Sermon Series: Serpentine Tales
3 Week Series
Week 1: The Subtleties of Serpentry
From youngest childhood, we develop the love for a good story. Few things can transport us to other places and times better than a well-told tale. Stories take on mythological significance, and it is interesting how often we expand and enlarge our stories, telling them a little differently each time until they bear little resemblance to their original form. We even do this in the church, where some of our cherished stories outgrow their scriptural source. For example, when I was growing up we had a Nativity set in our house each Advent season containing three regally dressed men on camels, wearing jewel-encrusted crowns, and bearing small chests—presumably of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each year in church we joyously sang, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” often confusing the Epiphany with Christmas. As a teenager I made a troubling discovery. Nowhere in the Gospels was there any report of three royal visitors from the Orient coming to visit the baby Jesus. Certainly, there is the story of the Magi from the East bearing three gifts, but Magi are not kings and there is a lot of “East” that isn’t the Orient; and, nothing says more than one visitor couldn’t have brought the same gift. But isn’t it still a great story? Isn’t it a wonderful carol?
Another story that falls into this category is that of the snake tricking Eve into eating the forbidden apple. From this story comes the theological concept of original sin—the fundamental flaw in humankind to disobey God and think more highly of ourselves than we should. This story is taught in Sunday school, in art, in music, in film, and in storybooks. Once again, a great story—except it really isn’t the one in the Bible.
A visit to Genesis (chapter 3) reveals a few discrepancies right away. First of all, it is a serpent—not necessarily a snake (in fact, probably not a snake)—that is the craftiest of all wild beasts. The Hebrew writers of these texts lived in a primitive and premodern world where fact and fantasy intertwined freely in telling a story. Serpents were much more impressive than mere snakes. In Egypt, the Israelites encountered crocodiles, throughout the Sinai desert and into the Promised Land they met with a wide variety of lizards and reptiles, and from Babylon they received amazing tales of scale-armored dragons. Many early biblical interpreters viewed the serpent not as an enemy but as one of God’s precious creatures. Ephrem the Syrian (fourth century) and John Chrysostom (fourth century) both believed that the serpent was a lovely creature, deeply attractive and appealing to Eve, not a repulsive reptile. Early Christian sects, such as the Gnostic Oophites, actually believed the serpent to be a voice of truth and virtue. Second, the serpent actually does very little to “tempt” Eve—beyond telling her what she already wants to hear. Notice that it is not the serpent who changes the warning God gave, but Eve herself adds the line “neither shall you touch it” (Genesis 3:2 RSV) to God’s instruction. The serpent merely assures Eve that she won’t die if she disobeys God—which is true. Throughout history, scholars have struggled with this passage. The third, and perhaps most well-known, is that there is no mention of an apple or any other specific fruit. Every child knows Adam and Eve ate an apple—though the Bible doesn’t tell us so. All we know for sure is that it is “forbidden.”
Another harmful belief about this story is that it is all Eve’s fault—that somehow she was the easier, more gullible target. A more accurate reading is that the wise and crafty serpent asked Eve a subtle question designed to make her question her understanding of God’s instruction. As a result of the conversation, Eve employs rather sophisticated critical thinking skills—in effect, “If the fruit won’t kill us, is both beautiful and tasty, and will make us wise and more like God, then eating it would be a good thing!” If we remember that both Adam and Eve are essentially total innocents—having little history and experience with following God’s instructions—their transgression is less a sin and more like the normal testing of limits that every child goes through.
So, if the story we have always been told is not the real story, what truths can we draw from this tale? At least three important messages emerge.
First, it is interesting that the serpent waits until one of the humans is alone. It is conjecture, but I wonder if the serpent would have had the same success were Adam and Eve to stand together during the exchange. There indeed is safety in numbers, and it is perhaps evidence of the serpent’s guile that he executed a classic “divide and conquer” technique. In all ages and times, people have been stronger in community than they are individually. This is a message we need to wrestle with in our individualistic and privatized North American society. We are stronger together than apart.
Second, the serpent asks a question in such a way as to raise doubts in Eve’s mind. Eve misrepresents God, and she lays the foundation for her own downfall. The serpent simply exploits Eve’s confusion to twist God’s meaning. It is interesting that Eve doesn’t discuss what the serpent says with Adam, and that they do not return to God for further clarification. An important lesson for us today is to test our thinking with others and, whenever possible, to return to the original source.
Third, the serpent tells Eve exactly what she wants to hear. True or false, the serpent explains that the knowledge of good and evil will open her eyes and make her like God. This appeal to Eve’s innate vanity, pride, power, and desire is all it takes. Once again, in a supportive community we have a much better chance of staying focused on what is truly important and resisting the temptations of wealth, power, beauty, and prestige.
Whether a metaphor or an accurate report of a historical event, this encounter between Eve and the serpent represents the prototype for humankind’s relationship to God—a God who grants great abundance, beauty, and peace, and a people who continuously turn away, grasping for the lesser things this world has to offer. The greatest gift God gives us is one another—our community of brothers and sisters striving to be obedient, to be faithful, and to find our own way back into a healthy relationship with our God.
