Serpent (Fiery Serpent)

See also 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 (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.