Perhaps you are familiar with the ‘rod of Ascelpius,’ the symbol for the healing arts of medicine and health care associated with the ancient Greek God of healing. The rod of Ascelpius is still used as the modern symbol for medicine. It depicts a rod which is entwined with a serpent, a snake. Here in Genesis 3 we have a snake, a most unusual snake, we might say, a talking snake, and a creature said to be “more subtle than any other creature which the Lord God had made”; in short, cunning or crafty, deceitful.
We have already encountered this story in its later development in the story of St. Michael and All Angels, the story of the cosmic battle between good and evil and the overcoming of evil by good. Why? Because sin and evil are nothing in themselves. They are entirely derivative and dependent upon that which they reject and deny. But in the Michaelmas story, allusion is made directly to this story, the originating story of human sin and evil which later takes on a cosmic dimension. Whence does evil arise? From rational creatures, men and angels, in their denial of the conditions of their very being.
And yet, there is paradoxically something positive in this story. What is it? It is about the awakening to self-consciousness albeit through deceit and disobedience. This account of the awakening to self-consciousness happens through the power of questions, five questions to be exact. First, there is the question of the serpent. “Did God say?” he asks ‘the Adam’, our humanity now distinguished in terms of man and woman, Adam and Eve. But we ‘know’ what God said. Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To be given such a command belongs to the essential goodness of the created order in which we are placed as in a garden, a paradise, but conditional upon our relation to the Creator in whose image we are made. We have heard and read that but how do we become self-aware? This story provides a way of thinking about human self-consciousness, about ourselves as selves.
It does so through our negation of what we have been told as truth. The serpent’s subtlety is the craft and cunning of human reason. The serpent’s question leads to the insinuation of doubt, to the idea of another interpretation, to a half-truth which is, quite literally, deadly. You shall not die is a lie; you shall be like God knowing good evil is a true or at least a half-truth. We will know and begin to learn about sin and evil but, unlike God, our knowing about sin and evil will be experienced in our bodies, in our lives. We will know it through separation from one another, from the paradise of Eden, and from God. We discover suffering and death as something experiential, something both known and felt. Like God and unlike God.
The serpent’s question, itself an image of human reason, seeks to undermine what we know as truth. God’s fourfold questions literally call us to account. Not only do we have the first questions in the Scriptures in this passage, we have the first direct speech of God to our humanity in these four questions. Where are you? Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat of the tree of which I told you not to eat? What is this that you have done? Such questions call us to account. They make us self-aware of what we have done and what we have done in some sense knowingly. They are about the awakening to self-consciousness through God’s speaking to us directly. Part of the power of this story, which provides a way of thinking about the human condition, about the realities of sin and evil, of suffering and death, is that the self and God are intimately connected. In our self-consciousness there is the awareness not just of one another but of God.
This story holds up before us the awareness of ourselves. We confront ourselves in these questions through our encounter with the truth of God, the very principle of our being and knowing. We discover this negatively through deceit and disobedience. The serpent’s question is deceitful; it seeks to undermine truth. God’s questions call us to truth through our self-awareness; in this case, the awareness of separation.
The story of the Fall, as this chapter in Genesis is known, is paradoxically a fall upward because of the importance of becoming self-aware. It launches us upon the long, arduous and necessary journey of education, of learning through suffering and evil. The serpent in this story is imaged by St. John the Divine in Revelation as the principle of that which seeks to undermine truth and goodness and thus exists in contradiction. The images there are about “the great dragon,” “that old serpent called the Devil and Satan which deceiveth the whole world.” Deceit is the betrayal of truth and goodness.
But to know this is ultimately our good, even our healing. Jesus, in the Christian understanding, will say that “when I am lifted up, I will draw all humanity unto me,” a reference to his crucifixion but equally in the context of another story about serpents. The people of Israel, journeying in the wilderness, complain endlessly to Moses against God, in effect blaming God for their situation and looking back with longing to their time of slavery in Egypt. They are punished by fiery serpents. They call out to Moses seeking his intercession to God to save them. God directs Moses to make a bronze serpent and to raise it on a rod before the people. They look upon that raised serpent and are healed. What does it mean except that they behold their sin made objective before them? In other words, they are called knowingly to account. This, too, connects, it seems to me, to the snake-entwined rod of Ascelpius. The healing arts confront us with the realities of human suffering. The healing is not through a forgetting or denial of suffering. It happens through suffering, through learning from suffering.
God’s questions here belong paradoxically to human dignity. We are called to account, to truth, because of who we are in the sight of God. We come to know good and evil, yes, but only through the denial of God’s word which results in death and suffering as well. But we are called to account because we are capable of knowing as made in God’s image. The challenge is how to regain a deeper understanding of that truth. Such is education, itself a learning through questions about what it means to be responsible.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy