Left in the Dust

Do snakes really eat dust like Genesis says?

Some people try to discredit Genesis by saying snakes don’t eat dust, as Genesis 3:14 claims and that, therefore, the Bible is in error.

After the serpent deceived Eve, God cursed it, saying, “On your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life.” Although we can’t know for sure that the serpent referred to in Genesis 1 really was the same as a snake today, many people use this verse as a reason not to take Genesis literally, since snakes don’t eat dust.

Many have responded to this charge by pointing out that a snake has an organ located in the front of the roof of its mouth that functions as a chemical receptor. The Jacobson’s organ helps the snake smell. As a snake’s forked tongue darts out to sense its surroundings, it, at least occasionally, licks the ground or picks up dust particles. Once the snake pulls in its tongue, it inserts the tips of its forked tongue into the two openings of the Jacobson’s organ, where the particles are identified and analyzed. The snake’s brain can “read” the smells and tastes from its tongue. So, in a way, snakes really do eat dust.

But is this really what God had in mind when He cursed the serpent? Probably not. Let’s look at Genesis 3:14–15 for the context:

So the Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,

You are cursed more than all cattle,

And more than every beast of the field;

On your belly you shall go,

And you shall eat dust

All the days of your life.

And I will put enmity

Between you and the woman,

And between your seed and her Seed;

He shall bruise your head,

And you shall bruise His heel.”

Notice that the serpent’s curse included crawling on its belly, eating dust, bruising the heel of the woman’s Seed, and the Seed bruising the head of the serpent. Most theologians have recognized verse 15 as the protoevangelium (“first gospel”). God, here, prophesies the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, the one who would die for our sins and rise again, defeating Satan. The bruising of the heel and the bruising of the head are obviously symbolic language, pointing to a greater reality. Recognizing this in no way violates the historical genre of Genesis: the symbolic language is still couched within a largely literal framework.

So did God curse the animal or Satan? It appears He cursed both of them. Throughout the Scriptures, God commonly speaks to the vessel and then to Satan. Here are a few examples.

In Ezekiel 27–28, the Word of the Lord was said to Tyre itself (Ezekiel 27:2), then to the ruler of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:2), and then a lament beginning in Ezekiel 28:11 to the “king of Tyre.” This one was specifically directed to the one influencing the king of Tyre — Satan.

Jesus rebuked Peter and then spoke to Satan when He influenced Peter in Mark 8:33.

In Isaiah 14 God spoke to the king of Babylon and in some parts, to Satan, who was influencing him.

This concept of speaking directly to Satan while he is influencing someone is nothing uncommon. So there is no stretch to understand that the Lord is speaking to the serpent and Satan in Genesis 3. Genesis 3:14 is said to the serpent, and then Genesis 3:15 is said to Satan, who is influencing the serpent.

The curse pronounced upon the serpent of “eating the dust” results in it now crawling on its belly in the dust. It used to be like one of the “cattle” and “beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1, 14), but now will crawl on its belly and eat dirt. More importantly, this imagery of eating dust is symbolic of a creature low, despicable, abhorrent, and degraded. In Micah 7:16–17, God prophesies of a time when the nations will come crawling to Him:

The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might;

They shall put their hand over their mouth;

Their ears shall be deaf.

They shall lick the dust like a serpent;

They shall crawl from their holes like snakes of the earth.

They shall be afraid of the Lord our God,

And shall fear because of You.

A proper understanding of the context (literary, historical, and theological) helps us understand what God meant when He cursed the serpent. There is no contradiction here , but rather a wonderful promise of victory by a risen Savior.


The Order of Nations

The charge has been made that there is a contradiction in Genesis 10–11. The accusation is that if people had already spread around the world (as recorded in Genesis 10), fulfilling God’s command, why was mankind judged with the confusion of languages as recorded in Genesis 11? This is actually an easy “contradiction” to clear up.
Genesis 10, often called “the Table of Nations,” traces the origins of nations and people groups as they dispersed around the world after the Flood. It is a historical narrative of the descendants of Noah’s three sons. That chapter concludes with this statement:

These were the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations, in their nations; and from these the nations were divided on the earth after the flood (Genesis 10:32).

After the descendants of each of the sons of Noah are mentioned, the text says that they were dispersed “according to their families, according to their languages” (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31). So, if Noah and his sons all spoke the same language, where did all of these other languages come from? Genesis 11 gives us the answer.

These groups of people did not willingly and obediently separate to fill the earth. Rather, we learn in Genesis 11:1–9 why these families separated from each other and how it came to be that there were so many languages in the world.

