by Al Maxey

Issue #589 ------- September 13, 2013
Think him as a serpent's egg, which,
hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow
mischievous and kill him in the shell.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
"Julius Caesar"

Snake Eggs and Spider Webs
Isaiah's Puzzling Prophecy and the
Pythian Prophetess of Philippi

I received an email last week from a Reflections reader in Solwezi, Zambia (a landlocked country in southern Africa) in which he expressed some concern about a sermon he had recently heard. He wrote, "Brother Al, Would you kindly consider doing an article on 'Snake Eggs in your Head' (from Isaiah 59:5). What I learned from our Sunday service was so confusing about this subject. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Would you also comment on Acts 16:16. According to our pastor, Paul encountered a young woman who prophesied to them through what Luke calls 'a spirit of divination.' However, the Greek word from which 'divination' is derived can be translated 'python,' thus didn't she have 'a spirit of a python'? Thank you."

The two passages to which this reader referred, one from the OT and one from the NT, are certainly fascinating, although they have very little in common with one another (except for the reference/allusion to snakes). A notable contrast between the two is that the Isaiah passage is an illustration of genuine prophecy generated by God's Spirit, whereas the Acts passage is an illustration of prophetic utterance of a more sinister nature (generated by demonic forces). Although in both cases there was an effort to "divine the future," only one was sanctioned by God, and only one had a noble purpose as its motivating force. Nevertheless, because the reader asked about both, and since both passages seem to have been used in the sermon to which he referred, we shall briefly examine each text to discern its basic message.

Isaiah's Puzzling Prophecy

In Isaiah 59, the prophet Isaiah describes in some detail, although largely metaphorically, the sins of the people of Israel for which God is highly displeased with them, and for which they must face severe judgment and punishment. "The people are guilty particularly of social injustice," a situation caused by a "state of deep social and moral apathy" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 326]. The two specific sins that concern us in this current study are found in verses 5-6: "They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider's web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands" (NIV). In this passage, the prophet "employs two figures taken from man's basic needs of food and clothing. The metaphors seem to imply that what these evil people produce seems at first wholesome and constructive, only to be revealed for what it really is later" [ibid]. About as foolish would be for a nation's leaders to announce that it intended to quickly pass into law a massive new legislation which, on the surface, seemed to be good, so that they could read it afterward at their leisure to determine what was actually in it (of course, no legislative body would ever be so foolish or incompetent, right?!).

The people thought they were being religious enough to appease God, and were amazed at His displeasure with them. "They seem eager to know My ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God" (Isaiah 58:2). They say they have fasted, and wonder why God does not see that religious act and reward them. However, God is not interested in the outward rites, but in the hearts of those professing to worship and serve Him. God indicts them with these words, "On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high" (Isaiah 58:3-4). The people were indeed religious, but they were far from spiritual. The former does not endear a people to God; the latter, however, is indicative and reflective of a right relationship of a people with their God and with one another. For more detail on the conditions of the people of Israel at this time, and their confusion over what exactly God was looking for in a nation (which might be timely for our own nation at this point in our history), I would urge a study of Reflections #219 -- "The Acceptable Fast of the Lord: The Religious and Spiritual Fasts Perceived in Isaiah 58." The people thought they were right with God on the basis of their rituals, but their sinful attitudes and actions had caused a deep rift in their relationship with Him. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2).

