Serpents First

Imagine a version of the Lord of the Rings beginning with Sauron riding into the Shire and lopping off heads in a mad search for the ring, driving Frodo to flight from the beginning, helter-skelter and harried. While, no doubt, some Hollywood exec is at this moment scrambling to reboot the franchise in such a way, I trust the rest of us recognize that this would be a poor beginning to the story.

Rather than making the story more exciting, it flattens the characters, limits the tension and drains the story of drama. This is because Death has an amazing ability to focus the mind and thereby limit the story. At the end of one’s life is not the time to pitch woo, redefine your career or develop a new hobby. Stopping to smell the flowers is only a virtue if you aren’t being chased by ax murderers. If Frodo is under the gun from the very beginning, there can be no fellowship, no Rivendale, no attempt for the redemption of Sméagol. Such a story is bereft of all that makes Tolkien’s tale rich and worthy, reducing it to mere spectacle.

A good story builds, adding elements, both allies and enemies, along the way, but there’s an escalation, the longer the journey the steeper it is, the more arduous it becomes. A protagonist is never equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to defeat evil from the beginning. Part of the story is about how the hero grows in strength even as the difficulties grow. Luke doesn’t face Darth Vader at the beginning, he faces him at the end. Initially the threat is that he won’t get the droids safely to the rebellion, but the threat at the end is the destruction of a planet and the triumph of the Empire. Perhaps it doesn’t surprise us that this narrative pattern matches what happens in the Scriptures.

In Eden the first challenge comes from the serpent, at the end of the story the threat is death by dragon. From Genesis to Revelation the pattern is: Serpents first, then Dragons. These two cannot be conflated without missing some key details. Serpents aren’t just tiny dragons, their strength is different and their methods distinct. To fully guard ourselves from serpents and dragons in our own lives we must be aware of how they operate.

We get a hint of this Serpents First pattern in the creation account. God creates seven categories of creatures, the teemers (sea creatures 1.), the fowl, dragons (tanniyn 2.), cattle, creeping things, beasts, and man. Man is placed in stewardship, but rather than a blanket “over all of the things” God gives a list: “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (1:26). For those keeping track that’s 1. Fish 2. Fowl 3. Cattle 4. “Over all the earth” and 5. Creeping Things. 3

There’s lots, lots going on here, but for our purposes we’ll note that it doesn’t mention dragons at all or beasts of the field explicitly. Of course when God addresses his image He says, “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” All that moveth would include the beasts, but the domain of dragons is the sea and therefore still aren’t included. Similarly to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, dragons are a challenge to be grown into.

The fact that the beasts of the field aren’t mentioned specifically, falling under dominion through a technicality, is a foreshadowing of their danger. The first beast of the field to show up is the serpent which we are told is the most shrewd of the beasts of the field. 4 We all know how that one turned out, but the key thing to note here is how the serpent conquers. The dangers of a dragon are apparent (teeth, swords, armies, death), but the serpent attacks with deceit.

Like Satan in the temptation of Christ, the serpent conquers through the twisting of God’s word, and the book of Genesis is largely the story of the temptation of the seed of the woman by the seed of the serpent. From the twisted words of Babel to Laban and the lies about Joseph, the people of God must contend with these tactics, but in sending His sheep amidst wolves, God counsels them to be as wise as serpents, so for every Mrs. Potiphar there’s the shrewdness of Abraham and Rebekah.

After deceit, the next tactic is violence or, to put it another way, deceit in Eden turns to death in Egypt. The stakes are raised in the book of Exodus as the Hebrew people are enslaved and their children murdered. The Seed of the Serpent no longer deceives, but consumes. It is here that dragons appear for the first time since Genesis 1.

In confronting Pharaoh, Aaron is to cast down his rod so that it is turned into a tanniyn. Pharaoh counters with his own secret arts and they have a duel, Aaron’s rod versus the rods of Egypt. “For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents [tanniyn]: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods,” (Exodus 7:12). The dragons of Egypt were out-dragoned by the God of dragons. From this point forward Israel is afflicted with the great monsters, surrounded on all sides by Philistia, Assyria and Babylon. Serpents congregate in the Pentateuch, but dragons abound in the Kingly and Prophetic literature.

Job receives a psalm from God Himself on the power of that great dragon, the Leviathan.

“Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?

Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?” (Job 41:1-6).

No man yet could deal with the power of dragons, but things were changing. Under the tutelage of Yahweh, mankind was steadily equipped to fight against them. Three thousand years after Adam, Goliath of Gath, bronzen like the fiery serpent in the wilderness, 5 is slain by King David and lifted up on a hill. The enemy of the Jews, Haman, was also killed, hung upon a tree. 6

Steadily the monsters of the sea are reeled onto land where they can be tread upon. This is the picture in the Psalms. “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet,” (Psalms 91:13) and “Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness,” (Psalms 74:14). Yahweh pulls the dragon into man’s domain, breaks the crooked serpent and gives him to His people as food.

But God isn’t content with victory, He must transform. To combat the serpent’s deceit, He not only deceives, He speaks the truth. False words are undone by the true Word. Violence gets violence, but it also begets sacrifice. Haman and Goliath are in the guise of the serpent and lifted up, just as the Son of Man is lifted; the leviathan is broken and given to the people as food, just as the Messiah is the Bread of Life, broken for us and given to us as food.

After failing to deceive Him, Satan unleashes violence upon the Son of Man. But unwittingly the death of God is the death of Death, revealing our response to the dragon. If deceit is the twisting of truth, then sacrifice is the undoing of violence. Evil is undone by Word and Sacrament. The vision of the fiery dragon in Revelation, crouching to devour the seed of the woman, is overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,” (Revelation 12:11).

Certain enemies must be grown into, you must be so tall for certain trials. Bilbo has difficulty feeding thirteen dwarves supper in the beginning and must grow before he deals with the wiley words of Gollum, and more still before standing up to the formidable Smaug. Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden alone, but now the Spirit of God dwells in us. Adam and Eve were first clothed in fig leaves, but now we wear the full armor of God. From Priests to Kings, from Word to Sacrament, the people of God are undaunted by their enemies, be they serpents or dragons.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.

References   [ + ]

1. The Hebrew word שֶׁרֶץ (teemers or swarmers) is used to include the array of sea creatures, but is also an interchangeable term for the creepy crawlies created on the next day (used in Genesis 7:21 for the insects and reptiles that live on land). The first time the word fish shows up is in Genesis 1:26, paired with fowl as the teemers were in v.20
2. Also translated as sea-serpent, sea-monster and whale
3. Note also the nice inclusio with the priestly animals in the center.
4. Of course in Genesis 3:14 the serpent is demoted to a creeping thing.
5. I Samuel 17:5,6 + Numbers 21:9, an observation made by James B. Jordan who has so benefited me that it is difficult to cite every detail I’ve learned from him.
6. The Hebrew word translated “gallows” throughout the book of Esther is the Hebrew word for “tree.”