Week 2: The Happy, Funny, Silly Snake
Browse the children’s section at any bookstore, and you will find dozens of titles about fuzzy bunnies, fluffy bears, hungry caterpillars, naughty puppies, happy duckies, runaway kitties, talking trains, trucks, cars, and airplanes, but a noticeable lack of cute, charming, sentimental books about snakes. Look through the stuffed animals of most toddlers and you’ll find bears, bunnies, and the like, but few stuffed snakes. There is a reason for this. Snakes are icky. Icky is a technical term, meaning “unbelievably cold, slimy, scaly, and slithery, with spooky eyes and lethallooking fangs.” It has been well documented by behavioral psychologists that the vast majority of people on the planet have an innate aversion to snakes and snakelike animals. This isn’t hard to believe. It is more than a little difficult to develop warm feelings for a creature that can hide almost anywhere, climb almost anything, wait indefinitely, and then either bite and poison you or squeeze you to death. Certainly, not all snakes can do this, but how many do we actually need?
Given this deep and widespread aversion, it is truly remarkable that human beings also have an irresistible fascination with snakes. From Snakes on a Plane clear back to the creation story in Genesis, the snake has held human beings in its thrall. There is no simple explanation for this ambivalence—fear and fascination often go hand in hand—but perhaps more than snakes themselves, the human preoccupation with snakes has more to do with what they symbolize.
In the most ancient of civilizations the snake was a representation of fertility and life. The shedding of the snake’s skin was viewed as a sign of rebirth and transformation, of resurrection from death to new life.
In the ancient Far East, the snake was associated with guardianship and protection. Snakes are fierce and effective fighters. There is little evidence of fear in a snake’s awful countenance.
Snake venom—a powerful poison and, in derivative form, sometimes a medicine—was viewed variously as divine judgment, a powerful chemical, and a mystical life force. Because snakes so closely resemble both roots and tree limbs, many believed snakes to be plants come to life, and because snakes possessed such powerful venom, healers extracted venoms just as they collected roots and saps.
The attitudes about deceitfulness, deception, and craftiness seem to have developed later; the snake as a source of wisdom, however, is one of the oldest known beliefs. The hypnotic gaze of pythons and cobras, the hooded eyes of many types of snakes, and their almost Buddha-like ability to lie in silence for hours contributed to this belief.
Whether the basic belief was one of reverence and respect or fear and revulsion, it is noteworthy that almost every major culture of the ancient world left evidence of cultic and religious veneration of snakes and serpents.
Our own Scriptures evidence a strong ambivalence toward snakes and serpents. Throughout our shared Hebrew and Christian history, snakes have been both heroes and villains in some of our most beloved stories. Last week we looked at the villainous serpent in the Garden of Eden, but today we look to Moses and Aaron as they invoked God’s power to turn a staff into a snake.
The confrontation scenes between Moses and Pharaoh are truly epic battles of will—the representative of God and his prophet Aaron facing off against unquestionably the most powerful man in the world at the time. The beauty of these stories is that they are so completely scripted by God—God tells Moses what to do, but he also tells him what the result will be ahead of time. Moses enters the contest knowing that Pharaoh will have his heart hardened and refuse to let the Hebrew people go. So why even try?
At its most simple and basic, this is a classic my-God-can-beat-up-your- God story, so popular in the Hebrew Bible (think Elijah and the prophets of Baal [1 Kings 18:20-40]). Moses requests the release of the Hebrew slaves, and Pharaoh says, in effect, “Prove to me why I should” (Perform a wonder!), and Aaron tosses his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake. Cocky old Pharaoh summons his sorcerers and magicians; they toss down three of their own rods, which also turn into snakes. Probably thinking, Whatever you can do, my guys can do better, Pharaoh is ready to call the contest a draw, but then Aaron’s staff consumes the other three snakes—game, set, but not match. The pharaoh’s heart stays hard.
On the surface, this is such a satisfying story, in the same vein as David defeating Goliath. The underdog prevails in a spectacular fashion. On a deeper level, however, this story symbolizes the ongoing relationship of God and God’s people to the world. The Hebrew people spent most of their history in slavery and subjugation to more powerful nations. Politically, economically, militarily, the nation of Israel was ever the underdog. For every weapon they could raise, there was someone else who could raise three. For every mighty act they could perform, there was a despot whose heart remained hard. For every cry for justice or freedom the chosen people could raise, there was an oppressor nation just waiting to deny them.
It is easy to miss the meaning of this simple passage for the miraculous event it describes. Far beyond the ability to do magic tricks rests a much greater power. It is the power that comes from deep trust and assurance that God is in control. This assurance allows even the most timid and unsure to stand before the most powerful people on earth with courage and confidence. This power reminds us that no matter what we might see with our eyes, the wisdom of our hearts convinces us that we will prevail. We don’t need a happy, funny, silly symbol, but a symbol of strength and promise. For those in the time of Moses as well as God’s people today, the promise endures: true faith swallows up fear, and trust in God is the greatest power of all.
