The snake in the Garden of Eden. It’s not a bad creature. Instead, it’s well meaning. But it’s just a little confused. And why wouldn’t it be? In these early days of life on planet earth, even God seems a little confused.
Hear me out: in Genesis 1 and 2, God creates all the species. Or does God? Here’s a bit of an unusual—but still literal—reading of the story. (Hint: it helps to review the Hebrew text before you read on.)
In Genesis chapter 1, it’s clear that God knows what species are. In fact, it says, God created each thing according to its kind. Plants have their unique fruits and seeds. Animals, including humans, are also “fruitful,” although not exactly in the same way.
But in Genesis chapter 2, God seems not to know yet what a species is. Everything is a bit of an experiment. God creates the earth. But nothing grows, because God didn’t water the ground, or bring in animals to enrich the soil. So, God adds a stream, and creates a human to tend the soil. But God seems not to know much about the human. Turns out, the human is a social animal, and needs a mate. So God creates various animals. The human calls out to them, but none is the right mate. So God tries something new: making a second human from the body of the first one. This time, the original human calls out: Yes! We share the same essence!
And then, in Genesis chapter 3, the second human, the woman, meets the snake. The snake is the most arum of all the land animals. The Hebrew word arum means both “prudent” and “naked.” Snakes, as we know them today, are certainly “prudent.” They are efficient animals. Many snakes are ambush predators. They wait for their prey to wander by, tracking its vibration and heat pattern. Then, they strike, catching their weekly or monthly meal. And then, they slowly digest it, converting 80% of it to body mass.
Snakes as we know them today are certainly naked, too. At least, they get naked four to twelve times a year. A snake grows by shedding its skin! As its body gets bigger, its skin stretches and loosens. Fluid collects underneath the skin, and the snake’s eyes turn blue, its body cloudy. When it’s time for a shed, the snake rubs its face against a rough object, for example, tree bark. The snake’s skin loosens and then the snake wriggles out.
So, back to the story. The first snake visits the first woman, and strikes up a conversation. He seems quite curious about her. What, for example, does she eat? Does she avoid fruit, like he does? That’s why he asks, “Did God also say, don’t eat from any trees in the garden?” No, she says, “we do feed on the garden trees.” But, she adds—maybe to find some commonality with the snake—there is a tree she is not supposed to touch. She might even die if she touches it.
Of course this seems odd to the snake. He can’t even grow unless he rubs against a tree! So, he coaches her on what he thinks God intended. “You won’t die,” he says. Instead, “your eyes will be opened, and then you’ll know, like God, what’s good and bad.” Or, in other words, rub against the tree! Start your shed! Lift the old skin from your eyes! Then you’ll get to see how life works!
The woman checks out the fruit with her most powerful human sense: sight. She see that the fruit is good-looking, tasty, and wonderful to know. So she eats, and gives some to her man. Their eyes open, and they see that they, too, are now eirumim, naked and prudent. It’s as if they have shed their skin! Suddenly, they rely on snake senses, feeling the breeze and hearing God walk in the garden. Like prudent snakes, they hide themselves.
God then interviews the humans and figures out what happened: the snake shared its life wisdom. But it’s not the right wisdom for humans. As it turns out, they are different species. So, God reminds both the snake and the humans how their bodies work.
You, snake, will slither on your belly. And those little bony spurs on the back of your spine? (Yes, some snake species do have vestigial legs.) The bones won’t be growing into legs, like the humans have, anytime soon. So, just stop hanging out with the humans. From now on, only their heels will come into contact with your head.
You, woman, you will not give birth as a snake does. You won’t have dozens of babies at once. Every single one will be hard work. And there will be no parthenogenesis for you. (Yes, some snake species can do this.) You’ll always need your human mate. And if you want more life wisdom from an older creature? Get it from him, because hu yimshol bakh—he will teach you. (Usually, translators say “he will rule over you.” But because a mashal is a “wise proverb,” this alternate translation is literal, too.)
And you, human man, don’t copy the snake either. You won’t lie in wait for your meal to come to you. Instead, you’ll have to pull grain out of the parched ground, and work up a sweat turning it into bread.
The time of experimentation is over. But its memory lives on in the woman’s name. The man calls her Chava, an old Aramaic word for snake.
*** Intrigued? Here’s another (quite different) reflection on the snake. ALSO…there’s 24,000 more words of unusual animal interpretations in my book Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals.