Who Needs Imagination?
Common artistic portrayal of Adam, Eve, and the serpent
For those of us who grew up Christian, it's wisdom from the womb: Read your Bible, every day. As a kid, the reward for doing so was temporary amusement (guy got eaten by a fish and lived? Cool!) or nonexistent. Years later, those of us who stayed in church began to see the sense behind our parents' and pastors' dictum—delving into this ancient text deepens our faith in times of need, gives us guidance in spiritual matters, and strengthens our understanding of God throughout the ages.
Unfortunately, this seemingly simple obligation--read--is sometimes difficult to do. Working through the Old Testament can be especially laborious, and I’m not talking about the tedious listings of “begats,” nor the long, drawn-out descriptions of antiquated food laws.
I’m talking about imagination.
The great and dreadful thing about reading any story is that, as readers, we can’t actually “see” the setting, scene, and characters being described to us. Instead, we must rely on our own creativity to give color and physical substance to our texts. Even when the subject at hand is painstakingly illuminated by its author, every reader envisions spatial nuances differently, so no one can be sure whether what they imagine is what was intended.
If it’s hard for readers to perfectly re-create a person, place, or thing in their minds via text, then it’s nearly impossible to do when there’s nothing for the imagination to work from but a few vague, perhaps even purposefully mysterious, hints.
In the Bible, such passages abound, and all we can do is wonder at them. What did the Garden of Eden really look like? What does it mean to be made in the “image” of God? Did the first humans look, walk, and talk like us? Why didn’t the author of Genesis hire a portrait artist?
I’m fascinated by the conundrum of how we choose to respond to things that no one living has seen first-hand. Take, for instance, the serpent. It's rather alarming that in almost every artistic depiction ever made of the fall of Adam and Eve—where Eve is eating or picking the apple and handing it to Adam as the serpent watches on—the serpent in the scene is painted as a serpent.
That is, as a serpent looks today. Its figure is long, tubular, legless, and twisted threateningly around the ankles of the humans or the boughs of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Yet even a cursory read of the relevant text will show that this is obviously not what the serpent really looked like at the time of Adam and Eve’s original sin. God gave the serpent its writhing form as punishment for its involvement in that event, long after the deed was done. If the creature had been remotely snakelike when God declared, “On your belly you will go…” then this change of form would have been no punishment at all.
So what did the serpent look like in this most pivotal scene? Was it beautiful? Did it have wings? Did light from the sun glance off its skin in iridescent purples and greens? All we know from reading our Bibles is that it didn’t, at first, resemble a snake.
While the author of Genesis leaves us with no explanation of the serpent’s original physicality, the form it has taken in our collective imagination lacks accuracy and mental effort. Can we, as responsible Christians, continue to propagate a flawed representation of the Word of God? Why have we indulged ourselves in this mistake?
Most likely, because it’s easier for us to imagine the serpent as an animal we can all identify. As John H. Walton points out in The Lost World of Genesis One, we modern-day humans can’t help but view the text of the Bible through the lens of our own context. Even when that text is explicit, and contains no narrative gaps.
For many Christians, reading the Bible in a certain way is paramount to being good stewards and messengers. A concordist viewpoint is admirably uncompromising—yet even for those who believe the Bible is a wholly and completely authoritative text on the nature and origin of all we see, some of the questions we consider in church simply aren’t answered by the authors of the Bible. What did that serpent look like? No one can know. Who were Adam and Eve, really, and when did they live? I think this is a similar question. Fortunately, God has given us the intellect and curiosity needed to divine answers to some of our questions through careful study of the natural world.
Multiple articles in this issue of God and Nature explore different types of Bible-reading challenges. The task of interpretation lies at the end of every single Biblical story, just as it does at the conclusion of every scientific study or experiment. Since our personal experiences, prejudices, and influences inevitably shape our understanding of the divine in our universe, one of the best ways to ensure accurate readings moving forward is by questioning how we know what we know, and by challenging, sometimes even discarding, the assumptions we currently hold.
God and Nature magazine now features a contact form at the end of every contribution to our magazine. Please feel welcome to challenge our own authors’ interpretations of God and nature as you read this and future issues.