In The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer, Andy Naselli offers as one way to summarize the Bible, “Kill the dragon, get the girl.” I love and hate this so much. On the one hand, it is horrible cliché and sounds chauvinistic. On the other hand, it betrays a fundamentally correct and, indeed, profound understanding of the Biblical storyline. At the heart of the Bible is the story of Christ’s kingdom breaking forth in a world ruled by Satan, the Serpent or Dragon, and of Jesus redeeming for himself a bride, perfected in holiness and beauty from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation of the earth. In the newest entry into Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology, Naselli exposits the theme of “serpents” and the serpent par excellence across the Bible. I was thankful to receive the volume as part of Crossway’s blog review program and found much to appreciate in it.
Naselli rightly identifies several key moments in this theme, such as the correlation between the Serpent and nations along with their rulers, a point which I draw on in my recent book, The Gift of Purpose. In his concluding reflections, Naselli attempts to articulate the practical implications of the theme. He is on the mark with many of these; I think the most important implication he draws is that Satan is a personal reality, a person at work in this world. We cannot ignore and must take into account the existence of personal evil working in the world as we attempt to live for Christ. Naselli aptly quotes from The Hobbit at this point, “‘It does not do,’ J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us in The Hobbit, ‘to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him’” (126).
In reflection on some of the places where the volume falls short, The Serpent offers typology or thematic points that do not easily emerge from the textual data. In his heading “King Herod: A Murderous Dragon” (93-95), Naselli correlates Herod’s attempt to kill the boys in Bethlehem with Pharaoh’s murderous actions in the book of Exodus and with the Dragon in Revelation 12. On the one hand, this is true enough; if we take the correlation between some earthly rulers and Satan seriously, I think the natural conclusion is that all “the world” or unredeemed humanity is aligned with Satan over against the world. On this logic, Herod is an “offspring of the serpent.” On the other hand, if Biblical theology is attempting to unpack a theme as it is taught in the Bible—which seems to be the point of this series—the Bible never portrays Herod as an offspring of the Serpent nor makes the connection. So, on the logic of the offspring tensions invoked Genesis 3:15, this is correct; but, if we are trying to follow how the Bible unpacks a theme, I think it is a stretch to include Herod and even Pharaoh in Exodus 1-2 in this theme (though elsewhere Pharaoh is connected with the serpent/dragon). Also, as in Greidanus’ Chaos and Cosmos, Naselli too eagerly adopts a comparative religion or ANE background approach to reading the Old Testament. As I have argued elsewhere and as has been argued by other scholars, such an approach is methodologically problematic.1 For the most part, I agree that chaos and its association with Leviathan is present in ANE literature. However, it is not clear that the Bible is ever making this connection. Moreover, even if an original reader connected the miracle of Moses’s staff becoming a serpent with Egyptian serpent worship, the text never makes this point. If we are to read the Bible as both a document, to be interpreted on its own terms, and as a document given by God for His people across 3000+ years of history, we must ground our interpretations in the text itself and not reconstructions of its reader’s or author’s thoughts. The theme of chaos (at least as portrayed in ANE literature), Leviathan as the chaos monster (again, in the way portrayed in ANE literature), and Egyptian serpent worship are not literary realities in the canonical Scriptures. (Also, just to nit-pick—though this by no means an inconsequential nit-pick—Naselli reiterates one of C.S. Lewis most painful theological ideas in The Chronicles of Narnia. He endorses Lewis along the lines that even if someone loves the fictional character of Aslan more than Jesus, this is not problematic because to love Aslan is really to love Jesus whom Aslan figures and whose works are actually Jesus’ (cf. Lewis account of the pious Calormene in The Last Battle). The problem is that this is, by definition, idolatry: to love/adore/worship someone other than God for what God has done, including fictional beings (such as a physical idol) is the heart of idolatry according to Romans 1:18ff.)
However, these reflections aside, The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer is a wonderful little book that will alert the reader to a key theme in the Bible. It promises to show the reader how rich the Bible is by unpacking one of its nuances and to help the reader better understand reality and their life with Christ in light of it.