[Ouroboros image by Saki BlackWing]
On my morning walk I saw a real live ouroboros. Well, it was real dead actually, lying right on my path. Stretched out straight the snake was probably less than a foot long. But it wasn’t straight: it was configured in a circle, the head just nudging the tip of the tail.
Maybe two years ago I was writing a scene in which a character stood in front of the bathroom mirror removing her gold necklace. I was trying to picture her taking it off. Would she slip it over her head? No: the chain wasn’t that long. A clasp then. What sort of clasp? How about a snake head biting the tail? Now I could picture this chain with the reptilian scaly golden skin slithering off her neck and coiling itself inside a gold mesh bag…
Three posts ago I wrote something about the Order of Melchizedek, where the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees Jesus foreshadowed in the legendary priest-king of Salem, mediated by a messianic verse from the Psalms. Earlier in this same epistle the writer executes the same maneuver: Jesus as fulfillment of an ancient legend, mediated by the Psalmist. This time though the sequence doesn’t just go back in time, because this time it turns out that the past is the future — a temporal ouroboros. Here’s how it works.
The writer of Hebrews is trying to show that Jesus is more powerful than the angels. Curiously, his argument isn’t predicated on Jesus being God, but on his being man. Here is Hebrews 2:5-9…
For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,
WHAT IS MAN, THAT YOU REMEMBER HIM?
OR THE SON OF MAN, THAT YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT HIM?
YOU HAVE MADE HIM FOR A LITTLE WHILE LOWER THAN THE ANGELS;
YOU HAVE CROWNED HIM WITH GLORY AND HONOR,
AND HAVE APPOINTED HIM OVER THE WORKS OF YOUR HANDS;
YOU HAVE PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET.
For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)
This looks like an apocalyptic prophecy in which Jesus the Messiah will one day come back to rule the world. The capitalized portion of the text cites Psalm 8, so we flip back from New Testament to Old to find the source document:
O Yahweh, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength
Because of Your adversaries,
To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God [or than the angels; literally than the gods],
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
O Yahweh, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth!
The writer of Hebrews got the citation right, but in the original context the passage doesn’t seem to apply to some specific man but rather to man in general, to mankind. The Psalmist marvels at the magnificence of the moon and the stars, and then he turns his gaze on puny humanity. Why, he wonders, does God bother with the human race? Not only does He bother; He appoints man as ruler over the whole world, over sheep and oxen, beasts and birds and fish… And now it begins to dawn on the reader: haven’t I read this litany of creatures great and small before?
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
This is day six from the Creation narrative. The writer of Hebrews points back to the Psalm, and the Psalmist points back to the writer of Genesis, who points all the way back to the beginning of time. But wait a minute. Go back to the Hebrews passage and its introduction to the Psalm quotation:
For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying…
“The world to come”? I thought that the Psalmist was testifying to the world of the deep and legendary past, when humans ruled the world, before Eve listened to the serpent and she and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and God threw them both out of the Garden. Is this the Hebraist’s story, that Jesus will restore to mankind the power and glory lost in the Fall? That’s not what he says:
But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
“Not yet”? “The world to come”? Isn’t this writer, the author of a canonical New Testament text, saying that the Genesis 1 narrative refers not to the past but to the future? The world wasn’t created seven thousand years ago, or seven billion years ago. It hasn’t even been created yet.
Today we read a text written two thousand years ago, which cites a poem written a thousand years before that, which cites an even more ancient legend that goes all the way back to the beginning, and the beginning is in the future. Ouroboros.