After we had safely reached shore, we learned that the island was called Malta. The local inhabitants showed us extraordinary kindness, for they built a fire and welcomed us all because it had started to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand. When the local people saw the creature hanging from Paul’s hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer! Although he has escaped from the sea, Justice herself has not allowed him to live!” However, Paul shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. But they were expecting that he was going to swell up or suddenly drop dead. So after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Now in the region around that place were fields belonging to the chief official of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us hospitably as guests for three days. The father of Publius lay sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and after praying, placed his hands on him and healed him. After this had happened, many of the people on the island who were sick also came and were healed. They also bestowed many honors, and when we were preparing to sail, they gave us all the supplies we needed —Acts 28:1-10
Chapter 27 ended with all 276 passengers safely on shore. The passengers would not have kept any heavy clothing because, if you remember, they had to swim (or paddle on some piece of wreckage) to shore. We know that the storm was still raging, and there would have been high seas and strong winds. On top of this, it was raining (heavily, I presume). Can you imagine how cold folks were as they gathered on shore? The local people saw what was happening and came to help. They quickly built a fire, so that the shivering passengers could warm up.
Some scoffers argue that this could not have happened because Malta does not have any trees. In other words, there was no way they could gather firewood! Well, that is easy to resolve. First, just because they have any trees on Malta now, does not prove that they did not have trees then—that was 2000 years ago! Not only that, the Mediterranean Sea is no different from the other seas and there would always be driftwood lying around, especially when there was a storm. Don’t forget, there was a large wooden ship that just broke up into small pieces. Many of these pieces reached shore because the non-swimmers clung to them as they worked their way to shore. Yeah, they would have been waterlogged, but they do dry.
Okay, since Luke is telling the story, and said they gathered firewood, I am willing to believe there really was firewood to gather. The thing Luke wants us to notice is that Paul was gathering firewood when he was bitten by a viper. Some argue that there was no way he could have been bitten by a snake. Well . . . how do you think the viper was able to hang from Paul’s hand if the snake did not bite him? I also cannot believe that some argue that these “primitives” were so ignorant they mistook a non-venomous snake for a viper. For crying out loud, they lived on this island, so I’m sure they could recognize the difference between a snake that kills and one that doesn’t. Also, Dr. Luke was with Paul and he is the one providing this information. Don’t you think a doctor would know the difference between a deadly snake bite and one that wasn’t?
One thing I that is important to notice is that in the Third World, wood gathering was the work of women or children. For the most part, men did not (and do not) gather or carry firewood. What I am saying is that Paul is doing very menial work here when he gathers firewood—and he was cold and chilly just like the rest of them. That fire may very well have saved some lives. It certainly warmed anyone who was chilled to the bone. Gathering firewood made a very important contribution to the well-being of the passengers. We do not know for certain, but I think it is safe to presume that others gathered wood, but we do know that Paul did (and probably seeing Paul get bit, discouraged the others to do it).
What I am presuming is that the viper was in a dormant state when Paul first picked it up with the firewood. Being jostled around by Paul probably woke the viper up, and it struck the hand that was grabbing it. Some country-folk might call this viper a “two-stepper.” Not because it was prone to dance a little, but the person bit would take two steps and drop dead. The natives knew their snakes, and when they saw that one grab Paul’s hand, they knew he would be dead in moments. In their minds, since Paul escaped death at sea, justice had chosen to bring the appropriate retribution by killing him this way.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Story of Acts