This is a post for Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, which starts tonight. It’s on a subject, though, that at first sight doesn’t seem to have much to do with the festival. Snakes.
Snakes, not as a zoological but as a psychological reality. Snakes, not for what they are in the external world but for what they mean in our internal worlds. Pretty much the world over.
” … But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.”
That’s Emily Dickinson, in the poem titled simply “Snake”; and she’s not the only one to have felt this way. Snakes give many, perhaps most people, the creeps. It’s useless to point out that most snakes are harmless and indeed, from our relentlessly human-centered vantage point, “helpful” in that they eat pests that do us real damage. We still can’t stand them.
“It would be difficult,” Philip Slater wrote nearly 50 years ago, “to find two other creatures who are at once as feared and maligned and as useful to mankind as the snake and the spider. … It may be that it is precisely that quality which makes them useful, i.e., their destruction of vermin, which also makes them feared as symbols of the evil aspect of the mother; for according to Freud, vermin = children in the unconscious.”
An uncle by marriage once said to me, “Kids aren’t scared of snakes until they read the Old Testament.” I very much doubt that. The Biblical story of the serpent in Eden seems to me to reflect, rather than to have shaped, an intuitive sense of revulsion toward this uncanny creature.
Revulsion–but also numinous awe. This world has known many cultures, like the Mexicans before Columbus–think of the “feathered serpent” Quetzalcoatl–in which the snake was worshiped. Even in the third chapter of Genesis, if you read between the lines, the snake isn’t altogether the bad guy.
Who was it who said that God told the first lie in the Bible, the serpent the first truth? He (or she?) had a point. Consider:
God to Adam: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
The serpent to Eve: “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” (Genesis 3:4-5).
And behold they eat, and behold they don’t die; and they may not be quite “as gods” but they do have a knowledge they didn’t have before, the knowledge of their own sexuality, and for better or for worse their innocent infantile nudity (2:25) is gone forever. Hard not to think that, at least in some measure, the snake that tempted Eve is a stand-in for–well, something that looks a lot like a snake.
Would we be better off spending our lives in the paradise of infancy? It’s hard to say. All we know is that we wouldn’t be fully human if we did. From this perspective the serpent may not be our destroyer but our deliverer. Or possibly both.
Is it any wonder that at the beginning of the Christian Era there arose Gnostic groups who read Genesis and declared the serpent a Redeemer, a messenger sent from the Good God beyond to rescue humanity from the prison-house of this evil creation? The wicked Creator (“Demiurge”), the God of the Old Testament, had blinded Adam and Eve and made them his slaves. The serpent brought them the light of saving knowledge, making them the world’s first Gnostics, literally “knowers.” The Demiurge could and did pour out his vindictive spite on them and their offspring. But the knowledge implanted by the serpent remained. It could not be erased.
Not a surprise, that some should think this way. What is a surprise is to find these Gnostic ideas, dormant for centuries, popping up in Judaism in the middle of the 17th century. Hebrew writings from that period know a thing called the “Holy Serpent,” ha-nachash ha-kadosh. That “Holy Serpent’s” name is Sabbatai Zevi.
A bit of background: Hebrew letters are also numbers, each letter with a numerical value unique to it. If you add up the numerical values of the letters of nachash, “snake,” you get 358. If you add up the values of the letters of mashiach, “Messiah” … you again get 358.
In the Kabbalah, such numerical equations are treated as indicators of essential yet concealed identities. And so, when the eccentric and at least partly insane Turkish Jew Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed himself Messiah in the spring of 1665–or was proclaimed as such, by the brilliant young Kabbalist Nathan of Gaza who served as Sabbatai’s prophet and publicist–he also became the Serpent.
He wasn’t the first Jewish Messiah to see himself represented or prefigured in a snake. That distinction belongs to Jesus, if we’re to take John 3:14 at face value. But Sabbatai, or Nathan or the Sabbatai-Nathan synergy, gave the equation a depth and power that may have been latent in it but was never brought out so plainly.
Sabbatai signed his letters with a weird wavy line, supposed to represent a writhing snake. He called himself “exalted lion” and “exalted gazelle,” both images taken from the Jewish messianic tradition. (And his name “Zevi” literally means “gazelle.”) To these two (mostly) positive symbolic animals he added a third, the most sinister of all the Bible’s creatures, “more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1).
He fused the three in his own person, bringing together the light and the shadow, the sacred and the uncanny, into one complete Messiah. Himself.