The first metaphor used in our text is: snake eggs. The KJV reads: "cockatrice's eggs." This was "a legendary, mythical monster (essentially a two-legged dragon) with a deadly glance, supposedly hatched by a serpent from the egg of a chicken, and commonly represented with the head, legs, and wings of a rooster and the body and tail of a serpent or dragon." There has been some speculation as to why the KJV translators chose this creature for this verse, but most scholars feel it was a poor choice. The Hebrew word used, as well as the Greek term in the Septuagint, suggests a viper or adder: a venomous snake. "The meaning here is that the people gave themselves to brooding on and hatching purposes which were as pernicious and destructive as the eggs of venomous serpents" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10: Isaiah, pt. 2, p. 386]. Isaiah says, "Whoever eats their eggs will die." In other words, if you partake of this poisonous fare, it can be both temporally and eternally destructive. "To 'eat of the eggs,' which are assumed to be poisonous, is to fall in with their schemes, and so be ruined" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 560]. Isaiah further says that when one of these eggs "is broken, an adder is hatched." These people are so dangerous and deadly in their godless scheming that those who seek to "crush" them only end up releasing more evil in the process. "To 'crush' them is to oppose them, and so to rouse a more venomous opposition" [ibid].

"The point of comparison in the first figure is the injurious nature of all they do, whether men rely upon it, in which case 'he that eateth of their eggs dieth,' or whether they are bold or imprudent enough to try and frustrate their plans and performances, when that (the egg) which is crushed or trodden upon splits into an adder (i.e., sends out an adder) which snaps at the heel of the disturber of its rest" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7: Isaiah, pt. 2, p. 397]. Thus, "instead of crushing the evil in the egg, they foster it" or release it [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 585]. Both the leaders and the people of Israel had become like vipers, and their many evil schemings and plans and actions were like viper's eggs. When people swallowed that which they produced, partaking of that deadly fare, they died; and when some tried to oppose or crush these deadly plans, they only succeeded in releasing more snakes upon the populace. The nation had become a swarming, hissing snake pit producing an ever-increasing amount of poison and "little asps." It had reached a point where God would need to step in and deal with the problem -- which He did, and which He will do again if/when nations fail to respond to His repeated warnings to repent and turn back to Him.

The second metaphor used in our text is: spider webs. As Isaiah 59:6 points out, cobwebs are utterly useless for providing an adequate covering; they may look attractive (some are intricately woven and spun), but they cannot serve as a garment. "They may catch flies, but they cannot clothe men" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 560]. This metaphor "refers not to the spider's web being made to entrap, but to its thinness, as contrasted with substantial 'garments.' Their works are vain and transitory" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 585]. "What he trusts in is fragile; what he relies on is a spider's web. He leans on his web, but it gives way; he clings to it, but it does not hold" (Job 8:14-15). That which these people were weaving and fabricating in their lives, both socially and religiously, could neither cover nor sustain them; it was as if they sought to clothe themselves in garments made of spider's webs. "The point of comparison in the second figure is the worthlessness and deceptive character of their works. What they spin and make does not serve for a covering to any man, but has simply the appearance of usefulness; their works are evil works, and their acts are all directed to the injury of their neighbor" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7: Isaiah, pt. 2, p. 397].

Philippi's Pythian Prophetess

In Acts 16, during his second missionary journey, we find the apostle Paul in the city of Philippi where a couple of very significant conversions to Christ Jesus took place: Lydia and the Philippian jailer. Sandwiched between these two accounts is the incident with "a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future" (Acts 16:16, NIV). Paul cast the evil spirit out of her (vs. 18) which resulted in an uproar in the city, during which he and Silas were arrested, beaten and flogged, and then thrown into prison. Our focus in this present study, however, is the slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit. The wording of the NIV above is far more commentary than translation. The text literally says that she had a "pneuma Puthonos" = a "Python spirit." This is variously translated in our English versions, but the most common rendering is: "a spirit of divination" (KJV, NASB, ESV, ASV, RSV). "Divination may be defined as the art or science of deducing the future or the unknown through the observation and interpretation of some facet of nature or human life" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 971]. There are two basic types of divination: inductive, which "relies on the technical skill of the diviner to observe and interpret various signs or omens" [ibid, p. 972], and intuitive, which "receives knowledge of the future or the unknown through the direct inspiration of the diviner through trance, ecstasy or vision" [ibid].

