Last Sunday afternoon I was playing hooky from an ordination council I was supposed to attend. It was such a beautiful day that I could not stand the thought of spending it inside a church, listening to a ministerial candidate defend his Calvinist interpretations of Scripture. So I did what any spiritually minded person should do. I took off for the mountains.
We got no further than the next town, where we stopped at a roadside park in Chocorua village, just a mile or two from where my great-grandparents used to live a hundred years ago. In recent years this area has been cleaned up nicely. It now includes a path through the woods, populated with poetry readings posted on small wooden plaques, while the dam’s waterfall thrums in the distance. It makes for a pleasant meditative walk.
Maybe that is what put me in the mood for revelation. As I walked down the path, a snake was disturbed by my footfall and slithered into the undergrowth. For many people, encountering a snake in a garden might startle them. For me it brought back memories of childhood.
In my early years I was a snake hunter. Near my childhood home there was a large field, which served as our neighborhood pickup baseball/football field. It was populated by a wide variety of snakes. They were mostly garter snakes, with a few greensnakes and brownsnakes, and an occasional water snake, which had meandered uphill from the nearby swamp.
When we weren’t handling snakes in the field, we were catching amphibians in the swamp. I never got into trapping muskrat like my best friend. But by the time I was eight or nine years old I had become proficient in sneaking up on snakes and grabbing them behind the head. After a few minutes I would release them to be caught another day.
Snakes were my playmates. So when a garter snake slid out of the grass last Sunday, my immediate response was joy and nostalgia. It swept over me in a shiver. “What a strange response!” I would later think. I bet there are not too many people who respond to the sight of a snake with joy!
For this reason I have always struggled with the role of snakes in the Bible. They are usually villains, stand-ins for Satan both in Genesis and Revelation. Some Middle Eastern snakes are dangerous, and for that reason they came to be the symbol of danger and evil. But in my life they played a very different role. They awakened me to wonder of the natural world.
It is all a matter of how you view them. In other cultures snakes were the symbol of eternal life and healing. There are even incidences of that perspective in the Bible, as evidenced in the Old Testament story of the snake on a staff that brought healing to the Hebrews. (Numbers 21:4-9)
The positive side of snakes has found its way into modern culture in the form of the Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius. Jesus is even referred to as a life-giving serpent. (John 3:14-15) In fact that reference is the immediate context of the famous John 3:16 verse, “For God so loved the world….” Yet I don’t see those serpentine verses emblazoned on cardboard placards at baseball games.
Biblical symbolism is more complex than we think. Even the story of Eden casts the serpent in a dual role – as both the crafty tempter and the one who opens the eyes of the primordial couple to differentiate between good and evil, an ability that most spiritually-minded people value highly.
Furthermore we know that snakes play an important environmental role in ridding our gardens and backyards of pests. So next time a snake crosses your path, offer a little prayer of thanks to its Creator. Then try to catch them. If you need some lessons, let me know.