A constant and critical theme in the Midrash is that all of us in life received a mixed basket of talents and character traits. These are often the conduits through which we are tested. These countless challenges provide the potential for learning and growth. It’s all part of a complex, divine system of reward and punishment.
Could it be that God was testing the notorious snake from the Garden of Eden as well. It too was born with talents and character traits that constituted its own set of morally challenging circumstances. Aside from its prescribed mission to tempt Chava into eating the forbidden fruit, it too was being tempted.
I believe that the Midrash is addressing itself to this very question – revealing a dramatic subplot to the story of Adam and Chava. According to the Zohar, the snake was the embodiment of the Yetzer Harah – the evil inclination. It was, as we mentioned, on a mission to test Adam and Chavah. (Zohar Bereishis 35b*). At the end, the snake was punished with an exacting punishment to fit its crime (see below). Surely it had free will to make the right choices and avoid these punishments.
The snake as a misfit from society
We are all familiar with the Midrash that says that the snake was an upright creature who could talk. However, consider whether there could have been any psychological fallout from this unusual combination of Human and animal. Here you have a creature that was “top dog” in the animal kingdom, but physically and intellectually a misfit among animals. (Bereishis Rabbah 20:5) The snake could not socialize with animals because it was cognitively so far above them. Yet the snake was inferior to humans. Adam and Chava were immortal, in direct communication with God, and already in a committed relationship. So the snake was too lofty for the animal kingdom but not lofty enough to be human. Perhaps the snake’s anger and frustration drove it to desire Chavah as a mate and concoct the ill-fated plan to get rid of Adam. The Midrash highlights the snake’s emotional challenges with a quote from Kohelet about anger:
וְהַנָּחָשׁ הָיָה עָרוּם (בראשית ג, א), כְּתִיב (קהלת א, יח): כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב כָּעַס וְיוֹסִיף דַּעַת יוֹסִיף מַכְאוֹב
“And the snake was wise” (Bereishis 3:1) It says “Because an abundance of wisdom brings an abundance of anger and adding knowledge adds anguish” (Kohelet 1:18, Bereishis Rabbah 19:1).
One of the classic commentators of the Middle Ages, Ibn Ezra, interprets this quote from Kohelet to be, indeed, addressing many of the issues that may have plagued the snake. The doubled edged gift of higher intelligence and dealing with one’s own mortality:
כי. כאשר ביקש לדעת השכלות ראה כי המשכיל המכיר דברי העולם ברוב חכמתו תמיד יהיה לו כעס ומכאוב…. ויום המות נתון בין שתי עיניו:
“The thinking person can use his intellect to become keenly aware of the workings of the world which can put him in a constant state of anger and pain (or depression) … as long as his day of death is his focus.” (Ibn Ezra on Kohelet 7:3 אבן עזרא על קהלת א׳:י״ח:א׳)
The snake is ranked up there with some of the greatest narcissists in Tanach
A composite picture of the serpent begins to emerge as the Midrash goes on to compare the snake’s anger with that of Korach, Haman, and the baker from the Yoseph story. The Midrash points out how the same word אַף, which can mean “anger,” appears in each story.
אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן סַנְסָן אַרְבָּעָה הֵן שֶׁפָּתְחוּ בְּאַף וְנֶאֶבְדוּ בְּאַף
“Rabbi Chanina the son of Sanson said that for all four of them, the story started with the word אַף and their ultimate downfall came through אַף anger” (Midrash Rabbah 19:2). It seems that all of them became angry after they hyper-focussed on something that upset them, which led to their downfall.*
As we mentioned, the snake’s anger may have been an outgrowth of its superior intelligence. The Midrash outlines the snake’s plan. Get Adam killed for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, while the snake and Chava ride into the sunset. (Bereishis Rabbah 20:5) It seems that his anger may have interfered with his superior cognitive abilities. Or its ego got the better of him. Either way, it never dawned on the serpent that an all-knowing God would “know” its plan, so it had
absolutely no chance of success.
The snake as the poster boy for wasted potential
The Midrash offers a novel way of interpreting כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב כָּעַס “An abundance of wisdom brings an abundance of anger” which can help us see a deep message in the snake’s downfall. The anger referred to is God’s anger. God punishes based on how much potential was wasted. The snake had a severe punishment because it was blessed with the physical and intellectual gifts. The snake should have known better.
אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ”ה אֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִיךָ מֶלֶךְ עַל הַבְּהֵמָה וְעַל הַחַיָּה וְאַתָּה לֹא בִּקַּשְׁתָּ, אֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִיךָ שֶׁתְּהֵא מְהַלֵּךְ קוֹמְמִיּוּת כְּאָדָם, וְאַתָּה לֹא בִּקַּשְׁתָּ, עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ. אֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִיךָ שֶׁתְּהֵא אוֹכֵל מַאֲכָלוֹת כְּאָדָם, וְאַתָּה לֹא בִּקַּשְׁתָּ, וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, אַתָּה בִּקַּשְׁתָּ לַהֲרֹג אֶת הָאָדָם וְלִשָֹּׂא אֶת חַוָּה, וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה,
“God said, I made you king of the animal kingdom and gave you the ability to walk upright like a human without you even seeking it. Therefore [you are punished to] crawl on your stomach. I enabled you to eat like a human without you even seeking it. Therefore [you are punished to] eat dirt all your life. What you sought was to kill Adam and marry Chavah, therefore [you are
punished that] I put enmity between you and women” (Bereishis Rabbah 20:5).
The hidden lesson of gratitude.
Instead of the snake seeing itself as an aberration, it could have looked at itself as the
fortunate recipient of extraordinary gifts from God. Gifts which enabled it to interact with the most elevated spiritual creatures that God planted in the Garden of Eden. But, alas, the snake saw the blessings as debilitating deficiencies – a source of existential anger which caused its downfall.
Embedded in the powerful story of Adam and Chava, the Midrash saw a great moral lesson to be learned from the snake – be grateful for what God gave you.
* In the story of Korach’s rebellion, his anger fed his insane jealousy of Moshe. After all, Korach claimed a pedigree equal to Moshe but he was passed over for the job. Korach claimed that It was just plain nepotism that got Moshe and his brother their top jobs of head of state and high priest. Ironically, the fact that God made these choices did not figure into Korach’s thinking. In effect, he was rebelling against God’s authority
Haman’s anger flared against the Jewish People because Mordechai would not bow down to him. Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev tells how Haman wrote a letter to everyone in the empire justifying why the Jews had to be killed out. He describes how Pharaoh gracefully welcomed the Jews only to be met with deceit. The Jews borrowed gold and silver for a 3-day religious pilgrimage and never came back. Later on, the Jews mercilessly slaughtered the innocent and completely virtuous Amalekites. Haman might have taken a lesson from history and not started up with the Jewish People. Instead he spun a fake
narrative, only to clash with Jewish destiny.
We are not familiar with anger on the part of the chief baker in the story of Yoseph. However, a commentary to Midrash Rabbah, Nechmad Lemareh, fills in the details. It seems that both the chief baker and the chief steward dreamt the interpretation of the other’s dream (Midrash
Rabbah Bereishis 88:4). So after Yoseph interpreted the wine steward’s dream to mean that he would regain his post, the chief baker got angry. ‘What was the big deal,’ he thought, ‘even I knew the interpretation of the wine steward’s dream!’ The Nechmad Lemareh suggests that because of his anger at Yoseph, he ended up being hanged.