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“Ask a Priest: What Was the Snake Before Eden?”
Q: I have a question about the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. Could humans communicate with all animals in the garden, or is the snake a metaphor? Why is there this one talking animal in the whole of the Bible? Also, I know it talks about God’s having cursed the snake so that it had to slither and eat dirt. So, what was the snake before it was a snake? – Anna
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: For the record, there is a talking donkey in the passage beginning at Numbers 22:21.
The Genesis story need not be read in a literalist way. It is trying to convey deep lessons about what went wrong at the start of human history that accounts for evil in the world.
Talking animals were a standard device in ancient stories (think Aesop’s Fables). Even in our day there are cartoons which use talking animals to convey political and moral lessons.
The same thing is happening in Genesis: The writer is relying somewhat on a literary device to transmit an important message.
We need not try to figure out every specific detail. The writer doesn’t mean to imply that snakes had legs before the Fall. Rather, this story in Genesis is, in part, a way for the ancients to explain why (widely feared) snakes are relegated to slithering while most other creatures get to walk or fly.
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