The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif
As the title suggests, this recent book by author Brian A. Verrett, advocates that the messianic theme found in the books of Samuel is enhanced by tracing a serpent motif (on the subject of biblical motifs, see my post here). The serpent referred to is the serpent of Genesis 3. In particular Genesis 3:15, viewed by many as the first messianic prophecy in Scripture: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV).
This motif is not readily apparent to most readers of the English Bible, but by an examination of various Hebrew words, as well as looking at what the text of Genesis 3 might have in common with certain passages in the books of Samuel, Verrett seeks to establish his case. In Verrett’s own words, “This book has a two-fold purpose: (1) demonstrate that Samuel contains a serpent motif and (2) demonstrate that this motif’s significance within Samuel is to present the seed of David as the promised seed of the woman from Gen. 3:15 who will defeat the serpent and reign as king in the new creation” (p. 143).
In his introductory chapter, Verrett demonstrates that previous scholarship has suggested a serpent motif within the books of Samuel. He also notes that the books of Samuel utilize various motifs noticed by scholars (I myself am planning a series on this blog related to various motifs in the books of Samuel–click here for posts currently available).
In chapter two Verrett looks closely at Genesis 3, examining the story and its vocabulary. His main objectives are to “demonstrate that both the OT and NT contain a serpent motif that derives from Gen 3,” and to “develop a paradigm to determine allusions to the serpent by noting those words, images, and concepts that the text associates with the serpent in Gen 3” (p. 10). Some of his conclusions are (1) that the seed of the woman is a singular individual (i.e. the word “seed” is not used in a corporate sense); (2) by examining the words of judgment placed on the serpent, the woman, and the man, one can expect that a text using these images might be alluding to the serpent. Verrett concedes that the words referring to the serpent’s judgment have a “higher chance” that a biblical author is referring to the serpent. He does a convincing job establishing that there is a serpent motif that runs throughout the OT & NT, thus opening the door for the possibility that this motif occurs in Samuel as well.
In chapters 3&4 Verrett seeks to establish that a serpent motif exists in Samuel. His primary focus is on Goliath (chapter 3) and passages dealing with Nahash (chapter 4). Verrett contends that several factors combine to demonstrate that Goliath represents the serpent. Words and images that suggest this include Goliath’s scaly armor and the four-fold mention of bronze (armor & weapons). The word “bronze” comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for snake. Finally, Goliath’s death suggests connections with the serpent. His falling face down suggests that he eats dust and his beheading parallels the serpent’s head being crushed. As an aside for those who read this blog, Verrett agrees that David struck Goliath in the knee, not the forehead, as I argue in most post “How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?”
The Ammonite King Nahash seems to hold the most obvious potential for a serpent theme, since “nahash” in Hebrew means “snake.” Nahash is the king defeated by Saul in 1 Samuel 11. His opposition to Israel and Israel’s anointed one (Saul), along with his name make this a possibility. Nahash’s name also appears in 2 Samuel 10 which speaks of his death and the war created by his son Hanun when he insults David’s ambassadors. Verrett argues that Hanun is the “seed of the serpent,” since he is the son of Nahash. The theme of nakedness and shame and his opposition to David (Israel’s anointed) further suggests the serpent motif (pp. 84-85). Nahash is mentioned 2 final times in 2 Samuel 17:25 and 27. According to 2 Sam. 17:25, Nahash is the grandfather of Amasa. Amasa becomes the general of Absalom’s army in his revolt against David. Verrett argues that Amasa’s descent from Nahash and the description of his death, which includes him falling on his “belly” and writhing like a snake, suggests that he is a seed of the serpent (pp. 89-91). Verrett also suggests that Absalom is “serpentine” but doesn’t dwell on this identification, making only cursory observations (Absalom deceives people, he is opposed to David). I found this section dealing with Amasa and Absalom to be less than convincing and will speak of it in my critique below.
In chapters 5-7 Verrett deals with the second purpose of his book which is to demonstrate that the seed of David is the promised seed of the woman who will defeat the serpent and reign over a new creation. In chapter 5 he pulls together all the “serpent” material in Samuel explored in his earlier chapters (3&4) and seeks to show how they relate to one another. This is one of the most insightful chapters of the book. Verrett points out that Saul’s fall begins after his defeat of Nahash (which might have raised hopes that he was the promised seed), demonstrating that Saul is not the promised seed of the woman. David’s victory over the serpentine Goliath gives hope that he is the promised seed. But following his victory over Hanun (the son of Nahash), the story relates David’s fall, thus demonstrating that he is not the promised seed of the woman either. Therefore, the serpent motif in Samuel momentarily raises the reader’s hope that the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15 is on the horizon. However, hope turns to be disappointment when the reader learns that neither Saul nor David is the promised deliverer. This, in turn, leads Verrett to discuss 2 Sam. 7:11b-17 in chapter 6–a passage that promises David an eternal throne and a descendant who would sit upon it.
