Saturday, 31 January 2009

Why make the snake?

Right now I am supposed to be leaving for a conference in Bury-St-Edmunds on evangelism, but I can’t go until I’ve posted something on what is surely the biggest question in Judæo-Christian theology — not least because I’m preaching on it on Sunday night (less than 48 hours to go!).

The question is this: why did God make the snake?

I refer, of course, to Genesis 3:1, “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.”

The first point is that the snake is a ‘beast of the field’. This itself is more extraordinary than most of us realize. In preparation for the sermon series of which Sunday night forms a part, I’ve read through John Walton’s, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. What struck me most forcibly after reading this is that, in the context of its time, the truly, totally, amazing thing about Genesis 1 has nothing to do with ‘days’ or the duration of the creation event. It is, rather, the total absence of the gods who populated the ancient world and who drove the diverse phenomena of which it was composed, such as sun, moon, fertility and so on.

The readers of Genesis 1 would hardly have batted an eyelid over the issue that seems most to tax us — did it, or did it not, take 144 hours to make everything? (though come to think of it, that surely has a certain biblical ‘resonance’) — but would have been overwhelmed by the viewpoint that there is only one God and that everything else is a ‘thing’.

Indeed, the viewpoint of Genesis 1 seems to establish the basis on which we can treat the world as, in the proper sense, a ‘natural’ order, rather than as a disconnected, even perhaps conflicting, series of ‘divine’ manifestations.

All that is very wonderful. And it is, of course, relevant to my main question insofar as the tempter in the Garden is emphatically not a ‘divinity’. On the contrary, the snake is a creature ‘which the Lord had made’. There is, therefore, no ‘opposing force’ to the creator God, YHWH. Later in the Bible, we see that there is a force at work which is not, for us, an observable part of nature — the Satan. But Genesis 3 establishes the point, which is never in question, that the Satan poses no threat to his creator, however, much he may conspire against him and his creation.

It seems there is also a root similarity between the Hebrew for ‘serpent’ (nāchāsh), and the word for sorcerer or diviner (nāchash), which may be of some significance.

More important, though, is the similarity between the consecutives descriptions of the serpent in 3:1 as ‘cunning’ (‘ārum), and the man and the woman in 2:25 as ‘naked’ (‘arumim, pl from ‘ārom). Surely we are meant to detect a link here, which is born out by the first effect of the Fall, that the man and woman ‘see’ their nakedness and are ashamed. Might we call this, in the words of my putative sermon title, a snake’s-eye view?

But why did God do it? I am forced back on the notion of the ‘Felix Culpa’ — the ‘Blessed Sin’ which brought about God’s plans and purposes for incarnation and redemption.

Moreover, I think this challenges our easy acceptance that the world God made in Genesis 1-2 was ‘perfect’. In the biblical sense, it clearly was not — that is to say, it was not ‘complete’ or ‘finished’. Specifically, Mankind was not finished.

On the contrary, in Genesis 3:5 the serpent is able to say to the woman that if she will eat of the fruit, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And in 3:22 God himself affirms that this is true, “the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.”

Now in itself this is surely a good thing. Has not God made us ‘in his image’ (Gen 1:26)? And according to Scripture, knowing good and evil is the requirement of a wise king or a mature adult.

And yet the consequence of the Fall is a world of sin and evil, pain and disease, hatred, conflict and death. Felix Culpa?

Meanwhile, I am now very late!

Revd John P Richardson
31 January 2009

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  1. John, thank you so much for a laser sharp point. I'm off to check the roots in my BDB, similarly with a sermon to do in 48 hours (but candlemass — and wondering about the seed of the woman crushing the serpent's head). I'm so grateful for a bit of real theological stimulation!

  2. I wonder if the phrase 'and God saw that it was good' as opposed to 'perfect' implies that the goodness of creation was always intended by God to be provisional. It only becomes 'perfect' in the New Heavens and New Earth where there is no possibility of failure.

    I think also that the most shocking thing about the nation of Israel in OT times was that to their contemporaries their religion was monotheistic.

    I have always wished I understood more about ancient near Eastern thought and could get into the minds of the Ancients. Sometimes I think that many Evangelicals unconsciously believe they were like middle class Baptists and sang hymns by John Wesley. They weren't and they saw the world quite differently to us. These were people who had no modern concept of the relationship between energy and matter yet were more in touch with the reality of God.
    Not that I have anything against middle class Baptists I might add - I'm one myself...

