Do You Really Believe in Talking Snakes – Part 2

Yesterday I raised the issue of how one should read Genesis. I introduced John Walton’s commentary on Genesis and noted my debt to his teaching on these issues. In today’s post I said I would tell you what he believes about talking snakes. Walton believes the text of Scripture should be taken at “face value.” (44-46) This involves three issues: 1) the nature (genre) of literature issues, 2) cultural background issues, and 3) focus of revelational issues. Regarding genre issues he says,

“What about narrative? As with genealogy, we must try our best to understand how narrative works in Israel rather than assume it works the same as it does in English. The narrative style can be used for mythology, epic, folktale, parable, and fable as well as for history. As a result, identifying something as narrative is not the same as identifying it as history. Sometimes it is difficult to asses what expectations the narrator has of his audience, making literary analysis to no avail. For instance, we easily label Jotham’s narrative in Judges 9 as fable because trees talk there, and we all know trees don’t talk.

“By the same criterion, some have concluded that Genesis 3 ought also to be considered fable because of the talking serpent. Obviously the issues are complex. If we are going to take the text at face value, we must go beyond a single criterion and ask what the Israelite audience believed about it. In this case, neither literary analysis nor understanding of the culture gives a clear indication of how the Israelites heard this narrative. Continuing revelation, however, suggests that they did not understand it as fable because in the rest of Scripture the surrounding narrative (trees, garden, temptation, sin) is all taken with the seriousness of fact (Rom. 5:12-14, 2 Cor. 11:3, 1 Tim. 2:13-14). Thus, taking this particular narrative at face value precludes classifying it as fable, despite the presence of literary elements that may otherwise point in that direction.” (45-46)

Some will accuse Walton of trying to have his cake and eat it too. He’s willing to label Judges 9 as fable because “we all know trees don’t talk” but this same line of reasoning won’t work in Genesis 3 because of later revelation from the New Testament.  Others, like Peter Enns, are not convinced that Paul’s use of Adam should imply that Paul believed in a historical Adam. [Correction: Since this post I've been informed that this is not Enns' view. He does believe that Paul thought Adam was historical. My apologies for misrepresenting Dr. Enns.]

These issues are being raised fresh for me. I found an interesting quote from Augustine while reading The Language of Science and Faith.

“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” (77-78)

As I move forward in my study I’m taking the wise counsel of Augustine. Do I really believe in talking snakes? At this point in time I’m still persuaded that Walton is right and I read the passage at face value. I am, however, very interested in reading Peter Enns’ forthcoming book The Evolution of Adam. It is due to release this month.

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12 thoughts on “Do You Really Believe in Talking Snakes – Part 2

  1. I wonder whether this question is in deed of a bit of tightening. Is the question, “Do we believe in talking snakes (plural)?” Or is a better question is, “Do you think that a snake (singular) could talk (through supernatural means)? My answer to the former question is “no” but the answer to the latter is “yes.” By the way, if the account of the snake were an etiology about snakes (as some would argue), then it seems strange to me that there is no indication in the story of how the snake lost his ability to speak.

    One might also follow the same line of reasoning with Balaam’s donkey. Do donkeys (plural) speak? No. Could God supernaturally give a donkey (singular) the ability to speak or speak through that donkey? Yes.

    • Charles,
      You raise some excellent points. I like you’re modification to the question but of course coming from a skeptic we’re not likely to hear this kind of precision. The question is usually raised, in the form I gave it, not really as a question but to intimidate the person being questioned.

  2. Very interesting! Of course the underlying assumption here is that we are consistent in our hermeneutic. Taking one narrative at face value because most elements, save one (viz. talking snakes), is the most common-sense approach, while not treating other narratives the same because it does not fit with common sense raises huge questions.

    Parenthetically, the Augustine quote is rich. Does the source you cite cite the Augustine source?

    • Hey Paul,
      It is rich isn’t it? I really do like it. The footnote to the passage reads “Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New York Press, 2002), cited in Alister McGrath, The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p. 119.”

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that the serpent spoke in and of itself, but that it was Satan speaking through the serpent. Whether that means actual speaking, possession, or animation I don’t know. This would mean coming to Scripture with the acknowledgment that we live in not just a “scientific” world but also a “supernatural” world.

  4. I greatly look forward to reading Enns book when it comes out.

    On another note: I was in the store Saturday night. While I was checking out the cashier was looking at the books I purchased (3 of them were $1 books – thanks!) and he asked me if I was neo-orthodoxy. Well at least that’s what I thought I heard him ask. Because I wasn’t sure what he asked me since he seemed to mumble it I paused for what seemed like forever and then the stupidest answer came out of my mouth – I said no. Once my wife and I got back in the car she laughingly told me that I just denied orthodoxy. I wasnt sure whether I should have gone back in the store to correct my foible or just hope that he figured I didn’t hear him right. He was a buy with a beard and is a philosophy student at Cornerstone. Anyways, my wife and I had a good kick out of it for the rest of the evening and its our inside joke:)

    • Hi Craig,
      I talked to the person who helped you (his name is Dean) and he did ask if you were neo-orthodox. I recounted your story and he got a laugh out of it as well. We have a number of staff sporting beards right now so I had to narrow it down but once you said he was a philosophy student I guessed Dean and was right. We will continue to offer a lot of used books for a $1 so come back often. They’re adding to it everyday. There are some gems to be found but you have to be willing to search.

  5. Louis,

    Thanks for the post. Years ago, I appropriated James Oliver Buswell’s proposal in his chapter in Carl Henry’s Basic Christian Doctrine, and I still like it best. He argues (persuasively, I think) that the Serpent was Satan himself, as in Revelation, not a demonically possessed snake.

    Terry

  6. Pingback: Apologies to Peter Enns « Baker Book House Church Connection

  7. Pingback: Baker Book House Church Connection | Did the Serpent in Genesis 3 Have Legs Before it Was Cursed?

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