Serpents are not particularly abundant in Palestine, but they are often mentioned in the Bible. In the Hebrew there are 11 names. The
2. Serpents of Palestine and Syria:
The following list includes all the serpents which are certainly known to exist in Palestine and Syria, omitting the names of several which have been reported but whose occurrence does not seem to be sufficiently confirmed. The range of each species is given.
(1) Harmless Serpents.
Typhlops vermicularis Merr., Greece and Southwestern Asia; T. simoni Bttgr., Palestine; Eryx jaculus L., Greece,, Central and Southwestern Asia; Tropidonotus tessellatus Laur., CentraI and Southeastern Europe, Central and Southwestern Asia; Zamenis gemonensis Laur., Central and Southeastern Europe, Greek islands, Southwestern Asia; Z. dahlii Fitz., Southeastern Europe, Southwestern Asia, Lower Egypt; Z. rhodorhachis Jan., Egypt, Southwestern Asia, India; Z. ravergieri Menatr., Southwestern Asia: Z. nummifer Renss., Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Asia Minor; Oligodon melanocephalus Jan., Syria, Palestine, Sinai, Lower Egypt; Contia decemlineata D. and B., Syria, Palestine; C. collaris Menerr., Greek islands, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine; C. rothi Jan., Syria, Palestine; C. coronella Schleg., Syria, Palestine
(2) Somewhat Poisonous Serpents.
Tarbophis savignyi Blgr., Syria, Palestine, Egypt; T. fallax Fleischm., Balkan Peninsula, Greek islands, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine; Coelopeltis monspessulana Herre., Mediterranean countries, Caucasus, Persia; Psammophis schokari Forsk., North Africa, Southwestern Asia; Micrelaps muelleri Bttgr., Syria, Palestine
(3) Deadly Poisonous Serpents.
Vipera ammodytes L., Southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, Syria; Vipera lebetina L., North Africa, Greek islands, Southwestern Asia; Cerastes cornutus Forsk., Egypt, Sinai, Arabia; Echis coloratus Gthr., Southern Palestine, Arabia, Socotra.
To this list should be added the scheltopusik, a large snake-like, limbless lizard, Ophiosaurus apus, inhabiting Southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, Persia, Syria and Palestine, which while perfectly harmless is commonly classed with vipers.
Of all these the commonest is Zamenis nummifer, Arabic `aqd-ul-jauz, "string of walnuts," a fierce but non-poisonous snake which attains the length of a meter. Its ground color is pale yellow and it has a dorsal series of distinct diamond-shaped dark spots. Alternating with spots of the dorsal row are on each side two lateral rows of less distinct dark spots. It is everywhere considered to be fatal. Another common snake is Zamenis gemonensis, Arabic chanash, which attains the length of two meters. It is usually black and much resembles the American black snake, Zamenis constrictor. Like all species of Zamenis, these ire harmless. Other common harmless snakes are Zamenis dahlii, Tropidonotus tessellatus which is often found in pools and streams, Contia collaris, Oligodon melanocephalus, a small, nearly toothless snake with the crown of the head coal black.
Among the somewhat poisonous snakes, a very common one is Coelopeltis monspessulana, Arabic al-chaiyat ul-barshat, which is about two meters long, as larke as the black snake. It is uniformly reddish brown above, paler below. Another is Psammophis schokari. Arabic an-nashshab, "the arrow." It is about a meter long, slender, and white with dark stripes. Many marvelous and utterly improbable tales are told of its jumping powers, as for instance that it can shoot through the air for more than a hundred feet and penetrate a tree like a rifle bullet.
The commonest of the deadly poisonous snakes is Vipera lebetina, which attains the length of a meter, has a thick body, a short tail, a broad head and a narrow neck. It is spotted somewhat as Zamenis nummifer, but the spots are less regular and distinct and the ground color is gray rather than yellow. It does not seem to have a distinct name. Cerastes cornutus, having two small horns, which are modified scales, over the eyes, is a small but dangerous viper, and is found in the south. Not only are the species of poisonous serpents fewer than the non-poisonous species, but the individuals also appear to be less numerous. The vast majority of the snakes which are encountered are harmless.
As stated above, all of the Hebrew and Greek names except qippoz, which occurs only in
(2) saraph, apparently from saraph, "to burn," is used of the fiery serpents of the wilderness. In
(4) zochale is translated "crawling things" in
(5) `akhshubh, occurs only in
(6) pethen, like most of the other names a word of uncertain etymology, occurs 6 times and it is translated "asp," except in
(7) tsepha`, occurs only in
(8) ..., or tsiph`oni, occurs in
(9) shephiphon, occurs only in
"Da shall be a serpent (nachash) in the way,
An adder (shephiphon) in the path,
That biteth the horse’s heels,
So that his rider falleth backward."
This has been thought to be Cerastes cornulus, on the authority of Tristram (NHB), who says that lying in the path it will attack the passer-by, while most snakes will glide away at the approach of a person or large animal. He adds that his horse was much frightened at seeing one of these serpents coiled up in a camel’s footprint. The word is perhaps akin to the Arabic siff, or suff, which denotes a spotted and deadly snake.
