Below is a short piece I wrote for the Cathedral News (St. Spyridon’s quarterly magazine) last winter. These articles disappear down the memory hole, so I thought I would repost it – it is entitled “The Redemption of the Serpent”. It has a Christmas connection, which is appropriate for the season. More later…
One of the most colorful parts of any nativity scene is the three wise men or magi. They are usually depicted in colorful robes and bear the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Often they will be accompanied by the camels or, more rarely but more correctly, the horses on which they rode. Interestingly, in their appearance in the gospel of Matthew the wise men are not enumerated; the number three is associated with them due to the three gifts.
As interesting and colorful as the magi appear, what is their purpose in the story? The key to understanding this is in the origin of the term magi, which is from a Greek root meaning magician or one who engages in augury. This activity is strictly forbidden in scripture as being blasphemous, but the word magi in the Hellenistic era meant a follower of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion now extinct in Iran but still followed by the exiled Parsi community. The magi are, in this sense, the ultimate Gentiles; magi is term like “crowd”, “dogs”, and others that in the New Testament denotes a Gentile who accepts the good news of the gospel just as the chief priests and scribes struggle with it.
There is another shade of meaning to the magi story, and it connects the episode to, of all things, the serpent in the Adam and Eve story. The serpent famously tempts Eve, which is the beginning of their disobedience to God. The Church Fathers, following a reference in the Book of Revelation, connect the serpent with Satan, but in the story this identity is never made explicit – it is inferred based on the activity of the serpent as a trickster and divider. Serpent in Hebrew is naHash, which is from a root related to augury. Here, the “one who engages in augury” has a very different role than the magi. In this sense, the placing of the magi in the nativity story represents a redemption of the serpent. Rather than being tempters or dividers, the magi actively engage in doing God’s will. The transition from serpent to magi is not as stark as it seems. In Numbers Moses uses a serpent as a staff of healing; the former agent of deception again becomes an instrument of God’s will. In the Gospel of John Jesus brings the idea full-circle by comparing the raising of Moses’s brass serpent with the raising up of the Son of Man.
The Bible consistently uses unlikely characters – Nebuchadnezzar, a serpent, Zoroastrians, Roman soldiers – as agents of God’s will. Those who are outside of the scriptural community are often shown as being more obedient to God than the insiders. The connection of the serpent with the magi is a representational redemption of the serpent. As we make the transition between the Christmas season, which ends on February 2, forty days after Christmas, and the Lenten period, we can see in this story a representation of the redemptive power of God’s love and mercy.