Out of the frying pan (part 2)

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” The expression seems to originate from an old fable about talking fish. Several are thrown live into a hot pan. One has a bright idea and tells his buddies to jump out and save themselves. But of course, they land in the cooking fire instead.

Brilliant, Fred. Thanks a lot. Of course, it’s not as if Fred had a better time of it.

Many of us have probably had the experience of trying somewhat desperately to free ourselves from a bad situation, only to find that we’ve made matters worse. Those of a superstitious mindset might see that as the hand of Fate, with a capital F. It was meant to be; you can’t escape your just deserts!

This, apparently, is how the friendly inhabitants of Malta reacted as they watched a venomous viper sink its fangs into the apostle Paul’s hand, to dangle and squirm.

When you envision the scene, don’t think Moana, with island natives dressed in grass skirts and bedecked with garlands of flowers. The island had been colonized by the Phoenicians (think Sidon, Paul’s first stopover on his way to Rome, just north of Caesarea) centuries before, and subsequently ruled by the Carthaginians and Romans. Even today, the Maltese language is considered Semitic (with a generous mix of Sicilian and Italian), betraying its Phoenician heritage. Chances are, the islanders who welcomed Paul and his shipmates spoke Punic and Greek, and some may have been Roman citizens.

And with their culture came their superstitions.

Ancient cultures around the world thought of the sea as a dark and dangerous place. Stories of shipwreck at sea were part of the folklore; it was the judgment of the gods against the wicked. Conversely, to survive such a perilous journey as Paul had would have been considered vindication: He’s a prisoner, but he must be innocent. Look how the gods have favored him!

But the story in Acts 28 is a bit like one of those old “good news, bad news” jokes. This man survived storm and shipwreck — that’s good! But then he was bitten by a poisonous snake — ooh, that’s bad… They may even have wondered: Of all this big crowd of people who made it through the catastrophe, why have the gods singled out this one man to die, and in such a random way? They drew what for them was the natural conclusion: “This man must be a murderer! He was rescued from the sea, but the goddess Justice hasn’t let him live!” (Acts 28:4, CEB).

Paul, of course, didn’t die. He just shook the snake off into the bonfire and went about his business.

I imagine Luke chuckling to himself as he wrote about what happened next: “They expected him to swell up with fever or suddenly drop dead. After waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to claim that he was a god” (Acts 28:6).

They waited “a long time,” Luke says. What must the conversation have been like in the meantime? “So, Paul — tell us a little about yourself,” someone might have said, all the time watching for his face to puff up or expecting him to keel over.

He didn’t. That, of course, didn’t prompt anyone to give up their superstitious outlook, just to shift their evaluation of Paul within that outlook: He’s not a murderer, he’s a god!

Paul would not have been one to sit still for such a misunderstanding. Remember what happened to him and Barnabas in Lystra (Acts 14:8-20)? There, too, the people mistook them for gods, and even tried to offer pagan sacrifices to them. When he convinced them they weren’t gods, they tried to kill Paul instead. (Moral of the story: never tick off religious people.)

In Malta, however, no one tried to offer any sacrifices, and Luke doesn’t record any objection on Paul’s part.

I think Luke just wants us to be as amused as he was at the irony of it all.