The Genesis serpent and literal Bible interpretation

Does either the Bible or Catholicism require the serpent in Genesis to be taken absolutely literally? The answer is no. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Protestant) states in its article, “Serpent”:

“Most of the Biblical references to serpents are of a figurative nature, and they usually imply poisonous qualities. The wicked (Psalms 58:4), the persecutor (Psalms 140:3), and the enemy (Jeremiah 8:17) are likened to venomous serpents. The effects of wine are compared to the bites of serpents (Proverbs 23:32). Satan is a serpent (Genesis 3; Revelation 12:9; 20:2). The term “offspring of vipers” is applied by John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7) or to the multitudes (Luke 3:7) who came to hear him; and by Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 12:34; 23:33).”

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), in his book, ‘In the Beginning . . .’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990, from the 1986 German), wrote:

“[T]he Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such ... One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time — from the images that surrounded the people who lived then ...” (pp.13-14)

Hence, when he writes later about the serpent and the fall of man in Genesis 3 (on pages 81-84), he uses words like “images” and “symbol.”

Christians aren’t required to believe in “talking snakes” any more than they must believe in a literal tree and fruit in the same passage. They are required to believe in the temptation and original sin / fall of man (i.e., rebellion against God) that the story poetically describes.

The events in early Genesis are not necessarily presented in a literal fashion (that is, literal original sin can be portrayed symbolically or poetically).

I’m not denying that Adam and Eve were literal. They were. The fall was made possible by free will. God allowed the possibility of human beings rejecting Him. We thought we could make it on our own, hence, the rebellion.

The serpent, of course, represents Satan (an angel / spirit), who had already rebelled against God, and was trying to bring down the human race with him. He probably recognized already how stupidly and idiotically he had acted, and so wanted to blame God. Misery loves company.

Once, when discussing the subject with someone online, my debate opponent stated:

“You do believe in Adam and Eve being the first two humans despite the impossibility of fitting the genetic diversity of our species into two people and additionally, that at least one snake at the time was able to speak, despite all snakes (both fossilized and modern) not having any indications of vocal chords or a cerebral cortex that contains a broca’s area.”

Because many assume hyper-literalism as the only way to interpret the Bible, they can only imagine a process of looking in the fossils for a snake that had vocal cords. They overlook the many types of literary genre in the Bible.

For a solid philosophical / scientific defense of monogenism (all human descent from one primal pair), see, “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” by Kenneth W. Kemp American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly,  Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 217-236, 2011). See also, “Modern biology and original sin” (+ Part Two), by Dr. Ed Feser (another Catholic philosopher).

Portions of Scripture such as early Genesis do not have to be interpreted only through hyper-literalism or pure symbolism. A third choice is that real events are presented with some non-literal symbolism.

Dave Armstrong has been a published Catholic apologist since 1993. Dave has written or edited 48 books on apologetics, including several bestsellers. If you’d like to help keep his influential teaching apostolate going as a much-needed monthly supporter, write to Dave at [email protected].