POISON. A poison is any substance that, on contact with or upon being absorbed into the body, is capable of exerting a deleterious effect. Poisons chiefly enter the body through the alimentary tract or by injection into the body tissues. Scant reference is made in the Bible to poisons taken by mouth. One such instance is recorded in 2 Kings 4:39-41 where, after gathering and cooking wild herbs, it was discovered that there was “death in the pot.” In this instance it appears that the poison was rendered innocuous by adding meal to precipitate the poison as an insoluble sediment that was left behind when the pottage was poured out of the pot, a well recognized phenomenon.

A judicial use of poison by mouth was used (Num 5:11-31) for rendering a verdict in the case of a woman suspected of unfaithfulness. This appears to be almost identical with the “trial by ordeal” practiced in Africa until recently. This involved making a concoction of the poisonous Calabar bean, the active ingredient of which is the well-known drug physostigmine. The verdict was spontaneously rendered together with the punishment on the basis that the person who is guilty will slowly drink small sips of the poisonous concoction through fear of what it will do, so that the poison gradually seeps down into the intestines and is absorbed to produce fatal poisoning, whereas the innocent individual will fearlessly drink a large draught such as to cause prompt vomiting with complete elimination of the poison.

Most of the Scripture references to poison involve snake venom. The poison is injected under the skin through hollow fangs like hypodermic needles. The venom squeezed out of the venom gland passes out of the hollow fang through a hole near its tip. This process is called envenomation. It apparently varies in its extent according to the mood of the snake, the amount of squeeze the snake makes on its venom gland, and the amount of venom present in the venom glands. Therefore, it sometimes happens that a poisonous snake strikes a human being without envenomation ensuing. This evidently was the case in Acts 28:3-6 where a viper, to save its life, attached to Paul without malice toward its rescuer. Pit viper venom produces searing pain, rapid swelling, and dissolution of red corpuscles with severe shock, and such were the symptoms anticipated in Paul’s case, whereas coral snake and cobra venom benumbs and then progressively paralyzes with possible death ensuing from cessation of respiration.

Finally, it should be mentioned that another method of injection of poison into the tissues was available in OT times in the form of the poisoned arrow referred to in Job 6:4.


G. L. Jenkins and W. H. Hartung, The Chemistry of Organic Medicinal Products (1943), 484, 485; T. R. Harrison, Principles of Internal Medicine (1962), 795-830; P. E. Adolph, Missionary Health Manual (1964), 128, 131, 132.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The semamith, "lizard" (the King James Version "spider"), mentioned in Pr 30:28 Septuagint kalabotes) was formerly regarded as poisonous and it is still much disliked by the fellahin, as they believe that it makes mocking gestures mimicking them at their prayers. They are really not poisonous. It is doubtful whether the lizard mentioned by Agur is really this stellion; the description better fits the gecko.