In chapter 6, Verrett carefully examines 2 Sam. 7:11b-17, concluding that Solomon is not the promised descendant who would build the Temple, but that it refers to a future priest-king (Jesus). Along with his discussion of 2 Sam 7, he also looks at whether 2 Chronicles pictures Solomon as the fulfillment (his answer is “no”). He also connects 1 Sam 2:35 and the prophecy of a faithful priest with 2 Sam 7, arguing that these passages share similar language and indicate that the promised priest is also the same person as the promised coming king. To bolster his argument, he examines Zechariah 6:9-15, stating that this passage too anticipates a priest-king who is the “Branch” of David (thus an allusion to the Davidic covenant in 2 Sam 7). Finally, he argues that “Hebrews 3:1-6 also understands the faithful priest of 1 Sam 2:35 to be the seed of David in 2 Samuel 7:11b-17” (133).
Chapter 7 is a close examination of David’s “last words” recorded in 2 Sam 23:1-7, and other passages that Verrett believes are dependent on it (Ps. 72, various passages in Isaiah, Jer. 23:5-6 and Zech. 6:9-15). His interpretation of 2 Sam 23:1-7 is that David is speaking of his seed who will reign in righteousness over a new creation (3-4) while defeating the serpent (6-7–he understands the mention of “Belial” to refer to the serpent of Gen. 3). Chapter 8 is a five-page summary bringing the study to a conclusion.
Verrett is to be congratulated for a very thorough study of the serpent motif in Samuel. The book demonstrates a good working knowledge of the books of Samuel, as well as an acquaintance with the pertinent scholarly literature. The book is also well written and easy to understand. One does not have to be a scholar to appreciate the many insights offered, although this book is definitely for the more mature student, pastor, or teacher. Among the strengths of this book is an awareness of a serpent motif in Scripture, and a greater sensitivity toward the messianic theme of the books of Samuel.
While Verrett has convinced me of the possibility of a serpent motif in Samuel, I must say with some regret, I am not totally persuaded. At times I was left with the impression that Verrett wanted to prove his thesis so much that he may have gone overboard and found connections where there are none. One example is Verrett’s contention that Habakkuk 3:13-14 is “a poetic portrayal of the David and Goliath narrative” (p. 60). I had never read these verses and caught any notion of a reference, or even an allusion, to David and Goliath. After reading Verrett’s interpretation, I must still confess that I don’t see it. I have similar feelings about his connection of 2 Sam. 23:6-7 with 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1, although I see the parallels he is trying to make between these passages.
One glaring weakness in Verrett’s presentation, in my opinion, is regarding Absalom and Amasa. One would think that if the writer of Samuel was attempting to use the serpent motif in the story of Absalom’s rebellion, he would have used language and imagery much more obvious and convincing with regards to Absalom. Why would the writer focus on a relatively minor character like Amasa and picture him as the seed of the serpent, when a presentation of Absalom in this light would make a more profound impression? This doesn’t rule it out as a possibility, but there are other problems regarding Amasa. Although Verrett, to his credit, deals with the textual problem in 2 Sam. 17:25 which depicts Amasa as a descendant of Nahash, this Scripture is much disputed. It asks a lot to base your theory on a disputed passage. I must also take issue with Verrett’s interpretation of Joab. Joab is pictured as a very unsavory person in 2 Samuel. His murder of Amasa is vicious, deceitful, and cowardly. Yet in this passage Verrett pictures Joab as the hero and David as the villain! Quote: “At this point in the narrative, Joab appears more like the seed of the woman than David does” (p. 113). This is a misunderstanding of Joab’s portrayal in 2 Samuel. (For an in depth treatment of Joab’s character, check out my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel). One final problem with Verrett’s thesis is his assertion that the covenant promise of 2 Samuel 7 refers only to the promised seed of the woman. While this is clearly a messianic text and is interpreted this way in the NT, it’s hard to ignore 2 Sam. 7:14 which talks about David’s descendants committing sin. Again, to his credit, Verrett addresses this verse, but all that he can come up with (and it’s all that can be said) is that the Old Greek (OG) leaves open the possibility that David’s descendant might not sin (p. 127). This is not a strong argument and damages his assertion that this passage only speaks about the coming messiah.
In spite of my critique of what I perceive to be some shortcomings of The Serpent in Samuel, this is an excellent book. The reader will learn much from it. I am grateful for Verrett’s effort, and scholarship and I highly recommend it as a source that will inform and challenge the reader.
Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for this free review copy. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.
The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif is available at Wipf & Stock, and Amazon USA / UK