In the Garden
The first mention of a snake in the Bible is in the Book of Genesis, and is an integral part of the Christian creation story. In six days the god Jehovah created the universe and all its animals, but on planet Earth he created only one human being, a man. For his daily food supply, Jehovah created for him what he called a Garden of Eden. Jehovah told the man that it was his duty to tend to the garden and take care of it, and if he did that, it would provide all his nourishment. But Jehovah told the man there was one tree in the middle of the garden that he was not to eat from, and that tree was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jehovah warned the man that if he ate from the tree, he would die. After Jehovah explained that to him, he took a rib from him and fashioned it into a woman, and the woman was to be the man’s helper.
There was a serpent in this garden, and it is written in Genesis that a serpent was the craftiest of all the animals created by Jehovah. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was not only crafty, it could speak whatever language it was which this man and woman spoke to each other, and it correctly and honestly explained to the woman that if she ate from the prohibited tree, she would not die as Jehovah had threatened, but instead she would gain the godly wisdom of knowing the difference between good and evil. That sounded like a winner to the woman, so she promptly ate some of the tasty fruit from the forbidden tree. The man soon joined her and did likewise. After the two of them had eaten some fruit, their eyes were opened to the difference between good and evil, and they immediately became embarrassed about their nudity. They happened to be carrying needle and thread with them at that very time, and so they quickly sewed some fig leaves together and covered their private parts in that way. In those days, it seems that it was taken for granted that being nude in the presence of members of the opposite sex was evil.
About this time, Jehovah was strolling about nearby. The couple heard him coming and they hid behind some trees. When Jehovah got to where he thought they were, he saw they were not there and called out to them asking where they were. The man answered and came out from behind the trees. He explained to Jehovah that he had heard him in the garden, but because he was naked he was embarrassed and hid behind the trees. Whatever historical figure narrated this story seemed to have forgotten that at that point the man was not naked anymore, but was discreetly covered by fig leaves. Be that as it may, Jehovah understood that for them to be embarrassed because of their nudity they must have eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jehovah asked the man about it, and the man admitted that he had eaten from the tree, but in the same breath tried to blame the whole thing on his woman friend. Jehovah then asked the woman if that was true, and she responded by trying to blame everything on the serpent.
These revelations threw Jehovah into a fit. He angrily put a curse on the snake, condemning it to crawl on its belly and eat dust all the days of its life. Back then, people thought that snakes ate dirt, and did not know that they typically ate rodents and lizards and so forth. There were no formal schools back then. No Internet. No nothing.
In addition to putting a curse on the snake, Jehovah put a curse on the woman, telling her that she and her female progeny would, from then on, suffer great pain during childbirth, and that women would henceforth be subject to the rule of their husbands.
Next, Jehovah put a curse on the man, telling him that his lollygagging days in the Garden of Eden were over. Henceforth, he and his male progeny would have to obtain their food by the sweat of their brow through applied agriculture.
During this part of the narrative, the man is for the first time referred to as Adam, and Adam in turn gives the name Eve to his consort.
Apparently, Jehovah was not impressed with the fig leaves that Adam and Eve had sewn together to cover themselves, so he sat down and fashioned some garments of skin for them. Jehovah did not have to kill an animal, skin it, and tan the hide. There just seemed to be some unattached skin lying about somewhere that he was able to make use of.
Jehovah complained that the man had become like one of “us.” The word “us” supposes that there were more gods than Jehovah. This is not the only reference to the existence of multiple gods in the Bible. Jehovah complained that Adam had learned the difference between good and evil, but he must not be allowed to eat fruit from the Tree of Life. For him to eat fruit from the Tree of Life would give him eternal life, thereby turning him into a god. To keep this from happening, Jehovah banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden forever. Not only that, he placed on the east side of the garden a cherubim to guard the way, and he also created a large flaming sword that would forever swing back and forth, thereby effectively guarding the way to the Tree of Life.
In this biblical account, the serpent is described as being extremely intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for its own good. The serpent knew that Adam and Eve would not die if they ate from the prohibited tree, and it honestly explained that to Eve. The snake also explained to Eve what would happen if she did eat from it, that she would instantly open her eyes to the existence of good and evil. The snake had tempted Eve with the truth. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they became more godlike in their wisdom. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge transformed them from their simple animal awareness into the fully analytical, questioning humans we are today. Jehovah reacted to this by going into a tizzy and putting curses of everyone involved. If in addition to eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve had also eaten from the Tree of Life, they would have obtained eternal life and would thereby have become as gods themselves. To keep that from happening, Jehovah banished them from the Garden of Eden forever.
