Genesis iii. 14.

June 26, 2010

[14-19. God’s punishments.]

St. Ambrose: “The serpent deceived the woman, and the woman led the man to transgress the command; and so do not wonder why the serpent is condemned first, the woman second, the man third.  The order of condemnation follows the order of error” (De Paradiso, xv. 73.).

14. The punishment of the serpent.

a. Translation

St. Jerome: “Upon thy breast and thy belly shalt thou walk.[1] The Seventy interpreters added ‘belly’; the Hebrew only has the other word, ‘breast’; this is to reveal his cunning and the craftiness of his thoughts: because his every move is wickedness and deception.  Also, in what follows, Earth shalt thou eat,[2] for ‘earth’ is written aphar, which we can translate ‘ashes’ or ‘dust’” (LHQG).

St. Augustine: “Because the serpent is not asked why it has done this, one can see that it had certainly not done this itself and by its own nature and power, but that the devil had worked by it and through it and in it: the devil, whose sin of impiety and pride had already destined him for eternal fire.  So now what is said to the serpent, and which certainly is applied to the one who worked through the serpent, is said figuratively, without a doubt: for in these words is written how he will tempt the human race: for the human race began to be increased when this sentence was brought forth, as though on the serpent, on the devil.  We have discussed, as much as we were able, how these words are to be taken figuratively, in the two books on Genesis against the Manichees …” (De Genesi ad litteram, XI. xxxvi. 49.  Cf. St. Thomas, supra {1. (i) c.}).

“The condemnation of the devil here is not that which is reserved for the last judgment, and of which the Lord speaks when He says: Go into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels;[3] spoken here, rather, is that punishment of his that is for us to beware.  For his punishment is that he have in his power those who despise the commands of God.  For this unfolds in the words in which his sentence is brought forth: and it is a greater punishment, because he rejoices in such unhappy power, who was accustomed before he fell to rejoice in the sublime truth, in which he did not stand.[4] And so even the beasts are placed before him: not in power, but in the conserving of their nature: for the beasts did not lose any heavenly beatitude, as they never possessed it, but rather live their life in the nature they have received.  Therefore it is said to him: You shall crawl on breast and belly.  And this is said of the snake, and from that visible animal it is taken figuratively of our invisible enemy.  For the word breast signifies pride, because there is located the ruler of the soul’s impetus; the word belly signifies carnal desire, because this part of the body feels soft.  And because it is by these things that he creeps up on those he wishes to deceive, it is said: You shall crawl on breast and belly.

And you shall eat earth all the days of your life: that is, for as long as you have this power, before the final punishment of judgment; for this is his life, in which he rejoices and glories.  You shall eat earth, therefore, can be understood in two ways: either ‘you shall possess those whom you deceive with earthly desires’ – that is, sinners, who are signified by the word earth – or a certain third type of temptation is indicated in these words, which is curiosity.  For he who eats earth, penetrates deep and dark places, which are yet temporal and earthly” (De Genesi contra Manichæos, II. xvii. 26, xviii. 27.  Cf. S. Thomas, ST. IIa-IIae q. clxv. a. ii. ad 4.).

Note: see note supra, end of 1. (i), on SS. Chrysostom and Ambrose’s  interpretations of this passage.

St. Bede: “The serpent shall go upon its breast, because ‘every move of the devil is wickedness and deception: for this indicates the ‘cunning and craft of his thoughts,’ by which he crawls to those he wishes to deceive; for this the old translation has: You shall crawl on breast and belly.  He crawls on his breast, when he suggests earthly thoughts to men, whom he wishes to make his members.  He crawls on his belly, when he arouses those conquered by gluttony to the heat of lust.  For everything that crawls, drags its body along the earth.  Now the body of the devil is all the reprobate; and he himself crawls on breast and belly, when he sinks them lower by evil thoughts or inticements to carousing and luxury.  He eats earth, when he is fed and delighted by the error of sinners, and when he seduces them, and snatches them away to ruin.  For just as the saints of heaven often indicate by the word earth those who are wise in the things of earth, as it is said in the following passage to Adam: You are earth, and you shall go into the earth, which our translation renders: Thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return.  In signification of this spiritual devouring, even the irrational serpent itself, of whom the devil made use like an instrument to deceive man, is now commanded to eat the earth, while previously it had been allowed to eat the plants of the earth and fruit of the trees, like the other animals” (In Principium Genesis I col. 57-58).[6]

Note: This seems to be the farthest the application of the punishment to the serpent itself can be logically applied.  A similar mode of reasoning would account for the serpent’s loss of its legs, which it had before the Fall, according to Bl. Anne Emmerich.


[1] Pectore et ventre repes: LXX, ἐπὶ τῷ στήθει σου καὶ τῇ κοιλίᾳ πορεύσῃ.  Vulgate/DR: Upon thy breast shalt thou go.

[2] LXX, γῆν φαγῇ.  Vulgata: terram comedes.

[3] Matt. xxv. 41.

[4] Cf. John. viii. 44.

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