(10) ’eph’eh, is found in
(11) qippoz, the American Standard Revised Version "dart-snake," the English Revised Version "arrowsnake," the King James Version "great owl," only in
(12) ophis, a general term for "serpent," occurs in numerous passages of the New Testament and Septuagint, and is fairly equivalent to nachash.
(13) aspis, occurs in the New Testament only in
(14) echidna, occurs in
(15) herpeton, "creeping thing," the King James Version "serpent," is found in
That the different Hebrew and Greek names are used without clear distinction is seen from several examples of the employment of two different names in parallel expressions:
"Their poison is like the poison of a serpent (nachash);
They are like the deaf adder (pethen) that stoppeth her ear" (
"They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent (nachash); Adders’ (`akhshubh) poison is under their lips" (
"For, behold, I will send serpents (nechashim), adders (tsiph`onim), among you, which will not be charmed; and they shall bite you, saith Yahweh" (
"They shall lick the dust like a serpent (nachash): like crawling things of the earth (zohale ’erets) they shall come trembling out of their close places" (
"He shall suck the poison of asps (pethen): The viper’s (’eph`eh) tongue shall slay him" (
"Their wine is the poison of serpents (tanninim), and the cruel venom of asps (pethanim)" (
"And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp (pethen), and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s (tsiph`oni) den" (
See also (8) and (9) above.
"Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the serpent shalt thou trample under foot" (
SERPENT (FIERY SERPENT)
Hebrew and Greek names.
Problem of identifying Biblical serpents.
Except for the snakes featured in the narratives above, where the settings contain helpful clues, any attempt at precise identification would be pointless, esp. since most occur in fig. passages. Snakes have long been the cause of superstition and irrational fear; many people of all countries, both civilized and primitive, still suffer from a serious snake phobia, usually acquired in early life. Snakes are mentioned some seventy times in OT and NT, and in nearly two-thirds the use is fig. Their poisonous character is clearly implied some fifty times, although the majority of Pal. species are harmless. The serpent is thus a frequent picture of evil and danger, whether personally (
Serpents in Palestine.
The Middle E has a wide range of snakes, from those reaching a maximum length of under one ft. to several exceeding six ft. and a girth of over six inches. Most are quite harmless, but some six can give potentially lethal bites. Snakes are found in every region from desert to closed woodland, some widely and others confined to narrow habitats. Some are normally nocturnal and others diurnal, but their cold-blooded nature may make them vary their habits at certain seasons. All reptiles and amphibians are “cold-blooded,” which means that they have no automatic temperature control but are dependent on external heat sources. They therefore regulate their exposure to sun, or protection from it, to keep their bodies within suitable limits, mostly between about 60o and 80oF. This may entail hibernation for short spells when the winter days are too cold; estivation, under shelter, if the extreme summer temperature, with low humidity, makes life on the surface too difficult; or, on the higher ground at some seasons, being active for short periods early and late, between the heat of the day and the cold of the night.
Ignorance of snakes leads to myths.
In civilized lands the average citizen’s knowledge of snakes is small and few species are known by name; this is in part because of the fear in which they are held. In less developed countries, many of them with a wealth of snakes, names are usually given to the more conspicuous or important snakes and these are known by hunters, shepherds, etc., while the common folk hardly know the names and certainly cannot apply them correctly. This attitude to snakes is not new, for ancient peoples did not know their snakes any more accurately; one would thus expect general names, rather than specific ones, to be used for the most part. Some myths still current were known to the ancient writers; e.g.
The serpent of
The first mention of נָחָשׁ, H5729, is in
Rods into serpents.
The mention of changing rods into serpents (
Identity of fiery serpent.
The fiery serpent, and the serpent in the wilderness (
Biology of saw-scaled viper.
The serpents mentioned above are all found in the sandy deserts crossed after the Exodus, but the carpet, or saw-scaled, viper has perhaps the best claim to be the fiery serpent. It grows to over two ft., but is thinner than many vipers; it is darker than the sand vipers and its head is smaller. One or another form of the carpet viper is found from W Africa to E Africa and SW Asia to N India, and in some areas it is very common. For instance, in one part of Kenya some 7,000 were caught, marked, and released for research purposes; and in NW India about 200,000 were killed annually for bounty for six years. Only a snake capable of being as numerous as this in one locality could do the damage described in
Typical importance of fiery serpent.
Its venom is typical of the viper family in being hemolytic, i.e., it affects the blood, breaking down the capillaries, rupturing the corpuscles, and finally causing death by massive and wide-spread internal hemorrhage. This can be a slow process and death may occur after as long as four days, the progress depending on the site and severity of the bite. This fact is also relevant to the narrative, for it must have taken Moses some time to cast the bronze serpent and publish news throughout the host of Israel, which amounted to many tens of thousands at even the lowest estimate. This incident is one of the clearest OT pictures of salvation and there is a further point of interest. The injection of such venom is not always followed by intense pain but the internal destruction goes on; it is possible that a victim may feel somewhat better after two or three days and assume that all is well, but after a severe bite the process continues until death. The timing of the incident shows divine overruling and the results of looking in faith at the bronze serpent were wholly miraculous, but the setting needs no metaphysical explanation.