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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Curious Observation about Satan and the Garden of Eden

It’s pretty common knowledge that Satan tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God and eat the apple. Right? Of all the things in the Bible, that can be assumed and accepted without argument or debate. Can’t it? Well, just to be sure, we should go through Genesis 3 and circle all the references to Satan. It just takes a second. In fact, here’s the passage.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:1-7, NRSV).

Try as we might, there is no mention of Satan, Devil, Lucifer, Evil One, Dragon, or other title for the evil Fallen Angel. The simple fact is the narrative tradition that passed Genesis on from one generation to another until it was finally written down did not recognize some evil supernatural being. We are told of a talking serpent that tempted Eve with half-truths.

So where does the idea that serpent actually being a manifestation of Satan come from? Even with the evidence of Biblical content just cited, people would still say I am nuts to question the notion that the serpent was any other than Satan. Genesis doesn’t say it was Satan, but we’ve always assumed it was. We dare not question what we’ve always known. So someone who does question must be wrong (and blasphemous and heretical and anathema).

I submit to you that it is extremely important that we read the Bible critically; that is, we question everything as read for the purpose of being sound and sure in our understanding. We don’t just throw out commonly held assumptions about familiar stories, like Adam and Eve. We think on those stories thoroughly so that our belief is informed, well formed, and we know why we believe it.

To find the source for our theological assertion that the Eden serpent from the very first book of Bible is Satan at work, we turn to the 12th chapter of the last book, Revelation. Revelation 12:7-9:

7And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Verse 9 is pretty clear – the serpent and Satan were one. Did believers always understand this connection? I don’t think so. The idea of Satan is one that evolved through the different eras of Israel’s history and relationship with God. In the book Job, Satan is one of God’s council members. His is an official role – the adversary. By the time the prophet Zechariah is at work, Satan is clearly running against the purposes of God (Zechariah 3:1-4). In the days of Jesus, Satan is an enemy who has access – he is able to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. However, the demons of Hell cower in fear before Jesus in every encounter they have with him.

In Revelation, it’s all out warfare and it is not fought here, but in Heaven (12:7). Moreover, God is not a participant. Rather the archangel Michael leads a brigade of angels who defeat the Dragon, Satan, who also has an angel army. There is no word on how long or how violent this conflict is. The important note is that as the warfare in Heaven is also played out on earth, the battle is not won with swords or spears (or weapons of modern warfare). Rather sacrifice and martyrdom win the day.

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11).

The metaphor for Jesus crushing the evil one is not a mighty lion, but rather a slaughtered lamb, and the uncompromising testimony of the church that has sworn allegiance to Jesus. There have been thousands of pages of Bible interpretation written just on Revelation chapter 12. My words here simply offer up the foundational truth of that chapter, and one of the basic essentials of Christianity. Evil is defeated by faithfulness – the faithfulness and love of Jesus to die for our sins; and, the faithfulness of His church, including us, to testify to the truth about Him and His gospel to the world no matter what that testimony will cost us.

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