Wednesday, November 22, 2023

They shall take up serpents

When I got up this morning, I found that the wallpaper image on my phone had inexplicably been changed from an astronomical photograph to one of a coiled rattlesnake -- a photo I had found online and saved on October 18. I guess I must somehow have set it to wallpaper while asleep or half-asleep, but I have absolutely no hint of any memory of doing so. Changing the wallpaper would have been a multi-step process -- tapping through several screens in Settings, scrolling through to a not-so-recent photo -- and I don't see how I could possibly have done it without the benefit of full waking consciousness, but I did, obviously.

As discussed in my last post, my thoughts after waking soon turned to Jannes and Jambres, the Egyptian magicians who duplicated some of the miracles of Moses and Aaron -- including turning rods into snakes:

And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, "When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent."

And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the Lord had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods (Ex. 7:8-12).

This echoes an earlier miracle, the first shown to Moses after he was called by the burning bush:

And Moses answered and said, "But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee."

And the Lord said unto him, "What is that in thine hand?"

And he said, "A rod."

And he said, "Cast it on the ground."

And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.

And the Lord said unto Moses, "Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail" -- and he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand -- "that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee" (Ex. 4:1-5).

Taking a snake by the tail is crazy, suicidal behavior -- but Moses did it, and it became a rod in his hand. Not until today did I think to connect this story with the strange promise in the epilogue to the Gospel of Mark:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover (Mark 16:17-18).

A few fringe groups like the Church of God with Signs Following take this as an invitation to practice ritual snake-handling as a demonstration of faith. I suppose most "normal" Christians are taught what I was: that the intended meaning was that God could miraculously protect believers from snakebite when necessary (as reportedly happened with Paul in Acts 28), not that we should "tempt God" by intentionally risking it. The Bible does say they shall actively take up serpents, though. The only biblical account of someone doing that is that of Moses -- and in his case what had been a serpent became a rod in his hand.

I think this miracle has a similar symbolic meaning to that of Jesus walking on the surface of the stormy sea: You take something slithery and treacherous, treat it as firm and solid, and it becomes so for you. This is shown in the "King and Lionheart" video, where slithery insubstantial creatures of light become solid enough to climb or run across when treated as such:

I think this may also be related to Samuel's prophecy about all things becoming slippery:

Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone; and behold, our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for battle. Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land. O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them (Hel. 13:34-36).

Isn't this Moses' first miracle in reverse -- or rather the first part of the two-part miracle? Lay a tool down -- a rod, say -- and it comes to life and slithers away. The difference is that the accursed "cannot hold them" again, but Moses can -- provided he has the courage to reach out and take a living snake by the tail.

This connection came to me in a meditative state this afternoon while I was saying my Rosary. It struck me how like a snake the string of beads was, and how when I took it up it became as solid and reliable as the iron rod of Lehi. Then I remembered that very similar imagery had been used in The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet:

And now, to the boys' amazement, Ta drew from around his neck the beautiful necklace of stones and flung it up to them -- and as it came slithering and swerving upward through the green air, it seemed almost like something alive. "You must divide the stones between you," said Ta, "and because of them, you will always remember me . . . . Those stones were taken from our Sacred Hall in the depths of the mountains, and are given only to the kings of our people" (p. 117).

Stones -- more solid and inflexible even than a rod -- slither like something alive. Despite Ta's instruction, the boys never do divide the stones between them; the necklace remains intact.

Back on Earth, the boys believe the necklace has been lost, washed away to sea, but later Chuck produces it, and it is explicitly likened to a serpent:

And like some marvelous rainbow-colored serpent the necklace of Ta poured from his fingers and hung there, swaying back and forth in the bright air (p. 168).

Asked how he had recovered it, Chuck explains:

I looked down into one of those little rock pools, and I thought, 'What a beautiful crab.' And then I thought, 'But there's never been a crab as beautiful as that!' and I got down on my knees and put my hand in the rock pool -- and pulled out Ta's necklace (p. 168).

There's an echo of Moses here, too. Reaching for a crab in a rock pool may be considerably less foolhardy than taking a serpent by the tail, but in ordinary circumstances you would still be risking a nasty nip. When he grasped the "crab," though, it became a necklace of stones in his hand.

Given all the brilliant colors of Ta's necklace, I almost think that the crustacean Chuck saw in the pool must have looked more like this:

1 comment:

Ben said...

Just the other day I was reading an article which drew the same connection you have intuitively drawn here between Moses transmuting the snake and Jesus walking on water:

Search for the paragraph starting "This duality corresponds also to the two aspects of the ‘snake’", where the author lays out the metaphysical principles underlying the symbolism (and reality) of both miracles.

I came across that post 'randomly' while searching for something else. And I haven't checked your blog for many months (sorry to say!) but was prompted to do so today, presumably so that I could notice the synchronicity and share it with you.

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