Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, II: The First Theologian
Now the serpent was craftier than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. —Genesis 3:1
Here’s a one-question pop quiz: How many talking animals are there in the Bible? If you don’t over think it, most of you will be able to get the answer.
“The serpent,” says the biblical storyteller in one of the oldest and most aboriginal among all the Bible’s tales, from about 1000 BC, or three thousand years ago, “the serpent was craftier than any other animal that the Lord God had made.”
I’m not sure why the Bible thinks the serpent is the slyest of them all. I might have picked the fox, or the chimpanzee, who looks almost human and can even play practical jokes. But the choice of the serpent as the slyest might have something to do with the sheer genius of the snake’s evolutionary history. The snake is nature at its craftiest.
It has two lungs and two kidneys, just like us, but they’re not twinned side by side symmetrically as in all other animals, but lined up like boxcars on one side of the body to allow for its slender physique and an alimentary canal with room, in the large pythons, for something like a small antelope.
Its jaws, hinged with unearthly flexibility, can accommodate prey many times the diameter of its mouth. The snake smells with its tongue, famously forked so that it can determine which direction its next meal or lover is coming from.
Its fangs are as hollow as hypodermic needles, and serve the same purpose: to deliver potent chemicals beneath the epidermis. Small pits between the nostrils and the eyes are so heat sensitive that a snake knows when the body heat of a nearby rat raises the air temperature a tiny fraction of a degree. As if that weren’t enough, its eyesight is so acute it can detect movement from a hundred yards away.
It never needs Botox or facelifts or tummy tucks because it sheds its skin periodically, giving even elderly snakes the flawless complexion of Kerry Washington; it’s a shrewd evolutionary technology, which has unexpectedly turned the snake into a symbol of resurrection and immortality.
The black mamba, fourteen feet long and four feet HIGH when it raises itself on its haunches to strike, can slither around at twelve miles an hour. Keep your track shoes on, because it has enough venom to kill twenty grown men. In the absence of anti-venom, the mortality rate of a black mamba bite is 100%.
My father was born and raised in Africa; his mother was a Baptist missionary in Nyasaland, now Malawi, so Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible, about a missionary family from Atlanta trying to preach the gospel to tribal folk with African gods is one of my top ten books of all time. If you’ve read The Poisonwood Bible, you know that the plot hinges on the craftiness of a serpent, the venomous strike of a green mamba, a species of the cobra family. “In this serpent,” the snake experts tell us, “the diabolic genius of nature has attained its highest perfection.”
Maybe that’s what the Bible means when it tells us the serpent was the craftiest of all the animals the Lord God had made. The snake is the diabolic genius of nature at its highest. ‘Diabolic,’ from Diabolos, the Devil. And that is why even Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes.
The serpent is so crafty he can talk. The Bible has a problem, you see. The Bible has to explain the presence of evil in the good world of a kind and powerful God. A good and competent God would presumably create only a perfect world, so the Bible cannot lay all the world’s problems at God’s sacred feet, and it has to find another explanation for that dark enigma. So the Bible attributes all our present problems and challenges and evils to a malevolent animal and a naive human being.
The serpent’s malice is left unexplained. We don’t know why he wishes the downfall of creation’s first king and queen; he just does. The serpent is the Bible’s Iago, the quintessential Shakespearean villain who engineers Othello’s tragic downfall. Iago’s malice is motiveless, as Coleridge famously put it. So is the serpents. Motiveless malignity.
So crafty himself, perhaps the serpent is envious of a being which might prove to be craftier still. When Adam and Eve came along, you see, the serpent had already been here on earth for something like 150 million years, and after so long and happy a dominance, the human being now threatens his supremacy. His envy is like that of a salutatorian for the valedictorian; he doesn’t want to be second-best.
So he happens upon Eve, in all her wide-eyed, dewy innocence, minding her own business, loving God her maker and becoming one flesh all day long with Adam, and tending her perfect garden. You’ve read Paradise Lost. Haven’t you? She lives in God’s perfect garden, you see, and has no experience of evil and is completely blind-sided by her crafty interrogator; her artlessness is no match for his guile.
The serpent poses a crafty question: “Did God say you could not eat of ANY of the trees in the Garden?” Eve finds herself in the unhappy position of defending God’s honor. “No, no, no, there’s only ONE tree that’s out-of-bounds in this Garden. Only one tree, the tree in the center, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Just the one tree. We can’t eat its fruit or we’ll die.”
The serpent presses his deceptive speculations: “You won’t die; that’s a lie. For God knows that if you eat of this tree, you will know good and evil and then you will be like God, and that is what of all things God fears most.” God, says the serpent, wants no peers, no competition, no rivals. God is like the valedictorian who wants to keep the salutatorian always in second place. The serpent knows about jealous valedictorians, you see. The serpent imputes his own envy to the Creator of all the stars and worlds.
Walter Brueggemann says that the serpent is The First Theologian because instead of talking TO God or WITH God, he talks ABOUT God. By QUESTIONING God rather than OBEYING God, the serpent becomes the world’s first theologian, and there are some who would say that theologians have been crawling on their bellies ever since. They love talking ABOUT God; they’re not so fond of talking TO God, and OBEYING God, well fuggedaboutit! That’s way too hard.
