What was the Serpent? What is Satan?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
A few questions: Why does Torah (Bible) omit any mention of Satan? Genesis 2:7 reads, “God blew into his nostrils the breath of life” which Unkelos defines as God giving man speech. But Genesis then depicts a serpent talking to Eve, even though God granted speech only to Adam and Eve. An animal speaking, and also Eve’s lack of surprise at its speech suggest that this dialogue is metaphoric. Views vary whether the serpent was literal or metaphor. Let’s review God’s words, which are the primary clues:
Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’” And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad” (Gen. 3:1-5).
Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent fooled me, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts of the field: on your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put hatred between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; man shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (Ibid. 3:11,15).
As Torah says God warned only Adam, how did the serpent know of the prohibition of the tree of knowledge? As God asked both Adam and Eve why they sinned, why did He not also ask the serpent for its own excuse? Furthermore, if the serpent is to be understood literally, what is the understanding of the punishments of becoming a belly-crawler, eating dust, its hatred against man, and the head/heel relationship?
Maimonides was one of Judaism’s most brilliant thinkers. He comments:
Another noteworthy Midrashic remark of our Sages is the following: “The serpent had a rider, the rider was as big as a camel, and it was the rider that enticed Eve: this rider was Samael.” Samael is the name generally applied by our Sages to Satan. Thus they say in several places that Satan desired to entice Abraham to sin, and to abstain from binding Isaac, and he desired also to persuade Isaac not to obey his father. At the same time they also say, in reference to the same subject, viz., the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), that Samael came to Abraham and said to him, “What! Have you—being an old man—lost your senses?” This shows that Samael and Satan are identical. There is a meaning in this name Samael, as there is also in the name nachash (serpent). In describing how the serpent came to entice Eve, our sages say, “Samael was riding on it, and God was laughing at both the camel and its rider.”
It is especially of importance to notice that the serpent did not approach or address Adam, but all his attempts [approach, speech] were directed against Eve, and it was through her that the serpent caused injury and death to Adam. The greatest hatred exists between the serpent and Eve, and between his seed and her seed; her seed being undoubtedly also the seed of man.
More remarkable still is the way in which the serpent is joined to Eve, or rather his seed to her seed: the head of the one touches the heel of the other. Eve defeats the serpent by crushing its head, whilst the serpent defeats her by wounding her heel. This is likewise clear. (Guide for the Perplexed, book II, chap XXX).
“Midrash” is allegory. Maimonides cites the sages who said the serpent a had rider, while Torah does not mention this, and further, that Satan spoke to Abraham and Isaac—again, with no mention in Torah verses. All this indicates that the serpent—who is Satan—is not to be understood literally. Based on Maimonides and Sforno, I interpret the verses as follows.
The serpent refers to Eve’s instincts. This is how the serpent knew of the prohibition; as Eve knew, her instincts—being part of her—also knew. Eve’s dialogue with the serpent isn’t literal, but depicts Eve’s struggle with her instinctual drive to violate God’s command. She belittles the command at first saying, “Are all trees prohibited? No, only one!” This reduced the significance of the prohibition. “All is permitted; only one fruit is off limits.” The serpent telling her “You will be like divine beings who know good and bad” is Eve’s justification. She’s talking to herself, battling her instincts, depicted as “talking to her serpent.” This teaches that man cannot sin until he justifies his sin. Man’s reality principle does not allow him to knowingly harm himself (Rabbi Israel Chait). And a soon as Eve eats, the serpent no longer talks, which means that as soon as one caves in to their desires, the desires no longer need to function. Instincts don’t need to “talk” you in to violating a sin, after you sinned.
The serpent/Satan refers to human instincts. The Hebrew definition of “satan” is “turn aside.” Maimonides said the serpent had a rider. As Sforno teaches, this means there are at least two faculties functioning: man’s instinctual drives (serpent/Satan), and the “rider.” What is this rider? It is the imagination. We can place our instincts in the service of either good or evil. God desires man possesses the instincts and harnesses them to perform His will, with a drive. Our psychic energy, imagination and plans can “ride” (guide) our instincts to do good, or evil. The instincts themselves are not inherently evil; if they were, God would not have given them man. Man’s fantasies towards sin are the evil…they are the “rider.” But with increased knowledge, man does not fantasize about evil, but uses his imagination to explore God’s world and His Torah. Man can place his instincts in the service of God, as Torah says, “And you shall love Hashem your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Rashi comments, “Love Him with your two inclinations: your instincts for evil and your instincts to do good” (Ibid.).
