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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Snakes and Vipers

Snakes and vipers have a mixed history in the Bible. Generally they have a negative connotation.

One thinks of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The tempter brings about the Original Sin. Snakes and humans are to be everlasting enemies.

After the original sin, God addresses the serpent, which represents Satan, curses it and adds a promise:

"I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Gn 3: 15).

One recalls the words of St John the Baptist at the Baptism of Christ:

"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" ( Matthew 3:7 )

Jesus Christ himself used the term as an insult at least twice:

"You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." Matthew 12:34

"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" Matthew 23:33

But sometimes snakes have a positive connotation,

The staff of Moses was transformed into a snake and then back into a staff (Exodus 4:2-4).

A copper serpent ("Nehushtan") was wrapped around a pole and used for healing:

"And Moses made a snake of copper, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a snake had bitten any man, when he beheld the snake of brass, he lived." (Book of Numbers 21:9)

It was this copper snake, which was destroyed by King Hezekiah:

"He removed the high places, broke the sacred pillars, smashed the idols, and broke into pieces the copper snake that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan." 2 Kings 18:4

Christ himself referred to the copper snake. In John 3:14, 15, when Jesus referred to it when he said that the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that all who believe in Him will have eternal life:

" The Son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him...God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved"

In Matthew 10:16, Christ said that his disciples should be as wise as serpents

All these are well known examples.

One other important example is from the New Testament: St Paul and the snake in Malta in AD 60. This has been the subject of a number of important works of art. On the dome of St Paul`s Cathedral in London, the list image in the grisaille Life of St Paul by Thornhill is the incident of St Paul and the snake.

It is also the first recorded miracle by St Paul

And here the serpent is definitely a harbinger of evil.


Print made by Hendrik Goltzius 1558 - 1617
After Jan van der Straet 1523 - 1605
St Paul bitten by the viper
c. 1580
Engraving
198 millimetres x 267 millimetres
The British Museum, London

Martin de Vos 1532 - 1603
St Paul bitten by a viper on the Island of Malta
Oil on wood
1.240 m. x 1.990 m.
Musée du Louvre, Paris



Adam Elsheimer (1574/1578-1610)
Saint Paul on MaltaAbout 1600
Oil on copper
16.8 x 21.3 cm
The National Gallery, London

Benjamin West 1738-1820
Sketch for `St Paul Shaking off the Viper' 1786
Oil on canvas
support: 1295 x 724 mm
The Tate, London

Paul who has been bitten but left unscathed by a viper, is shown casting the snake into the flames as the survivors and islanders look on. The passage in Acts explains:

Acts 28: 1 - 6

"1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god."


Malta was then part of the Roman state, the province of Sicily. It is near Egypt, Greece and the Far East and is sea-faring. The natives of Malta would have been familiar with the Egyptian and other Eastern and North African deities, some of the most powerful of whom were in the form of snakes. The snake had a particular resonance in the Egyptian religion and cults. The survival by Paul of the snake bite and his killing of the snake would have been particularly wondrous. He had demonstrated that his God was mmore powerful than the pagan deities.

St Francis de Sales referred to this incident in his Introduction to the Divine Life - with a warning:

"Give heed, then, daughter, that you keep this mystic chrism of gentleness and humility in your heart, for it is a favourite device of the Enemy to make people content with a fair outside semblance of these graces, not examining their inner hearts, and so fancying themselves to be gentle and humble while they are far otherwise. And this is easily perceived, because, in spite of their ostentatious gentleness and humility, they are stirred up with pride and anger by the smallest wrong or contradiction.

There is a popular belief that those who take the antidote commonly called "Saint Paul's gift," do not suffer from the viper's bite, provided, that is, that the remedy be pure; and even so true gentleness and humility will avert the burning and swelling which contradiction is apt to excite in our hearts.

If, when stung by slander or ill-nature, we wax proud and swell with anger, it is a proof that our gentleness and humility are unreal, and mere artificial show. When the Patriarch Joseph sent his brethren back from Egypt to his father's house, he only gave them one counsel, "See that ye fall not out by the way.""

St Francis de Sales Introduction to the Divine Life PART III. Section 8