In the tenth chapter of Matthew, we find Jesus calling his followers to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In the 16th chapter of Luke, we find a parable that is seldom taught or discussed in churches, primarily because the individual being held up as a positive example is a shrewd and deceitful manager. These verses can cause problems for many with a view of scripture that essentially boils down to “be good and polite, never lie and never cut corners.”
But what if the God of the Bible has given multiple examples where guile and cunning are called for, and rewarded? What if the God of the Bible really is calling for followers who can accomplish more for His purposes through stealth and a basic understanding of human nature than by adamantly following rules that may or may not line up with what the Creator of the Universe is trying to accomplish through His people?
Interestingly, scripture provides multiple examples of God's people acting with cunning and shrewdness to move events forward – and many times those individuals and their actions are declared righteous and good.
Here are just a few examples:
1. Jacob – Genesis 27 gets us right into the story of Jacob (with help and guidance from his mother who was inspired by a prophesy when she was pregnant with Jacob and his brother) deceiving his father to obtain his brother's birthright. That's followed by Jacob being deceived by his father-in-law, tricked into marrying Leah when he really wanted to marry her sister. But, were it not for these events, we would not have the 12 tribes of Israel. There's much more to Jacob's shrewdness, it's well worth exploring.
2. Tamar – Genesis 38 is fascinating – Tamar marries the first-born son of Judah, when that son dies, she is married to the second-born son (tradition) – he dies. Judah promises that when the third son is old enough, he will be married to her, but he clearly has no intention of keeping that promise. Tamar plays the part of a prostitute to carry on the family bloodline – and when all is brought to light, Judah declares her more righteous than he. Worth noting, the descendants from Judah and Tamar play pivotal roles in future battles for Israel.
3. The lying midwives – Exodus 1: 15- 21 – The ruler of the land gives a simple order to these midwives, “if a Hebrew woman gives birth to a boy, kill it.” The midwives fail to carry out that order and when they are asked about it, they actually play on the prejudices of the ruler, essentially calling the Hebrew women animals, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Again, scripture is clear on how God deals with these liars, “So God dealt well with the midwives... He gave them families.”
4. Spies – Numbers 13 – if you go to the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, you will see that the museum refers to this section of scripture as the earliest written example of spies being used. This makes the God of the Bible the first spymaster.
5. Rahab – Joshua 2 – This woman is absolutely incredible – she not only hides the two spies sent by Joshua, she sends the local authorities on a wild goose chase and then initiates a contract with the spies to save her family.
6. Ehud – Judges 3:12-30 – awesome adventure, filled with cunning and military strategy
7. Jael – Judges 4 – 5 (prose and poetry of the same events) – this woman invites the fleeing military leader into her tent and comforts him with milk and has him dozing off when she drives a tent peg through his skull – I'd call that cunning.
8. Gideon – Judges 7:16-23 – you gotta love the psychological aspect of this battle scene – simply surround the enemy camp and make a whole bunch of noise – that's using your head when you're incredibly outnumbered.
9. Naomi and Ruth – Ruth 3 – Naomi plans and plots with her daughter-in-law to get the attention of Boaz.
10. Boaz – Ruth 4 – the way Boaz handles the possibility of any rival suitors is an incredible example of wisdom and cunning.
11. David - 1st and 2nd Samuel – David gives us numerous examples of wisdom and cunning – from doing what needed to be done to obtain food and supplies for his men while on the run to pretending to be insane to avoid being taken prisoner to arguably political marriages.
12. Nathan and Bathsheba – I Kings 1: 1-27 – This story is better than an episode of “House of Cards” - and in some ways it's reminiscent of the way Naomi and Ruth plotted together – while we've already talked about David, it's important to note how he resolves the situation with what amounts to a giant political rally – all of this comes together to make Solomon the next King of Israel.
13. Esther – The book of Esther is a story packed with intrigue, examples of wisdom, cunning, and shrewdness.
14. Jesus – throughout the Gospel accounts we see Jesus acting and speaking with shrewdness in how he handled questions and opposition from local authorities. We also see this in some of the relationships fostered throughout his adult life (namely Nicodemus – who plays a key role in getting Jesus' body following the crucifixion).
15. Paul – in the second half of the Book of Acts we see Paul regularly acting with wisdom and cunning – specifically in Acts 22 when he's about to be beaten and casually mentions his Roman citizenship, then in Acts 23 when he's defending himself and brings up an intentionally divisive issue knowing those on the council would start arguing amongst themselves.
Again, these are just a few of the examples scriptures offer, but enough to say that perhaps the God of scripture really is looking for people who can cause things to happen with more subtlety, grace, and cunning than one might think based on some of the simplistic views of faith.
So, what is the practical application today?
When looking at influencing society, it could be argued that using wisdom and cunning can be much more effective than using loud, direct, and most times ineffective methods (boycotts, demonstrations, etc.). It could also be argued that those who understand these things know where real battles need to be fought and don't waste their time and energy on more trivial matters.
If we take scripture seriously and if we want to really be used by God in effective ways, it might behoove us to take seriously the instruction to be wise as serpents.