Talking Snakes, Donkeys, and Believing the Bible

By Robin Schumacher

Skeptics of Christianity often throw out statements like this in an attempt to dismiss both the Bible and the Christian faith: "Well, if I could believe in a talking snake, maybe then I'd take the Bible seriously."

Can you believe what the Bible says about history, Jesus, and more when it has narratives that describe animals speaking like human beings? I think you can; let me explain why.

Taking the Bible Literally

I firmly believe that the correct way to interpret the Bible is to adhere to what is called the Literal-Historical-Grammatical method of interpretation, which aims to discover the meaning of a particular passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood. As the first part of the name implies, this means a literal reading of the text.

Once a Christian affirms a literal interpretation of Scripture, immediately skeptics pounce and ask questions such as, "If that's true, then Jesus must be a literal door, because he says in John 10:9, 'I am the door.'" Unfortunately for the doubter, their argument is flawed in a couple of ways. First, it commits the logical fallacy of reductio ad absurdum, which seeks to establish an argument based on the supposed absurdity of its opponents' claims.

But more importantly, the skeptic fails to understand that the Bible utilizes many different genres (e.g. poetry, narrative, didactic teaching, etc.) and literary techniques in the same way that other literature does. These methods do not take away from a literal reading of the Bible at all, but instead add much depth to the text—just as they're designed to do. Some of the most common practices found in Scripture include the following:
  • Phenomenological language, which is used to describe everyday things in common speak. Example: "It came about at sunset that Joshua gave a command..." (Joshua 10:27)
  • Hyperbole, which is an obvious and intentional exaggeration. Example: "look, the world has gone after Him"(John 12:19)
  • Metaphors, which are a figure of speech used to suggest a resemblance. Example: "For I proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock!" (Deuteronomy 32:3-4)
  • Anthropomorphisms, which are attempts to represent God under a particular form, or with some type of living attributes and affections. Example: "Let me dwell in Your tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings." (Psalm 61:4)
  • Personification, which is the attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notion. Example: "The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." (Isaiah 55:12)
  • Symbolism, which represents some reality by depicting it in a figurative fashion that is descriptive of that reality. Example: "Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands..." (Revelation 1:12)
These literary techniques in no way circumvent a literal reading of the Bible and, in truth, the intellectually honest skeptic understands that. However, what does one do when some biblical narrative seems so fantastic and opposed to everyday experience—like an animal speaking in human language? How does one interpret the Bible then?

The Snake in the Garden

The narrative found in Genesis 3 about a talking snake and the fall of humankind is both literal and archetypical. From a literal perspective, we see how sin entered into humanity through the first parents. In regard to history, while some have tried to argue that Adam and Eve were not literal people, the fact that both Jesus and Paul refer to them as such, and that Adam appears in literal genealogies makes it difficult to make the case that they are fictional if one is to exegete Scripture with any kind of discipline.

On the archetypical level, the text in Genesis 3 showcases how temptation occurs constantly in human experience, and that Christians are not to be ignorant of the enemy's schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). But did that enemy actually speak through a snake?

Those affirming that Satan did indeed converse with Eve through a literal serpent argue that if you believe the first verse in Genesis, then there is no problem believing anything else, including a snake speaking to a human being. Would such a thing be too hard for a God who spoke everything into being? Hardly. Moreover, Paul seems to reference the event as truly occurring in space-time history (2 Corinthians 11:3).

Others see Genesis 3 as using symbolism to tell a story that actually occurred in history. Just as Satan is described as a serpent and dragon in Revelation 12, the serpent in Genesis represents a very real personal being (the devil), but some argue that symbolism is used to communicate traits of Satan that would otherwise be difficult to convey.

Can you actually believe the Bible, be a Christian, and hold to the latter method of interpreting Genesis 3? Atheist-turned-Christian C. S. Lewis seemed to think so. Lewis, a literature expert who served on the faculty at Oxford, wrote of Genesis: "The first chapters of Genesis, no doubt, give the story of creation in the form of a folktale." [1] Further, verse 15 clearly states that the snake's offspring will be at odds with the woman's. Nearly all theologians agree this refers to two actual and literal spiritual lines—one godly, the other ungodly—that run through humanity (the seed of God and the seed of Satan).

Whether the serpent is literal or symbolic, one thing that cannot be denied is the reality of the tempter's effects—the universality of sin. Of that, Reinhold Neibuhr has gone so far as to argue that "the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith." [2]

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Image Credit: Jean Edmonds; Used with permission

Published 9-20-12