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Issue Features
Discovery Magazine 6/1/1999

Scriptures, Serpents, and Similes

 Scriptures, serpents, and…similes? You know what the Scriptures are. And you know what serpents are. But similes? A simile (pronounced sim-uh-lee) is figure of speech that is used to compare two things (many times the words "like" and "as" are a part of the comparison). For example, you might hear someone say that a little girl has "cheeks like roses." Or perhaps you’ve heard someone say that they saw clouds "fluffy as cotton candy." Such phrases are similes.

OK, what is this—a grammar lesson?! No, actually it’s a Bible lesson—about how sometimes the Scriptures use snakes as similes to make an important point.

Consider, for example, Jesus’ statement in the New Testament: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). What was Jesus trying to tell His disciples? He used this simile because snakes are experts at avoiding danger. They realize its presence instinctively, and retreat from it quickly! Jesus was telling His followers that since they were going to be like "sheep in the midst of wolves" (as Christians they would be surrounded by people who did not like them or Christ, Whom they served), they should be "wise as serpents." In other words, they always should be alert and cautious. (But, He also told them that they should be "harmless as doves," which meant they were not to be hateful or mean to others—even those who might wish them harm.)

In the Old Testament, Micah discussed certain people who had abandoned belief in God. Using a simile about serpents, the great prophet described how those "nations…like a serpent" licked the dust of the ground and crawled from their holes "like snakes of the Earth" (7:16-17). Not a very pretty picture, is it? Micah used a simile to compare wicked people to dirt-eating, slippery reptiles that slithered in and out of holes in an attempt to avoid obeying God.

Another Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, described the sound of the defeat (and retreat) of Egypt’s once-powerful army as "hired men…like the serpent" running away (46:21-22). This simile would have been quite powerful, because snakes were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. Pharaohs even wore an image of a serpent on their forehead to represent victory. When Jeremiah used a simile to say that Egypt’s famous fighting force was like a fleeing serpent, he was saying that Egypt’s mightiest warriors seem like reptiles that run away at the first hint of danger. Ouch!

There are many other uses of the words "snake," "serpent," and "viper" in God’s Word. For example, Jesus once labeled the Pharisees of His day (who acted as if they loved God, but really didn’t) as "serpents" and a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 23:33; "brood" is a word for all the snake’s young). What if someone called you and a bunch of your friends a "brood of vipers?" A compliment? Hardly! But you would get the point, wouldn’t you? Jesus described the Pharisees as serpents or vipers to show people what they were really like.

And that brings us to this question: What are you really like? If Jesus were describing you, would He think of you as a person who is "wise as a serpent"? Or would He instead think of you as a person who is among a "brood of vipers"? Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?



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