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1. General:

Serpents are not particularly abundant in Palestine, but they are often mentioned in the Bible. In the Hebrew there are 11 names. The New Testament has four Greek names and the Septuagint employs two of these and three others as well as several compound expressions, such as ophis petamenos, "flying serpent," ophis thanaton, "deadly serpent," and ophis daknon, "biting" or "stinging serpent." Notwithstanding this large vocabulary, it is impossible to identify satisfactorily a single species. Nearly every reference states or implies poisonous qualities, and in no case is there so much as a hint that a snake may be harmless, except in several expressions referring to the millennium, where their harmlessness is not natural but miraculous. In Arabic there is a score or more of names of serpents, but very few of them are employed at all definitely. It may be too much to say that the inhabitants of Syria and Palestine consider all snakes to be poisonous, but they do not clearly distinguish the non-poisonous ones, and there are several common and well-known species which are universally believed to be poisonous, though actually harmless. Of nearly 25 species which are certainly known to be found in Syria and Palestine, four are deadly poisonous, five are somewhat poisonous, and the rest are absolutely harmless. With the exception of qippoz, "dart-snake" (Isa 34:15) which is probably the name of a bird and not of a snake, every one of the Hebrew and Greek names occurs in passages where poisonous character is expressed or implied. The deadly poisonous snakes have large perforated poison fangs situated in the front of the upper jaw, an efficient apparatus like a hypodermic syringe for conveying the poison into the depths of the wound. In the somewhat poisonous snakes, the poison fangs are less favorably situated, being farther back, nearly under the eye. Moreover, they are smaller and are merely grooved on the anterior aspect instead of being perforated. All snakes, except a few which are nearly or quite toothless, have numerous small recurved teeth for holding and helping to swallow the prey, which is usually taken into the stomach while living, the peculiar structure of the jaws and the absence of a breast-bone enabling snakes to swallow animals which exceed the ordinary size of their own bodies.

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, North Africa, 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.

3. Names:

As stated above, all of the Hebrew and Greek names except qippoz, which occurs only in Isa 34:15, are used of snakes actually or supposedly poisonous. This absence of discrimination between poisonous and non-poisonous kinds makes determination of the species difficult. Further, but few of the Hebrew names are from roots whose meanings are clear, and there is little evident relation to Arabic names.

(a) (1Sa 11:1; 2Sa 10:2),

(b) (2Sa 17:27),

(c) (2Sa 17:25); also nechosheth, "copper" or "brass"; and nechushtan, "Nehushtan," the brazen serpent (2Ki 18:4). But BDB derives the last two words from a different root.

(2) saraph, apparently from saraph, "to burn," is used of the fiery serpents of the wilderness. In Nu 21:8, it occurs in the singular: "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard." In 21:6 we have ha-nechashim ha-seraphim, "fiery serpents"; in De 8:15 the same in the singular: nachash saraph, also translated "fiery serpents"; in Isa 14:29; 30:6 we have saraph me`opheph, "fiery flying serpent." The same word in the plural seraphim, is translated "seraphim" in Isa 6:2,6.

(4) zochale is translated "crawling things" in De 32:24 (the King James Version "serpents") and in Mic 7:17 (the King James Version "worms").

(5) `akhshubh, occurs only in Ps 140:3, where it is translated "adder" Septuagint aspis, Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) aspis), "adders’ poison is under their lips." It has been suggested (BDB) that the reading should be `akkabhish, "spider" (which see). The parallel word in the previous line is nachash.

(6) pethen, like most of the other names a word of uncertain etymology, occurs 6 times and it is translated "asp," except in Ps 91:13, "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder." According to Liddell and Scott, aspis is the name of the Egyptian cobra, Naia haje L., which is not included in (2) above, because it does not certainly appear to have been found in Palestine The name "adder" is applied to various snakes all of which may perhaps be supposed to be poisonous but some of which are actually harmless. Aspis occurs in Ro 3:13 in a paraphrase of Ps 140:3 (see (5) above); it occurs frequently, though not uniformly, in Septuagint for (2), (5), (6), (7), (8) and (10).

