Referring to the snake of Genesis 3:1-7, in 1944 Umberto Cassuto wrote,
The documents and pictures of the peoples of the ancient East do not assist us to solve the problem of the serpent in our section. We find there all kinds of snakes: sacred serpents, serpent-gods or serpents that symbolize deities, serpents that are symbols of life or fertility, serpents that guard the sanctuaries or the boundaries, serpents used for ‘divining’ future events, and so forth; but so far no serpents have been found corresponding in character to the one in this section. [emphasis added, I rely upon Israel Abrams’ 1961 translation.]
Cassuto may have been wrong about some of this but just consider the range of thought and learning packed into those few words. He always amazes me. Cassuto had quite a few other abnormally interesting things to say about the snake in the garden.
I continue to toy with the crazy idea that there is a divination substratum to the story of the snake in the garden. I came across Cassuto’s observation while researching want I hope will be a publishable paper. In his very brief mention of “serpents used for ‘divining’ future events” Cassuto didn’t hit on my crazy idea in every detail but he sure came close. There is no doubt that he would reject, at least at some level, my crazy thoughts on all this. There is also no doubt that in how he rejected my thoughts I would learn a great deal.
I’ve always learned from and enjoyed Cassuto’s work. He already has a footnote in the draft of the paper I’m working on and before it is over he will likely have several. His commentaries are things of great beauty. He was one of the most erudite Biblical scholars of his era. Even in (or perhaps because of) Israel Abrams’ translations, Cassuto is always a clear, enjoyable, read. I think it a shame that contemporary scholars, particularly non-Jewish contemporary scholars, often fail to mention him when they recite the canon of the great Biblical scholars of the early twentieth century. Sure, some do mention him but not nearly as many as I think should.
For what it is worth, in my view Cassuto was both right and wrong about the documentary hypothesis. Much of his critique is correct. His own counter proposal is most likely wrong independent of his dating and his dating of the composition of the whole of the Pentateuch is untenable. But that’s the subject for another post or ten. In no way does any of this diminish him as a giant in the history of the study of the Hebrew Bible.