Saturday, April 02, 2016

Standing Bear

1. To infidels, the talking "snake" in Gen 3 is all you need to know to know that Scripture is ridiculous mythological fiction. I've discussed the identity of the tempter on various occasions. Now I'd like to approach the issue from two new angles.

2. When we read a book from a different culture, it's easy for us to think we know what something means even though we are way off the mark. Likewise, the things that strike us as the most palpably false may seem that way because we misunderstand it. It didn't seem false to the original audience.

Suppose a Biblically and theologically illiterate college student were to pick up a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. There's a lot that still comes through. The plot still works. Our reader can still appreciate the psychological characterizations. 

However, consider some of the names of the characters, viz. Christian, Evangelist, Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Prudence, Piety, Charity, Apollyon.

Bunyan is an evangelist as well as a storyteller. He isn't subtle. He gives the reader very broad clues by how he names the characters.

Even so, for a biblically and theologically illiterate reader, these names would be opaque. There are lots of things a reader will miss if he lacks the requisite theological background. 

3. The frame of reference that a modern, Western, secularized reader brings to Gen 2-3 doesn't necessarily equip him to catch certain nuances. Suppose we compare that to a storyteller from a very different cultural milieu. For instance, suppose a village atheist read a traditional American Indian story. The story has characters with names like Raven, Black Elk, Black Hawk, Black Fox, Standing Bear, Running Eagle, and Lone Wolf. In addition, the characters speak. 

Our village atheist shakes his head: "Those poor primitive Indians with their superstitious belief in talking animals!"

That illustrates the danger of interpretation when you don't know the cultural code language. The reader thinks the storyteller is ignorant when, in fact, it's the reader who's ignorant. The patronizing reader makes himself look foolish. 

The fact that an American Indian story has characters with animal names doesn't mean these were talking animals. Rather, it means Indians gave people animal names. Real people! 

I think that's the kind of thing we should keep in mind when we read Gen 3. We need to make allowance for these interpretive options. 

4. When reading the Bible, it's useful to appreciate the emblematic significance of venomous snakes in the ANE and Roman Empire. The connotations of snakes in cultures that practice ophiolatry and ophiomancy. 

However, that's not just a thing of the past. Venomous snakes (as well as constrictors) exert a perennial fascination. That's transcultural. 

Lots of boys like to collect snakes, including venomous snakes–much to the consternation of their mothers. Some of these boys grow up to be herpetologists. And some of these boys grow up to be private snake collectors. 

They import the most dangerous snakes on the planet. Mambas, cobras, kraits, Bushmasters, gaboon vipers, golden lancehead vipers, &c. For some men, venomous snakes have a magnetic appeal: the more death-defying, the more appealing. So the aura that venomous snakes had in the ancient world isn't culturebound. 

5. I'd add that this can illustrate the limitations of Bible scholarship. Boys who grow up to be Bible scholars tend to be nerdy, bookish boys. I daresay few Bible scholars are herpetologists or private snake collectors. 

When they write commentaries on Gen 3, there's a dimension to the "snake" that's apt to elude Bible scholars–a dimension which a herpetologist or snake collector might naturally tune into. 

6. This, in turn, may help explain why the narrator gave the tempter a serpentine name. He's trading on popular connotations of snakes. 

i) A venomous snake is a natural symbol of death. To call a character a snake clues the reader into the fact that this is a threatening character. A potentially deadly character. 

Indeed, I think that's what motivates some snake collectors. They are literally staring death in the face. In fact, some of them take it to the next level by handling venomous snakes with their bare hands. You have the same dynamic with Appalachian snake-handling cults. Tempting fate. 

The fact that Eve is oblivious to the malevolent character of the tempter generates dramatic tension. The reader knows something she doesn't. Notice that she doesn't address the tempter as a snake. That's between the reader and the narrator. 

ii) Not only are venomous snakes natural symbols of death, but uncanny death. Except for pythons and anacondas, snakes don't look dangerous. It's only their reputation that makes them fearsome. 

Especially for a prescientific audience, there's something mysterious about how snakes kill their prey–or humans. What makes a snakebite fatal? If you're bitten by a house cat, that won't kill you. But if you're bitten by a venomous snake, you may pine away in a few hours, or less.  

Of course, we have some understanding of venom, as well as different kinds of venom (e.g. haemotoxic, neurotoxic). But ancient people weren't privy to that information. 

There's nothing mysterious about how a lion, bear, or crocodile kills its prey. And predators like that look dangerous! There's nothing inexplicable about the lethality of a lion or crocodile, but there is something inexplicable about the lethality of a snake, if you lack scientific knowhow.

