Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), also spelled Abarbanel was a penetrating Jewish thinker, scholar, and
prolific Biblical commentator. In Genesis chapter 3, he explains one of the Bible’s more puzzling and
curious narratives featuring a cunning and talking snake. Some English translations refer to it as a
“subtle serpent.” Be that as it may, Bible readers need to understand this chapter. This blog provides a
thoughtful approach to Genesis chapter 3 in particular, and Bible study in general.
“Now the snake was more wily than any beast of the field…”
Abravanel begins chapter 3 with questions.
- Who informed the snake of God’s command to Adam, namely that he should not eat fruit from
the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Was the snake a prophet or a sorcerer to divine
Heaven’s message to Adam?
- How did Eve understand the snake’s communications, its hissing? Was Eve a snake whisperer,
attuned to the language of snakes (or other animals)?
- Did the snake use body language or gestures to convey ideas – a wink of the eye or the crossing
of its legs, snapping of its fingers? If so, was Eve adept at deciphering such non-verbal
Abravanel takes to task those commentators who have put forth such silly notions. Hogwash. Animals
lack the intelligence to transmit such highly sophisticated communications. Abravanel also argues with
his predecessors who posit that in the beginning of time, snakes possessed different traits and abilities.
No, snakes were not created to stand upright and speak. No, the Garden of Eden snake was not Satan,
disguised as a serpent. Finally, Abravanel disagrees with those who submit that our verse cannot be
taken at face value, but rather that the snake symbolizes nature etc.
Here is Abravanel’s approach. This lays out the authentic foundation of the snake narrative. The snake
did not speak to Eve, nor did Eve speak to the snake. Obviously enough, serpents cannot speak. To wit,
we don’t find a verse alerting us to the impossible or miraculous. Nowhere is it written here: “God
opened the mouth of the snake…” Contrast that with Numbers 22:28. There readers find that the
Almighty opened the mouth of the donkey. When Bible students do find an explicit verse preparing
readers for highly unusual (miraculous) events, we accept it as literal, because the Bible prompts us to
switch mental gears, if you like. We have entered the realm of the marvelous.
No such heads-up is written with the snake, and so we must conclude that this snake did not open its
mouth nor did it speak to Eve. No miracles. No wonders.
Abravanel learns that this is what transpired. Eve observed the snake slithering up the tree of knowledge
of good and evil. She further watched it eat the knowledge fruit. The snake munched and munched and
munched. Strange, Eve thought to herself: “the snake didn’t die. It didn’t even get sick from the
Projecting, Eve said to herself, as if conversing with the snake: “Look at you. You climb up the tree of
knowledge and you eat freely of it. Yet nothing happens. You didn’t get sick and die.”
So, while it’s true that the verses appear to convey a “he said she said” dialogue, no such conversation
took place. Other examples in the Bible also suggest dialogue, but really are man’s (or in this case
Eve convinced herself to eat forbidden fruit and share it with Adam. Dire consequence followed. The
rest is history…
Based onAbravanel’s World of Torah, by Zev Bar Eitan