Serpents & The Fall

December 5, 2003 | 4 comments
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In a comment to my entry below about biblical inerrancy (“Balaam’s Ass“), Brent writes in connection with his experience substitute teaching in Seminary:

I came across several commentaries about the serpent speaking and Balaam’s ass. Some of these also mentioned other scriptural references (I think some in Revelations) which I mention “beasts” talking. Some of these individuals have theorized that in fact, because of the fall, animals, being lesser intelligences cannot communicate verbally, but that God can loose their tongues and allow them to speak.

For purposes of this post, I am not interested in whether this theory of talking animals is true (though I suspect that the careful reader could discern my feelings), but rather in the possible significance of talking serpents.

Today in Seminary we discussed the brief but famous story in Numbers 21, where Moses confronts the problems of the “firey serpents” who are sent to plague the rebellious Children of Israel. Moses is told by the Lord, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” Moses did as he was told, and those who looked were healed.

We have no trouble relating this story to the Atonement. The brass serpent represents Jesus, and looking upon the serpent is an act of faith that wards off death. Right?

If that seems right, then one thing that strikes me as significant about this story is the use of a brass serpent as a metaphor for Christ. Did the people of Israel understand the brass serpent in this way? The biblical text is silent on this point, but the connection to the Garden story seems too direct to be coincidental.

When Eve saw the serpent, she did not realize that it was Lucifer. Could she have thought that this was Jesus, her spiritual brother, coming to give her instruction? And when she says “the serpent beguiled me,” could she have been saying that the appearance of Lucifer in the form of the serpent had fooled her, because she associated that form with Jesus?

By the way, one of my clever Seminary students asked why God commanded the Children of Israel to make no graven images and then here commands Moses to create a graven image. I suppose the easy answer is the best one: if you make the law, you can provide for the exceptions.

4 Responses to Serpents & The Fall

  1. Scott on December 5, 2003 at 6:33 pm

    For a recent treatment of serpent imagery in scripture, see the Andrew Skinner article (in .pdf) linked above.

    Scott

  2. Adam Greenwood on December 5, 2003 at 6:37 pm

    I think that various of the noble and great ones were assigned various species that came under their care (angels for classes of animals just as angels for dispensations). Satan’s, I suppose, was the serpent and totemically he was the Serpent. Then, as an act of redemption, Christ assimilated the serpents to himself.

  3. Brent on December 5, 2003 at 11:05 pm

    I love those more clever students. Only by asking questions do we get answers. Incidentally, I have always considered the command not to make any graven images to be directly connected to the prohibition against bowing down to serve such graven images. I guess the question would be what was the role of the graven serpent and its relationship the people of Israel?

    You raise an interesting question about the image of the serpent and its varied appearances in the scriptures.

  4. Paul on December 6, 2003 at 9:09 pm

    I’ve been following your comments with great interest, trying to decide where I stood on the matter. After realizing there was no way I was going to come to a conclusion on my own, I took my search to lds.org. I found a New Era article by Elder Bruce. R. McKonkie, here’s how he introduced the story of Balaam’s ass:

    Let me tell you the story of a prophet, in some respects a very great prophet, but one “who loved the wages of unrighteousness,” who “was rebuked for his iniquity” in a most strange and unusual way, and whose actions (which included the uttering of great and true prophecies) were described by another prophet in another day as “madness.”

    This is a true story, a dramatic story; one with a great lesson for all members of the Church; one that involves seeing God, receiving revelation, and facing a destroying angel in whose hand was the sword of vengeance. It includes the account of how the Lord delivered a message to the prophet in a way that, as far as we know, has never been duplicated in the entire history of the world.

    This puts the matter to rest for me, although please feel free to discuss this as I thoroughly enjoy the new insights.