Snakes, Wisdom, and Life’s Headaches

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:4, RSVCE

Poor snake.

I mean, I get that the serpent of Genesis 3 does cause some trouble. He broaches a sensitive topic, asks some leading questions, and finally presents a couple half-truths that prompt the two literary representatives of humanity to commit the first act of deliberate disobedience. Really, though, I think we mistreat the poor fella.

There is no indication in the Hebrew text that this character is Satan, a devil, demon, or anything other than a creature “more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made” (3:1). The word often translated as “subtle,” “crafty,” or “cunning” is arum, which actually just means “wise.” The connotation can be negative or positive based on the context of the entire passage in which the word is found. In some passages, those who are arum plot evil things. In Proverbs, though, an arum man is considered to be beneficial, or sensible.

The reason I bring this up is that the serpent’s description as arum occurs before the story, which means it could actually be described as neutral. Translators tend to translate the word based on their knowledge of the story, which is why the English connotation is almost always negative (except in the Common English Bible, which translates Genesis 2-3 wonderfully, see here). I believe the use of  arum in this way is an intentional move by the authors, as the wisdom of the serpent proves to be an amazing metaphor for what happens to all of us as we become more acquainted with this world.

Don’t get me wrong. Disobeying God isn’t good, but it’s time we were honest about the Genesis passages. There is no mention of original sin or temptation, only deliberate disobedience that brings the Man and Woman to full awareness of their situation.

That’s the painful thing about wisdom, isn’t it? The more knowledge and wisdom we possess, the more painful life seems to become. Think about it. The blissful ignorance of a child, similar to that of the Man and Woman before their act of disobedience, is a form of peace that we all lose as life goes on. We become aware of both good and evil, just as the humans of Genesis do, and, like them, our greater awareness yields both positive and negative things. This is why the author of Ecclesiastes says, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

In the biblical world, snakes carried a variety of meanings. They were dangerous, but their venom also was considered to have curative properties. Serpents could both harm and heal, the perfect example being the fiery serpents and bronze serpent of healing found in Numbers as Moses and the people of Israel move through the wilderness (Numbers 21). In this way, serpents were also symbols of wisdom, because wisdom hurts, but also can provide for ultimate healing.

So what does this mean for us today? We should all take a moment to acknowledge the amount of ignorance in the world. People pass judgments on others, even when they know nothing about them! Look at pro-choice/pro-life debates, political parties, or the Islamophobia that has reared its ugly head since 9/11. Look at terrorist groups, the adherents of which believing they are doing God’s will by hating and seeking to destroy entire groups of people based on one particular view of life. Hell, many in the United States have no idea that we are still sending and losing soldiers to conflict overseas! In all of these situations, and more, we see sides being taken with realities being completely ignored, and this is not a recipe for success.

Part of God’s creation is free will, and that includes the freedom to pass our judgments and establish our opinions based on minimal information, no matter how that might hurt others. Ignorance is appealing, as it keeps our experienced reality simple, and we don’t have to complicate life any further by seeking the truth. We would rather just pretend we already have it! To meet those who are different, to live life with those with whom we don’t agree, and to seek to understand those people we may not even like would risk putting us in a precarious situation where reality is far more “gray” than we would like. This “gray,” however, is exactly what’s needed for us to move forward, for it is only with full knowledge of our sickness that we can seek the wisdom to heal it.

As Christ says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus is pointing out the ignorance of the religious authorities, whose judgment of those seeking the Lord’s presence actually blinds them to their own need of salvation. When we choose to live in ignorance, judging what we do not know without questioning ourselves, we go the way of the pharisees and miss Jesus’ work in our lives.

As we go forward into another week, let’s examine ourselves. Where are we ignorant, and who are we judging based on incomplete information with no experience? In what ways will knowledge in this area make things more complicated for us? How can we take that discomfort and re-invent ourselves and our positions to reflect the complex reality God has gifted to His creation? I will be asking myself these critical questions, and I hope you will join me. If we prayerfully go about this work with the kindness of Christ in our hearts, we can take the painful knowledge of this complicated world and turn it into a wisdom that has the power to heal the wounds of ignorance. I’ll pray for you if you will for me!

Peace be with you!



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