Week 3: Sometimes a Snake Is Just a Snake
In ancient cultures, snakes carried powerful symbolic and metaphoric meanings. Throughout Africa, the Middle and Far East, and early American cultures, snakes were symbols of power, spirit, life and death, healing, and fertility, as well as messengers of the divine. Many uses of the words serpent and snake in Scripture are metaphoric—whether the reported accounts involving the serpents or snakes actually happened or not, they were used by various authors to make specific points about God’s power and presence—but, to misquote Sigmund Freud, “sometimes a snake is just a snake.” Freud, you will remember, saw symbols everywhere— generally related to sex, but not always. The legend goes that someone asked what it meant that Freud smoked cigars, and Freud responded, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!” By the time of the writing of the New Testament, snakes received mixed reviews. When Jesus refers to the Pharisees or others as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7; 12:34; 23:33; Luke 3:7), he is not paying them a compliment.
On balance, most cultures have found ways to keep a respectful distance from snakes. Growing up on my grandmother’s farm, I was expressly forbidden to kill a snake unless it was threatening livestock or got in the house. Snakes took care of many garden pests and rodents and scared off foxes and other predators. Many—if not most—snakes were harmless, though there are few experiences less pleasant than reaching into a woodpile and pulling back a blacksnake coiling up your arm.
It is interesting to note that in the Bible, snakes are never identified as “evil” creatures. The bronze serpent was created to protect the Hebrew people from snakebites (Numbers 21:1-9), and Aaron’s staff became a snake (Exodus 7:8)—two very positive uses for the slithery creatures. But poisonous snakes are always cast in the role of a villain. Adders and vipers (pethen and echidna in Greek, respectively) and poisonous serpents (ophis) are the generic representatives of dangerous, venomous, and deadly enemies. Poison is symbolic of evil, sin, divine judgment, treachery, and lying. It is the dissembling of the Pharisees—the poisoning of God’s Word with self-serving lies—that results in Jesus’ condemnation of them as a brood of vipers. A poisonous snakebite meant certain and painful death—with convulsions, swelling, dementia, and often violent behavior. Anyone surviving a snake’s bite was viewed as having special favor with God. In the rare event that a person showed no signs of physical reaction to the venom, he or she was worshiped as a divine visitor. This lends some context to the story of Paul’s experience on the island of Malta. Paul comes proclaiming a radically new and different belief system to a formerly pagan community. As Paul feeds the communal fire, a viper bites him and (uncharacteristically for vipers) holds on, hanging from his hand. The bite of a snake was often—and definitely, in this case—interpreted as a divine judgment: a snake would bite only people who deserved death. The entire tribe watches, awaiting the terrible death to come. Imagine the boost to Paul’s credibility when, not only does he not swell, bruise, bloat, and froth, but he flicks the snake off his wrist into the fire and continues on as if nothing had happened. In the days that follow, Paul shares his miraculous power, healing others wherever he goes. The text suggests that the people of Malta viewed Paul as a god.
One of Jesus’ promises to his followers was that by their faith and God’s protection, “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:18). The ability to live this prophecy was a powerful witness to the early church that God’s Spirit was present. Much debate occurs about the veracity of such claims, but the message was important to the early church—faith in God was the most powerful force on earth.
Not being a snake fancier myself, I find it amazing when a person can handle a snake of any size, shape, or poisonous potency. When I was in high school, I knew a young man, Tim, who loved snakes. He was as passionate a herpetologist at fifteen as any research scientist. He would pick up a snake, wrap it around his shoulders, and hold it close to his ear so its forked tongue could shoot out and tickle him. He was fearless. He spoke of his snakes as things of beauty and elegance. I was surprised years later to find out that Tim had been paralyzed and blinded by a snakebite. I was further surprised to find out he still worked with snakes, undaunted in his love affair with the scaly beasts. He wrote to me, “I never got mad at the snake for being a snake. It’s what snakes do. I was the careless one. I’ve never feared snakes, but I have always respected them—except once, but hey, you know what they say, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ I am working with snake venom to find medicinal applications for all kinds of diseases. You can’t believe how many people we will one day cure.”
I’m not sure what kind of courage it takes to handle snakes, but I am convinced it takes a much greater courage to do it blind and partially paralyzed. Tim reminds me of a very important aspect of my faith—sometimes the miraculous healing of God doesn’t always match my expectations. I can look at the story of Paul and be deeply amazed, but when I look at my friend Tim, I am both amazed and inspired. This person faced the snake’s bite and venom, survived, and continues to use his knowledge and abilities to heal others—a modern-day Paul.
Miracles sometimes blind us to the miraculous. We might not experience the sensational events of the Acts of the Apostles; that doesn’t mean God’s power is absent from our lives. By God’s grace and guidance we can do great and wonderful things, all through the Spirit of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.