There is no contradiction here; Moses merely put the effect before the cause. Genesis 10 gives an overview, and then Genesis 11 fills in the details. You often find the same technique in other history books. One chapter might contain an overview of World War I — along with a list of major events. But the very next chapter might detail what the world was like in the years before the war and what events led up to it.

There may also be another reason why the order of these two events is switched. Keith Krell explains:

The actual outworking of the genealogies of Genesis 10 occurs after the events at the Tower of Babel (cf. 11:1 with 10:5, 20, 31). This interspersal of narrative (11:1–9) separates the two genealogies of Shem (10:21–31; 11:10–26), paving the way for the particular linkage between the Terah (Abraham) clan and the Shemite lineage (11:27). The story of the tower also looks ahead by anticipating the role that Abram (12:1–3) will play in restoring the blessing to the dispersed nations. By placing the Tower of Babel incident just prior to the stories of Abram and his descendants, the biblical writer is suggesting, in the first place, that post-flood humanity is as wicked as pre-flood humanity. Rather than sending something as devastating as a flood to annihilate mankind, however, God now places His hope in a covenant with Abraham as a powerful solution to humanity’s sinfulness. This problem (Genesis 11) and solution (Genesis 12) are brought into immediate juxtaposition, and the forcefulness of this structural move would have been lost had Genesis 10 intervened between the two.[4]

Underneath a Solid Sky

Critics of the Bible have often said that the writings of Genesis reflect an “unscientific view” of the universe — one that reflected the cosmology of the ancient world. One of these criticisms centers on the Hebrew word raqia used in the creation account of Genesis 1. Several Bible versions, such as the New King James, translate this word as firmament:
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day (Genesis 1:6–8).

The argument from these Bible critics is that the ancient Hebrews believed in a solid dome with the stars embedded in the dome. They say that the word firmament reflects the idea of firmness, and this reflects erroneous cosmology. Therefore, the Bible is not the inspired Word of God, and we don’t need to listen to its teaching.

However, other versions of the Bible, such as the New American Standard, translate raqia as “expanse”:

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day (Genesis 1:6–8, NASB).

But which is the correct term to use? Where did the word firmament come from? The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced by Jewish scholars in the third century B.C. at the request of the Egyptian pharaoh) translates raqia into the Greek word stereoma, which connotes a solid structure. Apparently, the translators of the Septuagint were influenced by the Egyptian view of cosmology, which embraced the notion of the heavens being a stone vault (after all, they were doing their translation work in Egypt!). Later, this Greek connotation influenced Jerome to the extent that, when he produced his Latin Vulgate around A.D. 400, he used the Latin word firmamentum (meaning a strong or steadfast support). The King James translators merely transliterated this Latin word — and thus was born the firmament.

But what does the Hebrew word actually mean? The Hebrew noun raqia is derived from the verb raqa, which means “to spread abroad, stamp, or stretch.” This word is used in the Old Testament in several places for the stamping out of metal into a sheet. Gold is a good example of this process. Gold is malleable, and people use a hammer or other tool to flatten and stretch it into very thin sheets (e.g., Numbers 8:4). However, we must remember that the context always determines the meaning of a word, not just the etymology of the word or how it may be used in other verses.

So, we need to ask ourselves, why did the author use this word to describe the expanse? What property did the author intend to be understood by the word raqia? It is possible that the author intended to get across the solid nature of the expanse. However, what if the intended understanding was the stretched-out nature of the raqia rather than its hardness? This understanding is consistent with the terminology of many other verses, such as Psalm 104:2 and Isaiah 40:22, which speak of the stretching out of the heavens. The Hebrew word used in these verses for heaven is not raqia, but shamayim (literally “heavens”). However, in Genesis 1:8, God explicitly calls the expanse “heaven,” thus equating raqia with shamayim. If the stretched-out nature of the raqia is what is intended, then firmament may not be the best translation; expanse is more accurate.

The context of Genesis 1:6–8 and 14–22 makes it clear that Moses intended his readers to understand raqia simply as the sky (atmosphere and heavens or space) above the earth, as even the sun, moon, and stars were placed in them. In fact, in modern Hebrew raqia is the word used for sky, and there is no connotation of hardness.

Genesis 1 is perfectly worded for what the author wanted to communicate. It says nothing more than God created the sky and its constituent elements, while remaining completely silent about what those elements were. It really depends upon where one starts: if one starts with the presumption of a solid dome, one will read that into the text. However, if one starts with a modern conception of sky, the text permits that understanding as well, and hence, there is no contradiction.