On The Crafty Snake

In Genesis 3:1 we are told, “Now the snake was the craftiest of all the animals of the field that YHWH God had made.” I’m being somewhat literal in part of this and somewhat arbitrary in another part of it. You may see why later. But on what basis should we agree that the snake is the craftiest animal of the field? Why is this statement not controversial? What is there about snakes that make them so crafty? Why is the statement even there? As far as these questions come up at all, I think readers generally answer them by looking to the following text in Genesis 3 and noting the snake’s ability to convince the women to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. But what if there was an external reason, a cultural background reason if you will, to agree with the claim? What if that reason was quite independent of the story as it has come down to us? What if proper understanding of the story to some extent depends on that background reason?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a “curious postabout the a subset of snake omens in tablets 22-26 of the Akkadian omen series Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin. In that post, I focused on those snake omens whose apodoses, portents, involved women or men and women. Near the end of the post, I very speculatively hinted that these omens or some others like them might somehow be important in our understanding of Genesis 2-3. Well today, I’m going all in with wild speculation about Genesis 3:1 and snake omens. Please keep in mind that what follows is, for now, little more than wild speculation. It may not be possible for it to be otherwise. But as I have said before, “This is a blog.” If I can’t suggest wild and crazy stuff here where can I?
So what is this wild speculation? I suggest that the reason we should think that the snake is the craftiest of all the animals of the field is that there were more omens associated with snake behavior than with any other animal of the field. By way of its behavior, the snake disclosed more of a god’s mind than did any other animal of the field.
What is my evidence? In the series Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin, omens where the protasis involves shake behavior out number those whose protasis involves the behavior of any other specified animal of the field and that by a significant margin. I base the following enumeration on Freedman’s, 3, survey of animal omens in series Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin.

  • Snakes – 5 tablets
  • Scorpions – 2 tablets
  • Lizards – 2 tablets
  • Rodents – 3 tablets
  • Ants – 1 tablet
  • Other insects – 3 tablets
  • Sheep – 1 tablet
  • Oxen – 1 tablet
  • Equids – 1 tablet
  • Cats – 1 tablet
  • Dogs – 3 tablets
  • Pigs – 1 tablet
  • Fish – 1 tablet

Relying upon the most complete of the tablets, one should think in terms of the order of 100 omens pre tablet – tablet 22, for example, had 95 snake omens while tablet 23 had, depending on witness, in the neighborhood of 117. Of this group, only omens relating to rodent and dog behavior come close in number to the number relating to snakes – 3 tablets each verses 5 tablets. Note: while Freedman, 3, enumerates 5 tablets pertaining to the behavior of snakes, on page 6 she says “at least four or five Alu tablets concerning snakes.” The uncertainty is due to the fragmentary nature of some of the tablets combined with some confusion in the tablet numbers as mentioned in the colophons of the various witnesses. Using the lower number of snake omen tablets, the series still has 25% more snake omens than omens involving any other animal of the field. If even a 25% difference between the ability of snakes to communicate the will of the gods and that of any other animals were pervasive in a culture, I think nearly everyone would know just how powerful snakes were.
But this list does not exhaust the omens in series Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin relating to specific types of animals. For example, if my count is correct, there are also 5 tablets with protases involving to birds. So what to do about these bird omens? The answer may be as simple as understanding that “animals of the field” (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה) and “birds of the heavens” (עֹוף הַשָּׁמַיִם) was an important distinction; birds of the heavens were not animals of the field. Geneses 2:19 makes this distinction rather explicitly, “And YHWH God formed from the earth all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air (וַיִּצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה כָּל־חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְאֵת כָּל־עֹוף הַשָּׁמַיִם).” And yeah, fish and insects aren’t exactly animals of the field either but having them in the tablet count list doesn’t do any harm. It is also true that there are more Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin tablets relating to the behavior of the general categories “field animals” and “wild animals” than there are those relating to any specific animal subclasses. But then these are general categories so it’s impossible to know if or how one should allot them among the subclasses of animals.
But there are many problems with my wild idea. First, was “knowing the will of the gods” within the semantic range of Hebrew עָרוּם, here translated “crafty?” If it wasn’t, how much is my wild idea degraded? To what extent can I extrapolate from the witness of series Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin to the generalized cultural background concerning the ominous nature of snake activity in the Near East or even within the more limited context of the Hebrew Bible? I would appreciate any feedback to this wild speculation. In its current state, the idea has rather large elements of post hoc and affirming the consequent fallacies along with rather large doses of free association and confirmation bias. These problems disturb me. As already noted, I’m also still struggling with a philological problem regarding עָרוּם, “crafty.” I have what I hope will be a somewhat less speculative, perhaps publishable, paper on this general subject setting on the back burner but I need help with this aspect of it. Should I just drop the thought or should I try to develop it? If the latter, how? Also, while I haven’t consulted a great deal of secondary literature on the relevant Biblical text as yet, I haven’t found any that specifically addresses my problems in that at which I have looked (Here I mean my problems with Genesis 3:1 and snakes and omens and not whatever other problems you may think I have). If you know of any such literature, I would like to know of it too.
Normal abnormal blogging will return soon.