As a self-promoter and manipulator of religious symbols, Sabbatai Zevi was a stunning success. The entire Jewish world went wild over him in 1665 and 1666. As a leader, he was an utter bust. Less than a year after his messianic career was launched, the Turks threw him in jail. Brought before the Turkish sultan in September 1666, he converted to Islam. Most of his followers abandoned him in despair.
A kernel of believers stayed faithful. And here’s how we get to Passover:
One of the Sabbatian believers, endowed with considerable artistic talent, created an extraordinary tribute to his or her fallen Messiah. This was a yellow brass Seder plate, designed for use at the Passover evening meal (“Seder”) to hold the ritual items that take on such potency in the course of the evening. (The roasted shankbone, for example, which represents the Passover lamb that the Israelites sacrificed on the night of the tenth plague.)
Tonight is the first Seder. In a few hours, religiously observant Jews all over the world will recite around their dinner tables the Haggadah, the oblique and often cryptic retelling of the Exodus that accompanies the Seder. The Seder plate will be at the center of all these tables. I don’t think any will have a Seder plate like this one.
No one knows how old it is–17th century? 18th? The Israeli collector Itzhak Einhorn acquired it in the early 1950s from a Polish Holocaust survivor and published it in the Hebrew journal Pe’amim in 1990. The picture at the bottom of this post is from the cover of that issue of Pe’amim.
Look at it carefully.
At the center, something like a six-petaled flower. Encircling the flower: a band with the Hebrew words PESACH MATZAH U-MAROR, “Paschal lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs,” three of the ritual foods of Passover eve. (Exodus 12:8; but nobody actually eats the lamb anymore.) And on the edges of that band: a lion at the upper right. A gazelle at the upper left. A snake below.
Sabbatai Zevi’s three special animals. No one but a Sabbatian would bring them together in this way.
What did these Sabbatians–whoever they were, wherever they lived–think about as they chanted from their Haggadah? As they partook of the ritual “bitter herbs” from their special Seder plate?
Did they meditate, perhaps, on what Nathan of Gaza had written about the “Holy Serpent” in his Treatise of the Dragons, a Kabbalistic work from 1666 that sets itself to interpret the mysterious Zoharic passage about which I blogged six weeks ago: the “Mystery of the Great Dragon”?
Sabbatai’s pre-existent soul had fallen “into the depths of the Great Abyss and was tempted there by the snakes who demanded of him, ‘Where is your God?’ [Psalm 42:4].” Yet in spite of the snaky seductions, “he kept his faith … and thus was called ‘Job’ and also ‘servant of Pharaoh.’ For Pharaoh is the name of the true King Messiah.”
Pharaoh the Messiah? A strange reversal, especially at Passover time. Yet no stranger than the Gnostics’ turning the serpent of Eden into a herald of the true God.
“Pharaoh is called ‘Great Dragon,’ sprawling amid the rivers of Egypt [Ezekiel 29:3], concealing and protecting [the Messiah] like a shell … corresponding to King Messiah since he is called ‘Serpent’ and ‘Serpent’ has the same numerical value as ‘Messiah.’ … And you must ponder the power of this Great Serpent who is a shell to the Holy Serpent, which is why in the Bible ‘Moses fled from before it’ [Exodus 4:3].”
Since the Messiah/snake was more powerful even than Moses.
That’s Nathan’s theology: a bewildering metaphysical shell game in which abysmal evil masks–but also protects–supreme good. How much of it was known to the men and women who chanted the Haggadah around their lion-gazelle-snake Seder plate, praying for the return of their Messiah? How much could they have understood even if they did know it?
We’ll never have the answers.
That’s perhaps part of the serpent’s essence. I mean the serpent that dwells inside us, not the real-life snakes that slither around our woods and gardens, pursuing their narrow agendas of feeding and reproducing, not bothering us if we don’t bother them.
“The most ubiquitous and confusing of all mythological symbols,” Philip Slater calls him/her/it, “one which is notable in having both a manifest and a hidden aspect, and which therefore partakes of both male and female qualities.” Also, says Slater, “the most common symbol of boundary-ambiguity,” appearing “in connection with the boundary between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, male and female …”
The serpent is the ambiguous: that which can’t be pigeonholed or pinned down. That which resists easy answers, which can’t be judged as good or bad but turns out to be both, depending on how it’s viewed. Like a pretty fair chunk of our human experience.
No wonder religions shun the snake. No wonder they also revere it. If you’re observing Passover tonight, think of that snake on the Seder plate.
by David Halperin
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