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XIII - The Talking Snake

October 28, 2017

Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise? And the woman answered him, saying: Of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise we do eat: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die. And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death. For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil. [Genesis 3:1-5]

 

And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel. [verses 14-15]

 

This is one that seems to get everyone. No one is very happy explaining the presence of a talking snake, and God’s subsequent curse for it to travel on its breast and eat earth (or travel on it belly and eat dust, as the familiar KJV language states). Bill Maher made a movie where one of his big points is that talking snakes are ridiculous. Which is ironic, since Bill Maher can talk quite well. What I mean is not to refer to Bill Maher as a snake, not in that fashion anyway, but that Bill Maher is, according to the prevailing scientific opinion, a talking ape.

 

The reason we are having a problem with the presence of a talking snake is because our good friends the Protestants jettisoned centuries of really good Catholic teaching and learning. The question is taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas, and he makes it clear the serpent (every translation I have seen, Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, says “serpent”, not “snake”) was the devil.

 

[From Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas]

 

Question 165

 

OF OUR FIRST PARENTS' TEMPTATION

 

Whether the manner and order of the first temptation was fitting?

 

Objection 4: Further, the serpent is an irrational animal. Now wisdom, speech, and punishment are not befitting an irrational animal. Therefore the serpent is unfittingly described (Gn. 3:1) as "more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth," or as "the most prudent of all beasts" according to another version [*The Septuagint]: and likewise is unfittingly stated to have spoken to the woman, and to have been punished by God.

 

Reply to Objection 4: According to Augustine (Gen. ad lit. xi, 29), "the serpent is described as most prudent or subtle, on account of the cunning of the devil, who wrought his wiles in it: thus, we speak of a prudent or cunning tongue, because it is the instrument of a prudent or cunning man in advising something prudently or cunningly. Nor indeed (Gen. ad lit. xi, 28) did the serpent understand the sounds which were conveyed through it to the woman; nor again are we to believe that its soul was changed into a rational nature, since not even men, who are rational by nature, know what they say when a demon speaks in them. Accordingly (Gen. ad lit. xi, 29) the serpent spoke to man, even as the ass on which Balaam sat spoke to him, except that the former was the work of a devil, whereas the latter was the work of an angel. Hence (Gen. ad lit. xi, 36) the serpent was not asked why it had done this, because it had not done this in its own nature, but the devil in it, who was already condemned to everlasting fire on account of his sin: and the words addressed to the serpent were directed to him who wrought through the serpent."

 

Moreover, as again Augustine says (Super Gen. contra Manich. ii, 17,18), "his, that is, the devil's, punishment mentioned here is that for which we must be on our guard against him, not that which is reserved till the last judgment. For when it was said to him: 'Thou art cursed among all cattle and beasts of the earth,' the cattle are set above him, not in power, but in the preservation of their nature, since the cattle lost no heavenly bliss, seeing that they never had it, but they continue to live in the nature which they received." It is also said to him: "'Upon thy breast and belly shalt thou creep,'" according to another version [*The Septuagint] "Here the breast signifies pride, because it is there that the impulse of the soul dominates, while the belly denotes carnal desire, because this part of the body is softest to the touch: and on these he creeps to those whom he wishes to deceive."

 

The words, "'Earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life' may be understood in two ways. Either 'Those shall belong to thee, whom thou shalt deceive by earthly lust,' namely sinners who are signified under the name of earth, or a third kind of temptation, namely curiosity, is signified by these words: for to eat earth is to look into things deep and dark." The putting of enmities between him and the woman "means that we cannot be tempted by the devil, except through that part of the soul which bears or reflects the likeness of a woman. The seed of the devil is the temptation to evil, the seed of the woman is the fruit of good works, whereby the temptation to evil is resisted.

 

Wherefore the serpent lies in wait for the woman's heel, that if at any time she fall away towards what is unlawful, pleasure may seize hold of her: and she watches his head that she may shut him out at the very outset of the evil temptation."

 

 (In this image from the Sistine Chapel, note that the deceiver is decidedly not to be construed as an ordinary snake.)

