And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life (Genesis 3:14)
Traditionalists Believe the Serpent Had Legs
Some Bible skeptics, as well as most evangelical fundamentalists, believe that the passage above means that the serpent had legs with which to walk about the Garden of Eden before it tricked the woman, and that afterward the Lord cursed the legs off the serpent.
Some of those who believe that the Genesis writer thought the serpent had legs, then lost them in the curse, say that…well, the Mesopotamians had serpents with legs in their myths, so the Genesis writer is likely to have believed the same thing. Furthermore, Jews traditionally have believed that the Genesis writer's serpent had legs before the curse, and who would better know what the writer had in mind than the Jews? they argue. Besides that, the serpent story doesn't make sense if the serpent didn’t once have legs, according to them.
However, we cannot know for certain whether the Genesis writer was aware of the Mesopotamian myths, and thus was influenced by them, and the Hebrew's opinions are of no more consequence than the opinion of anyone else, because they cannot have known what was in the mind of the Genesis writer. Furthermore, it is not true that the serpent story doesn't make sense if the serpent didn't have legs.
The Genesis Writer Believed the Serpent Always Went on Its Belly
The Genesis writer may have believed that the serpent had been going about on its belly for the two days since it was created, and that God perhaps might eventually have elevated it to the status of the other beasts of the field by giving it legs, if only it hadn't tricked the woman. The writer may have believed that when the curse came, it had the force of causing the serpent to continue to go about on its belly for all of the rest of the days of its life. It's like a blind man who could be cured by God, but he commits a sin, and is then cursed by losing his chance to be cured by God. The blind man was suffering before the curse, just as the serpent was, but to have all hope for a cure snatched away from him forever is surely a curse. So it could have been with the serpent, at least in the mind of the Genesis writer.
There is another belief the Genesis writer might have had which is more likely than the one I described above, in my opinion.
The Writer Believed the Serpent Held Itself Upright without Legs
The writer may have believed the serpent moved largely upright through the garden, holding itself vertical in much the same manner as the King Cobra does, by using its coiled tail as a base on which it may hold itself erect, and moved across the garden by means of a twisting action of its coiled tail. After the serpent tricked the woman, Yahweh took away its ability to hold itself erect, and the serpent was condemned to spend the rest of its days going about on its belly.
Once again, we see that there is a plausible alternative belief the Genesis writer may have had which does not have the serpent with legs before the curse. And, again, it doesn't matter that Mesopotamian myths had serpents with legs, or that Jews traditionally believed that the Genesis serpent had legs. All that matters is what the Bible says, and the Bible does not say that the serpent had legs before the curse, and it does not say that the serpent had its legs removed in the curse. Why, then, must we believe, as some skeptics insists, that the Genesis writer's serpent had legs, if there are plausible alternative explanations?
The notion that the Genesis writer believed that the serpent had legs before the curse is certainly quite plausible, but it seems about as likely that the Genesis writer thought the serpent twisted itself across the garden in the manner I described in the second alternative above, and therefore the serpent need not have had legs.
who still doubt that the Genesis writer could have had any other type of
serpent in mind besides one with legs, let them read further.
The Writer Believed It Was A Winged, Legless Serpent
The Genesis author doesn't say that the serpent had legs before the curse, nor does he say that Yahweh removed the legs when he cursed the serpent, and the writer doesn't say how the serpent moved about the garden, so we are free to imagine any mythically plausible form of locomotion beside walking, as long as it's consistent with the myth.
Those who argue that the Genesis writer's mythical serpent had legs naturally claim that the serpent got about the garden on its legs, but there's no textual evidence to support this. Perhaps, then, the serpent was legless and flew about the Garden of Eden. Such a beast, for example, is found in the myths of the ancient Aztecs, who worshipped a winged, legless serpent called Quetzalcoatl. More importantly, a winged, legless serpent is found in the mythology of the ancient Arabia; the legless flying serpent in Arabian mythology was said to have been the guardian of a tree1, just like the serpent in the Genesis story. The fact that both serpents guarded trees suggests that the serpents in both myths may have been based on a common antecedent now lost to history that predated each of them. If this is the first occurrence of a biblical myth based on a lost antecedent, it is certainly not the last one. Some parallel gospel stories from Luke and Matthew are believed to have originated from a common source, now lost, called Q (stands for Quelle, German for "source"). If two or more gospels stories can have a common, but lost, antecedent, then so could two or more serpent myths have had a common source, now lost.
