I 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.
In February 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.
Serpents 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.
Anyone 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.
In the 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.
Some of 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.
Fortunately, 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 is.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.