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Serpent (Fiery Serpent)
See also Serpent
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.