While I highly recommend Michael Cosby’s Intepreting Biblical Literature (see my post on this textbook), I have yet to read a textbook where I agree with everything in it. In his chapter on the Primeval History or Genesis 1-11, Cosby writes the following, “The talking snake in Genesis 3:1-5 is merely that — a snake.”
So, when we get to this moment in a classroom setting, I usually put this quote on the screen followed by the question in my title:
When is a snake not just a snake?
Here, usually one student says, “When it talks.”
“Good”, I say and affirm the importance of noting what is in the text.
“And when it walks,” another student chimes in.
“Awesome. The narrative suggests that the serpent had legs.”
Here is where I tell a joke told to a class by one of my Old Testament professors who after the groans had dissipated said, “You know you’ll use it.”
“After they ate the apple, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the man, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on.”
. . . You know you’ll use it.
So, the text itself is suggesting that we ought not to see this serpent as simply a snake. So, what is going on here. Now, what Michael Cosby is guarding against here, and on this we agree, is the student too quickly leaping to identifying the snake with Satan.
Of course, identifying the serpent with Satan is a valid canonical reading of this text. However, at the time Genesis 3 was written this association was not one that could have been made. So, where is the author pointing us?
There are a number of possible cultural allusions that could be at play such as the role of the Serpent in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Something similar may be at work here. Yet, the referent that I think best fits the text appears at the end of Genesis and in Israel’s foundational narrative, the Exodus.
So, my next slide expands on my students observations.
Q: When is a snake not merely a snake?
A: When the dude your ancestors were enslaved by dressed like one.
Pharoah’s headress is patterned after the head of the Cobra. What is Moses first sign to Pharaoh (depicted delightfully in The Prince of Egypt?) What plague do the Israelites experience in the wilderness when they complain and wish to return to Egypt?
Now, what happens if we reverse the usual trend, what if, instead of reading the common understanding of the devil (Satan) back into Genesis 3, we read this reference to tyranny and enslavement foward into the New Testament? Does this not fit nicely with the image of the Dragon in Revelation? Does this not better explain the serpent’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness? What kind of King are you going to be Son of God?
As another professor once said in discussing Pharaoh, watch out for people (including Pastors and employers) who have Cobras on their crowns. Maybe John Hare has tapped into something “primeval” by titling his book on psychopaths in the workplace Snakes in Suits.