The consistency of symbolism surrounding the spirit of Python is remarkable. There are few concepts that can cross cultural divides virtually intact. However, the common experience of the ancient world—whether it was Greek or Jew—was such that Python was associated with divination, fortune-telling, momentous choices, foundation stones and cornerstones, and perhaps most tellingly, the iconic word ‘if’.
The stories about Python in Greece and Israel were of course vastly different—the Greeks unashamedly worshipped Python Apollo, making his shrine at Delphi both unimaginably wealthy and famous, while the Hebrews vacillated back and forth over their history, at times sacrificing to Python in various guises, including Baal Peor and Asclepius, and at other times maintaining loyalty to Yahweh.
The problem for us now with everybody knowing about Python back in the day and being pretty much on the same page about how it operated was that it therefore became assumed background knowledge. None of the Scripture writers had to explain because… well, because it was so transparently obvious. It went without saying. We, however, miss the lessons about Python in Scripture because, with the huge cultural shift over the past two millennia, the clues are now too subtle for us to discern.
A perfect example of the inconsistency of the Jewish people towards Python is shown in microcosm through the life of Simon Peter. John’s gospel has two major Python stories, matched front and back. One concerns the healing at the pool of Bethesda—which was a shrine outside the walls to the healing god Asclepius whose symbols were the rooster and a pair of entwined snakes on a staff, still of course used by today’s medical profession.
The other story is Peter’s experience in the courtyard of Caiaphas during the trial of Jesus which, of course, features a rooster at the end. However, as it’s written in John’s gospel, it emphasises choices, as well as locked doorways and questioning doorkeepers, along with tiny details like Jesus being slapped by the open palm of one of the high priest’s servants. Now ‘palm’ doesn’t have the same overtones for us as it did then—like doorways and doorkeepers, it evoked thresholds. The name of the high priest himself, Caiaphas, is a variation on the name Jesus gave Simon—Cephas—which doesn’t so much mean rock as cornerstone.
This lets us know what the calling and destiny of Caiaphas would have been, had he fulfilled it instead of succumbing to Python’s pressure. Caiaphas should have been the first to publicly proclaim the Messiah. Instead, that role fell to Simon—who, on being ‘sifted as wheat’ in the courtyard of his namesake Caiaphas, only recognised the enormity of his betrayal at the sound of a crowing cock.
But this is not only a test for Simon Peter. It was just as much a test for Caiaphas. Simon denied Jesus, but Caiaphas denied the law, sacrificing his integrity to the spirit of Python.
This is Grace Drops and I’m Anne Hamilton. May God make you wise to the enemy’s schemes.
Thank you to Lorna Skinner of www.riversofmusic.co.uk for the background music.