SERPENTS OF THE BIBLE
The first characteristic of serpents is that their whole body is foot. It lies upon the ground, and is their instrument of progression. They throw themselves rapidly forward by coils of their body; but they have also a remarkable power of gliding along without coils, and without any other perceptible means of locomotion. This movement is dependent on:
. . . the mobility of the ribs, which are pushed forward in succession, and drawn back again, so as to catch against any inequality of the ground. This power is increased by the structure of the scales. Those of the upper part of the body, which are not used for locomotion, are shaped something like the scales of a fish; but those of the lower part of the body, which come in contact with the ground, are broad belts, each overlapping the other, and each connected with one pair of ribs. When, therefore, the serpent pushes forward the ribs, the edges of the scaly belts will catch against the slightest projection, and are able to give a very powerful impetus to the body.
It is scarcely possible to drag a snake backwards over rough ground; while on a smooth surface, such as glass, the serpent would be totally unable to proceed. (Bible Animals)
This gliding motion is as if the animal were intent with his whole mind upon keeping out of sight, and attaining his ends without suspicion. It is both offensive and defensive. By means of it he creeps unheard and unsuspected close to the insects, reptiles, or other small creatures which are his food, and seizes his prey by a sudden dart of his tongue or head. And, on the other hand, when surprised by an intruder whom he fears, he glides away so noiselessly and with so little appearance of movement, that an unpracticed eye will remain fixed upon the neighboring grass or sticks, and will only know that the snake is gone.
Describing the manner of handling venomous snakes practiced by Mr. Waterton, Mr. Wood says:
The nature of all serpents is rather peculiar. . . . They are extremely unwilling to move except where urged by the wants of nature, and will lie coiled up for many hours together when not pressed by hunger. Consequently, when touched, their feeling is evidently like that of a drowsy man, who only tries to shake off the object which may rouse him, and compose himself afresh to sleep. A quick and sudden movement would, however, alarm the reptile, which would strike in self-defense; and, sluggish as are its general movements, its stroke is delivered with such lightning rapidity that it would be sure to inflict its fatal wound before it was seized. If, therefore, Mr. Waterton saw a serpent which he desired to catch, he would creep very quietly up to it, and with a gentle, slow movement place his fingers round its neck just behind the head. If it happened to be coiled up in such a manner that he could not get at its neck, he had only to touch it gently until it moved sufficiently for his purpose.
When he had once placed his hand on the serpent it was in his power. He would then grasp it very lightly indeed, and raise it gently from the ground, trusting that the reptile would be more inclined to be carried quietly than to summon up sufficient energy to bite. Even if it were inclined to use its fangs, it could not have done so as long as its captor’s fingers were round its neck. (Bible Animals)
Some charmers of serpents display snakes with their fangs extracted; but others:
. . . handle with impunity the cobra or the cerastes with all its venomous apparatus in good order. The charmers are always provided with musical instruments, of which a sort of flute with a loud shrill sound is the one which is mostly used in the performances. Having ascertained from slight marks which their practiced eyes easily discover, that a serpent is hidden in some crevice, the charmer plays upon his flute, and in a short time the snake is sure to make its appearance. As soon as it is fairly out, the man seizes it by the end of the tail, and holds it up in the air at arm’s length. In this position it is helpless, having no leverage, and merely wriggles about in fruitless struggles to escape. Having allowed it to exhaust its strength by its efforts, the man lowers it into a basket, where it is only too glad to find a refuge, and closes the lid. After awhile he raises the lid and begins to play the flute. The serpent tries to glide out of the basket; but, as soon as it does so, the lid is shut down again and in a very short time the reptile finds that escape is impossible, and, as long as it hears the sound of the flute, only raises its head in the air, supporting itself on the lower part of its tail, and continues to wave its head from side to side. . . . The rapidity with which a cobra learns this lesson is extraordinary, the charmers being as willing to show their mastery over newly caught serpents as over those which have been long in their possession. . . .
The allusion to the “deaf adder [probably cobra] that stoppeth her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely” (Psalm 58:4, 5), needs a little explanation. Some species of serpent are more susceptible to sound than others, the cobra being the most sensitive of all the tribe. Any of these which are comparatively insensible to the charmer’s efforts may be considered as ‘deaf adders.’ But there has been from time immemorial a belief in the East that some individual serpents are very obstinate and self-willed, refusing to hear the sound of the flute, or the magic song of the charmer, and pressing one ear into the dust, while they stop the other with the tail.”
After quoting various comments upon this belief, Mr. Wood adds:
It may be as well to remark, . . . that snakes have no external ears, and that therefore the notion of the serpent stopping its ears is, zoologically, a simple absurdity.
