What is a trickster tale? According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the trickster-tale genre of folklore appears in some form in every culture” and usually features “a protagonist (often an anthropomorphized animal) who has magical powers and who is characterized as a compendium of opposites.” The trickster-hero frequently “serves as a sort of folkloric scapegoat onto which are projected the fears, failures, and unattained ideals of the source culture” or can also serve “as a transformer and culture hero who creates order out of chaos.” And perhaps most interesting for our purposes here, frequently the trickster “is accompanied by a companion who…ultimately tricks the trickster.” From Native American legends and Aesop’s Fables, to cunning Odysseus and the supplanter Jacob, this theme is apparent throughout humanity’s Great Conversation. Faint elements of this genre even peek through periodically in the Scriptures, and adjusting our focus to highlight this fact offers additional definition and detail to the glorious truth of the Gospel.
While the trickster-tale lens certainly has its limitations and shortcomings, it can cast some biblical truths with more variegation and depth, most notably in amplifying the cosmic and eucatastrophic elements of the battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent beginning in the Garden of Eden and culminating in Easter’s great reversal in the Resurrection. Perhaps in some sense, the trickster-tale genre might find its true origins in humanity’s primeval past, and its greatest fulfillment in Christ’s defeat of Satan.
The Trickster Tricks Humanity: Shrewd and Nude, Peril and Promise
The serpent fits the description of the trickster-hero right out of the gate as the fateful account of the Fall in Genesis 3 begins with the words, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” Translators and commentators have long probed the somewhat enigmatic phrase “more crafty.” Deriving from the Hebrew aram, meaning crafty, shrewd, or prudent, Kenneth Matthews explains in his Genesis commentary that its form in Genesis 3:1 has been translated most consistently in a comparative fashion (more crafty), while a small minority of translators favor a comparative superlative (most crafty), and fewer yet see it as a separative (crafty as none other) (232). Whichever option is chosen, the conclusion is the same—the serpent is somehow different. It is also worth noting that crafty itself is an ambiguous term both in English and in Hebrew, with negative or positive connotations. And perhaps most poignant—and lost on English readers—is the poetic and powerful rhyming word play that is evident in Hebrew between crafty and naked (Gen 2:25, 3:7, 10), much like if the English translations were “shrewd” and “nude.” It is as if the cunning shrewdness of the serpent led to the ashamed nudeness of the humans.
Then the curses God unleashed in prosecuting the serpent, the woman, and the man: enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent; childbirth through pain; work by sweat, thorns, and thistles. But so too, Yahweh announces a protological promise of one who would crush the serpent’s head. Scripture’s trajectory traces this battle between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed and builds to the cosmic confrontation of Christ and Satan.
The Trickster is Tricked: Christ Defeats the Devil
The arrival of the one who would crush the serpent’s head in the incarnation escalates the enmity between the two seeds. Jesus takes into himself Israel’s story and their struggle for survival during Egyptian captivity with his own escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Israel’s baptism into the Red Sea and their wilderness wanderings are recapitulated in Christ’s baptism and in his wilderness faceoff with the Devil, where the two ancient foes wield their weapons. Satan conjures his old tricks and crafty words in an intensification of Eden’s primordial temptation. Christ wields the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and succeeds where Adam failed. The deceiving trickster has met his match. Thus begins the public ministry of the Messiah, the seed of the woman who would quell the seed of the serpent, as they would meet again in another garden (this time Gethsemane’s), and at another tree (this time Golgatha’s).
In the course of his ministry, Jesus tells his disciples to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. While there may not be a seamless correlation between the Serpent’s shrewdness and Christ’s discipleship instructions to be shrewd as serpents, there does seem to be some suggestive irony at play. The Septuagint’s version of Gen 3:1 uses the same Greek word phronimos for shrewd that is used in Matthew 10:16, where this directive is given as Christ sends his disciples out as sheep among wolves. The disciples stumble their way into living out this command and imitating their master who displays and fulfills his own directive perfectly. Blameless and above reproach in every way, with perfect righteousness according to the Law, Christ is the only one innocent as a dove. Wise in his words, prudent in knowing when his time would come, only his shrewdness can match the serpent’s as he leads the Devil into the ultimate trap and out-serpents the serpent.
