The Serpent's Judgment

Genesis 3  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 11
The skeptic sneers at the sentence on the serpent, the meaning of which is evidently its entire humiliation. Going on its belly and eating dust would present this thought to any one familiar with scripture. The import of the words is, beyond all question, the expression of judicial degradation, and the feeding on it even to death. Hence its full, final judgment is expressed in these words, “and dust shall be the serpent's meat.” But this one sentence, thus ignorantly scorned, gives the source, explanation, and judgment of what has characterized the universal race of man over the whole globe to an extent without rival; unless perhaps the worship of the sun, which was generally identified with it. Where the polished idolatry of Greece and Rome has never penetrated, the exaltation of the serpent has reigned paramount, and even in all its details proves the truth of the Mosaic account of the fall. The fact that a single verse of simple statement accounts for what has governed the whole world, though it embraces nothing of the corruption that characterized what so governed it, is the strongest possible of the divinity of the record we possess.
It is evidently impossible here to give an account of the Ophiolatreia, or Serpent-worship. I can only notice some of the remarkable elements of it. It is found in China, Egypt, Babylon, England, France, Ireland, North America, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Scandinavia (i.e., Sweden and Norway), Greece, Italy, Africa in its most savage parts, Palestine, India, in a word, all over the world. It is connected with the principal gods of the East, of Greece, of Rome, and with the most solemn worship of the countries mentioned. In Sweden and Norway, and in Macedonia, serpents were kept in the houses as household gods; in Greece, and elsewhere, in temples, as public ones. They were considered the preservers of Athens, as of Whidah on the coast of Guinea; and the savage of Louisiana carried a serpent and the sun as the symbols of his religion, and tattooed them on his skin.
If we turn to the elements which characterized it, we find it accompanied with a tree, and a naked woman constantly its priestess. In India and Mexico, the deliverer is bitten in the heel by the serpent, which, in these and other cases, is destroyed by being smitten on the head. Further, he is worshipped often erect, and not prostrate on his belly, and was fed alive with sweet cakes of honey. We find him frequently associated with a tree, and conversing with a woman; and this in countries, in sculptures, and in heathen accounts which leave no possibility of alleging fraud or intention.
It has been shown that the early history of Greece relates to colonies partly from Egypt, but partly from the Hivites, serpent-worshippers driven out from Palestine by Joshua, as indeed were the Carthaginians.1 Can any one doubt for a moment of the bearing and origin of all this, and the importance of showing that that Old Serpent which had elevated himself to be the god of all the world, was, by present ocular proof, a venomous, prostrate reptile. There he was, manifested and marked out by his condition under the finger of God. And when we see the whole world filled everywhere with these traditions of the serpent, of the worship of the serpent (and of the serpent erect and not on his belly), is not the immense moral importance of this declaration (which in one little word explains it all, gives the terrible and real secret of it all, and reveals the ruined condition of the rebellious and disobedient man) evident to any serious sober-minded person? Scripture has not invented these facts; the whole state of the world, as the research and learning of the nineteenth century have brought to light, has demonstrated the truth of the account given in Genesis-the divine importance of the key given in a few short words. That is, the whole history of the universe demonstrates the folly of the flippant sneers of ignorant or willfully blind infidelity, spinning thoughts out of itself, as a spider its web, to catch those who may be foolish enough to fall into it, and neglecting the universal testimony of the world.
I may just add, as curious, that a living serpent was kept in the temple of Esculapius, the god of healing. So serpent-amulets among the Britons were supposed to preserve from all harm. Serpents were carried in baskets by the Bacchanals, Bacchus having in Greek the same name as the object of serpent honor in India, as indeed was the case with another name in Egypt.
Another remarkable fact connected with it was, that the notion of gaining wisdom from serpents was universal. This went even to the notion, that eating their flesh gave it. They gave oracles. The progress of idolatry seems to have been this—Satan seized upon the idea of God in men's minds and the obscure traditions of what had happened; where he could, he connected this directly with himself; and serpent-worship was universal as we have seen. Still, the sun being the great and splendid benefactor of man, and in unity, man's heart connected this with one supreme God. This allied itself with the universe. Thus the serpent and sun-worship, both being intimately associated with the idea of the unity of Deity and the universe, became connected.
