Serpentine Logic by Dan Barker (December 1997)

By Dan Barker

1997 / December

On May 14 of this year I participated in a debate in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on the topic of God and the Bible: Fact or Fable? My opponent was Dr. Walter Kaiser, a well-known evangelical scholar, professor of Old Testament, who is now President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.

Just to be certain what we were debating, I looked up the word fable in the dictionary. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the primary definition involves talking animals. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary gives “fable, n. 1. a fictitious narrative intended to teach some moral truth or precept, in which animals and sometimes inanimate objects are represented as speakers and actors.” The other dictionaries agree.

Not all stories with talking animals are fables (only moral tales), and not all fables contain talking animals (so even without them, the Bible could still be a fable); but there is an assumption in the dictionary definitions that conforms to common knowledge: animals do not speak human language. If there is any evidence that the Bible is a fable, or contains fables, then the presence of talking animals would certainly be a part of such evidence.

I mentioned these facts in my opening statement, and then I read from Genesis 3, which relates the most crucial moral tale of the entire Bible, the story of the fall of the human race: “Now the serpent was more subtil [NRSV: `crafty’] than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 3:1)?

This story of the temptation of Eve, right at the beginning of Scripture, is the cornerstone of Jewish, Christian, and Moslem theology. Without it, there is no need for salvation, Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. It is clearly a “moral tale,” and it contains a talking animal. I could have claimed victory and sat down, but having been a preacher, it’s hard for me to quit, especially when I still have time on the clock. So I did what most preachers do: I kept talking. I opened the Bible and read about an ass that didn’t know when to stop talking: “And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee” (Num. 22: 29-30)?

This story may not be as morally crucial as the Garden of Eden, but that makes it no more believable.

The Bible describes more talking animals: “…four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within; and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” (Rev.4:6-8).

Most Christians think Satan is a spiritual creature, but the Bible vividly describes him as a talking animal: “Behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth…. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him…. And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name” (Rev. 12:3,4,9; 13:6).

The Bible contains moral tales that involve speaking animals. Therefore, the Bible is a fable.

After the opening statements, Kaiser and I engaged in a period of cross-examination, which was timed by the moderator. During my opening statement, I had said: “Christians are afraid people will think for themselves. Atheists are afraid they won’t.”

Kaiser: You say that most Christians are afraid of human thought. I would not have thought that. Some of the best thinkers we have had in the whole of this–since the A.D. times– have been Christian thinkers.

Barker: Who believe in talking snakes.

Kaiser: Who believe in giving the evidence its first due.

Barker: Do you believe there was a talking snake?

Audience member: Yes.

Barker: I’m asking this guy. He’s… do you believe a snake spoke human language?

Kaiser: I don’t think you understand what Genesis 3 is talking about. I’m surprised at your understanding .

Barker: But just tell me: did a snake speak human language? Yes or no?

Kaiser: It said “cha nachash,” the “serpent” spoke, yes. Uh, huh. Which is a whole lot different than what you’re trying to put the construction on it.

Barker: But, what is a “serpent”?

Kaiser: Uh–that’s a translation of “cha nachash.” Do you know Hebrew?

Barker: I know a little. I don’t know that word.

Kaiser: Uh, huh. Well, I thought so, because the whole point there is, I think that’s a title being given to the Evil One, and I don’t think that it in any way, in the text itself, indicates that it was a reptile.

Barker: So this was the Devil, Satan talking?

Kaiser: I think it is.

Barker: You mean the red dragon with the seven heads and the ten horns and all that? That’s who was talking in the garden?

Kaiser: No. First of all, stick to the text here, in Genesis, what it claims. Don’t mish-mash and go from one to the other and therefore confuse it.

Barker: Don’t take it in context?

Kaiser: If we’re really wanting to know, we’ve got to stick to the context, sure.

Barker: So, what was it? What was that thing that was talking to Eve? It says the beast–“The serpent was more subtil than any other beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” He’s comparing–in context, he’s–

Kaiser: In the English translation, it was there- -“cha nachash” was more subtle, “mi kol”– “from all”–and you’re taking it in a partitive sense, “from any of the beasts of the field,” which could also, and I think more accurately be translated, “than the beasts of the field.” It’s a comparative translation there.

Barker: Okay, is the God–

Kaiser: He’s talking about all of God’s creation, and putting it over against that one of his other creatures, the Devil.

Barker: If you’re right about this–I don’t think you are, but if you are–does the god you believe in, is he capable of causing an animal to speak human language? Can he do that? Did Balaam’s ass speak human language to Balaam?

Kaiser: Uh, you’re asking me what God is capable of, and God is capable of everything except contradicting himself.

Barker: So, he could cause an animal–he could cause Balaam’s ass to speak to Balaam. Do you believe that a donkey spoke human language?

Kaiser: God can’t make ropes with one end.

Barker: But I’m asking about talking donkeys. Can God cause a donkey to speak?

Kaiser: We have–I just wrote an article on an archaeological find of that particular episode, from the 9th century B. C., with Balaam, son of Beor, and it’s from a schoolboy copy’s text, and yes, they talk about the fact that this was a most unusual event in which God spoke through the mouth of an animal.

Barker: So did the animal speak human language, yes or no?

Kaiser: You heard me, sure. Yes.

Barker: Okay, so you believe. So, you believe in the dictionary definition of “fable,” then, right? A story which has talking animals is a fable.

Kaiser: Now you are confusing two things, because in the definition of a fable, you do have a[n] animal speaking, but that’s not your only criteria for what constitutes a fable. Fables are a part of figure of speech. We use figures of speech: “You hit the ceiling,” but I don’t look for you on the ceiling. You do various kinds of things that are in terms of figures of speech, and you must allow that also to be operative in ancient language as well as modern language.

Barker: So, the Bible contains a lot of allegory with pretending speaking animals, which, to me–that’s a fable. Animals who are pretending to speak, or that you are- –

Kaiser: Those were your words: “lot of allegory.” Now you’re putting a value judgment on that, and your value judgment is clouding your ability to do rational thought. I thought you were a rationalist. Now you’re becoming an emotionalist. (laughs)

Barker: This morning, when I was driving up here, I stopped to get gas. I went in to get a coffee break, and as I was going into the little shop–

Kaiser: Yeah.

Barker:…this cat came up to me and spoke to me in human language, and said, “Stay away from the tuna sandwiches.” Do you believe that? Do you believe that happened to me?

Kaiser: I don’t know your cats that well. (laughing)

Barker: But do you believe that that happened to me?

Kaiser: Uh, I have my doubts about it.

Barker: Why?

Kaiser: I need more evidence.

Barker: Why would you doubt that a cat could speak?

Kaiser: Because, we need evidence; that’s why.

Moderator: Time.

Barker: Ah! Well, we have no evidence for the truth of the Bible.

Even Kaiser, who takes the Bible at face value, acts like a normal human being when it comes to stories of talking animals outside of his own religion. He knows that animals do not speak. Or at least he knows enough to be highly suspicious and to demand strong evidence for such an unusual claim. But what is the difference between the biblical talking snake and my story of a talking cat? Neither of them can boast any evidence outside of the tale itself. Without proof, they are both fables.

Kaiser’s contradiction is pretty obvious. The only reason Christian scholars believe that the Hebrew-speaking serpent was Satan is because two New Testament writers thought so. There is nothing in Genesis, or its immediate context, to suggest that the nachash was anything but a snake. Kaiser accused me of “mish-mash” when, at his prompting, I tried to connect Genesis 3 with the “red dragon” of Revelation 12:3; yet he supposedly is not interpreting it out of context when he does the same thing with the “Devil” of Revelation 12:9. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. (Devil’s Food.)

After the debate, I investigated Kaiser’s claims about nachash. I read Genesis 3 in 11 different English versions–including the KJV, a Jewish translation from the Masoretic text, the NRSV, as well as the less-than- scholarly, though popular, NIV and Living Bible– and none of them call nachash the Devil: they all use “serpent” or “snake.” I also looked up all the other places in the Hebrew Scriptures where nachash appears, and it is always rendered “serpent” or “snake,” an animal that “biteth the horse heels,” that moves “upon a rock,” that eats dust and moves “out of their holes like worms of the earth.”

Nachash is frequently paired poetically with “adder” in such verses as, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path” (Gen. 49:17), “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear” (Psalm 58:4), “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adder’s poison is under their lips” (Psalm 140:3), “At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder” (Proverbs 23:32).

I am not an expert in Hebrew, but this cursory examination appears to prove Kaiser wrong. For a scholarly opinion, I wrote and asked Dr. Hector Avalos for some help. Avalos, who is a professor in the Religious Studies program at Iowa State University, has a Ph.D. in biblical languages from Harvard, and is the author of “Animals” and “Satan” in the Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York: Oxford, 1993). He was gracious enough to prepare a helpful paper on this topic, in the form of a letter, which I have excerpted below. (I have eliminated or transliterated Avalos’s Hebrew characters, which I can’t reproduce here, and I have embedded his footnotes in square brackets.)

Dear Dan,

If [Kaiser’s] contention is that nachash in Genesis 3:1 should not be regarded as an animal because of the use of a “partitive” construction, then he would be in error, and in opposition to about 99% of all biblical scholars (conservative, liberal, or secular) and translations of which I am aware. [There is one respected scholar, A. W. Sjoberg, who argues that nachash in Genesis 3:1 is really a chameleon, not a serpent, but that would still make it “an animal.”]

I would also like to know what sort of creature the nachash is according to Kaiser. If it is not “an animal,” then does he believe it is some sort of creature like a cherub or seraph? How is he defining “an animal”? It is true that nachash can describe creatures that we would call mythological. For example, Isaiah 27:1, “On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.” [All English quotes, unless noted otherwise, are from the NRSV.]

However, this is not the case in Genesis 3. Aside from its ability to speak, nachash in that chapter is an animal, in the sense of nonhuman creature which normally inhabits the earth and would be readily recognizable. Besides Genesis 3:1, we have the following statement in the same chapter.

Genesis 3:14, “The LORD God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
Genesis 3:15, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. This verse indicates that the nachash of Genesis 3 is a creature that 1) is expected to interact with human beings on a continuing basis, and 2) crawls on its belly. Thus, the nachash here is not ostensibly a supernatural creature, but one which we ought to be able to recognize as a normal animal according to the author. A serpent is consistent with this description of the nachash, and a serpent is an animal in our normal sense. The same Hebrew word is used for a creature that “bites” people in Numbers 21:5ff.
One objection that might be made is that the characteristics of the
nachash changed after it was cursed, but then that would only pose new problems for conservative Christians (e.g., was there a change in species–evolution?).

Other biblical authors also apparently understand nachash in Genesis 3 to be a serpent in our normal sense. For example, 2 Corinthians 11:3, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” The author here uses the Greek ophis, the normal word for snake or serpent (though it can be used for a creature we would call mythological as in Revelation 12:15). The Hebrew speaking Jews that translated Genesis 3:1 into Greek in the version known as the Septuagint also used ophis.
The occurrence of a so-called partitive construction in Genesis 3:1 cannot be used to conclude that nachash is not an animal or “beast of the field.”
To understand this, let’s review the basic grammar of the relevant part of the verse (using my literalistic English translations).

mkol (min + kol): “all” + “from” or “than”

arum: “crafty” (adjective)

hayah: “was” (verb)

cha nachash: “(and) the serpent” (noun + waw)

cha sadeh: “the field” (noun + def. article)

chaiyah: “beast(s) of” (noun in construct)

[NRSV: “wild animals.” I am using the generic plural “beasts” though other translations may use the more proper singular. “Noun in construct” refers to the particular form that a Hebrew noun takes when used to express a genitive relationship with a following noun, and usually translated as “X of Y” in a more schematic form.]