The serpent plants just the faintest shadow of doubt in the woman’s artless head, but it is enough. She has to try it out and then coopts the man in her misdeed, and suddenly they notice they haven’t a stitch of clothing, and they are ashamed, and hide from God. In this primitive story, God is very near and very real. It is God’s habit to take a stroll in the Garden in the cool of the day, and when the first man and the first woman make themselves conspicuous by their absence, God asks, “Adam, where are you? What have you done? Why have you done it?”
A man once asked his pastor, Carlyle Marney, “Where is the Garden of Eden?” Mr. Marney responded, “215 Elm Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.’ “I thought it was someplace in Asia,” said the man. “Well, you couldn’t prove it by me,” Marney said. “For there on Elm Street, when I was just a boy, I stole a quarter out of my Mama’s purse and went down to the store and bought some candy and I ate it and then I was so ashamed that I came back and hid in the closet. It was there she found me and asked, ‘Where are you? Why are you hiding? What have you done?’”
The point, of course, is that this primitive story of talking snakes and lethal apples and artless innocents who suddenly notice they’re naked and a God who likes to hike is not a story that happens at SOME place at SOME time to SOME one, but one which happens in ALL places and at ALL times, and to ALL people. We all remember the day we first knew the difference between good and evil but pressed evil anyway. We all remember hiding from God.
This story is about failing to respect our limits. It is about grasping after that which does not rightfully belong to us. It is about the finite creature, unhappy in its own finitude, reaching up toward an infinity it can never own and doesn’t know what to do with.
As individuals, as a nation, as a human race, we don’t know when to leave the untouchable mysteries undisturbed. In our consumption habits, we don’t know when enough is enough. Given all the trees of the Garden but one, we insist on having even that; there is litter on the moon and dead robots on Mars and space junk in the heavens.
We have plundered the forbidden tree by probing the infinitesimal intricacies of the atom and turned those appalling energies to mostly violent purpose until the planet bristles with danger. Are you watching the National Geographic television series called Genius, an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s peerless biography of Albert Einstein? It’s a little light on the physics, but it shows us how the minute Albert Einstein came up with his theories of Special and General Relativity, the genius let the genieout of the bottle. The brilliant professor with the eccentric coiffure knew the ominous and inevitable consequences of his discovery. This primitive story is as relevant as contemporary headlines about Iran and North Korea.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera points out, “Only the animals were not expelled from Paradise.” Crafty serpents notwithstanding, the animals are happier in their finitude than we, so they got to stay.
Legend has it, of course, that when the first man and the first woman were banished from the Garden to the wilderness east of Eden, one animal followed them to their new home. It was the dog, of course, and that is why the dog has been humanity’s best friend ever since. He chose the human company over Paradise.
Sometimes the man will return the favor and return his dog to Paradise. This is a newer parable. Earl Hamner wrote this story. Remember the guy who created The Waltons? A man named Hyder and his dog Rip are walking along a road. Hyder is enjoying the scenery, but when it turns out that no one else can see or hear Hyder and Rip, it occurs to Rip that he must be dead. He remembered dying, and that the dog had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.
After a while, they came to a high, white stonewall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight. The gate in the arch looked like it was carved from mother of pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold.
Hyder and Rip approach the gate and see a man at a desk to one side. Hyder asks the guy at the gate, “What is this place?”
“This is Heaven, sir,” the man answered.
“Wow! Would you happen to have some water?” asks Hyder.
“Of course, sir. Come right in, and I’ll have some ice water brought right up.” The man gestured, and the gate began to open.
“Can my dog come in, too?” the traveler asked.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t accept pets.”
The man thought a moment and then said “No thanks,” and continued walking.
After awhile, he came to a dirt road which led through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence. As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.
“Excuse me!” he called to the reader. “Do you have any water?”
“Yeah, sure, there’s a pump over there. Come on in.”
“How about my dog?” asked the traveler.
“There should be a bowl by the pump.”
The traveler drank from the old pump and then filled the bowl and gave it to the dog. When they’d had enough water, the man and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree waiting for them.
“What do you call this place?” the traveler asked.
“This is Heaven, sir” was the answer.
“Well that’s confusing,” the traveler said. “The man down the road said that was Heaven, too.”
“Oh, you mean the place with the streets of gold and the gates of pearl. Nope. That’s Hell.”
“Doesn’t it make you mad for them to use your name like that?”
“No. I can see how you might think so, but we’re just happy that they screen out the folks who’ll leave their best friends behind.”
There’s another legend about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They say Christ’s cross was carved from its wood, so that by God’s grace, the Tree that got us banished from Paradise becomes the Gateway by which we return home.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 362.
Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, in Interpretation Commentary Series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 48.
 Slightly adapted from Carlyle Marney, quoted in William H. Willimon, Sighing for Eden: Sin, Evil, and the Christian Faith (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1985), p. 24.
Quoted by James Taylor in The Spirituality of Pets (Kelowna, BC: Northstone, 2006), p. 111.
This story is substantially adapted from Earl Hamner’s story “The Hunt,” written for the television series The Twilight Zone, episode 84, originally aired on January 26, 1962, on CBS.
John Donne, “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.”