By Jonah Ruddock
The story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is one of the most widely known parts of Christian lore, and perhaps one of the oldest as well. Like other Biblical stories, it was derived from earlier Sumerian traditions. The word eden is a Sumerian word meaning ‘plain.’ No matter your religion, you are probably familiar with the tale of the world’s first two humans and their misdemeanors in paradise. It is referenced in countless films and books, which leads to it being explained even in secular schools. It has infiltrated pop culture. Despite this, it is almost always depicted incorrectly. As is typical of the Bible, no physical description of Adam, Eve, or the serpent is included. It never explicitly states that the forbidden fruit is an apple or that the serpent is a snake (it was definitely not a snake). In this article, we’ll explore a few ways of envisioning the antagonist in this famous scene.
In the original Hebrew, the word nahash is used, which means serpent and is applied to various giant sea monsters. The writer(s) of Genesis didn’t seem to intend the creature to be imagined as a mere snake, but something much more powerful and terrifying. For example, the same word is used in Isaiah 27:1, in which God himself needs a mighty weapon to destroy it: “In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent [nahash]; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Furthermore, many people today believe that the serpent was a physical manifestation of Satan or the devil. It’s impossible that this is what the Genesis writer(s) had in mind, as the concept of Satan didn’t emerge until the second or first century BCE, and Genesis was written much earlier than that. The word satan is used throughout the Old Testament to mean, simply, ‘adversary.’ My theory is that many of the misconceptions about this story stem from the Greek translation, which used the word ophis in place of nahash. While ophis can mean serpent, it can also mean snake, and can be used figuratively to mean Satan or any malicious entity. It is believed that the Old Testament was first translated into Greek somewhere between the third to first centuries BCE for Hellenistic Jews and, later, for early Christians. This means these misconceptions are extremely old.
Whatever the monster in the Garden of Eden looked like, we do know it had legs. This is because of Genesis 3:14, the passage detailing how God took those legs away as punishment for the now-humans-have-original-sin-and-it’s-all-your-fault debacle: “And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.” The irony is that the figure popularly imagined to be a snake could be virtually anything except a snake, as it had legs. This makes way for many fascinating possibilities.
If the serpent was not Satan simply taking the form of an animal, but a serpent, on its own, its abilities to think complexly enough to manipulate two humans are very impressive. As menacing as the serpent might look, it doesn’t mention Eve taking the fruit out of fear. Physical intimidation was not involved; it’s clear that she was convinced through conversation. As the serpent is able to speak and carry out advanced thought, we can assume it probably had a head and neck very similar to a human’s, with a lowered larynx and a sizable brain. Realistically, how else could a creature speak in a way that could be understood by a human?
However, if you will remember Isaiah 27:1, the words ‘dragon’ and ‘leviathan’ are used as synonyms for ‘serpent.’ This introduces a plethora of new images. Was the serpent intended to look more like a winged, six-legged beast? The use of the word dragon is not a mistranslation. The original Hebrew uses the word tannin, which can mean serpent, dragon, or sea monster.
If I had to pick one animal we have today as looking most like Eden’s serpent, I would choose a monitor lizard. They have been around for sixty five million years and can grow up to ten feet long. Monitor lizards come from the genus Varanus, which originated from the Arabic word warallwaran, meaning ‘dragon’ or ‘lizard beast.’ They generally live on land, but some species are semiaquatic, which does well with the watery imagery of a serpent or sea monster. They are carnivorous, apex predators. The most well-known monitor lizard is probably the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis). It looks very similar to the only other representation of a legged creature in Eden I’ve encountered, a model by the conceptual artist Mark Dion, pictured right.
Komodo dragon. Source: BigAnimals.com
Serpent in Garden of Eden Before the Fall. Source: Museum of Biblical Art
An even better connection is that monitor lizards may look like the ancestors of snakes. It is believed that snakes evolved from four-legged lizards, then lost their forelimbs. Several fossils have been discovered featuring snakes with only hind legs, most recently the one-hundred-million-year-old Najash rionegrina fossils found in Argentina. This species retained hind legs for millions of years, which suggests they were useful and not just part of a transient stage between four-legged and limbless snakes. Fernando Garberoglio, part of the team that discovered the Najash fossils, said, “Our findings support the idea that the ancestors of modern snakes were big-bodied and big-mouthed – instead of small burrowing forms as previously thought.” Could they be as big-bodied as a Komodo dragon? If so, the story fits perfectly: a monitor lizards stalks through the Garden of Eden, tempts Eve, and then is punished by millions of years of evolution stripping away its limbs (upon thy belly shalt thou go) and reducing it to a snake. They lack human-like heads and throats (thank God) but we can assume it was able to speak through some supernatural means.
