What Do the First Three Chapters of Genesis Really Mean? — Further Thoughts on the Serpent in Chapter 3
This is the fourteenth article in a series, following on from an introduction. I’m assuming here that readers are familiar with what has preceded, especially the most recent articles about chapter 3 of Genesis. (For links to the whole series, please see this list.)
At the end of the previous article I noted that Best’s translation is one and a half pages long, whereas his esoteric interpretation — what I have been calling BEI — is eleven and a half pages. There is therefore much more that he thinks can be said. Some of his material could be considered subjective, i.e. not directly suggested by the text of Genesis. Some of his observations may even seem to contradict each other, at least at a superficial level. However, he is a deeply knowledgeable Sufi, a pupil of Inayat Khan, so his viewpoint is certainly worthy of attention. He is approaching this difficult material from various angles, examining possible interpretations.
I’ll begin in this article with his thoughts on the serpent. He quotes the Authorised Version of the Bible (otherwise known as King James): “Now the serpent was more subtil than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made”. He comments that “most readers have confused the word ‘subtil’ with the more common word ‘subtle’ because the latter may mean ‘sly, cunning and insinuating’, whereas the former word ‘subtil’ implies ‘delicately constructed, fineness and acuteness of mind’ ”. His observation is confirmed, because the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) describes the serpent as ‘more crafty than any other wild animal’, which he would therefore consider misleading.
He then says that a second error “has had the more serious consequence of diverting a right perception from its deeper significance”. In simple terms, the word serpent was frequently associated with the priesthood, and was a symbol of wisdom. He cites several examples: Assyria, the Druids (the snakes that Saint Patrick is said to have cast out of Ireland), Oriental initiates known as Naga “which means the Serpents of wisdom, or the twice-born”, thus the Buddha to whom “was ascribed the serpent lineage, through the Naga race of kings who reigned in Magadha”. He says that “tradition affirms that Moses (who he believes was the author of Genesis) was a descendant of a serpent tribe”, and would therefore understand the mystical meaning. He also quotes Jesus (Matthew 10.16), urging his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless (NRSV has ‘innocent) as doves”, and says that “the primitive symbol of the serpent represented Divine Wisdom and Perfection and it also stood for Regeneration and Immortality”.
Best says all this even though he believes that the ‘serpent’ in the text is a metaphor for covetousness, envy, and egoism, so here he is obviously going off in a different direction. He then relates the symbolism of the serpent to the Mystery tradition: “The Ophites of ancient times venerated the mystical serpent as a symbol of wisdom that ‘kills in order to resurrect, and destroys to rebuild the better’. In the symbolism of the serpent resides silence, patience and abiding will-power to accomplish its purpose. By analogy these are the requisite qualities in the disciple seeking the Lesser Mysteries, pertaining to the purpose and destiny of human life. Another symbolic aspect is that when the serpent outgrows and casts off its old skin, it simultaneously generates a new and more plastic covering, which permits it to grow into a bigger and stronger creature. Again the simile applies to the initiate into the ‘Mysteries’; he must first cast off all crystallized forms which tend to cramp and restrict his spiritual growth and understanding of Divine Truth. He must be liberated from the bondage of dogmas and traditions”.
Even though the text of Genesis 3 seems to suggest (as noted earlier in the series) that the disobedience of the ‘fall’ occurred before incarnation into physical form, Best sometimes seems to treat this as if it were after incarnation, for example here: “It is possible that this story of the temptation in the garden of Eden represents a necessary test and trial to illustrate a stage in the progress of mankind on the spiritual path”.
He elaborates: “(Moses) was describing the unfoldment of human faculties during the preliminary process of man’s development, which he was learning by trial and error… If man had not been endowed with freewill and the prerogative to choose his own course of conduct, he would not be able to fulfil his appointed role in the divine Drama of Creation. The awakening consciousness of the higher self brought with it the recognition of the inherent dual nature of man, which comprises the physical personality and the spiritual individuality… The physical body is the nadir point of human nature, and is consequently subject to the pull of earthly interests. On the contrary the soul represents the apex, and it is ever striving to mount upwards and return to its original Abode with the Father”. (For ‘physical body’ read the ego/Adam, for ‘earthly interests’ read the serpent, and for ‘soul’ read Eve.)
“The ‘serpent of desire’ in the personality appears as the adversary of the soul, by thwarting the consummation of its spiritual destiny. It is rightly described as insidious, because the lower ego is inveigling with subtle sophistry and half truths. That which is seemingly profitable and beneficial to the immature personality, becomes a fetter which binds the soul more closely to its mundane prison. It cannot be released until it has perfected and elevated its lower vehicles, by the process of regeneration and spiritual evolution”.
For some Gnostics the serpent was the hero of chapter 3, in that it led humans to emerge out of primal unconsciousness and eventually gain knowledge of God. Here Best seems to be echoing that tradition: “The Wise Serpent was used as a metaphor to represent one of the Messengers of GOD. It is said he was sent down to this planet to guide primitive man with deeper understanding of the Purpose of Life. Thereby mankind may progress on the path of Return with the least possible suffering, with the utmost brevity, and thus fulfil the destiny envisaged by GOD in His Creative Plan… All these are but lessons man has to learn in order to develop his discrimination, consolidate his understanding, and direct his steps to his pre-destined goal of spiritual liberation, when ‘he shall become Like unto Us’ ”.
Despite there being these various interpretations of the serpent, Best concludes: “The obvious purpose of this Mosaic epic is to disclose the basic and underlying principles of human nature, so that man may better understand himself, resolve the incongruous problems of his own complex being, and more quickly accomplish his divinely ordained destiny of Re-union with the Father”. (All of this, of course, applies equally to women.)
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.