Sometimes the worship of the sun drove out the serpent-worship in its grosser form, yet was always connected with it—how should it be otherwise? Thus Apollo, who is the sun, established his worship at Delphi by slaying Typhon, an immense serpent, who was also said to have been cast down from heaven by Jupiter. He then gave oracles in his place; still the serpent was sacred to him, and was otherwise associated with the Delphic worship. So, in the Scandinavian mythology, the great serpent produced by the evil spirit, Loke, against the Supreme God, is cast into the sea. He is the enemy of the gods. Thor will destroy him, but he will die in doing it. So the wolf, produced by the evil spirit, now chained, will in the end break loose and devour the sun.
On the other hand, Hercules, and other such mystic personages answering to Thor in many respects, a kind of god-man, destroys serpents in all manner of fables. And Krishna in India, and Teotl in Mexico reproduce traditional accounts of scripture redemption, connected with what is said of the serpent in Genesis.2 Caesar produces, as the doctrine of the Druids, that man's sins could only be expiated by man's death.
Now idolatry, as far as we can say from scripture only, came in after the flood. Hence we have the next step in idolatry, a vague tradition of a reign of bliss under Saturn, which recalled Paradise; and then his three sons, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, who became the supreme gods of heaven, earth, and sea; the ark being so distinctly remembered that in the grand procession they carried a statue about in a kind of ship. Indeed, it is very probable that the Greek word translated “temple” is really identical with that of “ship.” That is, in a word, the worship of the serpent connected itself with that of the sun and whole host of heaven; and, in cultivated Greece and Rome, merged, though retaining both, into traditions as to Paradise, Noah's three sons, and the flood. The purest of all serpent-worship was perhaps in England.
This serpent-worship retained its power longer than we suppose. In idolatrous Egypt, so judged in scripture, there was a sect of Gnostics who connected it with their pretended Christianity; and under the name of Ophites (that is, “serpent-worshippers") had a living serpent which was let out to glide over the sacramental elements to consecrate them, it being the source of wisdom; exactly as was done with Isis, the great object of serpent-worship, on whose temple was written, “I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal hath ever removed;” and exactly as the worship in England was carried on in the serpent-temple at Abury and other places, as recorded in British bards' writings of that day.
In Brittany, in France, where the remains of these dragon-temples are abundant, it is curious to see the mounts (“barrows” as they are called) where the sun was worshipped with the serpent, now all dedicated to St. Michael, whom the Revelation represents to us as the destroyer of Satan's power. And within man's memory, in a village wake, the serpent-worship was commemorated, though none understood what it meant.
But I have said enough to demonstrate the importance of showing that the serpent was to go on his belly and eat dust. The world has consecrated it—has shown the place the serpent had in this history. The connection of it with the worship of the host of heaven, is shown in the fable that Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, seized hold of the great serpent that was attacking Jupiter and the gods, and flung it into heaven, where it became the constellation Draco. Indeed, all the constellations are idolatrous gods. And, to this day, the planets known to antiquity are all marked by the symbolical signs connected with this mystic worship—that of a circle and cross.
In a word, while many traditions of truth were preserved, the serpent was deified. The Englishman little knows, when he tends his sheep or plows over Hackpen, that the hill he has beneath his feet has for its name “the serpent's head” (for such, in old British, is the meaning of Hackpen; and there was the head of the immense serpent formed by stones, the circle of deity through which it passed being in the center, and known as Abury, a name which is undoubtedly supposed to recall the universal name given to the serpent as worshipped); nor that Arthur Pendragon is “Uther of the dragon's head;” nor that when he calls his mother, he uses most probably one of the names of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, which identifies death and the woman; for Moth signifies “death.”
The reader who wishes to have more details on this must consult Bryant and Faber; or, if he has not access to these, a work more popular, but with, perhaps, fuller information—Deane's “Worship of the Serpent.”