Generally speaking, it seems absurd to believe that animals are able to actually converse like humans. Although some kinds of birds may seem to be able to “talk” like humans, they are only mimicking what they have heard; they cannot engage in conversations (i.e., verbal exchanges of ideas). However, there are two specific incidents in the Bible that deal with animals engaging in conversations with humans, and we will consider both of them.
The Serpent in the Garden of Eden
The first incident is recorded in Genesis 3:1-5, as follows:
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman [i.e., Eve], “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it lest you die.’” And the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says that the Hebrew word translated into English as “serpent” means “to make a hissing sound.” And, Strong’s Concordance indicates that the Hebrew word refers to a snake.
The ability of the serpent (or snake) mentioned in Genesis 3:1-5 to converse like a human may not have been normal for snakes at that time, but at least some snakes and, perhaps, all of them, may have walked on legs. Surely, the Bible would have stated that God punished the serpent (and, presumably, snakes in general) by taking away its ability to talk, if God did declare such a punishment, just as the Bible states that God punished the serpent (and, by inference, all other snakes) by condemning it to crawl on its belly for the remainder of its life, because the serpent had tempted Eve to disobey Him [i.e., God]. The fact that there is no mention of God imposing such a punishment suggests that the serpent’s ability to converse was probably only temporary and, perhaps, entirely attributable to being at least temporarily indwelled by Satan.
Some biblical scholars think the so-called serpent mentioned in the aforementioned account may not have been an actual serpent. Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “Whether it was only the visible shape and appearance of a serpent . . ., or whether it was a real living serpent, actuated and possessed by the devil, is not certain. . . .” Likewise, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes states, “Whether it was only the appearance of a serpent, or a real serpent, acted and possessed by the devil, is not certain.”
We discount the possibility that the serpent which tempted Eve may not have been an actual serpent. Our reasoning is that God punished the serpent (or snake) and, evidently, all other snakes by condemning them to crawl on their bellies, whereas there would have been no logical reason for God to punish any other snakes if the serpent that tempted Eve was not an actual snake.
Our position is supported by John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, which says,
[That the serpent was] a real serpent, and not the mere form or appearance of one, is here meant, as is clear from this account, and the curse afterwards pronounced on it; yet not that only, but as possessed and used by Satan as an instrument of his to accomplish his designs, as is evident from its having the faculty of speech, and the use of reason. . . .
Likewise, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary states, “In the light of later Scripture truths, we are justified in concluding that the serpent was a specially chosen instrument of Satan for this test. In Rev. 12:9 the tempter is called “’the great dragon . . . that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan.’”
Therefore, it is likely that the Devil (aka, Satan), who is referred to in Matthew 4:3 as the tempter, used the serpent as a medium specifically to tempt Eve. However, Satan may have made it seem like the serpent was speaking, although apparently it was he who was speaking as he inhabited the serpent’s body, much like the demons (or unclean spirits) mentioned in the New Testament who spoke while indwelling humans (see Matthew 8:28-29; Mark 5:2-7; Luke 4:33-34; 8:27-30).
Nevertheless, there does not seem to be a valid reason to believe that God punished the serpent just because it acted under the influence of Satan. The Bible gives no indication that either God the Father or Jesus Christ the Son punished any of the men who were possessed by demons for acting under the influence of demons, so why would God have punished the serpent for its actions under the influence of Satan? Therefore, it seems probable that the serpent was at least somewhat responsible for tempting Eve.
Genesis 3:1, which we previously quoted, provides reason to believe the serpent was voluntarily complicit in tempting Eve. This verse states that the serpent “was more cunning than any beast of the field.” Strong’s Concordance indicates that the Hebrew word that is translated as “cunning” is usually used in a bad sense, which in the context of the third chapter of Genesis suggests skill in deception. Thus, the serpent was evidently not without guilt in the temptation of Eve.
The other biblical incident involving an animal that conversed like a human is found in Numbers 22:28-30, which states,
[T]he Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she [i.e., the donkey] said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.” So the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?” And he said, “No.”
We believe that the following two explanations regarding the ability of the donkey to converse are the most plausible.
The first explanation is provided by The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, which suggests that the experience of the talking donkey may have been similar to Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus, when Paul was the only one who understood (or heard) the voice of Jesus (see Acts 9:1-7). Whether or not Paul’s encounter was actually a vision is somewhat uncertain, but there is little, if any, reason to believe that Balaam’s experience was just a vision.
In this regard, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible declares,
That this was a visionary scene is a notion which seems inadmissible, because of the improbability of a vision being described as an actual occurrence in the middle of a plain history. Besides, the opening of the [donkey’s] mouth must have been an external act, and that, with the manifest tenor of Peter’s language, strongly favors the literal view [2 Peter 2:15-16].
In the referenced scripture of 2 Peter 2:15-16, Peter says with regard to false teachers,
They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.
We agree with the Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible that, in this scripture, Peter seems to regard the donkey’s having spoken with a man’s voice as an actual occurrence, rather than as a vision.
The second explanation is that God, who created every living creature, could enable an animal to converse like a human, if He had a particular purpose for the animal to do so. Matthew Henry’s Commentary asserts with regard to the ability of the donkey to speak, “This was a great miracle, quite above the power of nature, and wrought by the power of the God of nature. . . .”
On the basis of the foregoing considerations, we believe that the answer to the question posed in the title of this article is that the Bible indicates some animals can converse like humans, but there is no evidence that they can do so except under extraordinary supernatural circumstances.