So that may be an additional reason why the narrator gave the temper a serpentine name. That triggers magical associations.


  1. Almost certainly those motifs are in play in the text, yet it's really as simple as a talking snake. Like Balaam's donkey. There’s not even an apparent problem on Christian supernaturalist grounds.

    1. No, it's not a simple as talking snake. For one thing, the NT equates the Tempter with Satan, but Satan is not a talking snake. Moreover, the Hebrew designation has several senses or connotations: snake, diviner, shining one. The narrator may well be trading on multiple connotations of the designation.

    2. It certainly seems that simple on the face of the text.

      Sunday School children can understand the text, just as generations of Jews and Gentiles have for thousands of years.

      As I conceded earlier there are certainly layers of sense/connotation, however the text in context is crystal clear. The serpent "was more crafty than any other beast of the fieldthat the LORD God had made."

      It's a beast of the field the LORD God had made. And it's a serpent. Which is a way to say "a snake". You do a nice job explicating the pent up tension of this dangerous animal in your OP, so no need to rehash that.

      Then the woman (Eve) and the serpent have a discussion. A talking snake! Clearly it's *more* than that, more than just a random talking snake. An evil power is using the snake, but it's not less than that.

      The subsequent language in the monolog by God curses the serpent "above all livestock and above all the beasts of the field" , and of course goes on to specify things like belly locomotion and eating dust. An obvious and peculiar reference to how snakes go about.

      Anyway, I'm not even sure we're in disagreement, but you seem uneasy about a talking snake. Maybe I'm misreading that. Snakes and donkeys can talk when it serves God's purpose. Even the stones may cry out.

    3. "It certainly seems that simple on the face of the text. Sunday School children can understand the text."

      That's because Sunday School kids read the text in English (or Spanish, French, German, Italian, &c.). Translators don't have a synonym in the receptor language that captures the polysemy of the Hebrew. "Snake" is fine as far as it goes, but that oversimplifies and overspecifies the import.

      "the text in context is crystal clear."

      Actually, the syntax is ambiguous. In 3:1, the preposition can either be comparative or partitive. If the former, then the tempter is included among the animals. A difference of degree. He's more cunning than other animals. If the latter, then the tempter is set in contrast to animals. A difference of kind. He is crafty and they are not.

      This may well be studied syntactical ambiguity to keep the reader guessing about the true identity of the tempter. Is this an animal…or something else?

      "The subsequent language in the monolog by God curses the serpent 'above all livestock and above all the beasts of the field'…"

      That has the same syntactical ambiguity. It could be comparative or partitive. If the latter: "Cursed are you *from* all the cattle and beasts of the field," "Cursed are you as none of the livestock and none of the wild animals."

      "and of course goes on to specify things like belly locomotion and eating dust. An obvious and peculiar reference to how snakes go about."

      In the ANE, you had imprecations to make snakes in a striking position relax. So this is consistent with serpentine imagery.

      "Maybe I'm misreading that. Snakes and donkeys can talk when it serves God's purpose."

      I've exegeted both texts. They have different contextual requirements.

    4. As I've explained on multiple occasions, I think the name of the tempter is a pun. Since you mention the cursing of the tempter, that may well be another play on words. Because the designation can also mean diviner, viz. a fortuneteller, or someone who casts spells, this would be a case of God cursing the curser, hexing the hexer. Poetic justice.

    5. "…yet it's really as simple as a talking snake. Like Balaam's donkey…Sunday School children can understand the text, just as generations of Jews and Gentiles have for thousands of years."

      Actually, Maimonides thought the incident regarding Balaam's donkey was a visionary audition. His donkey didn't actually speak. That's something Balaam saw and heard in a vision. Guide to the Perplexed, 2.42.

      And since Balaam was a seer, there's something to be said for that interpretation. It would also explain why Balaam takes the donkey's faculty of speech in stride. My point, however, is not to defend his interpretation, but note that your appeal to traditional Jewish interpretation is inadvertently selective.

    6. I read your recent piece on "bad lip-synching". Interesting. I don’t suppose there's any particular reason textually to object to suggestions that the mechanics of the speaking animal were this vs that. For example it doesn't seem necessary to argue dogmatically for an actual vocal chord, brain structure, lip and mouth word-formation miracle.

      The speaking event is supernatural in any case.

  2. Steve, could you copy the links of the posts where you discuss the identity of the tempter of Genesis 1? I would appreciate it. Thank you and God bless.