The Accommodating Serpent and God's Grace in Paradise Lost
In foregrounding the literal-historical reading of the account of the Fall in Genesis, both making the Serpent a real serpent and identifying the Serpent with Satan, and in reading the judgment upon the Serpent typologically as foretelling Christ’s victory over Satan, Paradise Lost conforms to the Christian exegetical tradition. Milton’s handling of the Serpent in Paradise Lost, however, reveals his acute awareness of the problematic implications of that tradition. The judgment upon the serpent in the account of the Fall in Genesis has, in fact, long presented theologians with what Neil Forsyth terms “an insoluble problem” of exegesis.1 If, as the exegetical tradition offers, the serpent is—rather than a corrupt and corrupting presence in the Garden—an unwitting victim and the guilt entirely Satan’s, why was the serpent punished?Allegorical readings of the episode of the Fall, in identifying Adam with Reason, Eve with the Senses, and the serpent with Pleasure, sidestep the problem posed by a talking snake; the tradition of reading scripture as a literal-historical account, however, requires an explanation for the snake’s ability to speak and some identifiable motivation for its actions. “Genesis,” as John Leonard notes, “offers no explanation for the serpent’s power to speak.”2 Neither does it suggest why the serpent seduces the woman. The identification of Satan as the agent behind the serpent’s actions accounts for its ability to speak and provides motivation for the seduction of Eve, but once the exegetical tradition conjoins the identities of the serpent of Genesis and Satan, the justness of the naturalistic serpent’s punishment is no longer self-evident.3 As Milton was well aware, an inexplicable and special punishment inflicted upon an innocent animal threatens to impugn God’s goodness.
Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 49, Number 1, Winter, 2009, pp. 173-195