The image of Paul gathering fuel for a fire after a shipwreck and having a viper come out of the wood and bite him is evocative in so many ways. The fact that he shakes it off and acts like nothing happened is a fascinating image. The people with him wait to see him swell up and die and surmise that he is a murderer and that he escaped justice by not being drowned and now fate is catching up to him. When he exhibits no ill effects they surmise he might be a God. So there we are – one minute a murderer and the next a God. But why is the viper image so evocative?
Both Jesus and John the Baptizer called the religious leaders of the day a brood of vipers. Those who were in charge of the faith and the temple and the teaching of God who wants the whole world to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth had bound consciences and placed burdens on folks and made works the way to life. The ones who decided on the works and the burdens were like vipers. Why? Paul has been shipwrecked and those with him are cold and looking for warmth and protection. They find some dry wood and build an fire and the stuff that is going to save them, wood, has hidden inside a killer who will poison them. People wandering and traveling in the wilderness in those days often looked for caves and cutouts in the hills and ravines for warmth and shelter and often crawled into a place that looked safe but found out to their sorrow that they were surrounded by a nest of vipers. So the place that should be safe and secure becomes a place of death.
Religious folks charged to teach of God’s love and grant access to the place where God had chosen to put His name, a place that represented how He would save them and love them turn it into a poisonous, pestiferous, dangerous place where people will be injected with the venom of work righteousness and false piety. Looking for a safe place to find rest for their souls they are instead attacked by snakes who care nothing about them but only their own self righteous image.