    (And I like John Wesley)

    Chris Bishop

  3. The snake is such an interesting creature/character. Depending on your audience would you consider presenting a "snake cam" view in place a "snake’s-eye view." I realize this will lead to the conclusion that someone else is watching the view from the snake cam and you will be faced with the question of the dualistic nature of the snake, but you said you were after a big theological question.
    U.P. Rock hill, SC

  4. "Now in itself this is surely a good thing. Has not God made us ‘in his image’ (Gen 1:26)? And according to Scripture, knowing good and evil is the requirement of a wise king or a mature ."

    This may be true post-fall, but in Genesis, we read that the knowledge of good was just as as the knowledge of evil. The Tree gives both. By knowing one you automatically know the other.

    As I understand it, the purpose of the Law was to reveal sin - to formally define what is 'good' and what is 'evil'. Once the commandment 'thou shall not' had been stated, then the tendency of mankind was to do the opposite - the sin nature while latent, was thus revealed as it were. The original plan was that Adam and Eve were to know neither good or evil, but be obedient to the Word of the Lord.

    C.S.Lewis brings out this profound concept of moral neutrality in his Sc-Fi novel 'Perelandra' rather well I think. It seems to me that disobedience to God's command is the portal into the knowledge of good and evil and is always preceded by Pride. The snake evidently, had already achieved this state so there cannot have been perfection in the Garden although there existed "goodness".

    One of the most interesting things you've written John.

    Chris Bishop

  5. A good post, especailly on Genesis one, which stress the solo nature of God the creator.

    The snake is baffling and seems to be brought into the story later to indicate there is opposition to God .

    However I cannot accept your last sentence.

    One must say ;

    And yet the consequence of the Fall is a world of sin and evil,hatred, conflict and spiritual death. Felix Culpa?

    Gen 3 does not say that pain and disease and death came in at the Fall. And of course they all preceed humans by millions of years as epitomised by T Rex chomping up smaller dinos!

  6. Yes, the serpent is not a 'divinity', but talking beasts are strange, even in Genesis. (Balaam's ass is the only other example in the Bible I can think of.) And Genesis does know of cherubim (3.24), so 'non-earthly' creatures are part of the story as well. Using the Reformed method of comparing Scripture with Scripture (rather than the modern method of historical criticism, which rules comparisons out of court), how do Ezek 28.13-14, Rom 5.14, 1 Tim 2.13-14, Rev 20.2 inform our understanding of Genesis 3?
    Bob Fyall's book 'Now At Last My Eyes Have Seen You' argues that Leviathan in Job 41 is not really an earthly creature (as Clines seems to argue in his commentary) but rather a symbol of a supernatural enemy, the satan of Job 1-2. If we grant there is symbolism as well as theological polemic against ANE paganism in the artistry of Gen 1-3 (as Wenham holds in his Word commentary), then the comparison you note between 'nachash' 'serpent' and 'nachash' 'sorcerer' has further force; cf Exodus 6.10-12 (tho' 'tannin' is the word for snake here). Gen 3.1 Hebrew doesn't actually say that the 'nachash' is a beast of the field, but rather that it is 'craftier than all the beasts of the field which YHWH God had made'. I'm not too sure how far to press the grammar here. But in any case, as C. S. Lewis notes, the analogue of the devil is not God but the Archangel Michael. Both are creatures.
    Calvin's commentary on Genesis rejected the idea that death came to the animal world because of Adam's sin (why else would they be commanded to be fruitful and multiply if they didn't die?). Long before the Scofield Bible, the Church Fathers speculated there had been an angelic Fall before the human one. 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven' (Luke 10.18).

  7. As for the benefits of knowing good and evil, as you point out it is not the fact of being able to discern the difference that is the problem. The problem is the way the man and woman chose to get there by experiencing/committing evil instead of learning by obeying God's word in perfection and seeing that evil is any imperfection in this obedience.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe (Hertford)

  8. Dear Rev. Richardson,

    Thank you for your wonderful posting, which was pointed out to me in response to my blog posting on this topic,

    However, I'm not sure if you answered the question whether you endorse the idea of '‘Felix Culpa' or whether you are just noting its existence. Somehow I cannot see how this would fit in Reformed theology, and given that Anglicanism is (thanks to Elizabeth I among others) such an ambiguous mishmash of Both Reformed and Catholic, this would imply there is no single "Anglican" position on Felix Culpa.

    9. West

  9. Dear 9.West, you'd be right in thinking there is no 'Anglican' position on the 'Felix Culpa', but I think this is not least because the Anglican formularies confine themselves to the Creeds, the denial of certain 'Roman' doctrines and the affirmation of some undoubtedly Protestant doctrines, including a particular understanding of the State.

    Having said that, I am essentially a 'Felix Culpa' 'believer', though I doubt I fit precisely into any classical statement of that doctrine.

    I hope this at least clears some things up!