In this narrative, Jehovah is described as a physical being who seemed to walk somewhat noisily as he made his way through the garden. We are not told whether or not Jehovah wore clothes, but in the context of the rest of the story, it seems reasonable to assume that he did. I also think it is interesting to note that before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they are referred to in the Book of Genesis as “the man” and “the woman.” But after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they become referred to as Adam and Eve.
In the Book of Exodus, there is a story about Moses and the burning bush. While Moses was tending to his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, an angel appeared to him as a fire within a bush. The flame burned brightly and hotly but without consuming the bush. Moses was watching it and was puzzled that the bush was not being burned up by the fire, so he walked over to it to get a closer look. The Lord Jehovah was watching Moses, and called out to him and told Moses to take off his sandals if he was going to approach the bush, as it was sacred ground. It was customary in Egypt in those days for the Egyptian priests to conduct their religious ceremonies barefooted, and it was also the custom for ordinary Egyptian citizens to conduct their personal worship services barefooted. So this injunction to Moses to remove his sandals was in keeping with the customs of the time.
Jehovah then began speaking to Moses through the fire in the bush, and told Moses he wanted him to seek out the pharaoh, who at that time was Rameses II, and demand of him that he set the captured Israelis free. As was the custom throughout the world at that time and for many centuries thereafter, when engaged in battle, captured prisoners of war were brought back to the home country and used as slave labor. There had been previous military battles between Egypt and Israel, with Egypt easily getting the upper hand.
Jehovah, in the guise of the fire in the bush, told Moses to assemble some Hebrew elders in Egypt and tell them that help was on the way. Next, Moses was to seek out an audience with the pharaoh and demand the release of all the Israeli prisoners of war. Moses expressed his doubts that anything he could say to the pharaoh would convince him to do that. Historians today agree that Rameses II was the greatest and most powerful pharaoh in all of Egypt’s long history, so it is understandable that Moses should have had some doubts about how effective his entreaties would be.
Jehovah responded to Moses’s doubts by telling him to throw down the staff he was holding in his hand. Moses threw it down and as soon as it hit the ground, it transformed into a living, writhing snake. Jehovah told Moses to pick it back up. Moses bent over and carefully grabbed the snake by its tail, and the snake was instantly transformed back into a wooden staff. Jehovah imbued Moses with some additional magical abilities, and told him that in this way he should try to convince Rameses II to take seriously his demand to let the Israelis go free. But then the next breath Jehovah also told Moses that he would harden the heart of Rameses II so that no matter what Moses said or did, Rameses would not agree to let the Israelites go free.
Moses then traveled with his wife and sons to the part of Egypt where the pharaoh lived, had a meeting with the local Hebrew elders, did his snake magic, and convinced them that Jehovah was on their side and would soon be lending them a helping hand.
Next, Moses along with his companion and brother, Aaron, sought out the pharaoh. Even though Moses was at that time a relatively unknown personage in Egypt, he and his brother Aaron somehow managed to obtain an audience with Rameses II, whereupon they delivered their demands to him. Rameses II was unmoved. In fact, according to this story, he issued an order making it even more difficult for the Hebrew prisoners of war. Moses and Aaron left empty-handed.
Moses reported all this to Jehovah, and Jehovah told him to try again. Jehovah also told Moses that he, Jehovah, would once more harden the pharaoh’s heart to Moses’ demands, and Jehovah revealed to Moses that he planned to harshly punish the Egyptians in retaliation for Remeses II hardening his heart to Moses’ demands. Jehovah also told Moses that he and his brother should perform their miracles for the pharaoh when they met with him next.
So here we have a situation in which the god Jehovah has a plan which includes sending Moses and his brother on a mission to persuade the pharaoh to set the Hebrew people free, but Jehovah is going to harden the pharaoh’s heart so that he will refuse Moses’s demands, and then Jehovah is going to punish all the Egyptian people for the pharaoh’s refusal to accede to Moses’s demands. That is word for word the way it is described in the Book of Exodus.
