Curse on the Serpent
To appreciate the redemptive purpose of the curse on the Serpent we need to first recognize what or who the Serpent represented. We know from Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 that the “talking snake” in Genesis 3 is actually Satan himself, the arch-enemy of God and His people. However there is no need to think of Satan disguising himself as a snake or possessing the body of a snake.
Just as the dragon is used figuratively to refer to Satan in Revelation, the serpent is used in Genesis 3 to refer to him. The first clue is that snakes do not talk. And snakes do not eat dust, which God said the cursed Serpent would (Genesis 3:14). The figurative language used to describe Satan in Genesis 3 is not as transparent as elsewhere in the Bible, but it is worth exploring it here even though this involves a level of discussion more technical than the norm adopted in this exposition. This is because Genesis 3 has been dismissed as a myth because of the presence of a “talking snake.” Also it will help us to better appreciate the promise of hope in Genesis 3:15.
We may be familiar with the difference between a simile, “You are like a snake,” and a metaphor, “You are a snake.” In both cases, the nouns “you” and “snake” are both mentioned. The Bible frequently uses another figure of speech of this category where only one noun is mentioned: “Snake!” The “you” mentioned in a simile or a metaphor is only implied in this case. E. W. Bullinger (1968: 745) called it a hypocatastasis, adding that “if Metaphor is more forcible than Simile, then Hypocatastasis is more forcible than Metaphor, and expresses as it were the superlative degree of resemblance.”
There is also such a thing as an extended simile, metaphor or hypocatastasis. Psalm 23 is a good example of an extended metaphor. “The LORD is my Shepherd” is a simple metaphor. But the shepherd metaphor is developed or extended to make a series of comparisons between how a good shepherd treats his sheep and how God treats His people, so much so that the whole Psalm is a metaphor.
The serpent in Genesis 3 is a hypocatastasis. For it does not say, “Satan is like a serpent, more crafty ...” (simile), nor “Satan is a serpent, more crafty ...” (metaphor) but, “The Serpent is more crafty....” This way of referring to Satan and his craftiness is more direct and forceful than the simile or metaphor. So Genesis 3 is not about a literal talking snake, just as, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36), is not about a literal sacrificial lamb. And since Genesis 3 makes further comparisons beyond the craftiness of a serpent by describing the fate of the cursed Satan in terms of other characteristics of a serpent, it is an extended hypocatastasis (cf. Isaiah 5:1-6).
So the curse that the Serpent shall go on his belly and eat dust was not about snakes being cursed to crawl (as though they did not do so before) and eat dust (which they do not do so at all). In other words, Satan was cursed to “crawl on his belly” (like a snake) and “eat dust,” which is a figurative but forceful way of referring to Satan’s defeat and humiliation (cf. Psalm 44:25; Isaiah 49:23).
With this in mind, we look at Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall crush you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” The crucial point here is the identity of the woman’s seed. Though there is enmity between the woman’s seed and the Serpent’s seed, the woman’s seed crushes the head of the Serpent himself, and not the head of his seed. Traditionally Christian theologians have identified the woman’s seed as Christ, who “crushed” Satan “on the head” at the cross, while Christ Himself was “bruised on the heel” by Satan in the process. This is the earliest promise of hope for fallen humanity. Even “the oldest Jewish interpretation ... takes the serpent as symbolic of Satan and look for a victory over him in the days of King Messiah” (Wenham 1987: 80). Recognizing that the Serpent is a hypocatastasis for Satan makes this interpretation more compelling.
Judgment on Eve
The judgment on Eve (Genesis 3:16), and hence women in general, was basically multiplied pain in childbirth, and we may add from observation, even possible death due to labor complications. To appreciate the redemptive purpose of this judgment we turn to Ecclesiastes 3:14: “for God so works that men [human beings] should fear Him.” In its context it means that God uses uncertainties and adversities to cause people to turn back to Him. Now that sin has come into the world there is a need for ways to help fallen humanity to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). But just as uncertainty and adversity can make or break a person, pain and suffering have a way of causing people to turn to God or, harden their hearts and shake their fists against Him.