"The biblical attitude toward divination may be generally characterized as one of disapproval and prohibition, though certain forms of divination are either viewed neutrally or receive tacit approval" [ibid]. For example, we often find people casting lots to discern the will of God (as the disciples did in the upper room in Jerusalem to determine who would assume the place of Judas following his death -- Acts 1:26). We also find God revealing future events to men through dreams and visions. Divination is universal in the religions of mankind, and one who studies this phenomenon quickly finds that there are numerous different forms employed to try and determine future events or the will of God (or the gods, in various polytheistic religions). Some of these forms that may be found mentioned in the Bible are: Cleromancy = casting lots ... Oneiromancy = dreams, visions (the most common form of divination in the Scriptures) ... Belomancy = Arrows (Ezek. 21:21; 2 Kings 13:14f) ... Hydromancy = water (Gen. 44:5, 15) ... Hepatoscopy = liver inspection (Ezek. 21:21) ... Rhabdomancy = rod, staff (Hosea 4:12; the OT speaks of the rod of Moses and the rod of Aaron) ... Necromancy = consulting the dead (strongly condemned in the OT) ... Astromancy = observation of heavenly bodies (also known as "astrology" -- the "magi" in Matt. 2:1-12 may have been such men).

In the account of the slave girl in Acts 16, we are told she had a "spirit of divination." Again, the term employed in the text here is the Greek word "Puthon," which is found only this one time in the New Testament writings. In Greek mythology, this was the name of a giant serpent or dragon who lived on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to the north of the Gulf of Corinth, and who spoke through an oracle or prophetess who dwelt in a temple there. This woman, and her successors, were said to be in possession of a Pythian spirit (i.e., the spirit of Python, who spoke through them). The great serpent Python was, according to Greek mythology, eventually slain by the god Apollo (and the power to speak through these oracles was transferred to him). "Later the word was applied to diviners or soothsayers, regarded as inspired by Apollo" [Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words, p. 328]. Thus, this slave girl in Philippi "is described by Luke as a 'pythoness,' i.e. as a person inspired by Apollo, the god particularly associated with the giving of oracles, who was worshipped as the 'Pythian' god at the oracular shrine of Delphi (otherwise called Pytho) in central Greece. Her involuntary utterances were regarded as the voice of the god, and she was thus much in demand by people who wished to have their fortunes told" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 332]. "Luke's language can not be regarded as an endorsement of this supposed inspiration, yet he distinctly recognizes a real spirit in the maid, and styles it a Python spirit. The case was undoubtedly one of demon possession" [J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, p. 96].

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Washington:

I am trying out the hermeneutic you have promoted in Reflections #126 -- "Suggesting Another Hermeneutic: Inquiry into an Interpretive Methodology," but I am still a bit clumsy with it. Having relied for so long on CENI and the "silence of the Scriptures" to guide my thinking, I am now finding I need to develop new thought processes to help me in understanding the message of God's Word. But, I am beginning to "get it." I am starting a series of lessons in which we are examining this approach of yours, and in the next few we'll be looking at the worship of the church. I am thinking I will present where CENI/silence leads us, and then contrast and compare that with where the "four B's" of your own suggested hermeneutic lead us. It should be interesting. Thanks again for all of your help, and I sincerely hope you keep writing!

From a Reader in Arizona:

When I saw the title of your last Reflections ("Pre-Pentecost Baptism Rivalry"), I wondered how you were going to make a personal application for us. Upon reading it, I saw that your words were aimed at crucifying the source of all our sin -- pride. The account in Mark 9 and Luke 9 of the unnamed disciple casting out demons, and the apostles seeking to hinder him, exposes this also. I thought the following quote from Matthew Henry constituted the most pointed words in your article: "Aiming at the monopoly of honor and respect has been in all ages the bane of the church, and the shame of its members and ministers; as also a vying of interests, and a jealousy of rivalship and competition." By the way, have you read Alexander Campbell's satire: The Third Epistle of Peter?

