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’Le serpent dans le jardin d’Eden’

This article sets out to discuss the symbolic function of the serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden, one of the most frequently studied of biblical legends and myths. The theological and moral aspects of the story, focusing on the momentous change that Adam undergoes with his expulsion from the Garden, have overshadowed the image of the serpent which has consequently met with relatively little attention. The present discussion analyzes first the traditional views of the serpent, which is seen in different lights: Satan (2 Enoch 11:73-78; The Book of Adam and Eve 16-18; The Wisdom of Solomon 2:23; The Vision of John 20:1-2); a symbolic image (2 Baruch 9:7); the evil instinct in man (The Zohar); a divinity (the Bible?); a phallic symbol (the sages; Freud). A new interpretation is then suggested; it posits that the serpent is not a symbol of any spiritual quality other than his own inherent nature. The serpent sought to rule over all the animals, including mankind, and it was for this that he was punished. This interpretation is supported by the following points: the early characterization of the serpent as ’the shrewdest of all the wild beasts’, an echo of the description of King Solomon; the theme of the struggle for power between elder and younger sons, as it recurs in many biblical accounts, especially in the Book of Genesis; the nature of the serpent’s sin can be inferred from his punishment, according to the principle of lex talionis; the binary pattern of the account in Genesis, as noted by E. Leach.

Author(s):  Bar-Ilan, Meir
Format:  Chapter
Publisher:  Centre de Recherche Francais de Jerusalem
Publication City:  Paris
Date:  1997
Source:  Pour une Anthropologie du texte de la tradition juive