-
tween Creation and Fall. But it also raises the following question: If, within the wider canon,
the clean/unclean food distinction is temporary (cf. Acts 10:9ff.), why not the prohibition against
the tree of knowledge?
59 0n the positive cultural significance of Gen. 49:17 (Jacob's prophecy for the tribe of Dan),
see David Hilborn, Picking Up the Pieces: Can Evangelicals Adapt to Contemporary Culture?
(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), chap. 6, and his "Commentary: Gen. 49:13-17 & 19,"
60 For a helpful discussion of the Egyptian background to the serpent-staff, see John D. Currid,
investigations shed light on God's
illustrates how going "behind" the text need not be in opposition to a focus on the story that
the text is telling. But the canonical investigation into the significance of serpents that I am
offering is not dependent on such historical research (though it may be enhanced by it).
Christian Scholar's Review 54
them, but which now has to be destroyed because it gets caught up in their idolatry.
The serpent of Genesis, I am suggesting, should be interpreted in a similar fash-
Is There a Future for the Serpent?
Given the perspective I have been outlining, it follows that redemption is to be
seen in terms of the reestablishment of humanity in its task of filling and subduing
the earth, thus returning those created realities that have gone awry to their proper
and legitimate place in creation. Only then can God become all in all. What might
this mean for (those realities symbolized by) the serpent?
In the context of redemption, the human rule over creation is not simply a
matter of obeying the cultural mandate of Gen. 1. It now involves walking in the
way of the cross. The theme of dominion, which occurs for the first time in the
opening chapter of the Bible, is spelled out in Psalm 8. When Paul tells us that "God
placed all things under [Christ's] feet" (Eph. 1:22), he is quoting from this psalm (v.
6) and understanding this dominion in the light of the crucifixion.
Paul sees Jesus as fulfilling a role that is, in principle, given to all human be-
ings. This position of authority, he says in the following verses, is now extended to
Jesus' followers. In Gen. 1, God rested on the seventh day to show that the stage
was now set for the human task. Adam and Eve could "rest" in the knowledge that
they had been given all they needed to bring God's work to fulfillment actively
Similarly, we may accept the gift of God's "finished work" in Christ and then ac-
tively implement that victory in the power of the Spirit. Creation and redemption
as gifts promises of God's grace are also human callings to be pursued in the power of
that divine grace and in the grace of that divine power. Thus, Paul, after emphasiz-
ing the all-encompassing scope and sufficiency of Christ's death on the cross (Col.
1:20-22), can go on to write, "I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to
Christ's afflictions" (Col. 1:24).
This perspective presupposes not only a high Christology, but also a high
ecclesiology. I have already drawn attention to the way Paul alludes to the com-
mand in Genesis to fill the earth in the way he speaks about God filling everything
in every way in Eph. 1:23.63 He may also have a Christological and ecclesiological
fulfillment to Dan. 2 in mind here, for in that vision, a rock that is uncut by human
hands strikes and shatters a giant statue, representing the four kingdoms that would
61 The same Hebrew word that appears in Gen. 3 is used in all these references (and in 2 Kings
18:4 to be discussed below). It does not appear in Lev. 11.
62 The point I am making is compatible not only with the possibility that both passages were
penned (or took shape orally) at the same time but also with the possibility that Gen. 3 (in
some sense) lies behind 2 Kings 18, or vice versa. Attention to the canonical shape of the
Scriptures does not require adherence to any particular authorship theory.
63 See "Towards an Anthropocentric View of Evil" above. On the links between the Cosmic
Christ of Eph. 1 and Gen. 1, see Crispin Fletcher-Louis, "Commentary: Genesis 1:26 and
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 55
rule over God's people, and this then becomes a huge mountain that "fills the earth"
(eplerosate pasan ten gen, Dan. 2:35, LXX compare Gen. 1:28, LXX). An important
strand of Pauline teaching about the Church would have us believe that if Jesus is
that rock, we are the mountain. If Jesus is the cornerstone, we are the rest of the
temple (Eph. 2:20-21). If Jesus is the head, we are the body (Eph. 1:23). If Jesus is the
New Adam, we are the New Eve (Eph. 5:29-32). We are the fullness of Christ, in
whom is the fullness of God. That means that we extend the incarnation beyond
the limits of the one man, Jesus. As Jesus himself says in John's Gospel: "I tell you
the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do
even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12). Jesus
and the Church are the New Adam and Eve who are to rule together over the cre-
ation as mediators of the fullness of the God who fills everything in every way.
The scope of redemption is as wide as creation, for God has "reconciled to
himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven through [Christ's]
blood shed on the cross" (Col. 1:20). Central to the present discussion is the fact that
the powers and principalities, explicitly mentioned four verses earlier, are included
in this process of reconciliation (see 2:15), a process in which the Church is to play a
key role (Eph. 3:10).64 Also crucial to the present discussion is the fact that the task
of subduing the creation is to be done by implementing the victory of the crucifix-
ion and thus by walking in the way of the cross. Our stance towards the creation is
to be one of suffering love, that it might be liberated from the effects of our disobe-
In place of "righteous indignation" against Satanic powers, I am proposing a
thoroughly anthropocentric view of the origin of evil and a creation-wide view of
the nature of evil. We are called to recognize that the rest of creation (including non-
human realities and cultural phenomena) has become embroiled in our sin and is
thus in need of liberation. For as Paul says, echoing the language of the Exodus,65
"the whole creation [which] has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up
to the present time ... waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed
[for it too] will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious
freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:22, 19, 21).
