And the LORD God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field…
1. I lay down the position that no punishment in the way of physical degradation was inflicted by God in His sentence upon the serpent tribe. No doubt this idea has been held by most of those in past days who knew very little of natural history or of science; and it is held still by some who have no capacity of understanding scientific evidence. They cherish still, it may be, some strange notion that serpents, once upon a time, walked upright and ate fruits in an innocent and becoming manner. I cannot argue with such. The testimony of science on this subject is so absolutely overwhelming, that one might just as well call in question the revolution of the earth round the sun, or the circulation of the blood. Unless all science is a lie, there were plenty of serpents on the earth ages before man was made, and these serpents precisely like the present ones in their general construction. If our serpents may be said to go on their bellies and eat dust, so might those. From the creation of the world — long ages ago — it has been "their nature to." Further, I must maintain that the structure and habits of the serpent tribe bear no trace of any designed degradation. To the eye of one who has studied the "ways of God" in His fair and marvellous book of nature, who has learnt to recognize on every hand the exquisite adaptation of each tribe to the place of each, the serpent is as beautiful and perfect a piece of workmanship as any other creature. Admitting the fact (which no thoughtful observer could deny) that the animal tribes were made to prey upon one another to a great extent, and so to maintain the balance of life upon the earth. — admitting this palpable fact, it is obvious that the serpent is most wonderfully adapted to play his own part and fulfil his own ends upon the earth. There is no more degradation about his means of progression, surprisingly swift and easy as it is, than about the downward swoop of an eagle, the ponderous rush of a lion, or the noiseless flight of an owl. Nor is his food in reality of a more disgusting nature than theirs; the creatures which he swallows, great or small, are as much his natural food as their prey is to the eagle, the lion, and the owl. He would not condescend to eat carrion like the vulture or the jackal. It may indeed be true, as St. Paul seems to teach us, that the whole creation suffers in some little-understood way from the fall of man; and no doubt the lower animals often suffer severely from the sinful passions of man; but to acknowledge this is a totally different thing from acknowledging that God deliberately and judicially decreed degradation and punishment upon a creature which had not really sinned. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
2. I lay down the position, which I think no one will seriously dispute, that the real tempter was not the serpent at all, but the devil. It is true that there is no hint of this in Genesis, and this is very important to my argument. Had we no other information, we should have to assume that the serpent was in truth an intelligent being, supremely wicked, and capable of pursuing a most crafty policy. But the testimony of other Scriptures is clear and positive that it was the devil who tempted Eve (2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2; John 8:44). There can be but one way of understanding the inspired testimony: the devil availed himself of the form of the serpent, and of his known character for natural cunning, to speak by his mouth, and so to gain a safer audience. Just as the demoniacs of the New Testament and the evil spirits who possessed them seemed to have a mixed personality which is reflected in the very words of the Evangelists, so the tempter and the serpent remain, as it were, confounded, and the one is called by the name of the other — "that old serpent, which is the devil and Satan." Nevertheless, the witness is clear that the devil was the real agent in the temptation of our first parents.
3. I conclude from the foregoing positions, and conclude with confidence, that the serpent was not really cursed at all, while the devil was. All I know of God tells me that He would not — all I know of nature tells me that He did not — inflict punishment on the unwitting victim of another's craft. All I know from reason or from revelation of His ways assures me that He would not and did not leave unpunished the malice which wrecked (for the time) His fairest work.
4. I proceed to argue that while the form of the sentence was accommodated to the outward and visible form of which the tempter made use, the real meaning of the sentence applied to the tempter himself, and to the tempter alone. To the educated eye, as I have said, there is no trace of degradation about the structure or habits of the serpent; he does not in any real sense go upon his belly or eat dust. But to the untutored eye of the "unlearned," i.e., to the vast bulk of mankind in all ages, he appears to do both, and he is an object of natural loathing and disgust. As the upright position of man seems to raise him in dignity above the general level of animal life, so the prone and sinuous position of the snake seems to sink him below that level; having nothing degrading about it in reality, it is yet the accepted symbol of contempt. We, who are unacquainted with snakes, speak of a man as a "reptile" if we wish to express utter contempt and abhorrence of his ways; but a "reptile" is one that "goes upon his belly." Again, every student of nature knows that the serpent does not eat dust, but small animals which he often catches out of the dust and dirt; but, because he has neither hands nor anything in the nature of hands, he appears to swallow with his food a great deal of dust and dirt. The great difficulty we have to encounter in this Divine sentence on the serpent is that it is not really fulfilled in the literal serpent, though it is apparently. This difficulty seems to me to vanish wholly when we perceive that it is really fulfilled in the mystical serpent, the devil.
5. I am greatly confirmed in this understanding of the phrase by what we read in Isaiah 65:25. In that passage we are told that in the time of the "new heavens and new earth" "dust shall be the serpent's meat." It makes no difference to my argument whether we understand the prophecy to refer to the millennium or (as I think) to the future world. No one surely will maintain that serpents are to eat dust in that blessed state. Why should the unfortunate creatures be so ill-fated? Is it not clearly to be spiritually interpreted, that then, as now, only more clearly and absolutely then than now, disgrace, disappointment, and disgust will be the portion of the tempter and accuser? And if this "eating dust" on the part of the serpent be of spiritual interpretation in Isaiah, why should it not be the same in Genesis? It is admitted by all that the latter part of the sentence must be applied parabolically to the tempter himself — why not the former part also, in which the parable is quite as simple and as easy to read?
6. Two other conclusions seem to be necessary in order to complete the subject, and in order to "justify" on every side the heavenly "Wisdom" which pronounced and recorded this ancient doom.
(1) In the first place, we must believe that He who foreknew all things, and ordered all things according to His foreknowledge, did of purpose prepare the serpent to be to a guilty race the natural emblem of their own sin and of their degradation.
(2) In the second place, we must acknowledge that God willed, in merciful consideration for the weakness and cowardice of fallen man, not to allow the existence and malice of his ghostly enemy to become known to him at that time. The disguise, which served the purposes of evil, was overruled to serve the purposes of good; clothed in the same disguise, the sentence upon the evil one became a parable, which only yielded its true meaning by degrees, as redeemed man was able to bear it.
(R. Winterbotham, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
WEB: Yahweh God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, you are cursed above all livestock, and above every animal of the field. On your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life.