Acts 28: Snakes and Superstition
People are generally superstitious—including non-religious people. We have all heard about the strange rituals practiced by athletes and sports fans to secure good luck, and students of history will know about politicians and presidents employing astrologers to determine auspicious days for the signing of treaties. Superstition is simply the belief that the moral universe functions as predictably as the physical universe. Just as every physical action produces a physical reaction, superstition says every moral action produces a moral reaction.
This simplistic vision of the world is what has led people, both past and present, to assume those who enjoy health and wealth are righteous and rewarded by God, while those experiencing pain and poverty must have done something to deserve their suffering. In Acts 28, this belief in superstition is leveraged to vindicate Paul as he draws closer to his final (earthly) judgment in Rome.
We already saw Paul’s innocence declared by the Roman authorities in Judea, and in the previous chapter the Lord rescued him from the sea—a symbol of death and chaos. While shipwrecked on Malta, however, another ancient symbol of evil was unleashed on Paul. He was bitten by a venomous snake. When the people saw this, they said, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.”
In their worldview, innocent people were not bitten by snakes. The bite was a clear indication of Paul’s guilt. That’s why they were amazed when Paul “shook off” the serpent and was unharmed. The fact that Paul was unaffected by the snakebite was a suspension of the moral laws of the universe as shocking to the superstitious inhabitants of Malta as a physical miracle would be to us today. But rather than accept the possibility that Paul was innocent, they found it more reasonable to conclude that he was a god not subject to the same laws as mere mortals.
Like the people of Malta, many Christians still draw false conclusions about a person’s moral virtue based on their circumstances. For example, it’s common to assume that a Christian leader is righteous if their ministry is large and influential—an assumption that we’ve seen over and over again is false. Similarly, we often associate health and wealth with evidence of God’s approval and blessing.
On the flip side, when a natural disaster strikes a community we can rely on an empathy-challenged Christian in the media to question the morality of the community affected because, they reason, tragedies don’t happen to those who love God—except Noah, Joseph, Moses, the Hebrew slaves, David, Job, Daniel, the exiles of Jerusalem, Jeremiah, most of the prophets, Jesus, Stephen, James, eleven of the twelve apostles who were martyred, and, of course, Paul who was shipwrecked, bitten by a snake, and eventually executed in Rome.