(7) tsepha`, occurs only in Isa 14:29 where it is translated "adder" (the King James Version "cockatrice," the English Revised Version "basilisk," Septuagint ekgona aspidon, Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) regulus). The root tsapha`, of (7) and (8) may be an onomatopoetic word meaning "to hiss" (BDB).

(8) ..., or tsiph`oni, occurs in Pr 23:32, "At the last it biteth like a serpent (nachash), and stingeth like an adder" (tsiph`oni). In Isa 11:8; 59:5, and Jer 8:17, the American Standard Revised Version has "adder," while the King James Version has cockatrice" and the English Revised Version has "basilisk."

(9) shephiphon, occurs only in Ge 49:17:

"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 Job 20:16; Isa 30:6; 59:5, and in English Versions of the Bible is uniformly translated "viper." It is the same as the Arabic ’af`a, which is usually translated "viper," though the writer has never found anyone who could tell to what snake the name belongs. In Arabic as in Hebrew a poisonous snake is always understood.

(11) qippoz, the American Standard Revised Version "dart-snake," the English Revised Version "arrowsnake," the King James Version "great owl," only in Isa 34:15, "There shall the dart-snake make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shade; yea, there shall the kites be gathered, every one with her mate." "This is the concluding verse in a vivid picture of the desolation of Edom. The renderings "dart-snake" and "arrowsnake" rest on the authority of Bochert, but Septuagint has echinos, "hedgehog," and Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) ericeus, "hedgehog." The rendering of the King James Version "great owl" seems preferable to the others, because the words "make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shade" are as a whole quite inapplicable to a mammal or to a reptile. The derivation from qaphaz (compare Arabic qafaz), "to spring," "to dart," suits, it is true, a snake, and not a hedgehog, but may also suit an owl. Finally, the next word in Isa 34:15 is "kites," dayyoth; compare Arabic chida’at.

See Bittern; Owl; PORCUPINE.

(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 Ro 3:13 parallel to Ps 140:3. See under (5) `akhshubh and (6) pethen. It is found in Septuagint for these words, and also for ’eph`eh (Isa 30:6).

(14) echidna, occurs in Ac 28:3, "A viper came out .... and fastened on his (Paul’s) hand," and 4 times in the expression "offspring (the King James Version "generation") of vipers," gennemata echidnon (Mt 3:7; 12:34; 23:33; Lu 3:7). The allied (masculine?) form echis, occurs in Sirach 39:30, the Revised Version (British and American) "adder."

(15) herpeton, "creeping thing," the King James Version "serpent," is found in Jas 3:7.

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" (Ps 58:4).

"They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent (nachash); Adders’ (`akhshubh) poison is under their lips" (Ps 140:3).

"For, behold, I will send serpents (nechashim), adders (tsiph`onim), among you, which will not be charmed; and they shall bite you, saith Yahweh" (Jer 8:17).

"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" (Mic 7:17).

"He shall suck the poison of asps (pethen): The viper’s (’eph`eh) tongue shall slay him" (Job 20:16).

"Their wine is the poison of serpents (tanninim), and the cruel venom of asps (pethanim)" (De 32:33).

"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" (Isa 11:8).

See also (8) and (9) above.

4. Figurative:

"Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:

The young lion and the serpent shalt thou trample under foot" (Ps 91:13).

See also

  • Animals
  • Additional Material


    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 (Matt 3:7) or nationally (Isa 14:29). The punishment given to the serpent in Eden (Gen 3:14), “dust you shall eat,” is hard to interpret biologically, for all snakes are carnivorous and must swallow their prey whole, but this idea is repeated several times, e.g. Micah 7:17, where a snake is assumed to feed by licking with its tongue, a belief that is still widely current. The subtility of the serpent (Gen 3:1) is also echoed in the NT (Matt 10:16): “Be wise (prudent) as serpents,” though this wisdom is qualified by following vv.