Freedman, Sally M., If a City Is Set on a Height: The Akkadian Omen Series Shumma Alu ina Mēlê Shakin Vol. 2: Tablets 22–40, Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund 19; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum / Babylonian Section, 2006

3 thoughts on “On The Crafty Snake”

  1. Ah! Now your post is both less curious and ultimately more curious. I like your understanding of the effect of an ‘omen mindset’ on the construction of the crafty snake: “the snake disclosed more of a god’s mind than did any other animal of the field.” [An agnostic/atheist with appreciation of theological implications… whoever would have thought it were possible…?]
    In a broad intertextual matrix kind of sense, not attempting to show any relations of influence, I think you’re quite right – and it’s supportable on other grounds. The whole woman-snake-tree complex is pregnant with wisdom connotations. As Judith McKinlay (of Dunedin, Otago) writes:
    “this cluster of female, tree and snake also has deep roots in the traditions of the ancient Near East” (Reframing Her, Sheffield Phoenix, 2004: 6).
    She refers to Hadley, Cult of Asherah, 189-192; Keel, Goddesses and Trees; and Qudshu. There are both fertility and wisdom connations at once, all mixed together. (I originally suspected you were thinking of the fertility connotations.)
    On semantic ranges, should we be too constrained by the other uses of ‘crafty’ in the Bible, given (1) this evident juxtapostion of wisdom motifs in Gen 3, which might determine its meaning here more than such diachronic considerations, and (2) the selection of ‘arum rather than hokmah, etc, as a pun on nakedness (even the form of ‘naked’ demonstrates its broadcast punniness in 2.25: ‘arummim!)?

  2. Deane,
    Thanks a lot. I particularly appreciate the references. Your observation about the association of this material with wisdom is important. I need to spend more time thinking and reading in that direction. At least in the Akkadian tradition, one important link between wisdom and divination is scribal training. It is interesting that, from a lexical point of view, the most informative usages of עָרוּם at found in Proverbs. I don’t think my bright idea requires that the semantic range of עָרוּם include “knowledge” but, if it could be independently established, it would be supportive of the idea. I like your reflection on puns. I don’t know if you have looked at Noegel’s work on the puns in reports of dreams and omens. He suggests that puns may provide the hermeneutical basis by which the ancients connected various the elements of thought.
    Contrary to the opinion of some, when it comes to uncovering the theology of a text, agnostics/atheists, unencumbered by theological confirmation bias, are likely more reliable theologians than are most theists. Now, that will cause some folk’s blood to boil.

  3. This is often the case. It took a Frenchman (Alexis de Tocqueville) to write the best sociological study of the US in the nineteenth century.

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