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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