Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Prophecy that Wasn't

An earlier version of this article first appeared here in January 2011. 

Then God said to the serpent, "Because you were used as a tool of Satan, I cannot continue to let you be the most beautiful creature in the garden. You will now be lower than any of the animals and will crawl on the ground eating its dust. Also, I will place a hatred of sin in the heart of the woman and her descendants. This hatred of sin will find its ultimate expression in One of her offspring. Satan, like a striking serpent, will try to kill Him, but as a man crushes the head of a poisonous snake with his bare heel to save his children - knowing he will die - so the Savior will sacrifice His own life to save those who love Him, and He will utterly crush the serpent's head.
That's Genesis 3: 14-15, probably as few have read it (or into it) before. The credit for this fulsome embellishment goes to Jack Blanco in The Clear Word, a paraphrase of the Bible popular among Seventh-day Adventists.

Blanco is hardly the first Christian writer to find in these verses a prophecy of Christ. I first came across this bit of exegesis as a kid, when I should have been doing something really useful like reading Superman comics. Being just a kid I was puzzled. Exactly how does this verse refer to Christ? I guess it would have been clearer to me if The Clear Word had been around back then, but it wasn't, and I decided that this whole interpretation trip was obviously far too deep for someone like myself.

Here are those same two verses in the JPS:
Then the LORD God said to the serpent,
"Because you did this,
More cursed shall you be
Than all cattle
And all the wild beasts:
On your belly shall you crawl
And dirt shall you eat
All the days of your life.
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
They shall strike at your head,
And you shall strike at their heel."

So where's Satan? Where's the One? Where's the prophecy? Not there. They're not in the text. It's an aetiological account of why snakes get around without legs and cause most humans to react with fear and revulsion. Is there more significance to it than that? Maybe, but if so it's certainly not evident in the text itself. Anything more is pure speculation. The Oxford Bible Commentary states it succinctly:
The various punishments imposed by God on the guilty (3:14-19) all have aetiological bases: serpents have no legs and are thought to 'eat dust', and bite human beings but are killed by them...
So why does the New Berkeley Version - a Reformed translation popular when I was growing up - provide this interesting footnote to those verses: "First promise of the Redeemer, Victor over sin and Satan." A more recent and egregious example comes from the footnotes of the God's Word translation.
The snake was Satan, the devil... Satan bruised Jesus' heel in the crucifixion, but Jesus crushed Satan's head by defeating the power of sin in the world through that very same crucifixion. 
Yeah? Says who? To find that in these verses you have to read it back into the text. It's not even an intertextual reference. How could you make an intertextual reference to something that hadn't been written about yet?

Beats me.

It's not fashionable in certain circles to use the term eisegesis any longer, but if you wanted a clear example of the phenomenon, this would surely be it. To read these verses as prophecy, first you need to put on your metanarrative blinkers.

Metanarrative: big word but simple concept. The idea is that there is a grand narrative, a saga, a big story that gives sense to the world, "an overarching story that defines your reality and who you are within it." There are, according to the theorists, competing metanarratives, but the one we're talking about is the story about sin, death, saviour and salvation (Eden, Satan, the Fall... all leading to Christ - birth, death, resurrection - and ultimately salvation from the sin that began back in the Garden.) Metanarrative is especially significant as a concept, according to Don Cupitt, in Reformed theology.
John Calvin in particular stuck so close to Augustine and was so Grand-Narrative-minded that preachers in his tradition (variously called Reformed, Calvinist, Presbyterian or puritan) long tended to maintain that the entire story, the Plan of Salvation, was implicit in every verse of Scripture...
And so it's deemed okay, even necessary, to go on a treasure hunt through Genesis, trying to find ways to tie it in to a theology that only emerged long after. The problem is not only that the Old Testament is pillaged for dubious proof texts, but that the standard metanarrative has gaping holes in it anyway. Is it worth rescuing? Death and suffering long predate the rise of human beings on this planet. Nature has always been red in tooth and claw. We didn't do it!

Apart from that obvious objection, there is no undisputed metanarrative in the Bible, only in the minds of certain of its interpreters. The popular version owes as much to Milton's puritan classic Paradise Lost as to the Bible. You have to mutilate the scriptures to make them "fit" into a metanarrative.

Which is, in my opinion, what Jack Blanco has done. The pack of cards doesn't stack up, so you flick the Jokers off to the side and replace them with some more convenient cards from an entirely different deck. Creative writing for Blanco, creative exegesis for conservative scholars.

This prophecy exists only in the eye of the beholder.


  1. The serpent could be interpreted as the personification of evil in its many and varied aspects. It would most certainly include Satanic evil in the mix. This is a poetic rendering. But then I am not a Biblical literalist. What points to Satan is the serpent imagery that occurs elsewhere in the Bible and the fact that the snake spoke and and this is an indication of a supernatural power. But technically, was it Satan or was it one of his minions? We have no certain way of knowing. Was the speaking serpent an analog for some other event. We have no certain way of knowing.

    -- Neo

  2. Art and literary forms lend themseles to interpretation. They are intended to be thought provoking, leading to very personal thoughts and conclusions. The problem is, we had teachers who taught their personal interpretations as hard and fast truth. I can see Jesus and Satan in the metaphor of the serpent's temptation of Eve. Or nothing. To the extent that one's ruminations trend to the edifying, this certainly trumps normal, black and white fundamentalist thinking.


