Genesis 3 introduces the enigmatic figure of the serpent (Also known by other names, such as “the great dragon;” Revelation 12:9; 20:2), known as Nahash in Hebrew, which has raised questions about whether the Bible claims that a literal talking snake existed. Depictions of a serpent speaking to Eve, such as Frans Wouters’ “The Temptation of Eve” (1612-1659), are familiar sights in museums and have led many to believe that Eve was speaking with a reptile, but perhaps there was something more to it than just a talking snake.
The Hebrew root of the word “NAHASH,” which refers to a serpent, is also the root of the Hebrew word for “copper,” “brass,” or “bronze.” Although they have distinct meanings, the connection between these words becomes apparent when considering the symbolic representation of serpents in the ancient world.
Serpents were often associated with divinity, wisdom, and the idea of enlightenment, shining or gleaming. In Hebrew, the word “NAHASH” can also be interpreted as “the shining one” or “the one who shines,” which is where the connection with the term “Nehoshet” (bronze/copper/brass) emerges. The International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible, for example, translates “NAHASH” as “shining one” instead of “serpent,” which highlights the shared connotation of both terms:
“Now the Shining One was more clever than any animal of the field that the Lord God had made.” (Genesis 3:1)
In this case, NAHASH is not a reptile but an impressive, shiny angelic being, much like Paul’s description of Satan:
“for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14)
Thus, the Hebrew word “NAHASH” can have multiple meanings: it can refer to a snake and to an impressive angelic shining being (who, perhaps, has some snake-like features). Furthermore, its consonants can form the root of a word for deception, meaning the serpent can also be understood as a deceiver or diviner. In fact, even in modern Hebrew, we will still use the word “NAHASH” to describe someone who is deceitful.
Interestingly, Eve was not alarmed when conversing with the “NAHASH,” probably because she was aware of other angelic beings. However, she could not have known about the Shining One’s malicious intent until it was too late, leading to the fall of both him and humanity. We better imagine Satan not as a reptile but as an impressive-looking angelic being, perhaps with some snake-like characteristics. It is plausible that the “NAHASH” became the legless reptile only after it was cursed by God.
These characteristics are also found in other divine beings throughout the Bible. For example, serpentine descriptions of divine beings appear in Isaiah 6, where God is surrounded by winged Seraphim. The term “Seraph” means “to burn” and is often associated with fire, but it is also a word for snake. Ancient Egyptian iconography and language offer further insight, suggesting that the talking serpent in Genesis 3 may be a divine, serpentine-looking being in rebellion, similar to the fiery Seraphim that worship God before His throne. In the past, serpents were frequently associated with divinity and wisdom (Matthew 10:16).
In Genesis 3:1, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” This verse can be interpreted in two ways. Either the serpent was the craftiest beast of all, or it was much more crafty than the beasts because it was an angelic being. In the ancient Near East, there was no clear distinction between the natural and supernatural realms as we understand them today, particularly not in the Garden of Eden, where even God himself physically walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. All creatures, including humans and angels, were seen as beings created by God and possibly lived together in the same place.
The curse placed upon the NAHASH in Genesis 3 bears similarities to Egyptian Pyramid Texts, which describe serpents from the underworld attempting to obstruct the Pharaoh’s journey through the afterlife. These texts also contain phrases that echo the curse on the serpent in Genesis 3, such as crawling on its belly, which may symbolize being cast down in a humiliating position before all creation.
It seems plausible that the rebellious being in Genesis 3 was a divine being with serpentine traits, capable of speech and possessing divine knowledge. The author of Genesis 3 cleverly draws parallels between their noble nature and actual snakes through the use of metaphor. The passages in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, which depict the rebellion and judgment of earthly kings, can be seen as allegorical references to the first rebellion in Eden. These passages, together with Isaiah 6 and Genesis 3, take place in a divine council setting.
It is reasonable to connect all these elements and propose that Satan was initially an impressive divine and shiny angelic being and member among other divine beings, some of which, just like him, were serpentine-looking but not (yet) actual snakes.
Not all snakes are bad
In Numbers 21, when the Israelites were walking through the Negev desert, an area known for its venomous snakes, something terrible happened. The nation of Israel, grumbling and complaining too loudly, disturbed the rest of some local poisonous snakes who started biting them, killing many. Then, Moses was sent by Israel to negotiate with God, who ordered Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Bronze shines brightly. Anyone who got bitten had to look at the bronze snake and would be saved from dying. For them to look up at the shiny bronze snake meant one thing – they had to accept in faith; believe what was offered. They weren’t asked to do something, just to believe what God said and be saved. I assume some of the Israelites found this to be ridiculous, rejecting the offer and dying in their sin. Regardless, it was their free choice whether to believe (and be saved) or not. Now, in the New Testament, Jesus is saying:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14)
So, we as well have to believe. But what do we see when we look up at the pole and cross? We see human sins: we see complaining, we see distrust, we see betrayal, we see false judgment, we see hypocrisy, we see desertion, we see crime, we see lies, we see manipulation, we see abuse of power, we see mockery, we see emotional torment, and we see physical torture. But ultimately, we see death. The cross is the ultimate expression of our reality. It portrays what humanity became like. It shows us how dark our hearts can get. This is perhaps why we see images of Christ hung dead on a cross in traditional churches. It is a reminder of what we are capable of and of what we did – killing our own God. And yet, we can’t stop there, we need to look deeper, look harder, look further – because there is another side to the cross.
While we took Life and hung it on a tree, God turned it into a tree that gives life. We now – at least in some sense – have access once again to the tree of life: Jesus. Just as with the Israelites who did look at the snake and were saved, whoever looks at the cross, acknowledges it, believes in it – will see life, will see the resurrection, and will experience it themselves. Yes, the cross shows us how dark the reality of the human soul is, but we look at it because it shines bright; we are drawn to the light.
So now we look at the cross, and we see the source of light and life. Ultimately then, the cross is about God’s love for us.
This article was an extract from my new small book,
“Lost in Translation: 15 Hebrew Words to Transform Your Christian Faith.“