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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Serpent

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The frequent mention of this creature in the Bible, together with the important part which it plays in early mythology, justifies a fuller treatment of the subject here than could well be given under the special terms by which the several species are designated. To these, however, we also refer as affording further details on certain points.

I. Bible Names. The following are the Heb. and Gr. words by which either the serpent in general or some particular kind is represented in the A.V. with great variety and little precision.

1. Nachash (נָחָשׁ, so called probably from its hissing; Sept. and New Test. ὄφις ) the generic name of any serpent, occurs frequently in the Old Test. The following are the principal Biblical allusions to this animal: Its subtlety is mentioned in Genesis 3:1; its wisdom is alluded to by our Lord in Matthew 10:16. The poisonous properties of some species are often mentioned (see Psalms 58:4; Proverbs 23:32); the sharp tongue of the serpent, which it would appear some of the ancient Hebrews believed to be the instrument of poison, is mentioned in Psalms 140:3; Job 20:16, "the viper's tongue shall slay him;" although in other places, as in Proverbs 23:32; Ecclesiastes 10:8; Ecclesiastes 10:11; Numbers 21:9, the venom is correctly ascribed to the bite, while in Job 20:14 the gall is said to be the poison. The habit serpents have of lying concealed in hedges is alluded to in Ecclesiastes 10:8, and in holes of walls, in Amos 5, 19; their dwelling in dry, sandy places, in Deuteronomy 8:15. Their wonderful mode of progression did not escape the observation of the author of Proverbs 30 who expressly mentions it as "one of the three things which were too wonderful for him" (Proverbs 30:19).. The oviparous nature of most of the order is alluded to in Isaiah 59:5, where the A.V., however, has the unfortunate rendering of "cockatrice." The art of taming and charming serpents is of great antiquity, and is alluded to in Psalms 58:5; Ecclesiastes 10:11; Jeremiah 8:17, and doubtless intimated by James (James 3:7), who particularizes serpents among all other animals that "have been tamed by man." (See SERPENT CHARMING).

2. Sardah (שָׂרָ, prob. burning, (See SERAPH); Sept. ὄφις or δράκων; A.V. "fiery") occurs generally in connection with the above term (Numbers 21:6; Deuteronomy 8:15), but occasionally alone (Numbers 21:8; Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6), as some peculiarly venomous species.

Much has been written on the question of the "fiery serpents" (הִשְּׂרָפַים

הִנְּחָשַׁים ) of Numbers 21:6; Numbers 21:8, with which it is usual to identify the "fiery flying serpent" of Isaiah 30:6; Isaiah 14:29. In the transaction recorded (Numbers loc. cit.; Deuteronomy 8:15) as having occurred at the time of the Exodus, when the rebellious Israelites were visited with a plague of serpents, there is not a word about their having been "fling" creatures; there is therefore no occasion to refer the venomous snakes in question to the kind of which Niebuhr (Descript. de l'Arab. p. 156) speaks, and which the Arabs at Basra denominate heie sursurie, or heie thiare, "flying serpents," which obtained that name from their habit of "springing" from branch to branch of the date trees they inhabit. Besides these are tree serpents (dendrophidoe), a harmless family of the colubrine snakes, and therefore quite out of the question. The Heb. term rendered "fiery" by the A.V. is by the Alexandrine edition of the Sept. represented by θανατοῦντες, "deadly." Onkelos, the Arabic version of Saadias, and the Vulg. translate the word "burning," in allusion to the sensation produced by the bite; other authorities understand a reference to the bright color of the serpents. It is impossible to point out the species of poisonous snake which destroyed the people in the Arabian desert. Niebuhr says that the only truly formidable kind is that called boetan, a small slender creature spotted black and white, whose bite is instant death, and whose poison causes the dead body to swell in an extraordinary manner (see Forskal, Descript. Animal. p. 15). It is obvious that either the cerastes or the naja haje, or any other venomous species frequenting Arabia, may denote the "serpent of the burning bite" which destroyed the children of Israel. See Ziegra, De Serpentibus Ignitis (Jena, 1732).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Serpent'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/serpent.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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