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17. Serpents

How are serpents unlike other animals? They have no feet, or perhaps we may say they are all foot, and lie full length upon the ground. Not all serpents are dangerous, though there are some with very violent poison, which is numbing to their victims, and often fatal, and some which are dangerous from their habit of coiling about their prey. Even the harmless snakes are exceeding cautious, and with their gliding, insinuating motion are peculiarly repulsive. Snakes have also the power to fascinate or charm their prey, so that while they terrify, escape is almost impossible.

Serpents are members of the animal kingdom. They therefore correspond to affections of some kind. Does the fact that they lie full length upon the ground suggest that they correspond to high and spiritual affections? Rather it suggests external affections, those which are in closest contact with the body and the world. And what are these most external affections? The enjoyments of the senses. The enjoyment of pleasant taste, and smell, and sound, and sight, and touch-these enjoyments are the spiritual serpents. (AE 581; AC 196, 195)

Is the enjoyment of pleasant taste, and of other pleasant sensations, necessarily an evil thing? The Lord gave these sensations, with their pleasures, to be useful to us, to help us to adapt ourselves wisely to conditions and circumstances. The sense of feeling warns us to avoid extreme heat and cold and other dangers, and to preserve healthful conditions. The sense of taste when unperverted and wisely educated is a guide in choosing wholesome food. The senses are our point of contact with the world, and their enjoyments enable us to live wisely in the world. These enjoyments are the good serpent, prudent and circumspect. (AE 714)

And may we in a little deeper sense "feel our way"? If we have a request to make or an opinion to suggest may we approach the subject cautiously, noticing the first sign of favor or disfavor, if need be withdrawing the subject unobserved? Sensitiveness to the attitude of others, enabling one to adapt himself wisely to the situation, we call "tact "; it also is the serpent in a good sense. Even in religious matters is there need of this sensitiveness and caution? for example, in speaking of spiritual subjects with persons whom we wish to interest in them? There is especial need of this prudence here. Was it not this which the Lord meant when He charged the disciples as He sent them forth, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harm less as doves "? (Matt. x. 16; AC 197; AE 581)

Is there any danger connected with the enjoyments of the senses? May the affection for pleasant tastes and sounds become an evil thing? We know that it may. How such an affection - the appetite for some pleasant but hurtful food or drink, for example -how such an appetite creeps in silently and unobserved, till before we are aware, it holds us in its coils, and can with the greatest difficulty be shaken off! It comes unnoticed. Even when we perceive its presence and are terrified, still it fascinates us till escape seems impossible. It numbs our conscience, our sense of right and wrong, and our perception of spiritual things. We are then its prey. No temptation is more insinuating than this of pleasant sensation. "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made." (Gen. iii. i; AE 581, 544; AR 455; AC 194-197)

The poisonous serpents also correspond to the power of the senses to mislead the understanding, when they are not corrected and interpreted by a higher intelligence. How persuasive their arguments are, and apparently how convincing; and yet how false! (AC 195, 6400) This meaning is plain in the prophecy: "Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward." (Gen. xlix. 17) An external state of mind is here described, which takes life in a very natural and superficial way. The danger is pointed out, that in such a state of mind the deceptive appearances of the senses will destroy the understanding of spiritual truth, and leave the spiritual life without support. (AC 6.396-6401, 2761; AE 581, 355)

Can we now understand in a simple way the story of the temptation in Eden, and the first disobedience? "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. . . . And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. . . . The woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. . . . And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Gen. iii. 1-15) It was the enjoyment of pleasant things of sense which beguiled men from their innocence, and made them assume to judge for themselves of good and evil instead of listening obediently to the Lord. They began to indulge in what seemed pleasant, to judge by mere outward appearances, and to think that they knew best. We can understand it, for the same thing exactly has taken place many times in our own lives. "The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat." (AC 194-210; AE 739, 581; DP 310)

The curse upon the serpent is a revelation of the character of the sensual nature, now that it has become self-indulgent and misleading, and of its relation to the spiritual life. "Upon thy belly shalt thou go," means that the senses and their enjoyments have turned away from the higher life and turned downward to the world and evil. It is not necessary to conclude that serpents originally were raised above the earth, though there is scientific evidence that they did once have legs like lizards. Before men turned to evil, the serpent's contact with the ground symbolized the external nature of good sensual pleasures; it became now a symbol of their aversion from heavenly life and their proneness to evil. Their sole regard for external gratification is described in the words, "Dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." There is perpetual warfare between this self-indulgence, with the tribe of evils which spring from it, and the developments of spiritual life. There is enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. (AC 229-249; Cor. 30)

And what power can conquer for us these most deceitful and deadly tempters? The Lord alone can give us power to overcome. In His human life He met all our temptations, even those temptations to the indulgence of appetite and sensual pleasure. He met and overcame them all, and He will give us power to overcome. His conflict and His victory for our sake are predicted in the words, "It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (AC 250-260; AE 768; DP 211)

Nearly the same spiritual Chapter is taught in one chapter of the story of the desert journey. "Our soul loatheth this light bread," the people complained, remembering the plenty of Egypt. "And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. . . . And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." (NUMB. xxi. 5-9) Plainly it tells of the turning back with longing from the interior satisfactions of a spiritual life, to the indulgences of sensual pleasure. The love of such pleasures bites us with its inflaming poison, and without some help our spiritual life must perish. The only help is to look up to the Lord who has overcome the temptations of the senses, and can give us strength. The raising of the serpent of brass upon a pole represents the Lord's lifting up of the sensual nature in His own humanity, making it good, yes, Divine. It is the source of strength to us when bitten by the serpents of self-indulgent appetite. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." (John iii. 14, 15; AE 581; AC 197, 8624, 4911; AR 49; see Chapter 37)

Remember the signs given to Moses by which to prove that the Lord had appeared to him. "The LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it . . . . And he put forth his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand." (Exod. iv. 2-5) So is our lower, sensual nature if we deny the presence of the Lord with us, and cast it on the ground to do as it will; it is a serpent. But when in the Lord's strength we take this serpent in hand, it is no longer dangerous, but a staff to support our spiritual life. Our helplessness without the Lord to control our appetites, and the change when we accept His help, are proof that the Lord is with us even in our most external life. (AC 69466956) The Lord promised the same sign in His farewell words to the disciples. "And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name they shall cast out devils; . . . they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them." (Mark xvi. 17, 18; Luke x. 19; AC 9013; AE 581)

"And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain." (Isa. xi. 8, 9) The Lord will protect from the deceitful and deadly allurements of sensual pleasures, and from the influences of hell which inspire them, all who are children in heart-who are innocent in their lives and put their trust in Him. (AC 9013; AE 410, 314, 581)


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17. Serpents

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