Like operating a buzz saw, hermeneutics can be a dangerous business. Woodworkers and hyper-literalists alike have lost fingers and hands due to lack of concentration on the job. Take for example the snake handlers of Appalachia. This quirky Christian sect aren’t known for their numerical growth. What they are known for is a disturbing and occasionally lethal worship rite, namely the deliberate holding of venomous serpents.
Needless to say these churches have paltry growth statistics, usually expanding incrementally through families having an inordinate number of kids. And yet, today there are about 40 churches subsisting in USA, and even four in Canada, which pass poisonous reptiles around like a macabre version of hot-potato, or perhaps more aptly, Appalachian roulette.
Every abhorrence must first be hatched in a sinister mind and incubated among the untaught. The Church of God preacher George Went Hensley conceived the movement in the 1920’s. Tragically his own wife died of a snake bite, but this didn’t shake his faith, until in 1955, at the age of 75 he too died of a snake bite. Quelle surprise.
Coaching Corner: How do you know if you have inadvertently wandered into a snake handling church? For one thing, every single congregation has several members who are badly maimed or disfigured. In the 40 US churches there have been over 100 fatalities. But if that doesn’t tip you off: If the greeter at the door looks genuinely surprised that you’ve come to visit; or if they ask for the offering in cash, check, or mouse.
The rationale behind the bizarre and often fatal practice is the notion that if we are going to believe everything in the word of God, then we need to practice everything and trust God. Fair enough. You gotta respect Christians who want to believe and apply the whole Bible. But this raises a question as glaringly obvious as a fang in the eye: How does one interpret the Bible?
The answer is the art and science of hermeneutics. This field is far more involved than what a blog post can cover. But I wanted to leave you with a few crucial steps, just in case your pastor comes to church one day toting a rudimentary terrarium or a shoe box with breathing holes in it.
Where in the Bible do they get the idea that God wants Christians to play with snakes? I’m glad you asked. Let’s examine Luke 10 as a test case, and see how this plays out in Appalachia. In Luke 10 Jesus tells the 70 evangelists that they have authority to “tread on serpents and scorpions and they shall not hurt you.”
The first step of interpretation is to observe carefully the context. If you skip this step, you may end up needing to learn how to write with your left hand.
A helpful analogy for how to observe context is to think of the verse you are interpreting as an opaque bridge on which you are standing. Unable to see the direction of the water beneath you, you look in two places. If the water on the one side of the bridge is flowing North to South, and the water on the other side of the bridge is flowing North to South, then it is a reasonable starting point to assume the water beneath the bridge is flowing in exactly the same direction.
The passage in the spotlight is…
Luke 10: 17The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
The verse in question is:Luke 10:19“Authority to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”
If you grew up in a snake handling church, and allowed the blinkers of your upbringing and teaching to limit the field of vision of your interpretation, then you would neglect to check the preceding near context and the following near context. In some passages this could lead to something innocuous, like your wife wearing a doily on her head in church. Or in the case of Luke 10you could end up with a rattlesnake’s hemotoxin in your veins that would probably lead to amputation.
A casual observation of the near context would show that the 70 evangelists, like a victorious underdog high school football team, were giddy with delight about their unexpected success at casting out demons in vs 17. Jesus then affirms this conquest when he saw the Serpent of Old, “Satan fall from heaven like lightning” in vs 18. This is all fast flowing water on the one side of our bridging verse 19. Then in vs 19 Jesus tells them that they have been given authority to squash venomous diamond heads and scaly arachnids, and all varieties of Satan’s henchmen, then he promptly goes on in vs 20 to chide them for rejoicing that the demonic “spirits are subject to you.”
Recap: vs 17 is talking about victory over demons,
vs 18 is talking about victory over Satan,
vs 19 is talking about victory over snakes and scorpions, and demons
vs 20 is talking about victory over demons.
It seems reasonable, if not obvious, that the snakes and scorpions are metaphors for Satan and demons. This isn’t a huge stretch at all, especially when you take the far context into account: Satan did, after all take the form of a serpent in Eden (Gen 3) and is called “that ancient Serpent” (Rev 12:9, ESV).
The other hermeneutical misstep the snake handlers make is to kidnap a proof-text from the narrative section inActs 28where a viper gripped Paul’s hand. He did what a man should do with any little trial—he “shook it off.” “Aah-ha,” as they say in Appalachia, “You see, someone who was not one of the 70 and was immune to snake venom, so hand me that rattler!” Let’s bear in mind Paul’s invincibility was notorious. He appeared to be immune to stoning, drowning, a horde of thirsty/hungry Jewish assassins, among other physical and spiritual maladies. In fact he was pretty much undefeatable until his head was severed by the Romans (kinda like the Highlander). Not exactly normative. But the essence of the error is to take descriptive passages as prescriptive. Snake handlers don’t try walk on water or part the seas. These events were also descriptions of what God miraculously did for, and through people, but no one takes them as normative, or as a prescription for all Christians.
Well there you have it. Your homework is to apply a mix of context and common sense to Matt 5:30“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
I’ll give you a hint: when you’re done interpreting it you will probably throw away your computer, not your right hand.