Did the Serpent in Genesis 3 Have Legs Before it Was Cursed?

I’ve done a couple of posts about the serpent/snake in Genesis 3 which you can find here, here and here (all these posts were on the issue of a “talking” snake). Today’s question involves the curse on the serpent which says “you will crawl on your belly.” (3:14, NIV) Some have suggested from this that the snake had legs prior to the curse. The MacArthur Study Bible says “It probably had legs before this curse.” (Note on Gen. 3:14) The Ryrie Study Bible says “the serpent’s very form and movements were altered.” (Note on Gen. 3:14) The “Answers in Genesis” (AIG) website provides a nice chart of commentators who believed the serpent had legs and those who don’t. Among those who believed the serpent had legs are: Henry Morris, John Gill, Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Matthew Poole, Martin Luther, and the author of the article for AIG. On the “no” side we have: John Calvin, Gordon Wenham, and John Sailhammer. We could also add Derek Kidner, and Kenneth Matthews in The Apologetics Study Bible. The AIG article says, “The more logical answer is that the serpent originally had some form of legs or appendages, and these were either lost or reduced.” “The problem,” she notes if the serpent stayed the same is “it reduces the curse to almost a meaningless status.”

John Walton offers an alternative interpretation which doesn’t involve the serpent having legs. He writes,

“The Egyptian Pyramid Texts were designed to aid the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (end of the third millennium) on their journey to the afterlife. Among the over 700 utterances are several dozen spells and curses on snakes that may impede the king’s progress. These utterances contain phrases that are reminiscent of the curse on the serpent in Genesis 3. For instance, the biblical statement that the serpent will ‘crawl on your belly’ is paralleled by frequent spells that call on the snake to lie down, fall down, get down, or crawl away (Pyramid Texts 226, 233, 234, 298, 386). Another says that he should ‘go with your face on the path’ (PT 288).”

“These suggest that when God tells the serpent that he will crawl on his belly, there is no suggestion that the serpent had legs that he now will lose. Instead, he is going to be docile rather than in an attack position. The serpent is on its belly is nonthreatening, while the one reared up is protecting or attacking. Notice that on the pharaoh’s crown, the serpent (uraeus) is pictured as upright and in an attack position. Nevertheless, I should also note that there are occasional depictions of serpent creatures with legs. There is no indication, however, of an occasion in which serpents lost their legs.” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1 p. 35, Zondervan)

Victor Hamilton, in the Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary (Baker Books), concurs saying, “Phrases like ‘crawl on your belly’ and ‘eat dust’ may be understood as metaphorical expressions denoting the serpent’s submission. (Compare the statement made of Israel’s messianic king in Ps. 72:9, ‘His enemies lick the dust.’)” (p. 13)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to Did the Serpent in Genesis 3 Have Legs Before it Was Cursed?

  1. I wouid like to draw your attention to the fact that dragons were also referred to as ‘serpents’ both in the Bible and in other ancient texts. Such creatures, either in myth or reality, were also called ‘worms’ as ‘weorma’ in ancient English place names and songs such as ‘The Lambton Worm’.
    Viking ships, not the cargo vessels which were wide-bodied, but the pirate ships which raided British shores from the eighth century a.d.,were called serpent ships, ‘snekyar’. This may have been because of their length to width ratio or because of their predatory nature, I am not sure.
    Beowulf and other legendary figures apparently made a profession of exterminating ‘sea drakes’ and other dragon-like creatures.
    We do not know exactly what the serpent in Genesis was like or what exactly the sort of creature he was. However he is referred to in Revelation. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. and teh dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which deceives the whole world. He was cast our into the earth, and his angels were cast our with him.
    (Rev.12:7-9)

    Like

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