Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Old Serpent

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1).

“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world— he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:9).

I’ve discussed the identity of the Serpent in Gen 3 on more than one occasion. However, I’m going to be bringing some additional documentation to bear.

To recap, both liberal and conservative Bible scholars tend to be puzzled by how the serpentine figure in Gen 3 evolved into the diabolical figure in Rev 12.

Beyond that, liberals regard Gen 3 as an etiological fable of how the snake lost its legs while conservatives generally interpret the figure in Gen 3 as a case of animal possession.

I think the interpretive problem that a modern reader is apt to have is that he doesn’t understand the cultural code language of the ancient text. Instead, he uses his own cultural markers as his reference point.

But the question we need to ask ourselves is how the ancient Near Eastern audience to whom this text was originally addressed would have heard it. What associations would the depiction of a rational, articulate serpent trigger in their minds?

Let’s turn to a standard reference work:

The snake-dragon (with horns, snake’s body and neck, lion’s forelegs and bird’s hindlegs) is represented from the Akkadian Period down to the Hellenistic Period as a symbol of various gods or as a generally magically protective hybrid not associated specifically with any deity.

snake gods
The snake gods of ancient Mesopotamia, especially Nirah, seem to be the only fully animalian, non-anthropomorphic, deities (although la-Tarak may have had a leonine face and worn a lion’s skin). The snake god Nirah was worshipped at the city of Der, located on the northern border between Mesopotamia and Elam, as the minister of Istaran, the city god of Der (see local gods). His cult there is attested from the earliest times and was long-lived. He was also worshipped until Middle Babylonian times in the E-kur, the temple of Ellil (Enlil) in Nippur, where he was regarded as a protective deity of the temple and a protective presence. The cult of Irhan, a deity of the city of Ur and probably in origin a god representing the river Euphrates, remained independent until the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, but was later syncretised with the cult of Nirah. It is possible that the snake symbol found on kudurrus [inscribed stones] represents the god Nirah (see snakes).

An anthropomorphic god with the lower body of a snake, shown on cylinder seals of the Old Akkadian Period, may also represent Nirah.

On the cylinder seal of Gudea, prince of Lagas, the ruler is introduced into the presence of a superior deity by a god from each of whose shoulders a horned snake rises. This is probably intended to represent Ningiszida, regarded by Gudea as his personal protective deity (see personal gods).

Representations of snakes are naturally frequent in iconography from the prehistoric periods onwards, but it is not always easy to decide whether or not they carried any religious value. When depicted as attributes of deities they are seen associated with both gods and goddesses. And independent symbol of the snake appears on kudurrus and is identified by the inscription on one as symbolizing the minister of the god Istaran (and so is possibly Nirah; see snake gods). Snakes continued to be portrayed in religious and secular art in later periods. As a divine symbol in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian art, the snake can be identified from ritual texts directly as the god Nirah.

The horned viper (Cerastes cerastes), a mildly venomous snake native to the Middle East, has a pair of spike-like folds of skin on its head. In art, the form of a snake with a pair of horns rising from the forehead occurs as a symbol on Kassite kudurrus and in Neo-Assyrian art as an element of seal designs and in the form of magically protective figurines…A variant horned snake with forelegs was apparently regarded as a different creature…Originally one of the trophies of Ninurta (see Slain Heroes), it was later—when the snake-dragon became Marduk’s animals—the symbol of various gods formerly associated with the snake-dragon, including Ningiszida.

J. Black & Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (U. of Texas 1997), 166-68.

This reference work concerns itself with Mesopotamia, but, of course, snake-gods and snake cults weren’t limited to Mesopotamia. For example, you can find the same phenomenon in ancient Egypt.

This identification would explain the preternatural powers of the snake in Gen 3. It’s not a snake at all. Rather, it’s a serpentine symbol of a numinous being.

Of course, we need to draw a further distinction. This text was addressed, not merely to an ancient Near Eastern audience, but to a Jewish audience in particular. They wouldn’t view the “snake” in quite the same terms. It would still be a numinous being, but a demonic or diabolical being.

Paganism didn’t really have a distinct category for the demonic. In paganism, all the gods are corrupt and malicious in varying degrees.

Biblical theism has a more complex classification scheme. God is in a class by himself. He is the Creator. And there are good spirits (heavenly angels, saints) as well as evil spirits (fallen angels, damned souls)—all of whom are creatures.

This interpretation has the further advantage that it doesn’t require any historical or theological development from the snake to the devil. The “snake” in Gen 3 was always emblematic of an evil spirit.

Symbolic consistency carries over to the curse (3:14-15). The same serpentine imagery. And, as Walton explains in his commentary, this is not a just-so story of how the snake lost its legs. Rather, it’s a standard imprecation, of the sort often employed for venomous snakes.

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