The asp of our English Bible is identified with tolerable certainty with the cobra. The adder, in the expression, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels, so that his rider shall fall backward,” seems to be the cerastes, or horned snake. Of this little snake Tristram writes:
Its habit is usually to coil itself on the sand, where it basks in the impress of a camel’s foot, and thence suddenly to dart out on any passing animal. So great is the terror which its sight inspires in horses, that I have known mine, when I was riding in the Sahara, suddenly start and rear, trembling and perspiring in every limb, and no persuasions would induce him to proceed. I was quite unable to account for his terror, until I noticed a cerastes coiled up in a depression two or three paces in front, with its basilisk eyes steadily fixed on us, and no doubt preparing for a spring, as the horse passed. (Natural History of the Bible)
All beasts signify affections, . . . and serpents signify the affections of the sensual man, by reason of their creeping on the belly upon the ground in like manner as the sensual principle of man; for this is in the lowest place, and as it were creeps upon the ground under all other principles. . . . The evil . . . who are in the hells, are mostly sensual, and many of them subtle; wherefore when they are viewed from the light of heaven, they appear as serpents of various kinds and hence it is that the devil is called a serpent. (Apocalypse Explained #581)
By sensual affection is not meant the power of perceiving through the senses, nor thoughts from such perception; but the love of sensual pleasure, to which these perceptions and thoughts minister. The men of ancient days at first had interior perceptions of love and wisdom from heaven, and attended chiefly to these and to the pleasant things of the world as representatives of them.
But after awhile they began to think of the pleasures of external sensations separate from spiritual perceptions—they listened to the Serpent, who was more subtle than any wild beast of the field which the Lord God had made; and, judging of good and evil by his advice, they lost everything heavenly.
“In old time, they were called serpents,” Swedenborg says, “who trusted to things of sense more than to things revealed” (Arcana Coelestia #196; also #195).
The poison of serpents is the subtle persuasion of the love of sensual pleasure, by which it torpifies our spiritual perceptions, and delivers us up to spiritual death. The senses are not equally dangerous in this way. The affections of sight and hearing sometimes beguile us; the affections of taste and touch do so continually.
And they always act like serpents. The affections for the pleasant things of these senses insinuate themselves so cautiously, and present such plausible appearances of use or necessity, that we do not perceive them at all until we have gone too far. Then, perhaps, we wake with a shock to find the serpent taking possession of us. By the poison of these serpents more than by any other causes the spirit of man is deadened, closed to the perception of spiritual truth, and hardened to the delights of heavenly loves. And when these
things of interior life are destroyed, the man is all serpent—cold, sluggish, stupid—keen and cruel only when some appetite is excited. The serpent in the way, biting the horse’s heels so that his rider shall fall backward, denotes reasonings from appearances and externally pleasant things by which the understanding of spiritual truth is taken away. (Arcana Coelestia #6400.)
But the love of sensual pleasure is not always evil. In the earliest times it was simply an external delight subservient to and completing heavenly delights; and so it becomes again as men are regenerated. To quote once more from Swedenborg:
In as much as by serpents are signified sensual things, which are the ultimates of the natural man, and these are not evil except with those persons who are evil . . . by . . . serpents not poisonous . . . are signified in the Word sensual things not evil, or, as applied to persons, sensual men not evil. (Apocalypse Explained #714)
By the serpent, among the most ancient people, who were celestial men, was signified circumspection, and in like manner the sensual, by which they exercised circumspection lest they should be injured by evil; which is evident from the words of the Lord to His disciples, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; be ye therefore prudent as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). So also by the brazen serpent which was set up in the wilderness, by which was signified the sensual of the Lord, who alone is the celestial man, and alone is circumspect and provident for all; wherefore all who looked upon it were preserved. (Arcana Coelestia #197)
The Lord glorified His whole human, even to the senses and the sensual affections. He made them divine in Him, and perfectly subservient to His love and wisdom. And He has power to subdue excited sensual affections in us. If we bring them at once to Him, they subside, and the spirit is healed. This is represented by the elevation of the brazen serpent, and the healing of all whom the serpents had bitten, who looked upon it.
The charming of serpents by music seems to represent the subjection of pleasures of sense to spiritual affections. “The deaf adder that stoppeth her ear, which will not hearken to the voice of charmers charming never so wisely,” is the persistent love of such pleasure, which will not attend to words of wisdom, or tones of spiritual affection. Possibly the serpents most easily charmed in this manner have relation to the sense of hearing, which may exert a most enervating influence upon the spirit, but may with comparative ease be made to serve noble affections. It would be an interesting inquiry whether there are also serpents charmed by bright colors, since the eye is even more readily made the servant of intelligence. (Arcana Coelestia #195)
In a good sense, the harmless serpents represent the watchfulness of the senses lest the body suffer injury. In a deeper sense, the watchful caution and noiseless retreat of the harmless serpents image the useful circumspection which we ought to exercise in dealing with others—as, for instance, in presenting truth to them, lest we subject the truth to abuse or misunderstanding, advancing our views cautiously, and when we perceive that they will not be received, withdrawing them if possible without observation. The senses are then all on the watch for tones, looks, or touches which agree or disagree; and so guide and protect our advance and retreat. This sensitiveness we call “tact.”
Author: JOHN WORCESTER 1875