  3. Maybe the lesson here is not to torture cobras because they just wouldn't understand.

    If we're going to read more into something than more than what's already there, why can't we take non sequiturs of any stripe to make it mean whatever we'd like it to mean?

    1. Oh, in the ACOGs, you are required to spend a few hours each day blanket-training your cobra! If he hisses, or uncoils and begins to slither, you spank him with two fingers while firmly repeating the word "No!". That way, at sabbath services, he won't create a disturbance amongst the 20 or so people watching that week's video of the sermon.


  4. It's just another biblical error. God told the snake "from this day on you'll eat dust". But, guess what, snakes don't eat dust! Never did. If God said that, he got it wrong. It God didn't say that, the bible misquotes him. Anyway you look at it, the bible is not inerrant - this is an error. How else ya gonna 'splain it?

  5. The serpent thing is only a corruption of an older myth of the Babylonians. By the time Christians came on the scene, the serpent was the devil (Rev. 12:9) because Christians were trying to interpret the literal scripture into "a new and living way" which means, allegorically interpreted. In other words, they took the letter of the account and "spiritualized" it to reveal a whole new "hidden" thing - Gal. 4:24 for example. And, evidently, they are still doing that.

    1. Several thousand years later, allegorical interpretation became one basis for gnosticism. It is found throughout the gnostic gospels and epistles.
      The "teachers" seem to like to dictate what is or is not intended as allegory, and then to teach their determinations as if they were mathematical axioms.


  6. Folks are certainly entitled to look at this story as a mythological explanation for snake physiology. Folks are entitled to believe that this is a story about a literal talking snake that was interested in playing a trick on humans. However, as Revelation 12:9 equates Satan with that "old serpent", it appears that the authors of the New Berkeley Version were not the first folks to equate the serpent in this story with Satan. Moreover, the author of Ezekiel 28 apparently thought that the "anointed cherub that covereth" had been "in Eden the garden of God." Hence, it is also not unreasonable for some of us to think of this story as a prophecy about the Messiah - especially in light of the Gospel accounts of the temptation and execution of Christ.

  7. ".. in light of the Gospel accounts of the temptation and execution of Christ"
    There is no evidence for these Gospel narrative events being historical, no data from contemporary corroborating neutral observers.
    - And you build your life around this unverifiable fairytale?!
    If you tried to peddle your Gospel story to a court of law it would be rejected as Hearsay

  8. I'm sorry - I thought we were discussing whether or not it was reasonable to regard a passage from Genesis as a prophetic part of a spiritual metanarrative. I wasn't attempting to make an argument about the historicity of the events in question for the jury of Otagosh readers. However, while I personally don't regard the Bible as a history textbook, I think that most scholars would regard it as evidence.

    1. It's just that I felt that your statement "the temptation and execution of Christ"
      - like it was solid historical fact - was insensitive to Mythicists and skeptics.
      Suggested contemporary wording would be "the alleged temptation and execution of 'Christ'"

  9. Revelation isn't evidence of much about Genesis given all the evidence is that development about the idea of Satan had occurred in Judaism by that point that was not true of whenever Genesis was recorded. The various apocryphal texts show such a development in terms of demons that the OT doesn't suggest anything about as everything was under the control of God with no rebellious angels in sight, just spirits sent from God to kill all the firstborn or drive Saul mad. Satan was in the role of prosecutor in some sort of celestial court with God as the judge in both instances where Satan actually appears by name in the OT with him clearly not being on God's bad side or in rebellion in either instance. Based on this understanding that is backed by good evidence, saying the snake is Satan makes no sense except in later Judaism and then Christianity.

    And saying Jesus' temptation and execution fits is only true insofar as literally almost every person can be made to fit. It does not say the snake and his offspring refers to Satan so anything can fit allegorically. It says the offspring of Eve which narrows it down to literally everyone on Earth except Eve and Adam. Even saying the snake and his offspring refers to Satan doesn't help anything. Almost any sort of temptation to sin would count as Satan striking at the heel. Any sort of defiance or attempt to define Satan would count as striking at his head in some way. In fact, it would make much more allegorical but still not really textually justified sense to say the woman refers to the Church and its followers while the snake and its offspring refers to other religions. That makes vastly more sense to me in terms of actually fitting the text.

    It suffers from the twin problems of prophecy. If it is supposed to be for the people before it happens, it is so uselessly vague that it is meaningless to them outside of an explanation for why snakes act like they do that it can't help them at all, especially as interpretations of it in the Christian way is completely lacking in the OT as well as whatever we can tell about early Jewish thought. So it is useless to them.

    Now if it is supposed to be proof, it suffers from the Nostradamus problem. If taken as a prophecy instead of the much more plausible etiological myth it appears to be, it is so vague that it can probably be said to refer to almost anything. Heck, a Muslim might say it refers to Muhammad with as much justification, much less anybody else who sees themselves as metaphorically being attacked by Satan and attacking them back. In order to serve as proof, it must be so specific as to leave out the possibility that it is so insanely vague that it could refer to almost anything.