Elijah, my son, really likes The Jungle Book. One of the characters in that story is a big and sneaky snake named Kaa. He’s a python, and he’s famous for his colorful, hypnotic eyes and his ability to put Mowgli into a trance. He nearly catches and eats Mowgli, but Mowgli escapes. Snakes are a part of popular culture, from Indiana Jones to Harry Potter to the movie, Anaconda, and Snakes on a Plane. But, our love (or hate) of snakes didn’t start there.
I want to tell you a great big snake story. Some of you may hate snakes, so I’m not going to show any pictures of snakes. But I hope you’ll agree that Scripture tells the story of God, of humanity, and of a deceptive serpent-like creature, and it starts all the way back in Genesis 3.
‘Snakes, Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?’
(Read Gen. 3:1)
Here the serpent, Satan embodied, tempts Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God has forbidden. This divine being was not always Satan, God’s archenemy, but had at one time been an angel who, for unknown reasons, rebelled against God and fell into sin (Ezek. 28:12-18). Now he tempts humankind to rebel against God, and he’s successful. Adam and Eve eat, disobey, and fall into a similar state of sin. But unlike the serpent, God will redeem their state. God curses the serpent.
(Read Gen. 3:13b-15)
God curses the serpent in two ways. First, God condemns the snake to crawl on his belly and eat dust for all his life. But wait, don’t snakes already crawl on their bellies? Did this one have legs? No. Dust is symbolic of death (Adam was made from dust, and to dust, he would return), and dust is symbolic of defeat (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). The prophet Isaiah promises this about God’s final victory over the serpent (Isa. 65:25). God promises Satan's endless defeat (Isa. 27:1). Satan will be destroyed.
The second half of the curse in Genesis 3:15 promises one of Eve’s descendants will strike the serpent’s head even though the serpent will strike his heel. Jesus was wounded at the Cross, yet crushed the serpent’s head, defeating Satan.
As we go through the story of the Bible, snakes appear not only in Genesis but in Exodus among Pharaoh’s magicians (Ex. 7:10-12). Aaron throws down his staff, which becomes a serpent, and eats the magicians’ snakes. Snakes aren’t always bad. In fact, in Numbers, when the people have disobeyed God and are being cursed with snake bites, Moses erects a bronze serpent on a pole, which the people look at to be healed (Num. 21:7-9).
In John’s Gospel, Moses’ lifted-up serpent becomes an image of Jesus being lifted up on the Cross (John 3:14-15). Unfortunately, the bronze serpent also becomes an object of worship and idolatry over time (2 Kings 18:4). I don’t know why the Bible holds these two images in tension. Does the serpent represent Christ, or perhaps it’s meant to show us that one day, at the Cross, Jesus will crucify the serpent’s power?
We find this story whispered throughout Scripture.
The Big Snake
Another story Elijah loves is the story of David and Goliath. But that’s not a snake story, is it? In 1 Samuel 17, the Philistines gather to war against Israel. The Philistines are on one hill and the Israelites on the other, but the Philistines send out their champion Goliath to fight. Goliath is a giant who wears bronze armor, a little like Moses’ serpent. Goliath is a serpent figure.
The Hebrew word for bronze is similar to serpent. But in 1 Samuel 17, the Hebrew uses an unusual word to describe Goliath’s “scale armor” (1 Sam. 17:5). What other animals have scales? Fish, reptiles, snakes. This scale imagery is reptilian, snakelike. When David volunteers to fight Goliath, what does King Saul do? He tries to fit him with a bronze helmet and armor, but David won’t fight like Goliath fights. David doesn’t trust in the power or might of the serpent but in God.
(Read 1 Sam. 17:45-46, 49)
What does David do? He does just that. Using a sling and five smooth stones, he sinks one into Goliath’s forehead, and he cuts off his head with a sword (1 Sam. 17:48-51). A descendent of Eve has fought a serpent-like creature and won, striking his head with a mortal blow. This sounds like Genesis 3, doesn’t it? What does Goliath eat? It says, “he fell facedown on the ground.” Goliath eats dust! The serpent eats dust!
The best part is that David doesn’t do it in his own strength, but “in the name of the Lord Almighty.” David and Goliath pre-enact the ultimate triumph of the One who bears the Lord Almighty’s name, Yahweh saves, Yeshua, Jesus, will enact at the Cross. The serpent will be defeated. Goliath tempts Israel to give up their allegiance to God just like the serpent tempted Adam and Eve and just like the choice you and I make as well. Will we stand with Goliath, the serpent, and his armor of bronze? Or will we stand with David and with Jesus, exposed, vulnerable, but trusting in God?
A former pastor used the illustration of a giant headless serpent to describe Satan. Christ has come and removed Satan’s head, but the serpent’s body still wriggles and thrashes, causing destruction. When the teachers of the law accused Jesus of being possessed by “Beelzebul,” being in league with the devil himself, Jesus told the story of binding the strong man before plundering his house (Mark 3:26-27). Jesus isn’t working for Satan but has bound him.
Of Shipwrecks and Snakes
But aren’t we in the Book of Acts? What does this have to do with the Apostle Paul getting shipwrecked on the tiny island of Malta? We know the historian Luke included true events, but it’s interesting he chose to highlight this one. So here’s what happens.
Paul and his crew are shipwrecked and wash up on the shore. The local villagers (the Maltese?) build them a fire, and like every good survivor, Paul helps gather wood. But as he does so, he grabs a snake because he thinks it’s a stick, and when he goes to throw it into the fire, it bites his hand. I imagine it was painful, as it was there long enough to hang on. I’ve gotten bitten by a dog and by a goldfish, and neither was pleasant. I can’t imagine a viper with fangs. But Paul shakes it off into the fire (Acts 28:1-5).
Of course, the villagers expect Paul to die. This must be God’s judgment on someone to escape the sea and then get bitten by a snake. That’s a very human perspective on God’s judgment. Bad things happen to bad people, right? In a world ruled by the serpent, in a world ruled by the scale-bronze-armor-clad Goliath, in a world ruled by the strong man, that’s true.
But the great big story of Acts is God’s story in microcosm. The gospel has shot out from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and almost to Rome. The gospel has crossed social and ethnic barriers to reach the Jews and Gentiles. And here, at last, Paul foreshadows God’s coming judgment on the serpent himself. He will be defeated; he will be cast into the fire.
The Snake’s Defeat
Just like the first book in the Bible, Genesis, starts with a battle between God’s people and the serpent, the last book of the Bible ends the same. Revelation 12:9 talks about an enormous red dragon, the ancient serpent. With Revelation, it’s always difficult to know if this is talking about a past event, a future event, or both. But here’s what we know. Jesus has defeated the serpent at the Cross and will one day defeat the serpent for good. We find this near the end, in Revelation 20:10.
It’s going to end poorly for the serpent, and he is terrified. So, when Paul was bit yet shook off the snake into the fire, if nothing else, it was symbolic of Satan’s ultimate defeat.
What happens after this? Paul goes and heals the sick on the island of Malta. The curse is being undone. As we look at the great big story of the snake and the great big story of God redeeming the world, we see that Jesus has defeated the serpent and will one day vanquish him forever.