Quite a ways back I attended SBL in Atlanta. And for those of you who know me, I typically don’t fall in with the Paul within Judaism seminars, nor insipid moorings in the doctrinal. That’s all very stuffy. As my temple’s resident mythographer I want the salacious; gimme sea dragons and nephilim, baby! So naturally I attended a seminar on serpent iconography in the Bible and Ancient Near East. Only recently had I gotten around to actually reading recommended literature from the session, and only recently have I gotten the time to cobble together a palatable presentation for the derned thing.
The book in question was seminal conversation tinder from the heterodox mind of Dr. James Charlesworth of Yale. His book is entitled: The Good and Evil Serpent. He opens as raconteur of his own experience, recalling how during his childhood he was charged by a cobra at a reptile zoo. Falling backwards and perhaps being warned to keep still by the zookeepers, he lay spellbound. The cobra raised itself, its chic skin glistening in the sun with its pharaonic hood projecting divinity, majesty, and power. Charlesworth intimates that he felt overawed, stirred, and that the event left an indelible mark on him.
He must have felt…chosen.
As he grew up, his reverence for the serpent stuck with him. And as he ascended into academic rank in divinity and theology, something about the way commentators present snakes had always irked him. Mindless slogans like “snakes are gross” and “the snake in Eden was the Devil” in the mouths of PhDs seemed either patently oversimplified or outright thoughtless. And so he broaches the question: can repugnance for a topic – the ophidian – shut down investigation? Does prejudice toward the serpent extinguish true insight into biblical understanding?
Then newer questions sharpen into focus:
- Is the serpent in Eden really the Devil?
- What were snakes known for in antiquity?
- Was the snake a universal symbol?
- What did the Nehushtan symbolize?
- Why does the Messiah compare himself to a serpent in John 3?
And many more.
Below is the 3-hour presentation I held at a friend’s house. It comes in two parts. Part I strips away modern prejudices for an ancient archetype, instilling what serpents actually meant to denizens of the foggy past. Part II summons this new understanding to revisit difficult serpent passages in the Torah, Tanakh, and New Testament.
I actually presented Part I at temple, but the topic contained as many unsettling levels as a charnel house, it was banned forthwith, and I was politely asked to scoot it elsewhere. But of those that did give it audience, they really seemed to relish it. Special thanks to Tim and Krupa for their moxie in hosting it.
Featured photo courtesy of Pavan Kumar N on Wikipedia.