There is an intriguing and cryptic text about Dan in the Torah. In Jacob’s final blessing on his sons, in Genesis 49, Dan is compared to a “serpent” (נָחָשׁ; nachash).
Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned viper in the path that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider falls backward. For Your salvation, I wait, LORD. (Gen. 49:16-18 NASB).
Third-century CE Christian writers Hippolytus of Rome (On Genesis) and Tertullian (On the Resurrection of the Flesh) understood the imagery of Dan compared to a serpent to suggest that in the last days, the Antichrist will come from the tribe of Dan. To them, this was also a prediction of Dan's apostasy. Their contemporary, Origen, spiritualized Dan as the image of sin itself in his Homilies in Genesis.
It is not surprising that people interpret this analogy as some sort of negative and disparaging comparison. Snakes carry negative connotations for most people. In the Near East, however, they are creatures who cause chaos but are not automatically tied to evil or sin. They symbolize healing and sometimes are associated with wisdom. Though typically, this reference is taken in a negative light, I believe it should not. If we deliberately set aside the involuntary negative bias against snakes and look at the text objectively, the blessing pronounced over Dan sounds quite positive and affirming.
Not all images of snakes in biblical tradition are necessarily evil or bad. Remember how, in the Exodus story, Moses’ staff would turn into a serpent in order to convince Pharaoh to listen to Moses (Ex 7:10)? Also, in the wilderness, the Israelites were healed from a plague by looking at a serpent set up on a pole in the (Num 21:9). Can we use these instances to help us read the blessing in a positive light?
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