Another consequence that fell on Eve was that her husband was no longer the same as before. Adam’s blaming Eve for his own disobedience to God was only the beginning, and a rather mild form, of men’s mistreatment of women that has been witnessed throughout history, which led to radical feminism in the West. Fallen men’s mistreatment of (fallen) women is summed up as: “he [now sinful] shall rule over you.” Becoming “one flesh” in marriage should involve “a oneness and intimacy in the total relationship of the whole person of the husband to the whole person of the wife, a harmony and union with each other in all things” (Davidson 2007: 47). But this wholistic union shall be reduced to mainly providing sex and producing children. The equal partnership that is due women as helpmates shall be denied. Instead they shall be more like helpmaids.
But this is to be tempered by God’s judgment on Adam (discussed later), which would help him fear God and keep His commandments. Throughout history there have been God-fearing men who do not mistreat their wives. But “unfortunately, [until today] the notion that a wife is there to serve and obey her husband and that he has the right to beat and bully her has not entirely disappeared. We find remnants of these old beliefs not only in traditionalist societies, but also in our own [U.S.A.]. In the United States today, all too many wives are forced to seek shelter in battered women’s homes—that is, if they are lucky enough to find their way out of an abusive relationship” (Yalom 2002: xvi).
It is in the context of the multiplied pain in childbirth as well as her husband’s ruling over her that we are to understand God’s statement to Eve: “Your desire shall be for your husband.” Before we do that we need to first look at the meaning of the word “desire.”
The particular Hebrew word used here occurs in the Old Testament only three times. Here it refers to a wife’s desire for her husband. In Genesis 4:7 it refers to Sin’s desire for Cain (to control him, which led to the murder of his brother). In Song of Songs 7:10 it refers to the husband’s desire for his wife. To appreciate how this word is used in the three different contexts, we need to recognize the difference between the denotation (the actual meaning) of a word or phrase, and its connotation (the additional nuance implied) in the context it is used. To illustrate, compare and contrast these two sentences: 1. “His girlfriend is looking for him;” 2. “His creditor is looking for him.” His girlfriend and his creditor are both looking for him (denotation), but each for a different reason (connotation).
Similarly, in all the three contexts the word “desire” has the same denotation but not necessarily the same connotation. But it has become popular among Western scholars to conclude that just because Sin’s desire for Cain is to control him, Eve’s desire for her husband is also to control him. This amounts to saying that the girlfriend is demanding repayment of debt just because this is what the creditor is after. The fact that “desire” is also used to refer to the husband’s desire for his wife in Song of Songs, obviously (in that context) not to control her, should caution us from confusing connotation with denotation.
Hence a more sensible interpretation of “your desire shall be for your husband” is that provided by Irvin Busenitz (1986: 212): “In spite of the fact that man will rule over woman, and in spite of the fact that intimacy may result in the pain (and possible death) due to childbirth, yet woman will desire and yearn for man.”
This desire becomes a redemptive provision in light of the new realities concerning childbirth and the (abusive) disposition of man. For this desire not only causes women to still want to marry and have children as a result, but as generally observed, it has also enabled women to endure their abusive husbands. Without this desire the family as an institution would have suffered even in ancient times. This does not justify mistreatment of women nor suggest that battered wives should never leave their husbands. In fact, as we shall see, God cursed the ground so that men would fear Him and keep His commandments to do justice and love mercy.
Besides, God also had a redemptive plan to undo the effects of the Fall altogether, already hinted at in His curse on the Serpent. Fast-forwarding to the time when this redemptive plan was accomplished in Christ, followers of Christ who are husbands are commanded in the book of Ephesians to love their wives (let them have equal partnership as helpmates). And the wives are to submit to their husbands (let them bear the responsibility of leadership). When we consider the New Covenant we shall see how true followers of Christ are given the spiritual resources to live out this teaching of Ephesians (5:15-33), so that in a Christ-centered marriage, what we have said about the role of the helpmate in a pre-Fall context can be increasingly realized.