In the Gospel of Matthew; Jesus commanded His disciples to be 'wise as serpents, and harmless as doves'.
I use an interesting hermeneutic ( besides the grammatico/historical): I call it 'word association'. In other words: when I read a certain 'hard to understand' word or phrase in a certain passage of Scripture: I first think, 'Now where have I seen ( or heard ) that before?' This could also be called 'interpreting Scripture with Scripture'.
Naturally then, when one uses such an hermeneutic; the first thing that should pop into your head would be 'where else in Scripture is such language used?' The first thought that comes to mind, of course, is the 'serpent' in the Garden, way back in Genesis, where the 'serpent' is said to be 'more cunning than any beast of the field'.
The word 'serpent' is used in more than forty cases in the Hebrew Scriptures, several of which I will cite here.
I find it interesting that in all but six cases in the Hebrew Scriptures, the word 'serpent' is translated from the Hebrew 'nachash; four times from the Hebrew 'saraph', and twice from the Hebrew 'tannyin'. I find it especially interesting that the word 'saraph', used in Numbers 1:8,9 and in Isaiah 14:29 ( in reference to the king of Babylon ) and Isaiah 30:6 ( in reference to the strength of Egypt ), has a secondary meaning of 'seraphim'. According to this lexicon, the 'seraphim' were 'majestic beings..........................attendant upon God'. According to the book of Numbers,the Levitical priesthood were to 'attend' to the needs of the congregation of Israel, and to the duties of the house of God, ie., human 'seraphim'!
Getting back to the topic at hand: the Greek word 'phronimos'; translated 'wise' in Matthew 10:16, has nearly the same secondary meaning as the Hebrew 'aruwm'; the word translated 'cunning' in the Hebrew Scriptures: 'prudent, ie., mindful of one's interests'. Jesus told His disciples ( listeners ) that 'unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven'. I think that, traditionally, this has been understood ( rightly ) as referring to their ( outward ) zeal for obeying the commandments of God, and not that they were truly righteous before God; for, as I've often quoted, 'all our righteousness are as filthy rags'.
I must note here that; in the manner of clarification: Jesus said that our righteousness must 'exceed' that of the Pharisees. How can our righteousness 'exceed' that of the Pharisees ( who practiced obedience to the letter of the Law most religiously ), unless it be that righteousness that comes from Christ alone?
Some interesting, and most telling, I think, usages of the word 'nachash', translated 'serpent'; are in Jacob's death-bed oration concerning his sons, the children of Israel: of Dan; he said, 'Dan shall be a serpent by the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse heels, so that it's rider shall fall backward'. Interesting too, is the previous verse: 'Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel'. I think this in some small way is what Jesus was speaking of when He told His disciples, concerning the Pharisees, "Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, they will both fall into a ditch', and, in Matthew 23:13 and Luke 11:52, when He pronounced the woes, or judgments, against the Scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers for shutting up 'the kingdom of heaven', and taking away 'the key of knowledge', thus not allowing, and even hindering those who would 'enter in'.
David, in his 58th and 140th Psalms; compares the wicked man to a serpent, saying that 'their poison is like the poison of a serpent; they are like the deaf cobra that stops it's ear', and "they sharpen their tongue like a serpent; the poison of asps is under their tongue'. In the book of Ecclesiastes; Solomon likens a babbler, or fool, to a serpent. In that most famous passage in Isaiah 65; Isaiah reaffirms that 'dust shall be the serpents food', thus bringing numerous images to mind; not only the most woodenly literal interpretation ( true enough ) of the snake slithering around in the actual dust ( although I think that one would be hard-pressed to prove that they actually ate it! ), but that dust on the head was an internationally known symbol for morning, and most importantly; our Lord God's own admonition to the fallen Adam: 'For dust you are, and to dust you shall return'! Showing, yet again, that He uses the wicked even, for His own purposes: Jeremiah records concerning the judgment of Egypt; that their punishment comes 'like a serpent'. In one of many examples of the 'biblical parallelism' that the Scriptures contain; Amos likens God's sovereignty in 'using' even the wicked to perform His work, to commanding the 'serpent' to bite those who oppose Him and His people.
In the Greek Scriptures ( aka, New Testament ); the Pharisees were often referred to as serpents, or vipers. We are all familiar, I think, with John's response to those Pharisees and other Jews who came to his baptism at the Jordan: 'Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?' In the Gospel according to Matthew; Jesus calls the Pharisees vipers in His oration to them after they accuse Him of having demonic power. Later on, just prior to His famous 'Olivet Discourse'; Jesus even calls them serpents, and the offspring ( children ) of vipers! In Luke's Gospel; when Jesus received the report from the seventy that He had sent out, that 'even the demons are subject to us in your name'; He replied that 'I give you authority to trample on serpents and scorpions' and, 'over all the power of the enemy'.
As I've stated before; even though I believe that these statements, many of them anyway, have their basis in physicality; I think that in the 'greater spiritual reality' that I often speak of, they are significant and symbolic of events that transpired in, or prior to, the first century anno domini.
So: the next logical question ( which I will strive to answer ) is; 'If the Pharisees, the wicked, foolish people ( babblers ), etc. were symbolized by serpents; why then, did Jesus command his disciples to be 'wise as serpents'?
As I wrote above, the Greek word 'phronimos', translated 'wise', in this enigmatic passage, means to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and prudent, which the Pharisees certainly were, at least outwardly. So when Jesus said these word to His disciples; I think He was reminding them that, even though the pharasitical Jews were correct in their outward observance, although greatly lacking in the inward zeal; that they should follow their outward ( though not inward ) example, in shrewdness, and discretion.
Most importantly, I think; in understanding Jesus words here, then: is to understand the Old Covenant ( Scriptural ) context in which He spoke. By no means am I implying that these words do not apply to the disciples of Christ in this 21st century; only that it is difficult, to say the least, to understand the 'why?' of this passage unless it is understood in the context in which it was spoken and by 'comparing Scripture with Scripture.
By the Grace of Christ,
no longer an 'enemy',