Monday, February 28, 2022

An Anthropologist Looks at Genesis 3


A Burmese python, marked with gold paint, lives in a Snake Temple
Photo by Nicole Tu-Maung, 2018.

"Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that God made." (Gen. 3:1)

Alice C. Linsley

Genesis 3 poses the serpent as a source of occult knowledge and criticizes snake veneration/worship, called ophiolatry.

The earliest known image of a serpent was found in a cave in Botswana. This stone carving of a python (shown below) dates to 70,000 years ago and was an object of ancestor veneration. In the San mythology, humans are described as the descendants of a primeval python.

The fat of the python is used in rituals throughout Africa. The Mofu shaman (Cameroon) mixes python fat with the blood of a sacrificed animal when offering prayers for rain. Rounded rain stones are placed in a stone basin. Then dry grasses are added, followed by a handful of brilliant green python fat and then the red blood. The man mixes all together with his hands while he prays for rain. When he has finished praying, he instructs his assistant to wash the stones carefully before they are returned to their hiding place.

Serpent symbolism is found in all religious traditions. Nāga is the Sanskrit word for a deity that has the form of a large snake. Archaeologists have found evidence of snake veneration in Bronze age Canaan. They have recovered serpent cult objects at Megiddo, Gezer, Shechem, and in the inner sanctum of the Area H temple at Hazor.

From ancient times the serpent is associated with supernatural wisdom. It is regarded as having powers to communicate, to deceive, to heal, to hide, to reveal, and to protect. This is the experience of shamans whose trance states induced by hallucinogenic substances induce communication with snakes.

In his book The Cosmic SerpentDNA and the Origins of Knowledge (1999), Jeremy Narby tells of his fieldwork with the Amazonian Ashaninca and Quirishari shamans who seek knowledge through use of the hallucinogen ayahuasca, derived from a serpent shaped vine (shown below). 

Plants with similar chemical properties have been found in Africa and Asia, regions of the world where serpents are believed to speak through possessed people.

The Genesis story is critical of seeking knowledge from the wrong source. The story of Eve, the serpent, and the tree presents the danger of gaining knowledge by occult means. The serpent represents a subtle supernatural power which is recognized in Matthew. Jesus gathers his disciples and gives them authority over unclean spirits. He sends them out as “sheep amid wolves” and exhorts them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)

Serpents as a threat.

Serpents were a familiar threat to humans living in the equatorial tropics. Pythons lived in the Nile River and Horned Vipers buried themselves in the desert sands. The misstep of a traveler could be fatal. Abarea, a headman of the Galla in the northeast Kenya reports in Swahili, Nyoka ni adui, meaning "the snake is the enemy." Those who gathered fruit from trees ran the risk of being bitten by tree snakes. The serpent of Genesis chapter 3 appears to be a tree snake.

His target is the Woman who is to bring forth the Seed/Son of God (Gen. 3:15). This theme is picked up in Revelation 12 where John’s vision describes the Woman fleeing to the wilderness to escape the dragon who seeks to devour her son (Rev. 12: 4-6).


The Serpent is cursed/de-legged (Gen. 3:14-15).

There are many utterances against serpents in the Pyramid Texts. The original or primordial serpent is called Nehebu-Kau in ancient Nilotic mythology. This image of Neheu-Kau with legs appears in connection with Utterance 87 in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

At one time this serpent was regarded as a good assisting presence at Heliopolis in the north, but at some point, he became associated instead with Elephantine Island (Yebu) far to the south. The ancient Egyptians believed that chaos dwelt south of Elephantine Island as a great river serpent called Apep or Apophis. This serpent is depicted as the enemy of the High God. In this image Apep attacks Horus in his solar boat.

The Genesis texts makes it clear that the early Hebrew rejected belief in Nehebu-Kau as a deity because he was de-legged in Genesis 3 and banished to the remote South. Further, they anticipated a woman born of their ruler-priest caste to bring forth the Son of God who would crush the serpent's head. This early Hebrew expectation was expressed in Utterance 388 of the Pyramid Texts dating to 2200 B.C. "Horus has shattered (tbb, crushed) the mouth of the serpent with the sole of his foot (tbw)".

The enemy of God faces ultimate defeat. He will bruise the foot of the Woman’s Son, but the Son will crush his head. By all appearances, Jesus fulfills of the Horite Hebrew expectation of the Divine Seed who would crush the serpent's head. 

The serpent is never God’s equal since the creature is subservient to the Creator. The protective rods of biblical rulers such as Aaron and Moses were serpents whose divine authority proved superior to that of others. When the rods/staffs of Pharoah’s magicians became serpents, Aaron’s serpent swallowed their serpents (Ex. 7:12). The budding of Aaron’s staff represents victory of life over death (Num. 17:8, cf. Heb. 9:4).

The rearing cobra (Uraeus) on the Pharoah’s crown was a symbol of his authority, but his authority was inferior to that of the High God who delivers his people and gives victory over death through his Son.

In ancient Nilotic folklore the son of God is Horus who has a staff as a sign of his authority. In the Brugsch Papyrus (1350-1200 BC) Horus takes his staff in hand and says, “Praise be to thee, thou proper staff that protects the limbs, thou staff of sacred acacia… my protection is in my hand.”

This Hindu reference describes the subjugation of the serpent.

“The Ancient Man danced on the serpent, who still spewed poison from his eyes and hissed loudly in his anger, and he trampled down with his feet whatever head the serpent raised, subduing him calmly as if he were being worshipped with flowers. Kaliya, his umbrella of hoods shattered by the gay dance of death, his limbs broken, vomiting blood copiously from his mouths, remembered the Guru of all who move and are still, the Ancient Man, Narayana, and he surrendered to him in his heart." (Srimad Bhagavatam 10:6)

The theme of subjugation is taken up in Psalm 91, another Messianic passage: "They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and cobra. The young lion and the serpent you will trample down."

The totem of Horus is the falcon, known among many primitive societies as the snake eater (Levi-Strauss, From Honey to Ashes, p. 352.)

In another Nilotic tale, Apophis is a giant serpent that dwells south of Elephantine Island and is believed to be the cause of chaos. He is destroyed when Ra’s cat severs his slinky body. This tale speaks of the victory of divine order over chaos and confusion.

Ultimate victory over the serpent is foreshadowed in the narrative of Moses raising the bronze serpent over the poisoned people in the wilderness (Num. 21:9). Those who looked upon it lived. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus refers to this story. “No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:13-15)

Related reading: An Anthropologist Looks at Genesis 1An Anthropologist Looks at Genesis 2Making Kin with Serpents in MyanmarPythons Used for Sea Navigation

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