This now explains that Satan wished to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, and to stop Isaac too from surrendering his life. Both Abraham and Isaac endured the greatest duress, expressed as Satan trying to stop them. Against the Christian view of a living Satanic being, Torah/Bible teaches that Satan is human instinct.
Metaphor: Bible vs. Other Books
In His Torah, God does not openly discuss Satan. As it is not a physical reality but a psychological one, God does not wish man to entertain a physical understanding of that which isn’t physical. In later works like Job, Satan is mentioned. But such works, although divine, are of a different character than Torah. Torah is the core guide for mankind and has the utmost restriction on presenting information: all must be understood literally, unless impossible to do so (Rabbi Israel Chait). Later books do not adhere to this restriction, as when Saul spoke with Samuel who had already died (Saul was hallucinating). Here, Prophets describes Samuel as living, in a metaphor, but does so to express just how real was this hallucination of Samuel was in Saul’s mind, who was desperate to speak to him. Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak) elaborates on this hallucination in Samuel I 28:25.
Nachash and Samael
Maimonides wrote, “Samael and Satan are identical. There is a meaning in this name Samael, as there is also in the name nachash (serpent).” Samael is a compound noun of “sama”—blind, and “el”—God. That is, Samael blinds one from God.
Nachash is the Hebrew term for serpent. But it also refers to sorcery, nichush: imagining what is not real. The serpent was not a real serpent, and it assisted in Eve’s imagining what is not real, i.e., that the fruit was good.
Maimonides stresses “It is especially of importance to notice that the serpent did not approach or address Adam.” He means that Eve’s instincts only communicated with her, just as is true regarding all people: my instincts have no affect on you. The importance Maimonides stresses is because this proves that the serpent was not a beast, but part of Eve’s internal makeup.
The Serpent’s “Punishments”
God doesn’t ask the serpent “Why have you done this?” as he asked Adam and Eve. Obviously, the serpent had no other option than to drive Eve towards her fantasies, and therefore it was not accused of veering from a more proper path…the serpent had only one path to follow. The serpent—instincts—drive man towards his desires. They cannot do anything else, just as the heart cannot do anything but pump blood, and the lungs to oxygenate blood. Thus, God did not “ask the serpent” means God does not hold the instincts accountable: they were functioning according to their design. What then is the punishment of the serpent?
God allowed Adam and Eve to sin to demonstrate that they could not exist in the most perfect form; their instinctual energies must be tamed. The serpent now crawling on its belly means God slowed the process of following our instincts. Eve was too quick to veer from God’s words. God also decreased the satisfaction of instinctual attainment, referred to as “the serpent eating dust.” Our instinctual attainments no longer provide the same “good taste” as before the sin. These two deter us from future sin.
God also created hatred between the serpent’s seed and man’s seed. Why is “seed” the theme here? To further prevent man from sin, God distanced the relationship between man and his instincts, referred to as “hatred” between man and the serpent. The relationship “continuing through their seed” means their seed is identical: a genetic phenomenon may allude to that which resides in a single being. Offspring and parents are of the same seed, and as the serpent too relates to Eve’s seed, perhaps Torah tells us that the serpent is part of Eve. The serpent and the woman are one and the same being. That is, the serpent is part of the woman, as we said, it represents human instincts.
Maimonides wrote: “More remarkable still is the way in which the serpent is joined to Eve, or rather his seed to her seed: the head of the one touches the heel of the other. Eve defeats the serpent by crushing its head, whilst the serpent defeats her by wounding her heel.” Torah’s phrase “He will crush you head” doesn’t make sense. It should say, “crush your head.” But head—rosh—also means first. “He will crush you first” does in fact make sense: man will crush his desires at the beginning (head) of the battle. But if man senses an instinctual urge and does not fight it, the instincts will conquer man at the “heel” of the battle. Instincts have a property of swelling and generating greater force when they go unchallenged.
Now we understand that Satan is in fact referred to in Bible, but not in a literal manner that man might err and think Satan is a physical being. Satan’s existence—our instincts—is vital knowledge for man to know himself, to deal with his inner world, so as to follow God. God not only discusses human instincts in His Bible, but He also offers us insight into the dynamics of the instincts by depicting a fictional conversation between Eve and a serpent. King Solomon too commenced his work Ecclesiastes with a depiction of the human mind. He too wished to enlighten us to our nature. God fiction ally depicts the instincts as a real being to teach us of their very real nature.