The Primordial Serpent

SerpentWhen people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good…The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling G-d’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes the source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.

From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“Transforming the Primordial Snake”
[Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 13, pp. 75-77]
Kabbalah Online

This also alludes to the [Primordial] Snake. Originally, he was the tail and Adam was the head, but [because of the Primordial Sin] this was inverted and the snake became the head and Adam the tail.

From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“The Snake at the Sea’s End”
Chabad.org

This is Part 2 in a 3-part series. Before reading this, see Part 1: Overcoming Evil.

The serpent of Eden isn’t quite what you expect him to be when you encounter him in Judaism, and particularly within the realm of Kabbalah. While not an entirely pleasant fellow, he doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as Christianity paints him. The “Transforming the Primordial Snake” article quoted above tells us that the serpent; the evil inclination within us, “impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement”. The commentary goes on to explain that we can “convince” the evil inclination that the best way to meet its goal is to meet our goal of a life of holiness. Once the “serpent” is sold on this idea, the “snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life”.

Makes the snake sound almost reasonable, doesn’t it? However, the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria paint a darker portrait:

In the Zohar, the imagery of the snake putting its tail in its mouth is used to illustrate the sin of “the evil tongue”, i.e. slander, a gross misuse of the power of speech. (Zohar III:205b) People commit this sin when material consciousness gets the better of them. As is explained in the Tanya (ch. 32), those who give their bodies preeminence over their souls see only the outer shell of their fellow man, which differentiates between people, and are oblivious to the inner souls. They thus fall into the sin of hatred, which leads to slander.

Rabbi Luria makes slander sound awful, but how bad can it be? I mean, it’s not as bad as say, murder, is it?

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of gehinnom. –Matthew 5:21-22

I guess it is that bad.

But who is the serpent? Is it some sort of talking animal, like Balaam’s donkey or is this Satan, the Adversary, in disguise? Let’s cut to the chase and look at him from a traditional Jewish perspective:

Satan in Judaism is a very different beast than satan in popular culture (pun intended)

The snake in the garden of Eden is identified as the personification of the “Yetzerh Harah” (Bad/evil will/desires/inclination) by the midrashim.

The Talmud also states that the Yetzer Harah, Satan, and the angel of death are one. (Some might understand this to mean that they are ‘bad things’ which really are good, and necessary.

In Judaism, the Satan is an angel commanded by Gd to accuse human beings of wrong things. In modern terms, you might call satan the heavenly prosecutor, who seeks to bring all people to court.

-from the Jewish Life and Learning discussion board

Eve and the SerpentThat would seem to mesh somewhat with the Christian interpretation, however, the person who made this post offered a follow up:

A strict reading of the bible would tell you just a snake, and nothing else. An interpreted reading of the bible based on Jewish sources would tell you its the Evil Inclination. An interpreted reading of the interpretation based on Jewish sources would tell you that the snake represents three things. (Which, could be seen as a reason for only the serpent to be mentioned in the first place)

This is consistent with other Jewish sources which state that Adam personified the Good Inclination while the serpent was the embodiment of the Evil Inclination. In Kabbalistic thought, the serpent wasn’t so much a personality as a force of nature, or at least a representation of other forces. The serpent was the external manifestation of the evil inclination which, once Adam and Eve sinned, became man’s internal inclination for evil.

However, as I’ve heard it said just recently, “let Scripture interpret Scripture”:

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

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. –Revelation 20:1-2

Now we have to assume that the “ancient serpent” being referred to in these verses is the same one we see tempting Eve in the Garden, but that’s an assumption Christianity takes for granted. It’s not one that Judaism would make for obvious reasons.

A recent CNN news story, which was critical of the ability of many Christians to read and remember the Bible correctly (that part seems sadly true) suggested that the serpent was just a serpent (albeit an intelligent and talking one) and that the Adversary (HaSatan) was never mentioned. While it is true, Genesis doesn’t go out of its way to say, “Hey! The snake is the devil!”, the passages from Revelation seem to be a “smoking gun”.

Judah Himango started a conversation about this topic on his Kineti L’Tziyon blog the other day, and from his point of view, the matter is settled. Still, looking at the serpent through the lens of Jewish mysticism, there’s more to his story than meets the eye. Part 3 of this series, Healing the Wounded, will cover that tale in the next “morning meditation”.

5 thoughts on “The Primordial Serpent”

  1. I think Revelation seals the deal: the snake of Gan Eden is Satan, as Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent.” While it’s an assumption that “that ancient serpent” is referring to the serpent in the Garden, I do believe that’s a very reasonable assumption.

  2. If you read the “sequel” to this blog post, you can see there’s more than one way to look at the serpent, perhaps allegorically, perhaps even mystically. I agree that Revelation is an information source that won’t be considered by the Talmudic sages or Kabbalic masters as definitive, but it doesn’t hurt to see what they have to say about the serpent either.

    I had a brief exchange with Carl Kinbar in the comments section of a blog post at Helek Tov related to this.

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