Genesis tells us that Eden was a vast well-watered region extending from the Upper Nile Valley to the Tigris/Euphrates Valley. This was the center of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion and here the oldest known divine promise was made to Mankind (Gen. 3:15). Actually, that promise was made to "the Woman" (not Eve) concerning her Offspring who would crush the head of the serpent. To crush the head is an image of utter defeat. So this is a promise about the victory of the Son over all that the serpent of Eden represents.
|Nubian jar 300 BC|
The serpent motif is found in Africa, Arabia, Pakistan, India, Central Asia and the Americas. It is a significant symbol among traditional Africans and Native Americans, and in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is often found with symbols of the Sun and the Tree of Life. The great antiquity of these symbols is attested by their wide diffusion , yet their meaning has remained fairly stable in each religion.
Among archaic peoples the serpent was regarded as having powers to communicate , to deceive, to heal, to hide, to reveal and to protect. The oldest serpent veneration is associated with the 70,000 year old python stone carved in a mountainside in Botswana.
In Hindu mythology, the serpent-dragon RahuKetu tried to drink the nectar of immortality churned by the devas. The Solar and Lunar deities saw RahuKetu trying to do this and told Vishnu. Vishnu then threw his discus, cutting the dragon into Rahu (head) and Ketu (below the head) , but the dragon had already consumed the nectar and was thus immortal. Essentially, the serpent takes on divinity.
In the Gilgamesh Epic (Babylonian tale) Gilgamesh retrieves the Plant of Rejuvenation from the bottom of the sea. One evening as he was bathing in a pool, a serpent appeared and ate the Plant that Gilgamesh had left on the shore. The serpent then sloughed its skin and disappeared. Here too is the implication that the serpent becomes immortal.
In Buddhist mythology, Buddha is often shown meditating under the hood of a seven-headed serpent (naga in Sanskrit; nahash in Hebrew). The serpent protects him from the rain. In another story, the celestial nagas shower the earth with rain as a blessing. They are deities in Buddhism, no longer simple creatures.
Jesus thought of the serpent as a creature with both positive and negative qualities, but never as an immortal being. He used serpent imagery to condemn the hypocrisy of the Jewish rulers: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?" (Matthew 23:33) Yet earlier in Matthew's Gospel He sent forth his Apostles with this exhortation: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16).
The ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Asclepius carried a staff with one or two serpents wrapped around it. This has become the symbol of modern physicians. The ancient symbol of Ouroboros consists of a dragon or a snake curled into a hoop, consuming its own tail. In this image the serpent represents the eternal cycle of life.
As snakes shed their skins, revealing shiny new skins underneath, they symbolize rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. In his novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader C. S. Lewis uses this image to describe how sin can be sloughed only with Aslan's help. Eustace has turned into a dragon  and before he can step into the waters (Baptism) he must shed his scaley layers. He sheds three layers but can't free himself to be the human he was originally created. Aslan must rip away the layers of sin before Eustace can step free.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Apopis was a water serpent and a symbol of chaos. He is shown (right) being slain by Hathor, Ra's cat. Another story tells of how each night Apopis attacked Ra, the High God, but the serpent Mehen coiled himself around Ra's solar boat to protect Ra. This also illustrates the binary nature of ancient Egyptian thought, since the power of Mehen to protect is superior to the power of Apopis to destroy. This binary element is key to understanding the victory of Jesus Christ, whose victory is assured because He is one with the Father, not a creature.
In Exodus we read how Moses held up a rod which turned into a serpent and all who looked upon it were spared when they were bitten by vipers. The exalted Serpent was superior in every way to the serpents who attacked the Israelites in the wilderness. The Church Fathers interpreted this as a sign pointing to Jesus on the Cross. The Apostle John had this in mind when he wrote about how Jesus would be "lifted up from the earth" and thereby draw all Mankind to the Father (John 3: 14 and John 12:32).
The serpent of Eden is like those vipers in the wilderness. It is intent on spreading its poison and it achieves that end by means of confusion and deceit. Here is how the serpent is described:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:1-5)
The serpent of Eden symbolizes deception, the promise of forbidden knowledge and self-elevation. It is not a deity, but it is "more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made." Nevertheless, the serpent of Eden is very much a creature. The distinction between the Creator and the creature is clear.
The rabbis identify the serpent of Eden as Satan, the one who decieves and accuses 364 days of the year. Only on Yom Kippur is Satan not able to accuse. That is the Day of Atonement. For those who believe that Jesus is the Son promised to the Woman in Eden, that is the day of Christ's atoning work on the Cross. That day the Crucified One ripped away the great deception so that we who believe in Him might step free.
1. The "Woman" of Gen. 3:15 is Mary, the Mother of Christ, our God. She is sometimes shown standing on a hemisphere with the serpent beneath Her foot.
2. Diffusion is the process by which a cultural trait, material object, idea, symbol or behavior pattern is spread from one society to another, often traceable to a central point or a point of origin. A principle of anthropology states that the wider the diffusion of a culture trait, the older the trait. The point of origin for serpent veneration appears to be southern Africa.
3. Shinto shrines have snake pits where shamans go into trace states to communicate with the serpents and to communicate a message to humans from the serpent.
4. Ketu is the name of one of the 3 founders of the Jebusites. There are two Jebu territories and three founding brothers: Yoruba, Egba and Ketu. This 3-clan patriarchal confederation is typical of Abraham's African ancestors. Jebusite influence is reflected by the presence of the bronze serpent in the Israelite cult with many such serpent images having been found at Canaanite shrines in Gezer, Hazor, Meggido and Jerusalem.
5. In Christian iconography the serpent of Eden is often shown as a dragon. Many famous paintings depict the serpent's defeat by either St. George or St. Michael, the Archangel.
Related reading: Serpent Symbolism; The Cosmic Serpent Exposed; The Serpent from Africa to India