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The Genesis Serpent, Using 'it' to refer to the baby Jesus,

and more on Tattoos

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Question #1:   I have enjoyed your site and admire your thoroughness and non-commercial ministry. I do have one observation. You refer to the serpent in Genesis 3:1 as a snake possessed by the devil. However, one of my teachers posits that the serpent is a "nick-name" for Satan, a Hebraism, a euphemism, a proper noun opposed to a common noun (on the devil's deceptiveness, see 2Cor.11:1-4; Jn.8:39-44; Eph.6:11-12). Satan had no need in his great beauty to possess a snake to deceive (exapatao) both Eve and Adam. I would as soon believe that the fruit they ate as an “apple”! Would you care to clarify ?

Response #1:  On this issue I am afraid that we are going to have to agree to disagree. While Genesis never identifies the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil as an "apple", the word used at Genesis 3:1 et seq. for the serpent is in fact the most common Hebrew word for snake (i.e., nachash). The word refers to literal snakes in the famous incident in Numbers chapter 21 and everywhere else it is employed. Even when it is being used figuratively, it is still always meant to bring to mind a literal snake (e.g., Ex.4:3; Deut.8:15; Ps.58:4-5; Prov.30:19; Is.14:29; 65:25; Jer.8:17; Amos 5:19; cf., Job 26:13; Is.27:1; Amos 9:3).

Furthermore, in the opening description of it in Genesis chapter 3, the serpent is described as "more shrewd than any of the other wild creatures which the Lord God had made". So the serpent is "made" (the verb `asah implying material substantiality), and classed among the other creatures that populate the garden (albeit unique within that class). This description is clearly at odds with understanding the nachash as something other than a literal serpent, and throughout the events related in Genesis this is the more natural way to read the word. On the other hand, there is nothing in the text to suggest that we are dealing here with an angelic creature. Indeed, except for the later reference to "your seed", it would be difficult to see the connection between Satan and this serpent were it not for later biblical revelation of this point.

You write that "Satan had no need in his great beauty to posses a snake to deceive both Eve and Adam" and that is certainly very true. Indeed, an angelic being appearing in all its power and light would be so persuasive, especially to the unworldly Adam and Eve, that it is highly questionable whether we could even call their heeding of the words of such a creature a "deception". That is to say, it would not be a fair test of their free will, so overwhelming would the persuasion be in that case. This is, in my view, precisely why the Lord would not allow the devil to do all that he could do in this instance (forcing Satan into the next best tactic he could conceive, the use of a familiar intermediary). As I have often pointed out, the quickest and easiest way for Satan to win this conflict with God in which he is currently engaged would be to wipe all of mankind off of the earth immediately. He does not, not because he cannot, but because he is not allowed to. The ground rules in the garden clearly allowed the devil to use words to persuade, but not the awe of his angelic presence to overawe Eve.

So I see no inconsistency between the rest of the Bible and the events of Genesis chapter 3 as advanced in these studies. Indeed, Satan's use of intermediaries, demon possession, indirect attack, etc., are constants in scripture. The only instance of direct demon interaction with any human being in scripture (such as you are positing here) is the devil's temptation of our Lord. He could handle it - and did. We cannot - and could not. Sin comes "through Adam" (Rom.5:12) - not Eve. Why? Because Adam was not deceived (1Tim.2:14), so that his culpability was beyond all question. Had Eve (and/or Adam) been unduly influenced by a direct satanic epiphany, the entire issue of the responsibility we bear for the sin we commit (based upon the sin that dwells in us) would be confused. That is a large part of the reason why we are not allowed to be subjected to such over-awing temptation now, and why our first parents were not then.

No one is saying that the serpent is not representative of the devil - I have always strongly maintained that it is, for that is clearly what the Bible teaches (e.g., Rev.12:1-9). But the essential logical problem with such a position is that according to that interpretation the metaphor would have to exist before the event upon which prima facie the metaphor is based (i.e., the possession of the serpent by Satan is the origin of the association of the two). For if it works the other way around, one would need to explain how it is that snakes/serpents become a metaphor for the devil in the first place. Genesis 3:1 clearly puts the serpent in the category of a literal, flesh and blood creature. But there is an even bigger problem with this position. If the serpent is not literal, then what does the curse in Genesis 3:14 mean?

