“Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”
I’d heard the punch line a dozen times, but it never failed to send me into a fit of giggles. That my grandma, the strongest, bravest woman I knew, would be the source of it made it even funnier.
She’d grown up in the mountains during the Great Depression, the middle child of 10. Her people were farmers who understood the goodness of hard work, laughter, and family, so once a year, we’d make our way back to their hills for a reunion where the siblings swapped memories and told tales on one another. I remember passels of cousins by varying degrees, games of softball, an outhouse, a creek, and tables full of food—potato salad, ham, and butterscotch pie.
But my favorite time for stories was curled up in my grandma’s bed on the nights I was allowed to stay over. Our days together were for work—cleaning, blackberry picking, and gardening—but the nights were for storytelling. She’d dress me in layers and socks and tuck me in under piles of blankets. Sweating, I’d throw them off, but she’d put them right back on, determined that I wouldn’t be cold.
Then in the darkness, I’d whisper, “Grandma, tell me about the time . . .”
I had a whole repertoire of stories to choose from: the time she’d overturned the churn and spilled the family’s cream for the week or how she walked three miles to high school in good weather and boarded in town in bad. But one of my favorite stories was when she and her older brothers were out making hay under a blazing summer sun.
She’d been assigned to the top of the wagon, and as her brothers threw up pitchforks of hay, she’d stamp them down to make room for more. The system was working fine until a tremendous black snake came flying through the air straight at her—an unfortunate hitchhiker on someone’s fork of hay. As quickly as it had come up, she sent it back down, where her brother stabbed it. But satisfied with nothing less than the reptile’s eternal damnation, she screamed, “Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”
The snake and the promise
In all fairness to the snake, seeing one in a hay field isn’t uncommon, and most are entirely harmless. There’s the black racer—long, shiny, darting here and there; the northern ring- necked with its yellow collar; and the eastern garter, a striped snake that apparently to someone, somewhere, once resembled the aforementioned accessory. You will occasionally spot more harmful snakes, the kind that send a shiver up your spine and have earned the aversion we carry against the species as a whole. Timber rattlers make their home in wooded areas, blending into the underbrush, while their neighbor the copperhead prefers more open habitats like overgrown fields, dilapidated barns, and rock ledges.
When you encounter a snake, however, the best thing to do is nothing. Even a venomous snake would rather move along than bite you. So catch your breath, calm your heart, and watch it for a few seconds before it glides out of sight. If you do, you’ll see one of the most unexpected, and unnerving, spectacles in the animal kingdom.
Limbless, a snake propels itself in waves, writhing and slithering along the ground. To climb, it will coil around a tree or pole, scrunching and creeping upward. To burrow, it relies on “rectilinear locomotion,” a unique coordination of scale and muscle movements that allow it to push its body forward in a straight line. Surprisingly, this uncanny way of getting around is the first specific animal phenomenon recorded in Scripture. And perhaps even more surprisingly, the snake is the first to receive the promise of Christmas.
According to Genesis, after God made the man and woman, he placed them in a garden which they shared with the animals. For a while, everything was good and beautiful and exactly as God planned; but a twist was coming, a twist in the form a winding, coiling, curling reptile. One day a snake shows up, and with subtle, hissing words, convinces them to do the one thing God had forbidden: to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, a curse descends; the man and woman are banished from the garden; and nothing is the same again.
For its part in the deceit, God sentences the snake to its unique movement:
You are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal.
You will move on your belly
and eat dust all the days of your life.
But then he promises this:
I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel (Gen. 3:15).
Theologians call this passage the protevanglium, or the first announcement of the good news, because it foreshadows the birth of the One who will undo the serpent’s deceit along with its lethal aftermath. Eve’s hope—our hope—was that this coming Promised Son would crush the serpent and all it represents, even as he suffers in the process.
But here’s something curious: the news of a Redeemer wasn’t given to Eve, not directly at least. It was given to the snake. And it was given in the form of a warning: judgment is coming. The power you hold over the earth will one day be taken from you. So for the snake, Christmas is far from good news. Or is it?
Of course, the snake of Genesis 3 is not simply a snake, not like the ring-necked and garter snakes in my backyard. Revelation 12:9 speaks of an “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world.” And elsewhere in Scripture, snakes represent sin and our own bent toward falsehood. Romans 3:13, for example, says
There is no one who does what is good, not even one.
Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips.
But here’s something even more unexpected than the fact that Christmas was first announced to a reptile. In John 3:14-16, Jesus likens his redemptive work to a miracle that occurred centuries earlier when God healed the Israelites of poisonous snakebites by having them look to a bronze serpent on a pole. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
And just like that, those who once followed the snake into damnation, now proclaim the grace of Christ in salvation. Those cursed by their own disobedience are now blessed by the obedience of another. I wonder about this. I wonder how the snake—so long associated with sin and death—could be associated with Christmas. I wonder until I remember the heart of the Creator for his creation. The God who knows every sparrow that falls, who numbers the stars, who holds the seas in his hand—would this same God let his creation be taken from him? Would he so easily give up what he has created and called “good”?
No. This is a God who redeems. This is a God who restores—both for those who have suffered under the deceit of sin and those who have deceived others. Because one day, evil will be crushed under the heel of the Promised Son, and his blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”
And when he does, the snake that was once a sign of sin’s dominion will become a sign of our complete and final redemption. In Isaiah 11:8–9, the prophet tells us of the day when the Promised Son will finally and fully reign over his creation. In that day,
an infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
They will not harm or destroy each other on my entire holy mountain.
The hope of the snake is our hope. We, who with poison on our lips have deceived and been deceived, to us, the promise is given: a Savior has come, and a Savior will come. And when he is lifted up, all who look to him will find life—everlasting and eternal.
This article is an excerpt from the new book, Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson from B&H Publishing (2022).