Just kidding. We can’t. As the concept of the devil did not yet exist, and Jews were a strictly polytheistic people, the only ‘supernatural means’ of the serpent speaking would be through God himself. The only other animal that speaks in the Old Testament is Balaam’s donkey, and this is through God, who wanted to give Balaam a message (Numbers 22:28). The serpent, on the other hand, seems to be acting independently. Some have suggested that the Garden of Eden fiasco was all part of God’s plan, a kind of divine trap. He wanted humans to have free will, but with free will, they simply wouldn’t need him- so he gave them original sin to keep them indebted to him. The more likely option is that the story was meant to punish animist beliefs, in which people believe that everything has a spirit (rivers, tree, animals, rocks) and try to communicate with the natural world as if they are talking to an equal. Jews thoroughly rejected these ideas. The story of Eden served as a warning not of the evils of Satan but of the evils of animism.
Although a monitor lizard is a tempting candidate to play the serpent, some have a different idea of what a dragon looks like. By some, I mean Herman Melville, mega-plagiarist and author of Moby-Dick, who suggested that a dragon is simply a whale. He writes: “Akin to the adventure of Perseus and Andromeda— indeed, by some supposed to be indirectly derived from it—is that famous story of St. George and the Dragon; which dragon I maintain to have been a whale; for in many old chronicles whales and dragons are strangely jumbled together, and often stand for each other. ‘Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea,’ saith Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use that word itself. Besides, it would much subtract from the glory of the exploit had St. George but encountered a crawling reptile of the land, instead of doing battle with the great monster of the deep. Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St. George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale.”
The ancestors of whales were four-legged land animals that lived fifty million years ago. One such ancestor, Pakicetus, was around the size of a goat. It hunted small land animals and freshwater fish. It had claws and teeth. An artist’s impression of Pakicetus, pictured at the top of the page, looks more like a large dog than a snake. Over a period of eight million years, it evolved to look like the whales we see today, retaining vestigial pelvic bones and still tetrapodal but with no legs. The closest living relative of a whale is a hippo, widely regarded as the most dangerous creature on the African continent. Whatever Pakicetus looked like, it was not harmless, and it was certainly more terrifying than the garden snakes typically pictured in Garden of Eden scenes. Was it a proto-whale that Eve was faced with? Was it then banished to the ocean with reduced limbs, forced to evolve into a whale? While the monitor lizard is a prime extant option, there is no reason to assume that the beast in the garden was something still alive today.
However, both of these possibilities are unlikely to be anything approaching the intent of Genesis’ author(s). In religious circles, Moses is typically credited with writing Genesis. This is unlikely to be true for various reasons, such as the fact that a large portion of it describes events that happened after his death. No one knows who wrote Genesis, but whoever it was- Moses or not- wrote it somewhere between 1200 and 1400 BCE. This was long before the relationship between monitor lizards and snakes or land mammals and whales were understood. It’s impossible that the author(s) considered evolution when they decided God would take away the serpent’s legs after the kerfuffle in Eden. The serpent was not meant to look like a snake, a Komodo dragon, or an early whale ancestor. It was most likely meant to look nothing like any animal that has ever existed. The serpent was a probably a conglomeration of as many fearsome animals as the author could think of. The Bible is full of creatures that defy all logic, such as the one detailed here: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion…” (Revelation 13:1-2). Or here: “And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads, and dominion was given to it” (Daniel 7:3-6).
We will never know how the serpent was imagined by the Jews who first wrote down the Garden of Eden story. All they left us with are clues. But we do know that the story of mankind’s first introduction to evil was much more sinister and complex than it is usually presented as, and that it was not a snake but some kind of hideous beast that haunted paradise with its mischief.
Garberoglio, Fernando. “New Skulls and Skeletons of the Cretaceous Legged Snake Najash, and the Evolution of the Modern Snake Body Plan.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 20 Nov. 2019, advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/11/eaax5833.
Kosloski, Philip. “Was Adam Really Dumbstruck by a Silly Little Talking Snake?” Aleteia, 17 July 2017, aleteia.org/2017/07/17/was-adam-really-dumbstruck-by-a-silly-little-talking-snake/.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, Norton Critical ed., W. W. Norton & Company Inc.
Pavid, Katie. “When Whales Walked on Four Legs.” Natural History Museum, www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/when-whales-walked-on-four-legs.html.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Garden of Eden. Encyclopædia Britannica, 28 Apr. 2020.The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments. King James ed., First Word Publishers.