This trap or trickster theme was developed quite extensively by the early church into what is referred to as the ransom theory of the atonement. J.N.D. Kelly explains in Early Christian Doctrines that “use of the Gospel metaphor of a ransom” which conceived of “Christ’s work as consisting in a struggle with, and ultimate triumph over, the demoniac forces which hold sway over the world went back…at least as far as Justin among the fathers.” Included in the various ways the early church conceptualized redemption, is this image of “Jesus delivering up his soul, or life, not indeed to God, but to the Devil in exchange for the souls of men which the Devil had claimed his due because of their sinfulness.” Tracing then through Irenaeus to Origen, Kelly continues, “the Devil accepted the exchange, but could not hold Jesus, who proved stronger than death, in his clutches and was thus cheated of his victim.” There is clearly a trickster element evident here insofar as “the Devil, with whom death is identified, deluded himself into imagining that he had triumphed over Christ, but his seeming victory was turned to defeat when the Saviour rose from the grave” (185-186).
Ransom, Substitute, or Both?
To be sure, the ransom theory of the atonement is problematic at points in positing that Christ’s ransom was in some way paid to Satan. Yet, its emphasis on the cosmic significance of the Christ-event and the eucatastrophe, the sudden and surprising turn that is the Resurrection, can add layers of depth to the biblical picture of redemption when understood in conjunction with other scriptural atonement motifs such as substitution. Could not the judicial and substitutionary elements of the atonement dovetail nicely right alongside the cosmic and earth-shaking? Kelly is helpful here, too, as he suggests that “these various theories…were all attempts to elucidate the same great truth from different angles; their superficial divergences are often due to the different Biblical images from which they started, and there is no logical reason why, carefully stated, they should not be regarded as complementary.” Behind the “often crudely expressed imagery of a deal with Satan was the wholly Scriptural one (cf. Acts 26:18) that fallen man lies in the Devil’s power and salvation necessarily includes rescue from it” (376).
Kelly then posits a unifying theme in “the ancient idea of recapitulation which Irenaeus derived from St. Paul, and which envisages Christ as the representative of the entire race. Just as all men were somehow present in Adam, so they are, or can be, present in the second Adam, the man from heaven. Just as they were involved in the former’s sin, with all its appalling consequences, so they can participate in the latter’s death and ultimate triumph over sin, the forces of evil and death itself.” This explains how “Christ can act for us in the ways of substitution and reconciliation” and also how “Christ is a fitting exchange for mankind held in the Devil’s grasp” (376-377).
Many of the church’s beloved Easter hymns also capture both of these elements beautifully. In a millennium-old Easter sequence attributed first to Wipo of Burgundy, who died circa 1050 AD, the church has sung and continues to sing:
Christians to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
The Lamb the sheep has ransomed:
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciling sinners to the Father.
Death and life have contended
In that combat stupendous:
The Prince of life, who died,
As Easter nears, may we rightly treasure Christ’s sacrificial death of Good Friday, which full atonement made. And, may we also treasure Christ’s glorious Resurrection of Easter Sunday, which was the vindication of his sacrifice and the great reversal that outdid the Devil. When taken together, we see Christ’s fulfillment of all righteousness as the only perfectly innocent dove, and the only truly wise and prudent one, who, shrewd as a serpent, defeated the Serpent, to our eternal blessing and benefit—and to the whole creation’s.
Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture-maker. He is head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, Salvo, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.
 Although, Kelly mentions for example in Origen, “that while exploiting to the full the idea of a ransom, Origen thinks much more in terms of Christ’s conquest of the Devil than of any actual transaction with him” (186).
 A sequence is a liturgical term for what is after the Epistle reading as a transition or preparation for the Gospel reading on certain days of the Church Year, which thematically aligns with the Scripture readings for that day. For Easter, the sequence has historically been “Christians to the Paschal Victim” (Victimae Paschali in Latin), which can be found as Hymn #460 in the Lutheran Service Book.