 

Jewish commentary on the Torah invariably reads messages into the text. I don’t follow the Jewish religion nor do I believe all or even most of the teachings of the rabbis- if I did, I’d have stayed Jewish- but I think as a basic precept it is important to know how a holy book is perceived by the adherents of the religion that depend on it. Jews who study Torah believe in the historicity of the stories, that the people really lived and the events described are accurate, but that isn’t enough to make a religion.  Their main concern is to seek for the spiritual lessons that are being taught. Every believer, Christian or Jew, who reads the Bible is looking for God to speak to him or her. It is our message in a bottle, sent across the sea of history. Catholics take it further. Christ Himself comes to us in every Eucharistic host. The reason we don’t place the Bible at the pinnacle, as Protestants do, is that we have something higher.

 

Every believer who reads about the talking serpent places a different level of realism to it. For some the literal meaning of the text is what it seems. The snake tempted Eve and was cursed by having its legs removed and condemned to slither on the ground. That’s it, God said it, they believe it, that settles it. There are others who believe the story to be an allegory for how evil entered into the world. I think it is both, and here’s why.

 

And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of: the tree of life also in the midst of paradise: and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of the place of pleasure to water paradise, which from thence is divided into four heads. The name of the one is Phison: that is it which compasseth all the land of Hevilath, where gold groweth. And the gold of that land is very good: there is found bdellium, and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gehon: the same is it that compasseth all the land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Tigris: the same passeth along by the Assyrians. And the fourth river is Euphrates. [Genesis 2:9-14]

 

There are four rivers mentioned as being in Eden. Two, the Tigris and the Euphrates, are commonly known and easily located. The other two, the Pishon and the Gihon, have never been located. Right away that tells us something about the place. Like the ladder of Jacob’s dream, it is in the space between the earth we know and someplace else.

 

There are “all manner of trees”, including, it is related with no embellishment, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Those who want to argue about the literal meaning of the Bible and bring up the “talking snake” ignore the more glaring examples of the story. Along with all the trees, there are two that are so unlike each other or anything else, that they appear to be the sole examples of their own species, like angels. There is no mention of regular trees, like apple or orange trees, and the serpent entices Eve to eat of that one specific tree. It may be that the trees are associated with angels. They would not be angels, because as Aquinas asserts, angels are incorporeal. It tempts the imagination to wonder what other trees could be there, but we’ll resist it.

 

So, Adam was in a garden which contained at least two unusual trees, four rivers, and all the animals. Eve is created from his rib, and then the serpent, which is the devil, tempts her, they are kicked out of paradise, and God places cherubim with 360 degree swords of fire to protect the place. For people to try to debate the literal meaning of this is the height of fatuity. But it is also consistent.

 

It is consistent in that, in the garden God made, with the living creatures and trees that God made, there was one that was more “subtle” than the rest. The Latin word is callidior which means “more cunning, sly or crafty.” What the serpent practiced was something also defined as cunning but deceptive and misleading, and that was sophistry. This is what the serpent introduced, and it continues down to the present day. How often do we find ourselves, in defending our faith, engaged in frustrating semantics about the specific words in our translated Scriptures when we know in our hearts that the words are mere pointers to much deeper moral concepts. The serpent of sophistry knows how to shift the emphasis of definitions of words, as he did with Eve, moving her away from God’s warning that they would die to the idea that they would “be as Gods, knowing good and evil.”

 

What is it about sophistry that is so insidious? Sophistry is ultimately the elevation of language, that only refers to reality, above the reality itself. Language is not perfect. It has no capacity to be perfect. One of the highest works of theology man has ever written is the above-quoted Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas had a vision before his death, from which he became convinced that his magnum opus was as “straw” compared to the reality it described. As well-organized and erudite as it was, it was a work of language, and language is imperfect.

 

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it takes a torturing of the language to remove Simon, the man Jesus renamed to Peter, which is the Aramaic “Kepha” or “Rock”, from the “Rock” upon which Jesus would build His Church. It is sophistry, pure and simple. I put it to the reader that the removal of the Bible, from the authority of the Church and the tradition that interprets it, led directly to the atheism of today. Because if the Bible can be interpreted by anyone, then it can be interpreted by the atheist, too.

 

Does that seem too simple? It’s a natural consequence of historical events. Following the Protestant “Reformation”*, many countries in Europe moved away from Catholicism and fidelity to the Papacy. This loss of a central moral authority necessitated a reformulation of moral authority, region by region. In England, the Papacy was replaced by the monarchy, which gave English Christianity an English, rather than universal, character. In Germany, events led to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 which established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, “Whose realm, his religion”, basically meaning that the faith, Catholic or Protestant, of the ruler of a state would become the faith of the people of that state. Other Northern European countries followed suit: Gustav Vasa established the Lutheran Church in Sweden and became King Gustavus I in 1523; King Christian III decreed Denmark Lutheran in 1536; Zwingli introduced his flavor of the “Reformation” to Switzerland, which split into Catholic and Protestant cantons; France remained mostly Catholic until the 18th century, which saw the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

     *I put “Reformation” in quotes because to the Catholic Church it was more accurately a Revolution, whereas to Protestants it was, and is, considered a needed Reformation of Christianity which had been corrupted by indulgences and the other complaints brought forth by Martin Luther.

