1. To infidels, the talking "snake" in Gen 3 is all you need to know to know that Scripture is ridiculous mythological fiction. I've discussed the identity of the tempter on various occasions. Now I'd like to approach the issue from two new angles.
2. When we read a book from a different culture, it's easy for us to think we know what something means even though we are way off the mark. Likewise, the things that strike us as the most palpably false may seem that way because we misunderstand it. It didn't seem false to the original audience.
Suppose a Biblically and theologically illiterate college student were to pick up a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. There's a lot that still comes through. The plot still works. Our reader can still appreciate the psychological characterizations.
However, consider some of the names of the characters, viz. Christian, Evangelist, Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Prudence, Piety, Charity, Apollyon.
Bunyan is an evangelist as well as a storyteller. He isn't subtle. He gives the reader very broad clues by how he names the characters.
Even so, for a biblically and theologically illiterate reader, these names would be opaque. There are lots of things a reader will miss if he lacks the requisite theological background.
3. The frame of reference that a modern, Western, secularized reader brings to Gen 2-3 doesn't necessarily equip him to catch certain nuances. Suppose we compare that to a storyteller from a very different cultural milieu. For instance, suppose a village atheist read a traditional American Indian story. The story has characters with names like Raven, Black Elk, Black Hawk, Black Fox, Standing Bear, Running Eagle, and Lone Wolf. In addition, the characters speak.
Our village atheist shakes his head: "Those poor primitive Indians with their superstitious belief in talking animals!"
That illustrates the danger of interpretation when you don't know the cultural code language. The reader thinks the storyteller is ignorant when, in fact, it's the reader who's ignorant. The patronizing reader makes himself look foolish.
The fact that an American Indian story has characters with animal names doesn't mean these were talking animals. Rather, it means Indians gave people animal names. Real people!
I think that's the kind of thing we should keep in mind when we read Gen 3. We need to make allowance for these interpretive options.
4. When reading the Bible, it's useful to appreciate the emblematic significance of venomous snakes in the ANE and Roman Empire. The connotations of snakes in cultures that practice ophiolatry and ophiomancy.
However, that's not just a thing of the past. Venomous snakes (as well as constrictors) exert a perennial fascination. That's transcultural.
Lots of boys like to collect snakes, including venomous snakes–much to the consternation of their mothers. Some of these boys grow up to be herpetologists. And some of these boys grow up to be private snake collectors.
They import the most dangerous snakes on the planet. Mambas, cobras, kraits, Bushmasters, gaboon vipers, golden lancehead vipers, &c. For some men, venomous snakes have a magnetic appeal: the more death-defying, the more appealing. So the aura that venomous snakes had in the ancient world isn't culturebound.
5. I'd add that this can illustrate the limitations of Bible scholarship. Boys who grow up to be Bible scholars tend to be nerdy, bookish boys. I daresay few Bible scholars are herpetologists or private snake collectors.
When they write commentaries on Gen 3, there's a dimension to the "snake" that's apt to elude Bible scholars–a dimension which a herpetologist or snake collector might naturally tune into.
6. This, in turn, may help explain why the narrator gave the tempter a serpentine name. He's trading on popular connotations of snakes.
i) A venomous snake is a natural symbol of death. To call a character a snake clues the reader into the fact that this is a threatening character. A potentially deadly character.
Indeed, I think that's what motivates some snake collectors. They are literally staring death in the face. In fact, some of them take it to the next level by handling venomous snakes with their bare hands. You have the same dynamic with Appalachian snake-handling cults. Tempting fate.
The fact that Eve is oblivious to the malevolent character of the tempter generates dramatic tension. The reader knows something she doesn't. Notice that she doesn't address the tempter as a snake. That's between the reader and the narrator.
ii) Not only are venomous snakes natural symbols of death, but uncanny death. Except for pythons and anacondas, snakes don't look dangerous. It's only their reputation that makes them fearsome.
Especially for a prescientific audience, there's something mysterious about how snakes kill their prey–or humans. What makes a snakebite fatal? If you're bitten by a house cat, that won't kill you. But if you're bitten by a venomous snake, you may pine away in a few hours, or less.
Of course, we have some understanding of venom, as well as different kinds of venom (e.g. haemotoxic, neurotoxic). But ancient people weren't privy to that information.
There's nothing mysterious about how a lion, bear, or crocodile kills its prey. And predators like that look dangerous! There's nothing inexplicable about the lethality of a lion or crocodile, but there is something inexplicable about the lethality of a snake, if you lack scientific knowhow.
So that may be an additional reason why the narrator gave the temper a serpentine name. That triggers magical associations.