We are thus left with what seems to be a quite plausible alternative view of the Genesis writer's serpent. Just as we are free to imagine that the Genesis writer's serpent had legs before the curse, and lost them in the curse, even though there's no biblical evidence to support the notion that the serpent had legs, we are equally free to imagine that the writer had in mind an amphiptere, a winged, legless serpent that lost its wings in the curse, and was consigned all the rest of the days of its life to go about on its belly.
The picture at the top right is an artist's conception of a winged, legless serpent. At bottom left is an ancient depiction of a winged serpent.
Some Bible skeptics insist that the suggestion that the serpent in the Genesis myth might have had wings is too unbelievable, even "stupid," so perhaps it would be worth the time to point out that one of the most revered biblical skeptics of all time, Robert Green Ingersoll, seemed not to reject this notion. In recognition of his sublime contributions to the field of biblical skepticism, the Council for Secular Humanism created the Robert
Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee, which is dedicated to preserving the memory and works of this 19th Century orator. Ingersoll's lectures are also featured prominently as The Complete Works Of Ingersoll on The Secular Web.
Excerpted below from "The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll," Volume II Lectures (1900), is the observation in his lecture, The Fall2, that Dr. Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, English minister and Bible commentator, allows for the possibility that the devil serpent was a flying serpent:
Dr. Henry…insists that "it is certain that the devil that beguiled Eve is the old serpent… who attacked our first parents was surely the prince of devils… Perhaps it was a flying serpent which seemed to come from on high." (Emphasis added)
Genesis Serpent Was Variation on Sumerian Serpent
Garden of Eden Myth", Walter Mattfield writes
[B] behind all myths are historical kernels. In this case the "kernels" are vestiges of earlier Mesopotamian4 myths reaching back to the 3rd and 2nd milleniums BCE which the Hebrews later reinterpreted into the Garden of Eden and its motifs.
research has concluded that the Sumerian Dragon-Serpent called
"Nin-Gish-Zida" is what lies behind the Genesis Myth….It
is my understanding that the serpent in the garden of Eden is drawing from this
Sumerian motif. The illustration is from a cylinder seal of Gudaea of Lagash5,
ca. 2100 BCE. (The winged, four-legged
serpent is on the left in the photograph below, taken from the website at http://www.bibleorigins.net/Serpentningishzida.html)
The Genesis writer gives no clue to how the serpent got about the Garden, so if it's true that the writer's serpent was the Sumerian one on the seal above, or some twist or variation on that serpent, then we are free to imagine any one of the apparently equally likely serpents:
1. The serpent had legs and wings.
2. The serpent had legs, but no wings.
3. The serpent had wings, but no legs.
Consider the first possibility: If we are to imagine that the writer's serpent had legs and wings, then in order for Yahweh's curse to have made sense, the writer would have had to have imagined that Yahweh cursed off not only the serpent's legs, but also its wings. Thus, the writer would have left off two important facts about Yahweh's curse: That the serpent had legs, then lost them, and that the serpent had wings, and lost them, too.
What would seem more likely is that the writer imagined only that the Genesis serpent had one, or the other, of the two types of of locomotion, and that he didn't tell us about this one attribute, rather than he didn't tell us about the two attributes. This leaves us with one or the other of the two remaining scenarios: Either the writer's serpent was a variation of the mythical Sumerian serpent with legs, but without wings, or else it was the Sumerian serpent with wings, but no legs.
Thus, we see once again that there is a plausible alternative to the belief that the Genesis writer's serpent had to have had legs.
Note that the serpent on the ancient seal has wings, as well as legs. If one wanted to argue that the Genesis writer removed the Sumerian serpent's wings, but left the legs, another could equally well argue that the Genesis writer removed the legs, but left the wings. Either way, the curse put on the serpent by Yahweh because it tricked the woman in the Garden makes sense. Either Yahweh cursed off the legs of the wingless serpent, or else Yahweh cursed off the wings of the legless serpent.
Skeptics who insist the Genesis writer must have had in mind a serpent with legs modeled after the serpent of Sumerian mythology need to explain what happened to the Sumerian serpent's wings when it arrived in the mind of the Genesis writer, and then explain how they can be so sure that the Genesis writer could not have had in mind a serpent that got about the Garden with wings, and lost those wings in Yahweh's curse.
1. The amphiptere, a winged, legless serpent, was the guardian of the frankincense tree in Arabian mythology
2. "The Fall": http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/ing/vol02/i0113.htm