    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. Psalm 140:3, “They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the poison of vipers.” The first part suggests that the pointed forked tongue is dangerous, a belief held widely today even by educated people, who refer to it as a fang. The v. is fig. in meaning, but the second part is also literally true, for the venom of poisonous snakes is produced and stored in glands under the upper lips.

    The serpent of Genesis 3.

    The first mention of נָחָשׁ, H5729, is in Genesis 3:1, introducing the Fall of man, the discussion of which is a theological rather than zoological matter. In NT Gr. ὄφις, G4058, is used in the four references to the Fall.

    Rods into serpents.

    The mention of changing rods into serpents (Exod 4 and 7) suggests that snake-charming and conjuring were already being practiced in Egypt before the Exodus, for this was a trick in the repertoire of the court magicians. Clearly, the snake used was one of the larger species, possibly the harmless Montpelier snake, or more prob. the Egyp. cobra (Naja haje), whose range also extends N toward Pal. and which is used by Egyp. snake-charmers today. Ancient Egyp. scarab-amulets depict cobras being held by the neck. This is, in fact, the correct and safe way to hold a venomous snake, but the significance of these pictures has recently been explained. Charmers have been filmed immobilizing cobras by holding them in this way until a state of rigid unconsciousness is induced (H.S. Noerdlinger, Moses and Egypt [1956], p. 26; Enc. Brit. 11th ed., vol. VI, p. 613). This cobra often has been identified with the asp (q.v.). J. G. Wood (Bible Animals [1869] 527, 528) argued that the rod was changed into a crocodile, but this view is not widely held.

    Identity of fiery serpent.

    The fiery serpent, and the serpent in the wilderness (Num 21 and John 3:14) merit fuller discussion. The location was the Negev desert on the borders of Edom, prob. to the SE of the Dead Sea, while a basic fact of the narrative is that the snakes were highly venomous. These two facts reduce the possible species to four only: the two sand vipers (Cerastes cerastes and vipera); the false cerastes (Pseudocerastes fieldi); and one of the carpet vipers (Echis coleratus or carinatus). C. cerastes, which may reach a length of thirty inches, is well adapted to desert life, being able to sink quickly and hide itself in the sand with a shuffling movement, leaving only the nostrils and eyes showing. Its venom is used mostly to kill small rodents such as jerboas, for which it waits, lying unseen on the surface of the sand, but its bite can be fatal to humans. C. vipera seldom reaches fifteen inches and is less dangerous. The false cerastes is a highly specialized desert form with a valve-like structure inside the nostril which enables it to exclude driven sand. Its venom is the least potent of these four. In the wild it may take some dead prey in the form of migrant birds; this is unusual in snakes. These three are of somewhat similar shape; they are typical vipers, with bodies rather fat for the length, with a very stubby tail ending in a sharp point (not poisonous) and with a large flat head, distinctly broader than the neck. As in all vipers, a pair of long curved fangs hinge in the front of the upper jaw and, normally, lie in folds of mucus lining the hard palate. The fangs are needle-sharp and hollow to the tip. To swing the fangs down and forward into position the mouth is opened wide, and the whole action, ending in the strike, is at great speed.

    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 Numbers 21, and there is further confirmatory evidence. The venom of this genus is more powerful, weight for weight, than that of any other viper. This snake is well known for being easily provoked, while many of the large vipers are strangely placid. Echis also appears able to tolerate hotter conditions than most snakes and therefore would be more active by day. The late Dr. Karl P. Schmidt expressed the opinion that it is one of the most dangerous of all venomous snakes (Living Reptiles of the World [1951], London, Hamish Hamilton). The saw-scaled viper’s name comes from the rough nature of its scales, which produce a distinct rasping noise as its sides rub while it makes a characteristic figure-eight movement. When gliding over shingle or rock it moves normally but, like the sand viper and some desert rattlesnakes, it has developed a side-winding motion for traveling over loose sand.

    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.