(14) So the Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, you are accursed, more than any beast or wild animal. You shall go on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life. (15) And I shall place hostility between you and the woman, that is, between your seed and her Seed (i.e., Christ). He will attack you head-on, but you will attack Him from behind".
Genesis 3:14-15

While the prophecy in verse 15 does refer to the devil (the one who possessed the serpent is ever afterwards associated with it), verse 14 can only be speaking of a literal, flesh and blood creature, so that there is really no legitimate way to take this passage other than as a divinely inspired etiology of why it is that (literal) snakes crawl.

Please see the following links:

            The Fall of Man

           
The So-Called Imputation of Adam's Sin

In our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

Bob Luginbill

Question #2: 

What do you think of the New World Translation of the Bible's translation of Matthew 2:11-12? "After coming in to the house they saw the Child with Mary ITS mother; and they fell to the ground and did obeisance to IT. Then, opening their treasures, they presented IT with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." This version's proponents claim the “it” is a Greek idiom.

Response #2:  

First year Greek students learn that grammatical gender and sexuality are not the same thing. While it is true that a few nouns have a gender based upon their obvious sexuality (i.e., "mother" is feminine, "father" is masculine), most of the time in Greek gender is a function of noun type or class, or analogy, or usage - all factors in which sexuality plays no role. For example, all -is, -sis nouns in Greek are feminine. Does that mean that in English, where we have no such system of gender differentiation for nouns, that we should refer to "faith" as "she"? Bethlehem is a feminine noun, and the Greek reflects this in Matthew 2:16, a few verses after the context you cite. I would be interested to know if this version translates this as "in Bethlehem and her vicinity", because the pronoun in Greek (autes) is feminine to reflect Bethlehem's grammatical gender. The fact that non-English speakers sometimes do this and native speakers find it odd or humorous only proves the point that this is not something we normally do in English. Ships are sometimes referred to as she, just as when a race car driver refers to his vehicle as "she". But what we have in those cases is a figure of speech known as "personification", that is, attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects for sentimental reasons. Since the sailor is thinking/speaking of the ship as if it were a woman, he then applies a feminine pronoun to her.

Either way this version and its defenders have a problem, for if they do not translate Bethlehem as "her" (and adopt this same convention in the numerous other examples of this type of thing), then they are being grossly inconsistent and it becomes clear that they are only grinding their own ax in the passage you ask about. However, if they do translate "her" in Matt.2:16, then they can claim to be consistent, but are nonetheless consistently failing to understand even the rudiments of the process of translation. One cannot represent an idiom in one language by a "literal" equivalent in another language that does not have the same idiom (for example, why would they not then preserve Greek word order and give us a good and proper English hash?).

If one persists with such things, then gross misrepresentation is always the result. In this particular case, calling attention to the word child with "it" is a bit bizarre - something one generally does not hear elsewhere in English, and, as a (I would suspect intended) result, cannot help but make the reader think that the text is deliberately calling some special attention to this non-masculine usage for some very special purpose. In fact, of course, throughout secular Greek children are (grammatically) "its" - there is no other good way to say this in Greek! Thus no classicist would probably ever dream of translating a passage of Plato or Herodotus or etc. in this way precisely because of the misleading impression it would give (in fact it wouldn't occur to most of us in the first place to even consider such a translation).

The simple fact is that translation is never a matter of plugging in a word and pulling out an exact equivalent. If it were, then machines could translate the Bible. But in fact, translation is more of an art than a science, and the ultimate test is always "did the translator get it right", with "right" being an honest and complete representation and reproduction of the meaning of the original into the target language. There are no points for literacy if the meaning is wrong, and no points for "literalness" if the gibberish produced doesn't make sense in either language. It is easy to see how the above quotation you give flirts unnecessarily with bizarre "translationese" without at the same time adding a scintilla of helpful information (the only reason to indulge in such flights of poor usage). After all, how does it help the reader understand anything better if the baby is referred to as "it" rather than "he" here after His birth?

