Snakes (or serpents) get plenty of attention in the Bible, which mentions them over 80 times. Snakes show up in Pharaoh’s court (Exodus 7:12), in the wilderness (Numbers 21:7), on the island of Malta (Acts 28:3), and, of course, in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1). They are almost always pictured as loathsome creatures, associated with poison and craftiness. As amoral creatures, snakes are not “evil” in themselves—but they are a handy metaphor for evil in many passages.
It started in the Garden. “The serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). In some way, the serpent was used by Satan to lie to Eve and lead her into disobedience. Adam soon followed. As God was meting out punishments, He cursed the snake: “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). Every time we see a snake slithering, limbless, on the ground, we have a reminder of the Fall of man and the effects of sin.
Ever since Satan spoke his lies through the serpent to Eve, the snake has been associated with sin. The prophets liken the wicked to those who “hatch viper’s eggs” (Isaiah 59:5), to “a serpent [who] has swallowed us . . . and then has spewed us out” (Jeremiah 51:34), and to those who “will lick dust like a snake” (Micah 7:17). The poetic books speak of evil men making “their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips” (Psalm 140:3), of liars having “venom . . . like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be” (Psalm 58:4–5), and of alcohol eventually biting “like a snake and poison[ing] like a viper” (Proverbs 23:32). Jesus and John the Baptist both condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by calling them a “brood of vipers” and “snakes” (Matthew 3:7; 12:34; 23:33).
The snake, as a symbol of Satan, has wound its way around the human heart and filled us with its poison. Try as we might, we cannot rid ourselves of its influence. As the wicked King Macbeth discovered, serpents are hard to kill: “We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” (Macbeth, III:ii). In fact, by the time we get to the book of Revelation, the serpent in the Garden has become a raging dragon bent on world domination. Following a battle in heaven, “the great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Revelation 12:9).
We need help in our battle against the “ancient serpent.” Fortunately, from the very beginning, God has promised us a Savior: speaking to the serpent in the Garden, God says, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This is the protoevangelium, or “first gospel.” God promised that the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head—a prophecy that the virgin-born Son of God would win a decisive victory over the power of the devil.
Jesus said that He had come to save us all from the serpent’s bite: “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 3:14–15; cf. Numbers 21:6–9).
The Lord Jesus is our serpent-crusher. He is our dragon-slayer. And one day, when He establishes His kingdom on this earth, all of creation will be restored to its original, harmless state—snakes included. “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:8–9).