The whole world is waiting for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed
that they (we) might restore shalom to the rest of creation in the power of the Spirit.
For the Church that is faithful to its calling, there will indeed be conflict with pow-
ers that are not flesh and blood. But while the language of the Satanic and demonic
may often be entirely appropriate, we must not lose sight of the fact that the real
enemy is, at root and in origin, always ourselves."
64 Cf. Wink, Naming the Powers, 5.
65 See Sylvia C. Keesmaat, "Exodus and the Intertextual Transformation of Tradition in Ro-
mans 8.14-30," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 54 (1994): 29-56.
66 Forms of "spiritual warfare" (to use language popular in the Charismatic movement) that
distract us from this central reality need to be recognized as strategies of avoidance and pro-
jection. At the same time, we ignore the genuine insights and intuitions of the Charismatic
Christian Scholar's Review 56
As we seek to bring a Christian analysis of evil to bear on and in our various
cultural pursuits (including the sphere of scholarship), two themes need to remain
very central: repentance and hope. The first step in our own liberation and in the
healing of the whole creation lies in humanity taking responsibility for the curse
we have brought (and continue to bring) on our world by subjecting it to our idola-
try and thus letting it gain a spiritual power over us. Repentance sets us free to live
in expectation of the final liberation of all God's creatures, including those realities
symbolized by the serpent of Genesis. For in the perspective I have been develop-
ing, Satan will only be thoroughly defeated when the serpent is put in its place and
is enabled to become the "wisest of the wild animals" once again.67
This might sound shocking in the light of our traditional orthodoxies. But if I
am right, then this has major implications for our approach to wisdom, the revela-
tory power of creation, and (the tree of) knowledge. Thus, as I draw this discussion
to a close, I will conclude by exploring the canonical intertextual interplay of some
key scriptures to see whether such a hope can claim any biblical support.
In this context, it would do well for us to bear in mind the vision of peace
between the wild and domestic animals in Isa. 65:25, where God says, "The wolf
and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will
be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy moun-
tain." This was a striking vision in a world in which domesticated animals were
often powerless to protect themselves from the creatures of the wild. In the Old
Testament, God's people often found that they could identify with the vulnerabil-
ity of domestic animals when they were facing the hostility of their own human
enemies. It is in this light that the Psalmist (in Ps. 74:19) can pray, "Do not hand
over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted
people forever." Conversely, in Isa. 11:8, we are also promised that "The infant will
play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's
nest." When Jesus is said to be "with the wild animals" in the desert in Mk. 1:13,68
we see this promise coming true for the Second Adam.
Later in his ministry, when Jesus sends out the twelve into extremely hostile
territory in Mt. 10, he uses language drawn from this deadly conflict within the
animal kingdom. Perhaps he is alluding to these very Old Testament passages in
the famous words of v. 16 when he refers to the dove, together with the wolf, the
lamb, and the serpent. If Jesus' words are read in the light of Isaiah's vision, we
may be hopeful about how this conflict will finally turn out when God is all in all.
movement at our peril. My aim is to redirect, not reject, Charismatic theology,
67 I am, of course, not arguing here for a future for Satan per se, that is, Satan as evil. Ulti-
mately, evil has no future. My concern is with the serpent (and what it symbolizes). Hence, a
text such as Rev. 20:10 is not a major obstacle. Furthermore, I would interpret this text as
referring to what happens to Satan in this present age rather than to a judgment that is still to
come. I have explored this in some detail in an unpublished manuscript entitled The Birth-
Pangs of the New
Creation: A Covenantal
reinterpretation of the final chapters of Rev. is beyond the scope of this essay.
68 Cf. Bauckham, "Jesus and the Wild Animals."
The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent 57
Given the deadly nature of the evil that the disciples are facing, it is striking
that Jesus' language contains a positive reference to the creature that Gen. 3:1 intro-
duces as "the wisest of the wild animals." This is, to say the least, not what our
most time-honored theologies would anticipate. Yet it coheres surprisingly well
with the perspective that I have been developing in this essay. Having authorized
his disciples to "drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness" (Mt.
10:1), Jesus tells them (in 10:16) that he is sending them out "like sheep among
wolves," exhorting them--as he exhorts us--to be not only "as innocent as doves"
but also "as wise as serpents."69
69 This essay is an edited version of a paper entitled "Putting the Serpent in its Place: Towards
an Anthropocentric View of Evil" that was first presented at a conference on the demonic
organized by the Theological Forum in
was set up to explore "a radical charismatic agenda." It was revised for presentation to an
education think-tank for the Open Book project of
the Bible Society in
on 19 November 1998. Thanks to David Collins, Ruth Deakin, Roger Forster, Henk Geertsema,
Laura Keller, Jim Olthuis, Lloyd Pietersen, David Smith, and Alan Spicer for their comments.
Thanks also to Roger Olson and Bruce Longnecker for their suggestions and for passing on
the comments of other scholars to me.
Todd Steen, Managing Editor
Christian Scholar's Review
Hope College, P.O. Box 9000
Holland, MI 49422-9000
report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: