“Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman…” (CSB – Read the chapter)
So far in the creation story things have been at least believable. I mean, depending on where you stand on the existence of the supernatural it may sound pretty far-fetched, but if there is a God powerful enough to create the world and everything in it, it’s conceivable at least that He spoke it into existence. We can even get our minds around the more intimate picture of the creation of the man and the woman in chapter 2. This, however, is where things run off the rails.
Let’s just go ahead and ask the obvious question: Was there really a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? I mean, really? I’ve read all of the Chronicles of Narnia. There are talking animals in Narnia. There aren’t talking animals in the real world (unless you count the host of relevant YouTube videos…but I don’t think those count for this argument). If we’re supposed to believe that the creation narrative is a real description of the process God went through in creating the world, what are we supposed to do with a talking snake?
This is one of those places where skeptics, and even a whole lot of professed believers, point at the text and say, “See, there’s no way this is supposed to be taken as literally or historically accurate.” If you believe in talking animals, you’re not to be taken seriously.
I think there are three responses we can give to this criticism. One is for the secular skeptical critic. The other two are for the believing critic. Let’s start with the first one. If you are a secular skeptic who denies the existence of the supernatural, we really don’t have any kind of a common ground for talking about this. If you disbelieve in the supernatural, while a talking snake in the text might be a convenient focal point to ridicule believers, it’s nothing more than a smoke screen for the bigger issue, namely, that you deny the existence of the supernatural. There are much bigger issues related to that than whether or not there was an actual talking snake who led the first man and woman into temptation and sin. I’m honestly not going to try and defend the text here to you at all.
As for the believer who is wrestling with this text because of a desire for some intellectual street-cred, we can approach this in two ways. Both are necessary for a proper understanding of what’s going on here. First–and this won’t make my inerrantist readers very happy–whether or not there was a talking snake here doesn’t matter all that much to the larger whole of the Scriptures. Now, yes, we want to be able to defend the inerrancy of the text. That is an important goal. But whether or not there was a literal talking snake in the Garden of Eden does not have even the slightest amount of bearing on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the foundation point of our faith, not a talking snake.
All of that is to say this: If someone is struggling with this particular verse undermining their view of the Old Testament, we can simply agree that it’s a hard verse to try and reconcile with a modern worldview. It is. And that’s okay. As long as Jesus still rose from the dead, our faith is secure. It is secure and because Jesus accepted this verse at face value, we can too because you go with what the guy who predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection believes. Easy.
The second response to the struggling believer is this: Talking animals aren’t completely unheard of in the Bible. In Numbers, Moses tells us about a donkey that spoke when enabled to do so by the angel of the Lord. More than this, if God was and is powerful enough to have created the world and everything in it, what’s a talking snake as far as a challenge to His creative abilities? If He could create a human cell with all its brain-bending intricacies, a talking snake should be a cinch. We can comfortably accept this verse at face value because our God is big enough to have done this.
When we come across weird stuff like this in the Scriptures, let us not panic. Let us neither allow the world to set the terms of the conversation about it. Let us lean back into what we know of God and His character and keep the bigger picture in mind: Jesus still rose from the grave. Whether someone accepts the idea of a talking snake, they can still receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Let’s get the big stuff down first and we’ll worry about the small stuff later.