ESSAY
Snakes and Ladders
POSTED
September 7, 2021

What kind of father gives his son a stone when he asks for bread, or  a serpent when he asks for a fish? The answer is, the Heavenly Father!

Jesus rarely stated the obvious, and this particular question in His Sermon on the Mount concerning the fatherhood of God is a prime example (Matthew 7:9-11).

The obvious answer is that no father would admit to treating his child so despicably. But if we think this is the limit of what Jesus had in mind, we not only do Him a disservice, we also miss out on the spiritual benefit of what He intended us to grasp.

When Jesus turned the definition of “blessed” inside out at the beginning of the sermon, His hearers understood this in the context of the Old Covenant. If they were distressed by the Law, they were blessed because this would bring them to Christ.

When Jesus spoke of stones and serpents, He was once again turning things inside out, calling His hearers to look beyond the appearance of things to their spiritual purpose.

God’s best gifts are diamonds wrapped in midnight velvet, light smuggled to us in thick darkness. Those who received bad things from God were to trust in His good character, just as Isaac trusted Abraham, realizing that these apparent curses must be great blessings in disguise.

If you’ve ever played the game Snakes and Ladders, you know all about blessings and curses. If you land on a ladder, you jump ahead in the game. If you land on a snake, you slide backwards.

The book of Genesis is a very long game of Snakes and Ladders. The most obvious examples are the serpent in the Garden and the stairway God showed to Jacob in a dream.

But in God’s world, the snakes often look like ladders, and the ladders often look like snakes. The only way to discern which is which is by referring to what God has previously said to us. This is because, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the Adversary himself masquerades as a messenger of enlightenment” (2 Corinthians 11:14).

So when the devil turns up with an opportunity for exaltation—like the offer he made to Adam in the Garden, and the offers he made to Jesus in the wilderness —he was a snake pretending to be a ladder. The catch was that he offered things that God Himself had promised, but right now instead of in God’s good time.

Adam took the kingdom that God intended for him by bowing the knee to the devil. What would have been a blessing later became a curse now. His eyes were opened to see as God sees, but he was not yet ready to bear the weight of ruling as a king.

Jesus refused to bow the knee, obeyed God by voluntarily submitting to death, and through suffering was prepared to receive and bear all authority in heaven and earth (Hebrews 2:10).

In that sense, Jesus turned the snake into a ladder. And that is precisely what He meant when He spoke of stones and serpents.

God gave Abraham a barren land and a barren womb, and these were to be transformed and made fertile by patient faith.

When God carried Israel into the wilderness, the people were to take the stones of the Law and the serpents of temptation and turn them into “bread and fish,” that is, spiritual dominion over the Land (Canaan) and the Sea (the surrounding nations).

In Luke’s Gospel (Luke 11:12), stone-and-bread is replaced with scorpion-and-egg, which is yet another way of contrasting the barren wilderness (the sting of death) and the fertility of the Land (the promise of life).

God’s best gifts come to us incognito because this “opens our eyes,” training us to see what is invisible behind what is visible.

Abraham and Jacob outsmarted numerous serpents in their lives (including Pharaoh, Esau, and Laban), but Genesis ends as it began, with a young man whom God put in charge of the food.

Although faithful, Joseph suffered a series of terrible setbacks. He slid down a snake (his own brothers) into a pit, and then into slavery. Through faith, he turned slavery into a ladder. But as the chief steward in his master’s house, he encountered another snake (Potiphar’s wife) and slid into prison. That, too, he turned into a ladder.

But after his betrayal by Pharaoh’s cupbearer, even that snake became a ladder. Joseph was exalted to the “top rung” of Egypt! His brothers encountered him as a snake who tested their hearts, but because he recognized God’s hand in every event of his life, Joseph became a ladder for those who betrayed him (Genesis 50:20).

Learn to see every snake—whether sickness, misfortune, bereavement, or even betrayal—as a potential ladder. We can do this because we know that God is good. Nothing comes to a saint that has not passed through God’s hand first. If we humble ourselves under His hand, He will exalt us in due time (1 Peter 5:6).

“Adam and Eve were supposed to be patient. They were to feed on the Tree of Life, and become gradually built up in wisdom and understanding. Then, when they were strong enough and wise enough, God would let them eat of the Tree of Knowledge.” — James B. Jordan

This essay is from Theo Magazine #3.


Michael Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of Schema, A Journal of Systematic Typology, Vol. 5. He blogs at Bible Matrix.

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