From a Reader in California:

Thank you so much for your Reflections article titled "Pre-Pentecost Baptism Rivalry." After reading it, I was challenged by the humility demonstrated, not only by John the Baptist, but by our Lord Jesus Christ as well. Rather than cause any controversy or promote disunity, Jesus left the area Himself instead of directing John to leave the area (something He had every right, and the authority, to do). If anyone wonders why people followed Jesus in His day, and continue to follow Him today, just look at this wonderful example of someone who put unity and love over convenience. Maybe one day, when I "grow up," I might be a little more like Jesus and John the Baptist!

From a Reader in Georgia:

It is interesting that both Jesus and John, filled with the Holy Spirit, walked away from a pride that could have affected the value of impending grace. Although I greatly appreciated this particular issue of Reflections, it had a negative impact on my toes! I have been guilty on several occasions of returning fire, and that, in light of this recorded example, isn't the right approach, especially when it diminishes the Good News. If the Son of Almighty God can pack it up and move on to avoid unnecessary criticism, surely I can do a better job of imitating His example. Thanks for the wonderful reminder of what Christian character should look like. By the way, I like this statement of yours from the article: "Too often men overlook the substance to fuss and fight over the symbols and shadows." That's so good I wish I had said it!! I always look forward to my time with you, Al, via your Reflections. You are a tremendous blessing in my life.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I appreciate your intelligent approach to all things Scriptural, and the absence in your writings of dogmatism. Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

As a new reader to your Reflections, I have found your Archives to be a wonderful tool. I am sure that it keeps you from rewriting the same things over and over for those of us who have come to your ministry more recently and who write you with questions.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

I appreciate the fact that you use insightful, concise quotations of wise men to begin your Reflections essays. In today's Wall Street Journal (Sept. 5, 2013), under the "Notable & Quotable" item on the editorial page, is a quote from Oliver Cromwell by Theodore Roosevelt: "It is very essential that a man should have in him the capacity to defy his fellows if he thinks they are doing the work of the devil and not the work of the Lord, but it is even more essential for him to remember that he be most cautious about mistaking his own views for those of the Lord." When I read this I immediately thought, "That is exactly what Al Maxey has taught me: be cautious about mistaking my own views for those of the Lord." Thank you, brother!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, you, along with a few others, are helping me realize the JOY of being a child of God: one who isn't afraid of his Abba. It is truly amazing to realize there is joy and love from our Father, and not wrath, since Jesus has clothed me! It's just amazing!! Thank you!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

"Pre-Pentecost Baptism Rivalry" was another thought-provoking article. It is amazing how a passage can be very familiar, yet passed over as insignificant when it isn't. You have gone into this passage and brought out some things that I simply had passed over, nor even entertained. Thank You. Also, I just finished reading your exchange with Hugh Fulford on the Philippian jailer (Reflections #503 -- The "Belief After Baptism" Doctrine: Sectarian Sacramentalism & the Philippian Jailer). What I found almost amusing (if it wasn't so sad) is Hugh's effort to justify his position NOT by what Scripture actually states, but rather by using a quote from an uninspired individual (Phil Sanders) as his authority. It brought to mind something the preacher who baptized me said, "Don't believe something because I say it; believe it because you find it in the Bible." It is remarkable to me how "we" have claimed to teach "nothing but the Bible," when in actuality much of "our" teaching is not in the Bible at all. Further: the degree of "immediacy" which we force upon the carrying out of baptism is not biblical. If it is, then Paul and Silas were negligent in carrying it out with the jailer and his family. After all, which is more important: immersion in water "to be saved," or having one's physical wounds cared for?! Paul and Silas should have strongly objected to having their wounds cared for until AFTER they had baptized the jailer and his entourage!! Right?! What if one of them had suddenly died of a heart attack before Paul could get them into a pool and put them under?! I don't know how many years I have used that very passage to show that one needs to be immersed in the "same hour" of the night (immediacy), yet completely passed over the fact that the jailor took care of their physical wounds first. Keep up the good work, brother!

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