Walking, Talking Snakes?
This week, the Biblical Museum of Natural History posted a video on FaceBook which created something of a stir. Probably the most extraordinary footage we have ever filmed, it showed our giant 15-foot Burmese python, Cuddles, moving two tiny "legs" back and forth as he moved around his enclosure! You can watch the amazing clip on YouTube at this link. While these legs are used today in the mating process, scientific investigation indicates that they are either remnants of the legs that snakes used to possess, or that they are formed by the reactivation of genes from such ancestral legged reptiles.
Of course, this immediately brings to mind the verse from parashat Bereishit this week:
"וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הַנָּחָשׁ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ."
"So the Lord God said to the serpent: Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life." (Genesis 3:14).
Because of this verse, we have found that showing Cuddles' legs to our visitors stirs great excitement and interest. But is there really a connection to this verse, and if so, what exactly is it?
Biblical literalists insist that the Serpent of Eden was an actual reptile, the ancestor of snakes today (although Rabbi Moshe Meiselman ties himself up in knots when he tries to justify the Talmud's exegesis from this verse regarding snakes having a seven-year gestation period). From this perspective, discovering that snakes have tiny remnants of legs seems to be an amazing vindication of traditional belief.
On the other hand, the idea that modern zoology vindicates a belief that snakes today are all descended from a walking ancestor 5782 years ago is rather naive. We have plenty of fossil snakes, going back many orders of magnitude more than a few thousand years. The fossil record shows that snakes did indeed formerly possess legs, but that was millions of years ago, not a few thousand years ago!
But it's not only modern scientific studies which challenge the simple reading. Already many centuries ago, there were rabbinic thinkers who pointed out that there are basic problems with a simple reading of the text. Ramban points out that the greatest difference between the primeval character of Eden and snakes today is not legs; it's the ability to communicate intelligently! If the snake of Eden was the actual ancestor of snakes today, surely it's the removal of its intellectual and communicative facilities which are a much greater curse than the loss of legs!
For this reason and others, rationalists such as Rambam, Ralbag, Seforno and others interpreted the story of the serpent in Eden allegorically. I have discussed the general topic of non-literal interpretations of Creation extensively in my book The Challenge Of Creation, which is best purchased at this link. You can also read an explanation of Rambam's non-literal understanding of the events in Gan Eden in an essay that I posted here.
There are other approaches, too. Contemporary theologians of a more liberal persuasion would argue that the account of the snake in Eden is indeed related to the snakes that we all know today. But rather than being a historical account, it is sacred myth - not "myth" in the sense that the term is used today with regard to Bigfoot (which is why I personally think that the term should not be used), but rather in the sense of adapting ancient stories about the world to communicate religious meaning. This approach might sound radical or heretical from a religious perspective, but it also has its legitimacy, as discussed by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman in Ani Maamin, and also by myself in The Challenge Of Creation.
Personally, I believe that the story of the Garden Of Eden was written so long ago, and for a readership so far removed from us today, that it's impossible to know what was really intended and understood. And I'm very tolerant of however people wish to understand it. For this reason, I'm happy to show people Cuddles' amazing legs, and point out the parallel with the popular understanding of the Biblical account. My only problem is with people who insist that their explanation is the only valid one, and who try to delegitimize those who approach this enigma differently.
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