Serpents in the Ancient Near East

serpents ANE Ningishzida01 (2)

1) Gen 3:1: Humanity as a whole underwent a time of probation in the garden through Adam as our representative. He was to accomplish this by adhering to the prohibition of eating from the one tree (Gen 2:16–17).

This test would determine whether Adam accepted his vassal king position when presented with what seemed to be an arbitrary command from his emperor, the Lord.[1]

Meanwhile, the serpent had a two-fold objective: to halt the spread of the kingdom of God and to prevent humanity from continuing to serve as the vice-regents of the Lord.[2]

In the Ancient Near East (ANE) during the second millennium BC, people associated serpents with both death and wisdom.[3]

For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonist dove through deep water to procure the “Old Man Becomes a Young Man” plant which one could eat to become immortal. Before Gilgamesh could test it, a snake smelled the plant, sneaked up behind him, and stole it. As the serpent slithered away, it sloughed off its skin, demonstrating that the plant imparted eternal life.[4]

Due to this treachery, Gilgamesh was doomed to die, for “Enlil…the father of the gods…has destined thy fate, O Gilgamesh, for kingship, for eternal life he has not destined it.”[5]

The Akkadian story of a man named Adapa also features an account of squandered eternal life.[6] A serpent-shaped god whose name means “Lord Productive Tree” (Gishida) ruled over the netherworld.[7]

He offered Adapa the bread of life to give him immortality. However, another god had already tricked Adapa, saying, “When they offer thee bread of death, thou shalt not eat [it]. When they offer thee water of death, thou shalt not drink [it]. When they offer thee a garment, put [it] on.” Therefore, when Lord Protective Tree presented the bread of life to Adapa, he refused it.[8]

Egyptians believed that each night the ship of the sun god moved through the skies of the underworld, where a demon of chaos named Apophis lurked. Therefore, priests performed temple rituals to repulse this forty-five foot long serpent, sparing Egypt from destruction:[9]

This spell is to be recited over Apophis drawn on a new sheet of papyrus in green color and put inside a box on which his name is set, he being tied and bound and put on the fire every day, wiped out with [your] left foot and spat upon four times in the course of every day. “[The sun god] Re is triumphant,” and “Pharaoh—life, prosperity, health!—is triumphant over his enemies”—four times.[10]

On the other hand, the serpent Wadjet served as the patron goddess of Lower Egypt, which is why the headdress of the pharaoh featured a cobra. Egyptians viewed Wadjet as very wise and capable of great magic.[11]

During the time of Moses, artists depicted the fertility goddess Qudshu on Egyptian amulets and reliefs. Typically she appeared naked, holding snakes in both hands or flowers in one and serpents in the other.[12] She often surfaced in erotic scenes with other minor gods.

Later, her identity became fused with a Canaanite fertility goddess named Astarte or Asherah, who bore seventy sons.[13] Eventually, Asherah became a snare in Israel (Judg 6:25; 1 Ki 18:17–19; 2 Ki 23:7).

In sum, people in the ANE often worshiped serpents, as they represented occult wisdom, chaos, fertility, and immortality.[14]

In Gen 2:25–3:1, Moses used wordplay concerning the man and woman’s innocent nakedness (arummim) and the shrewdness (arum) of the snake to accentuate Adam and Eve’s vulnerability.[15]

A neutral term, arum can also be translated as “cunning” or “prudent”, a remedy for naiveté (Prov 1:4).[16] Yet when employed by those who seek evil, such craftiness becomes dangerous (Exod 21:14).[17]

Moses described the snake as an animal, presumably one of the creatures made by God.

Thus, an evil force did not break into creation from outside but came from within the created order.[18] There is no hint of a supernatural entity,[19] except for the fact that the serpent spoke.[20]

It seems that the snake had heard the prohibition which the Lord had delivered to Adam (Gen 2:17).[21]

In effect, the serpent said, “You must have misheard. Surely a good God wouldn’t limit someone he loves in that way.”[22]

As a result, the snake altered the attitude of the creatures toward their creator, encouraging people to make judgments about God’s words rather than simply obeying them.[23]

The text does not explain why the serpent addressed Eve,[24] nor does it disclose why Adam failed to assist her in rebuffing the snake’s claims.[25]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Gen 3:1. How did people in the ANE view serpents? What act by the serpent in Eden first revealed his craftiness?




Go to A World-Altering Conversation


[Related posts include Living Things from the Earth (Gen 1:24–25); Stewards of the Earth (Gen 1:26 cont.); Forbidden Fruit (Gen 2:16–17); Naked and Not Ashamed (Gen 2:25); A World-Altering Conversation (Gen 3:2–5); Author and Date of Genesis; and Ancient Literature]


[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History; or to Chapter 6: A Serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3:1–13)]


[1] Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 104–5.

[2] Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 120.

[3] Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 3:1.

[4] “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” ANET, 11:265–89, 96,

[5]S. N. Kramer, trans., “The Death of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, lines 33–5, 50,

[6] Pritchard, ANET, 101.

[7] Walton, Genesis, 203.

[8]E. A. Speiser, trans., “Adapa,” in ANET, lines 20–70, 101–2, 101–3,

[9] Pritchard, ANET, 6, 11,;

[10]John A. Wilson, trans., “The Repulsing of the Dragon and the Creation,” in ANET, 7,

[11] Walton, Genesis, 203.

[12]The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, “Plaque 61–14–1655,” This site features an excellent photo.

[13] John Day, “Asherah (Deity),” ABD 1:483–7, 484.

[14] Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 3:1–5.

[15] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 90.

[16] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “עָרוּם” (arum), BDB, 791,

[17] Walton, Genesis, 203–4.

[18] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 105.

[19] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 188.

[20] Walton, Genesis, 204.

[21] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 73.

[22] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 106.

[23] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 107–8.

[24] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 188.

[25] Walton, Genesis, 206.