The Confident Christian
9/18/12 at 07:35 AM 23 Comments

Talking Snakes, Donkeys, and Believing the Bible

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Skeptics of Christianity many times 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 opponent's 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 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!” (Deut. 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." (Is. 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” (Rev. 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 Cor. 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 Cor. 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 folk-tale.”[1] Further, vs. 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]

Balaam’s Donkey

The Garden snake in Genesis 3 isn’t the only animal that speaks in Scripture.

The book of Numbers chronicles the account of a soothsayer named Balaam son of Beor who is called upon by the Moab king Balak to curse the nation Israel in an attempt to stop the progress Israel was making in their conquest of the land that God had promised them. As a gun for hire, Balaam is anything but an honest guy, and God’s anger against him is shown in chapter 22 where God causes Balaam’s donkey to actually speak and rebuke him.

Is this something similar to a Shrek movie or did it actually happen?

In truth, the historicity of Balaam’s existence isn’t something that’s been debated much by scholars. The 1967 discovery by Professor Henk Franken in the Jordanian region called Tel Deir Alla (that exactly matches the area described by the Bible as Balaam’s stomping grounds) of ancient plaster fragment, which contained numerous statements of “the prophet, Balaam so of Beor” has pretty much put to bed the charge that Balaam was a fictional character.

But, a talking donkey?

To be honest, the account of Balaam’s donkey was the one passage of Old Testament Scripture that I personally struggled with more than any other. But not because the donkey talked; instead, what bothered me much more was Balaam’s reaction:

“Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No”” (Num. 22:28-30).

Let me be candid: if one of our family cats walked up to me and said, “Hey, the litter box is pretty nasty right now; you need to be doing something about that,” I’d wake up at one of our local hospitals in the cardio-care unit. I certainly wouldn’t calmly respond to a talking animal like Balaam did.

This account troubled me for a very long time – how could such a thing actually happen? When I entered seminary I specifically brought this account to my Old Testament professor, who enlightened me on what the historical narrative was all about.

The story of Balaam and the donkey foreshadows the relationship between Balaam and Balak. The dullness of the prophet to an animal speaking is akin to the dullness of Balak; what the donkey is to Balaam, Balaam is to Balak.

The following chart helps show the back-and-forth between the key characters and what God is demonstrating in the text:

Balaam Balak
Donkey sees an angel that Balaam can’t see Balaam sees blessing of God upon Israel that Balak can’t see
Donkey sees angel three times; Donkey is beaten three times Balaam speaks blessing of God upon Israel three times when asked to curse Israel three time
Each time donkey turns from angel, the effect on Balaam is worse With each blessing upon Israel, the effect on Balak is worse
Balaam is prevented from killing the donkey Balak unable to kill Balaam
The donkey speaks because God opens its mouth Balaam says he can only speak words God puts in his mouth
Balaam is dull to the fact the donkey speaks Balak is dull to Balaam’s blessings upon Israel

What’s the Real Issue?

Talking snakes, donkeys that speak in a human language, a dead Jewish carpenter that comes back from the dead… These things, skeptics point out, aren’t things we routinely see and experience, and so we must reject them as being false and see them possessing no more real substance than a tale in Aesop’s fables.

But, what’s the real issue here? Is it truly a talking snake or something else?

At its core, the real problem is that the skeptic imports his/her anti-supernatural bias and philosophical naturalistic presuppositions into their view of the Bible. From the outset, their a priori position is that God does not exist. That being true in their worldview, then miracles become impossible, and since the Bible contains miraculous accounts, the Bible becomes impossible to believe.

But what if God does exist? Then might we expect a book that describes some pretty spectacular and rare things? We certainly might. As C. S. Lewis observed, “But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain.”[3] 

In truth, a talking snake or donkey is much less miraculous than the odds of life coming about on our planet given the universe as we know it and the number of cosmological constants that must be in place for us to actually exist. Or DNA arising on its own accord. Or … take your pick of a variety of astonishing things that are incredible to believe, but true.

The question is not if a snake or donkey can talk, but if a supernatural God exists. If the latter is true, the former is a walk in the park. That’s the question the skeptic should heartily pursue instead of using a talking snake as an excuse to opt out of the real conversation.

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Dogma and the Universe” in God in the Doc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pg. 42. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that Lewis also stated in his work, The Problem of Pain, that Satan may have indeed used the snake for his purposes: New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, pg. 119.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Harper Collins, 1974), pg. 169.

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