SHALL TAKE UP SERPENTS
have a plan to reduce the number of venomous snakebites in this country.
My plan will prevent people from handling pit vipers or any other venomous
snakes as part of a religious ceremony. The plan does not involve my
becoming a preacher who teaches congregations the art of handling a
rattlesnake without being bitten. Nor does it include promoting legislation
that makes it illegal for a religious group to encourage anyone to engage
in what could be a fatal act. Instead, I offer my interpretation of
what the Bible actually says about handling serpents.
people across the country were shocked when a Kentucky man died after
he was bitten by a timber rattlesnake that he was handling during a
church service. He was not the first person to be killed because he
picked up a pit viper as part of a religious ceremony, a ritual that
continues to be performed by certain groups in the Appalachians. I am
not familiar with all the nuances of religious beliefs that promote
snake handling and certainly do not want to intrude on the sensitivities
of people who believe they have immunity from a venomous snakebite.
However, using my interpretation of what the Bible says should make
such ceremonies less hazardous.
are mentioned many places in the Bible, typically not in very flattering
terms. But I am talking only about snake handling. The King James Version
is a translation that has been accepted by vast numbers of people for
five centuries. Mark 16:18 notes, "They shall take up serpents."
Luke 10:19 proclaims, "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on
serpents and scorpions." Neither of these passages refers to "venomous"
serpents. Just serpents. (We can discuss scorpions at another time).
True, the apostle Paul was bitten by a "viper" on Melita (aka
Malta) and was unharmed (Acts 28:3-5). But no one is commanded to pick
up or otherwise engage with venomous snakes.
who feels compelled to "take up serpents" can do so by picking
up a harmless corn snake or a kingsnake, both of which clearly meet
the criterion of being a serpent. The list of completely inoffensive
serpents in the United States is long, with nonvenomous varieties far
outnumbering venomous serpents. Every state in the southern United States
has at least a couple of dozen different kinds of serpents that are
completely harmless. I can't speak for how other people choose to interpret
the Bible, but the KJV passages cited above in no way suggest that one
is required or even encouraged to take up venomous serpents.
United States, half of the bites by venomous species are dry bites,
that is, little or no venom is injected. Maybe Paul's bite was in the
non-envenomation category. Or you may prefer to think he was protected
by God. Either way, the message in Acts is about Paul. It is not a recommendation
that people pick up vipers.
the worst bites occur when a person picks up a venomous snake that has
been kept in captivity. Wild snakes bite people when they feel threatened.
They prefer escape to attack but will defend themselves as a last resort
if they feel cornered. Venom is an expensive commodity, and most wild
snakes probably try to limit how much they must expend to ward off a
human threat. A snake being held may feel that it is severely threatened
and must bite as hard as it can to protect itself. Also, a captive snake
that has not had to hunt for and then strike its food may have a much
greater venom supply than a wild snake.
the number of deaths from venomous snakes in the country each year is
remarkably low, seldom a dozen. I suggest that a literal translation
of the biblical phrase "they shall take up serpents" could
make the annual number of bites and fatalities even lower than it already
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