For the second time, Moses and Aaron apparently had no problem obtaining an audience with the pharaoh Rameses II, and during their second meeting Aaron threw down his staff on the floor whereupon it magically transformed into a snake. But Rameses was unimpressed. He called for his own sorcerers and had them do the same thing. His sorcerers came forth and threw down their staffs, and they all magically transformed into snakes. But Aaron’s snake was the largest, so it quickly swallowed up all the other snakes.
In the real world, it takes a long time for a snake to attack, kill, and swallow the entirety of another snake. Also in the real world, after a snake had consumed another, it would have lain about for several days in a lethargic stupor while it digested its food. It would have been unable to immediately go after any additional snakes.
Nevertheless, this ends the story of the wooden staffs turning into snakes and then back again into wooden staffs. There was much more magic to come as this story continued to unfold, but I now move on to another biblical snake story.
The Bronze Snake
Before the people of Israel became monotheistic, they had long been polytheistic, and one of their Pagan practices involved creating an image of a deity and mounting it atop a pole. These religious objects were called asherah poles, and they are referred to many times throughout the Old Testament, usually in the context of the monotheists trying to stamp them out. Even after the Israelis became monotheistic, their primal Pagan urges did not die out easily. Many Hebrews hung onto the old ways, and from time to time these old ways enjoyed a general revival among the Israeli people as a whole.
In the Book of Numbers is a story about the Israeli people as they were wandering around the desert, being led by Moses. In one instance, on their way to the Red Sea some of the people began to complain about the hardships they were enduring. They spoke out against both Moses and Jehovah for making them live in such wretched conditions. Some of them were dieing from starvation, dehydration, and exposure. Moses’ brother Aaron also had died in this way.
Jehovah heard these complaints, and to teach the Israelis a lesson he sent venomous snakes among them. Jehovah sent many snakes, and not a few of them bit the famished Israelis, causing them to die in horrible agony. The people quickly repented of their complaining ways and apologized to Moses. Jehovah was moved by their apology to Moses, and instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it atop a pole, and when people were suffering from snakebite, all they had to do was to gaze upon the bronze snake and they would be instantly healed. This asherah pole, which in modern terms would be called a talisman, soon became known as the Bronze Snake, and many more of them were fashioned and venerated by the Israeli people. The Israelis commonly burned incense to them.
In contrast to the other asherah poles, the idea for one referred to as the Bronze Snake came directly from Lord God Jehovah himself.
The Rod of Asclepius
The American Medical Association (AMA) and several other medical groups and organizations have adopted as their official symbol the depiction of a snake wrapped around a vertical pole or stick. This symbol is called the Rod of Asclepius. The origin of this symbol has nothing to do with the asherah pole called the Bronze Snake, but the two are remarkably similar in appearance, and both symbolize healing.
Beginning around 350 BCE, the Greeks began building special temples called Asclepions, in which people could go to be cured of various problems and afflictions. Before going to sleep for the night in one of these Asclepions, the patient would engage in a ritual to produce a dream instructing him how to overcome whatever his problem was. These dream temples, in other words, were used for dream incubation. In the morning, the patient would report his dream to a priest, and the priest would try to interpret it and offer the dreamer a cure.
If you go to the AMA website today, you can read that these popular Asclepion temples were named after Asclepius (Aesculapius), who was the son of the sun god Apollo. Asclepius, also a god, was a healer with remarkable powers. One day while he was attending to a patient, the presence of a nearby snake surprised him, and without thinking he quickly grabbed his staff and struck the snake a deadly blow. The deity Asclepius then returned his attention to his patient, but before long he saw another snake coming over with some healing herbs in its mouth. The snake with the herbs crawled to the dead snake and placed the herbs in its mouth. In a few moments the dead snake began to resuscitate, and not long after that seemed to enjoy a full recovery. As soon as the recovered snake got its bearings, it hurriedly slithered away. Impressed with the healing power of the snake, Asclepius decided to use an image of the snake and his staff together as the symbol of his institution of healing.
This story is apocryphal, of course, but the reason I include it is because of its similarity with the asherah pole which Jehovah commanded Moses to create. In addition to both symbols depicting a snake coiled around a pole or stick, and both being associated with healing, another similarity is that the originators of both symbols were gods.
The AMA adopted the Rod of Asclepius as its official symbol in 1910. This symbol is sometimes confused with another symbol, called the Caduceus, which depicts two snakes wrapped around a pole, and with two bird wings spread out at the top. This symbol is often used to designate some of the medical professions also, but most doctors and scholars lament the mix-up.