This is one in a series from Jaques-Benigne Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries, and specifically the Fifth Day. There is more here on the Bossuet Project.
The snake was the most refined of all animals. Behold, in the apparent weakness of such a strange beginning in the recital of our misfortunes, the admirable depth of Christian theology. Everything seems feeble, dare we say it; everything here looks like a story: a serpent speaks, a woman listens, a man so perfect and enlightened is led to a crude temptation, the whole human race falls with him into sin and death. All of this seems senseless. But it is here where the truth of this sublime sentence of St. Paul begins: what is apparent folly in God is wiser than the wisdom of men, and that which is in God a apparent weakness is stronger than the strength of all men.
Let us begin with the refined nature of the serpent, and do not regard it as refinement of an animal without reason, but as the finesse of the devil, which with divine permission had entered into the body of that animal. As God appeared to man in bodily form, so it was with angels. God speaks to Adam, God brings the animals to him and brings him his wife whom he had just taken from himself; God appears to him as something that walks in paradise. There is in all this another aspect, though it is not expressed. It was proper, with man being composed of body and soul, that God made himself known to him according to both: according to the senses as well as the spirit. It was the same with the angels who conversed with man in such a form as God permitted, and in the form of animals. Eve therefore was not surprised to hear a serpent speak, as she had not seen God appear in a bodily form. She felt that an angel spoke to her, and it only seemed that she could not make out whether she was a good or a bad angel, since there was no obstacle that the angel of darkness would be transformed into an angel of light.
Here then is something to elevate ourselves to something higher than what appears, and we must consider in the serpent’s speech a secret permission of God, by which the tempting spirit presents itself to Eve in this form.
Why did he determine this proud angel to appear in this form, rather than another? Although it is not necessary to know, the Scriptures insinuate by saying that the serpent was the most refined of all animals, that is, the one who presents himself in the most supple and hidden way, and which, for many other reasons which are developed in the sequel, better represented the devil in his malice, snares, and then his torture.
Ignorant men would have Eve at first, instead of hearing the serpent, frightened, as we do at the sight of this animal, without thinking that the animals subject to the dominion of man had nothing awful for him in the beginning. On the contrary, as it were, the animals crawled before him, the serpent included, by a divine mark as if printed on his face, which kept them in subjection. The devil, therefore, did not have to worry about frightening Eve with the form of the snake, nor being harsh to weaken her will by a kind of force; but this cunning spirit went by speech and subtle insinuations which we shall see.
Up to this point everything appears only excellent in the nature of man, to whom all animals seem submitted, even those which now naturally give us the most horror. Jesus Christ re-established this dominion in a higher way, when he said, recounting the wonders that faith will do in those who believe: They will subdue serpents, and the poisons they drink will not harm them. This miracle will be accomplished in an admirable way, if among the many errors, temptations, illusions and, so to speak, in a corrupt environment, we know, with the grace of God, to keep our pure heart, our simple and sincere mouth, our innocent hands.