Here the basis for seeing a partitive construction is the use of “from all” (“than any other” in the NRSV). Gesenius’ Hebrew textbook does regard the preposition [“from” or “than”] in Genesis 3:1 as part of a partitive expression. [W. Gesenius, E. Kautszch, and A. E. Cowley,
Genesius’ Hebrew Grammar (2nd English Edition: Oxford: Clarendon, 1910) paragraph 119 v(1).]

A partitive construction is one that expresses separation, but one must be specific about the nature of the separation. Genesis 3:1 should be seen as describing a separation regarding a particular feature of the serpent within the category of nouns which follows “from all” in the construct phrase. The nachash is separated from all the “beasts of the field” as to a particular feature expressed by the adjective “crafty,” but nachash is not separated from “beasts of the field” as a whole. The serpent is still one of the “beasts of the field” which follow “from all.”

This is a complicated way of saying that it is best to see “from all” in Genesis 3:1 as part of a comparative or superlative expression as do Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor in their

An Introduction to Hebrew Syntax [Paragraph 14d. 44, Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990, p. 270.] In such cases, the subject of comparison is included in the category of nouns which follows “from all.” For example, in 1 Samuel 10:23, this is used to state that Saul is “the tallest of his people.” Just as the subject (speaking of Saul) in the comparative expression, “He was the tallest of his people” would not mean that Saul is not a person or part of “his people,” so too the subject in the comparative expression “the serpent was the craftiest of all the beasts of the field” does not mean that the serpent is not one of the beasts of the field.
Consider also 1 Kings 10:23: “Thus Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.” The verse clearly means that Solomon was the richest and wisest of all the kings of the earth (separate insofar as riches and wisdom are concerned), and not that Solomon was not a king at all. Solomon is still included in the class of things (i.e., “kings of the earth”) which follow “from all” as a construct phrase.

Similarly, in Genesis 3:1 the serpent belongs to the class of things (beasts of the field) which follow “from all” in a construct phrase, but it is only in a particular feature expressed by the adjective (“crafty”) that it is in any sense distinct.

Conclusion: Dr. Kaiser may know some Hebrew, but, as does any scholar, he needs to show good empirical arguments and examples for his conclusion. Did Dr. Kaiser adduce any examples elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible where the subject in such a “partitive construction” cannot be included in the general category of nouns following “than all” in a construct phrase? Based on analogies with similar Hebrew constructions and the Greek translations made by Hebrew speakers themselves, it is best to see reference to the craftiness of the nachash in Genesis 3:1 as part of a comparative expressions which would still include that creature among “the beasts of the field.” These beasts of the field may be properly described as “animals” in our normal sense. But even if one describes this passage in question as a partitive construction, such a construction does not warrant the exclusion of the nachash from general category, “the beasts of the field,” that follows “from all.”

And even if the nachash is something “other than an animal,” it would still mean that the biblical authors, if interpreted literally, believe in creatures that have anthropomorphic features and abilities that are not scientifically verified; or believe in creatures that bear anthropomorphic features and abilities ascribed to animals in stories that Christians might otherwise call fables or myths. There is, of course, nothing to indicate that the author of Genesis is equating nachash with the Devil as described in the New Testament (see Revelation 20:2 for that equation by Christian authors).
I hope that this helps unravel the convoluted grammatical arguments that some Evangelicals like to use.

In May, I sent Kaiser a copy of Avalos’s wonderful analysis, asking if he would like to clarify his comments. I also mentioned that it appears from his “figures of speech” remarks that he actually supports my claim that the Bible contains allegory, such as talking animals, that were not meant to be taken literally. And even if the talking serpent in the Garden can be imagined as a spiritual “Evil One” rather than a physical animal, there is no way around the fact (as Kaiser admits) that Balaam’s talking ass was an animal.

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