I can find only one instance in scripture where God commanded an individual to pick up a snake!
When the Lord spoke to Moses from the burning bush and commissioned him to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt Moses asked, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”
“What is that in your hand?” the Lord replied.
“A staff,” said Moses.
Then the Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses did so and the staff became a snake! Terrified, he ran from it.
But then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.”
They say a good way to pick up a dangerous snake is by one swift, fluid motion where one hand grabs it by the tail and sweeps the snake through the air while the other hand catches it just behind the head. Both these actions limit the possibility of the snake coiling back to bite you.
Moses did not need to employ this technique. As soon as his hand grasped the snakes tail “it turned back into a staff in his hand.” By this miracle the Hebrews would know indeed that God had sent Moses to be their deliverer. (See Exod. 4:1-5)
The New Testament records another interesting snake encounter. When Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while in transit to Rome as a prisoner, this occured:…
Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts 28:3-6)
Both of these incidents were to the glory of God. They were not for showmanship. These were God ordained opportunities, not man manipulated displays! In both cases God protected his servants and glorified His Name. Faith, not presumption, was honored.
One extreme and obvious example today of presumptuousness toward God is the cult practice of snake handling. Adherents use the sometimes disputed verses of Mark 16:17,18 to justify their actions:
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will… pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17,18).
But this is not exercising faith. Participants are behaving presumptuously. They are tempting God!
In fact, in a most ironic twist, scripture records the punishment of those who tempted God in the wilderness. “…the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” (c.f. Num. 21:6).
Then, in double irony, Moses forms and lifts up a bronze serpent on pole and all who looked at it were healed! The “caduceus” is the widely recognized symbol of medicine today.
Paul writes, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11). We do well to take heed.