And the serpent hath been subtile above every beast of the field which Jehovah God hath made, and he saith unto the woman, 'Is it true that God hath said, Ye do not eat of every tree of the garden?'
Genesis 3:1 Additional TranslationsClarke's Commentary on the Bible
Now the serpent was more subtle - We have here one of the most difficult as well as the most important narratives in the whole book of God. The last chapter ended with a short but striking account of the perfection and felicity of the first human beings, and this opens with an account of their transgression, degradation, and ruin. That man is in a fallen state, the history of the world, with that of the life and miseries of every human being, establishes beyond successful contradiction. But how, and by what agency, was this brought about? Here is a great mystery, and I may appeal to all persons who have read the various comments that have been written on the Mosaic account, whether they have ever yet been satisfied on this part of the subject, though convinced of the fact itself. Who was the serpent? of what kind? In what way did he seduce the first happy pair? These are questions which remain yet to be answered. The whole account is either a simple narrative of facts, or it is an allegory. If it be a historical relation, its literal meaning should be sought out; if it be an allegory, no attempt should be made to explain it, as it would require a direct revelation to ascertain the sense in which it should be understood, for fanciful illustrations are endless. Believing it to be a simple relation of facts capable of a satisfactory explanation, I shall take it up on this ground; and, by a careful examination of the original text, endeavor to fix the meaning, and show the propriety and consistency of the Mosaic account of the fall of man. The chief difficulty in the account is found in the question, Who was the agent employed in the seduction of our first parents?
The word in the text which we, following the Septuagint, translate serpent, is נחש nachash; and, according to Buxtorf and others, has three meanings in Scripture.
1. It signifies to view or observe attentively, to divine or use enchantments, because in them the augurs viewed attentively the flight of birds, the entrails of beasts, the course of the clouds, etc.; and under this head it signifies to acquire knowledge by experience.
2. It signifies brass, brazen, and is translated in our Bible, not only brass, but chains, fetters, fetters of brass, and in several places steel; see 2 Samuel 22:35; Job 20:24; Psalm 18:34; and in one place, at least filthiness or fornication, Ezekiel 16:36.
3. It signifies a serpent, but of what kind is not determined. In Job 26:13, it seems to mean the whale or hippopotamus: By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens, his hand hath formed the crooked serpent, נחש ברח nachash bariach: as ברח barach signifies to pass on or pass through, and בריח beriach is used for a bar of a gate or door that passed through rings, etc., the idea of straightness rather than crookedness should be attached to it here; and it is likely that the hippopotamus or sea-horse is intended by it.
In Ecclesiastes 10:11, the creature called nachash, of whatever sort, is compared to the babbler: Surely the serpent (נחש nachash) will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
In Isaiah 27:1, the crocodile or alligator seems particularly meant by the original: In that day the Lord - shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, etc. And in Isaiah 65:25, the same creature is meant as in Genesis 3:1, for in the words, And dust shall be the serpent's meat, there is an evident allusion to the text of Moses. In Amos 9:3, the crocodile is evidently intended: Though they be hid in the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent, (הנחש hannachash) and he shall bite them. No person can suppose that any of the snake or serpent kind can be intended here; and we see from the various acceptations of the word, and the different senses which it bears in various places in the sacred writings, that it appears to be a sort of general term confined to no one sense. Hence it will be necessary to examine the root accurately, to see if its ideal meaning will enable us to ascertain the animal intended in the text. We have already seen that נחש nachash signifies to view attentively, to acquire knowledge or experience by attentive observation; so נחשתי nichashti, Genesis 30:27 : I have learned by experience; and this seems to be its most general meaning in the Bible. The original word is by the Septuagint translated οφις, a serpent, not because this was its fixed determinate meaning in the sacred writings, but because it was the best that occurred to the translators: and they do not seem to have given themselves much trouble to understand the meaning of the original, for they have rendered the word as variously as our translators have done, or rather our translators have followed them, as they give nearly the same significations found in the Septuagint: hence we find that οφις is as frequently used by them as serpent, its supposed literal meaning, is used in our version. And the New Testament writers, who seldom quote the Old Testament but from the Septuagint translation, and often do not change even a word in their quotations, copy this version in the use of this word. From the Septuagint therefore we can expect no light, nor indeed from any other of the ancient versions, which are all subsequent to the Septuagint, and some of them actually made from it. In all this uncertainty it is natural for a serious inquirer after truth to look everywhere for information. And in such an inquiry the Arabic may be expected to afford some help, from its great similarity to the Hebrew. A root in this language, very nearly similar to that in the text, seems to cast considerable light on the subject. Chanas or khanasa signifies he departed, drew off, lay hid, seduced, slunk away; from this root come akhnas, khanasa, and khanoos, which all signify an ape, or satyrus, or any creature of the simia or ape genus. It is very remarkable also that from the same root comes khanas, the Devil, which appellative he bears from that meaning of khanasa, he drew off, seduced, etc., because he draws men off from righteousness, seduces them from their obedience to God, etc., etc. See Golius, sub voce. Is it not strange that the devil and the ape should have the same name, derived from the same root, and that root so very similar to the word in the text? But let us return and consider what is said of the creature in question. Now the nachash was more subtle, ערום arum, more wise, cunning, or prudent, than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. In this account we find,
1. That whatever this nachash was, he stood at the head of all inferior animals for wisdom and understanding.
2. That he walked erect, for this is necessarily implied in his punishment - on thy belly (i.e., on all fours) shalt thou go.
3. That he was endued with the gift of speech, for a conversation is here related between him and the woman.
4. That he was also endued with the gift of reason, for we find him reasoning and disputing with Eve.
5. That these things were common to this creature, the woman no doubt having often seen him walk erect, talk, and reason, and therefore she testifies no kind of surprise when he accosts her in the language related in the text; and indeed from the manner in which this is introduced it appears to be only a part of a conversation that had passed between them on the occasion: Yea, hath God said, etc.
Had this creature never been known to speak before his addressing the woman at this time and on this subject, it could not have failed to excite her surprise, and to have filled her with caution, though from the purity and innocence of her nature she might have been incapable of being affected with fear. Now I apprehend that none of these things can be spoken of a serpent of any species.
1. None of them ever did or ever can walk erect. The tales we have had of two-footed and four-footed serpents are justly exploded by every judicious naturalist, and are utterly unworthy of credit. The very name serpent comes from serpo, to creep, and therefore to such it could be neither curse nor punishment to go on their bellies, i.e., to creep on, as they had done from their creation, and must do while their race endures.
Treasury of Scripture Knowledge
Genesis 3:13-15 And the LORD God said to the woman, What is this that you have done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat...
Isaiah 27:1 In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent...
Matthew 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the middle of wolves: be you therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
2 Corinthians 11:3,14 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety...
Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world...
Revelation 20:2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
serpent. The Samaritan Copy, instead of nachash, 'a serpent,' reads cachash, 'a liar or deceiver,' read Joh.
Numbers 22:28,29 And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have smitten me these three times...
Ecclesiastes 4:10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has not another to help him up.
1 Peter 3:7 Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel...
Yea, hath. Heb. Yea, because, etc. hath.
Matthew 4:3,6,9 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If you be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread...
Genesis 3:1 Parallel CommentariesAnimal Animals Beast Crafty Creature Eat Elohim Field Fruit Garden Indeed Really Serpent Snake Subtil Subtile Subtle Tree True. WildAnimal Animals Beast Crafty Creature Eat Elohim Field Fruit Garden Indeed Really Serpent Snake Subtil Subtile Subtle Tree True. WildTHE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica®.
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