 

There was a natural transition from the “Reformation” to the Enlightenment (I could put that in quotes as well, but let's not get carried away), in this movement away from a central moral authority. Once religion became accepted as a state-controlled ideology, rather than the institution of God’s authority, then anyone who stepped back and looked at humanity in a universal context had to conclude that religion was part of the “power structure” that kept regimes in power (it could even be denounced as an "opiate of the people"). How does one reconcile God’s authority over mankind with nationalist churches, especially if the nations go to war? A huge contradiction comes into play, setting God’s love for mankind, as evidenced by His Son’s acceptance of the Cross, against militaristic nation-states that fight for hegemony over each other. It is no wonder that those who sought universal values based on art, philosophy and science would reject this contradiction, and would agitate for the secularization of their societies. As the Enlightenment brought these studies to the fore, and consequently the higher academies of learning that taught them, it was there that religion is but one study among many. Study of the Bible falls under religion, language and history. Thus, anyone who has studied religion can be considered a source or expert in the field. One need not be a religious Christian to study or interpret the Bible, one merely needs to have a background in ancient Greek and Aramaic. In our society today, the interpretation of “Biblical scholars” is weighted equally, if not greater than, that of the authority that compiled the Bible, the Catholic Church. One particularly disturbing aspect of the Protestant Revolution is that Protestants feel it incumbent on them to reject every single claim of the Catholic Church on Christianity, including the historically verifiable claim of developing the canon of the Bible and maintaining the copies of Scripture, in the monasteries and Catholic universities, for over 1000 years until Gutenberg printed the Catholic Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible using movable type, around 1450. The upshot of all this is that Bible interpretation, at least in the United States, comes from the source that the individual personally accepts. You may get your Bible training from your local church textbooks, printed by one of the myriad denominational theological seminaries and containing its unique precepts; you may get it from academia, the scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the linguists who identify the age of manuscripts by the style of the letters and the variants of spelling and dialect; you may get it purely from reading your own treasured King James Version, not even aware of the implications of a Bible translation put together at the orders of the head of the Church of England to ensure that the translation conformed to its ecclesiological precepts; you may read one of the newer, popular translations, where gender references to God have been expunged, where the harder sayings of Jesus are watered down so the “Good News” of the Gospel is that which pleases everyone. In short, without a magisterial interpretation, which Protestants denounce as the “traditions of men”, you are presented with nothing BUT the traditions of men, and you are without the true compass to determine even the criteria by which to judge.

 

The Catholic Church includes the writings of the Saints amongst its treasures of learning, albeit without declaring them infallible. These writings are not exclusively commentaries on Scripture, they are edifying writings to enhance the holiness of our souls. St. John of the Cross, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, indicates that our soul's progress is not furthered by reason at all, but through discernment and prayer. Writings are important, but they are pointers. All language consists of pointers, not the things being pointed to. I know this is not what a Protestant believes of sola scriptura, but imagine that concept taken to its logical conclusion. The believer gets to paradise, moves into one of the "many mansions", and there he finds a copy of the King James Bible. He is able to read it to his heart's content for eternity, as therein lies the "word" of God. That would not be a very satisfying paradise. Communion with our Lord, in a real and personal way, in the way that He left for us, giving us His body and blood in the bread and wine, initiated at the Last Supper, described in the 6th chapter of St. John's Gospel, that is the way of our satisfaction. I constantly return to the same theme because it is the most important thing in the world. The Last Day really appears to be near, and then it will be too late to amend your life. If you don't understand the Catholic idea of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, from Catholic sources, then go seek it out. Don't rely on criticism from non-Catholics. You're worried about being "left behind" at the rapture, but that is a human construct. Don't be left behind for real. This is too important for you to trust the interpretation of your denomination. Go to the source, the Catholic Church. If this blog does nothing but annoy you enough to go look it up and prove it for yourself, it is worth it.

 

 

 

 

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