If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Friday, April 07, 2006

I’m not literally a talking snake

... but you knew that. You know that snakes can’t talk. They have neither the anatomy for producing speech, nor the mental capacity to engage in dialogue. It would also be unusual for a legless reptile to become a Methodist minister, though we may have had among us one or two snakes in the grass.

The compilers of Genesis also knew that snakes can’t talk; and they knew that those reading, or listening to, the story of Adam and Eve would also know.

But they tell us of a snake that could talk. So what’s going on?

Typical fundamentalist answer: if the Bible says this particular snake could talk, it could.

Fine ... so how come it knew Hebrew? And please do not interject that we don’t know that at this early stage in human history, pre-Flood, pre-Babel, Hebrew was the language of Adam and Eve. Scripture records them speaking this tongue, by which we therefore can be certain that Hebrew was indeed the original language of humanity. We have a verbatim report of their conversation, although probably summarised.

There are only two possible answers to my question: either the snake already knew Hebrew because God granted it the capability (this has been suggested to me by a creationist correspondent) or - which in view of its character I regard as more probable - it learned the language by eavesdropping on Adam and Eve’s conversation, painstakingly mastering the grammatical constructions it would need to carry out its cunning plan of temptation.

Either way, the character of God is called into question. If, as seems to be the case, mankind’s fall into sin was brought about through Eve’s succumbing to reptilian temptation, it seems most remiss of Him to provide the snake with an unusual capacity for speech. If the snake was surreptitiously learning Hebrew, one would have expected God to know about this and at the very least to give Eve some kind of tip-off; if it knew Hebrew all along, one must ask if God, knowing - as He must - all about the serpent’s devious nature did not actually intend that the forbidden fruit should be eaten. Which would vindicate the premise of this blog: that the snake was instrumental in Adam’s and Eve’s becoming truly human. Part of the divine plan.

What calls this interpretation into question, of course, is that God later rebukes the snake and, it would seem, punishes the creature by depriving it of the legs which it had formerly possessed. This is a natural reading of Genesis 3:14, which also condemns the snake to eat dust all the days of its life. The snake must have quickly found ways to circumvent this curse however, since dust rarely contains sufficient nutrients to sustain life. Seriously - for a moment - the storyteller clearly does not mean us to approve of the snake’s actions; yet it is difficult to see how without them there would be any human story to tell, and how God himself can shrug off all blame for the way in which the animal behaved.

Creationists are not stupid. I will rephrase that. Not all creationists are completely stupid; in the case of the educated variety, their stupidity is selective. They can see that the logic of my entirely legitimate interpretation causes problems, and which they attempt to as it were wriggle out of (sorry!) by identifying the snake as Satan. Not a real creature at all, but a malign spirit masquerading as another creature in the garden. One might question its choice of disguise - a nice licky Border collie would surely have melted Eve’s heart in a moment, far sooner than anything cold-blooded and potentially poisonous, legless or otherwise - but people say there is no arguing with success*: the ploy worked and Eve was duly suckered.

This solves one problem: the mastery of Hebrew would not have caused any difficulties for an intelligent spirit. But it creates two others. Firstly, fundamentalism insists on a literal reading of the text, which plainly does NOT identify the snake as, well, anything other than a snake. Later commentators have read that interpretation into the text, but the moment fundamentalism allows the symbolic imagination so much as a foot in its door, the game is up. Whatever next - the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" is allegorical? The "days" of creation might have been a bit longer than 24 hours? No, no. Literal is literal. A snake is a snake.

Secondly, the unimpeded, un-monitored presence of Satan - if it was he - in the garden raises again the question: why did God allow it? Did he not know what the old devil was up to? Did he not brief Adam and Eve to watch out for his trickery? On any literal reading of Genesis 3 God has a good deal to answer for and no obvious defence beyond his being God. And it won’t do to reply "God can do whatever he wants"; if he is to be just in all his ways, that would seem to rule out many options that must be regarded as unjust on any reasonable definition.

So let’s re-wind. Genesis 3 tells us of a snake that could talk; we know that snakes can’t. So, a sensible conclusion? Aha! We are being told a story here. This didn’t actually happen. Truth and meaning are being conveyed to us through the medium of imaginative fiction. Let’s understand the kind of writing Genesis actually is and then interpret it as best we can.

More, much more of this, later. I have a service to prepare for now.

* "You can't argue with success" indeed. This is a ridiculous statement, which equates popularity with quality. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a far more successful show composer than Stephen Sondheim, some of whose shows have bombed on Broadway. Which of them is the genius? I rest my case


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