There is a phrase in legal Latin that comes to mind: res ipsa loquitur, "the matter speaks for itself" - some things are so irrefutably right (or, in this case, wrong) that one is only wasting one's time in defending or refuting the obvious. From what you have shared here, it appears to me that this group has destroyed their own case with a translation that is prima facie so completely absurd. Anyone but a partisan who reads such things would know immediately that these translators didn't know what they were doing (or didn't care).

So either the people who did this lack all competence in ancient Greek, or they simply have so little respect for the Bible that they feel free to take any liberty to advance their own positions. Then again, it is possible that both of these things are true at the same time.

In our Lord,

Bob L.

Question #3: 

I have some tattoos and my friend and I always get into debates about tattoos and if God has a problem with them. I went on your website today for the first time searching for information and scriptures regarding tattoos. You had mentioned 1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:23 but those don't mention anything about tattooing your body. I just want to be clear about whether this is something that God is not happy with.

Response #3:  

The first thing I would say about this issue is that it falls into the area of scriptural application rather than of absolute prohibition, and does so in a way that is not completely clear. Therefore I would be very reluctant to tell anyone that getting a tattoo was a sin or, as you put it, that "God was not happy about it". As Paul says several times, "all things are permissible for me, but not all things are profitable" (1Cor.6:12; 10:23). What I mean by citing these scriptures is that all Christians should evaluate all of their actions and behaviors from the point of view of being disciples, followers, soldiers of Jesus Christ. To pursue the last analogy, we are here "to please our commanding officer" and not "to get entangled in the affairs of life" (2Tim.2:4). Much of such application is relative. It would be extreme to say that a Christian who watches a sporting event from time to time is displeasing God; but someone who is addicted to sports and spends all of their free time and resources on them to the exclusion of personal spiritual growth and personal ministry is clearly not pleasing God - not so much because of any inherent problem with sports but because they have in such a case clearly put a personal interest before following and serving Jesus Christ (and done so to an extreme degree). I don't find anything in scripture to recommend tattoos, but I would certainly be reluctant to condemn them as sinful out of hand. The best I could say on that (in addition to the links below) is that this is a case where the conscience under the influence of the Holy Spirit has to be the individual Christian's guide. For the scriptural discussion you ask about (i.e., of Lev.19:26-29), please see the following links:

        Three Questions about Tattoos and Salvation.

        Body Marking in the Bible.

        The Bible as "divine", roof prayer, and tattoos.

Secondly, in your particular case, it is a different matter than discussing this with someone who is contemplating getting a tattoo. In such cases I always advise prayer, and also encourage the individual to consider the matter from the point of view of their walk with the Lord and their motivation for getting the tattoo. For those who already have them, well, what is done is done. There aren't any true Christians who when viewing their past lives honestly haven't done things they regret, regardless of whether or not the action was sinful. Paul tells us to "forget what lies behind and strive for what is ahead" (Phil.3:13). There is no sin God cannot forgive in Jesus Christ, and there is no past cause for regret that does not pale in comparison with the glories that lie ahead - not to mention the potential for positive and effective spiritual growth and service to our Lord in this life. And if you are convinced in your heart that there was no problem with getting the tattoo in the first place, then the question really is moot. For the only possible important ramification of having a tattoo you are happy with and discussing it with friends is the possible result that they will be emboldened to do something that will harm their faith. There is a good deal about this in scripture, and the example Paul gives of eating meat that was sacrificed to idols is really apropos here (1Cor.8; cf. Rom.14): even if tattoos are no true scriptural issue, the fact that a weak believer may think that they are an issue means that a person who has one ought to be very careful about recommending or encouraging someone else to do likewise. That does not mean that one has to bow one's head and submit to a legalistic thumping about some past action the other party disagrees with (that is taking matters beyond what scripture stipulates), but only that we as loving brothers and sisters have to be very careful about imposing our own applications of the freedom we have in Christ on others - for whatever does not come out of genuine faith and personal conviction is inevitably sinful (Rom.14:23).

In the One who humbled Himself, even unto death, that we might live forever with Him, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill


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