Serpents in the Bible

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Serpents (Hebrew: נָחָשׁ nāḥāš) are referred to in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The symbol of a serpent or snake played important roles in religious and cultural life of ancient Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia and Greece. The serpent was a symbol of evil power and chaos from the underworld as well as a symbol of fertility, life and healing.[1] נחש Nāḥāš, Hebrew for "snake", is also associated with divination, including the verb form meaning "to practice divination or fortune-telling". In the Hebrew Bible, Nāḥāš occurs in the Torah to identify the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is also used in conjunction with seraph to describe vicious serpents in the wilderness. The tannin, a dragon monster, also occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Exodus, the staffs of Moses and Aaron are turned into serpents, a nāḥāš for Moses, a tannin for Aaron. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation makes use of ancient serpent and the Dragon several times to identify Satan or the devil (Rev 12:9; 20:2). The serpent is most often identified with the hubristic Satan, and sometimes with Lilith.

The story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of man represents a tradition among the Abrahamic peoples, with a presentation more or less symbolical of certain moral and religious truths.[2]

Serpents in Mesopotamian mythology[edit]

Ouroboros, single and in pairs at SS Mary and David's Church, England

In one of the oldest stories ever written, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh loses the power of immortality, stolen by a snake.[3] The serpent was a widespread figure in the mythology of the Ancient Near East. Ouroboros is an ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail that represents the perpetual cyclic renewal of life,[4] the eternal return, and the cycle of life, death and rebirth, leading to immortality.

Archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects in Bronze Age strata at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan: two at Tel Megiddo,[5] one at Gezer,[6] one in the sanctum sanctorum of the Area H temple at Hazor,[7] and two at Shechem.[8] In the surrounding region, a late Bronze Age Hittite shrine in northern Syria contained a bronze statue of a god holding a serpent in one hand and a staff in the other.[9] In sixth-century Babylon, a pair of bronze serpents flanked each of the four doorways of the temple of Esagila.[10] At the Babylonian New Year festival, the priest was to commission from a woodworker, a metalworker and a goldsmith two images one of which "shall hold in its left hand a snake of cedar, raising its right [hand] to the god Nabu".[11] At the tell of Tepe Gawra, at least seventeen Early Bronze Age Assyrian bronze serpents were recovered.[12] The Sumerian fertility god Ningizzida was sometimes depicted as a serpent with a human head, eventually becoming a god of healing and magic.

Hebrew Bible[edit]

Adam, Eve, and the (female) serpent at the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, is the portrayal of the image of the serpent as a mirror of Eve was common in earlier iconography as a result of the identification of women as the source of human original sin.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis refers to a serpent who triggered the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden in Eden (Gen 3:1-20). Serpent is also used to describe sea monsters. Examples of these identifications are in the Book of Isaiah where a reference is made to a serpent-like dragon named Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1), and in the Book of Amos where a serpent resides at the bottom of the sea (Amos 9:3). Serpent figuratively describes biblical places such as Egypt (Jer 46:22), and the city of Dan (Gen 49:17). The prophet Jeremiah also compares the King of Babylon to a serpent (Jer 51:34).


Biblia Pauperum illustration of Eve and the Serpent

The Hebrew word נָחָשׁ (Nachash) is used to identify the serpent that appears in Genesis 3:1, in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, the serpent is portrayed as a deceptive creature or trickster, who promotes as good what God had forbidden and shows particular cunning in its deception. (cf. Gen. 3:4–5 and 3:22) The serpent has the ability to speak and to reason: "Now the serpent was more subtle (also translated as "cunning") than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made" (Gen. 3:1). There is no indication in the Book of Genesis that the serpent was a deity in its own right, although it is one of only two cases of animals that talk in the Pentateuch (Balaam's donkey being the other).

God placed Adam in the Garden to tend it and warned Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, "for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."[13] The serpent tempts Eve to eat of the Tree, but Eve tells the serpent what God had said (Genesis 3:3). The serpent replied that she would not surely die (Genesis 3:4) and that if she eats the fruit of the tree "then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5) Eve ate the fruit and gave it to Adam and he also ate. God, who was walking in the Garden, finds out and to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life and living forever, they are banished from the Garden and God posts an angelic guard. The serpent is punished for its role in the fall by being a curse that God change the serpent into a snake to crawl on its belly and eat dust.

There is a debate about whether the serpent in Eden should be viewed figuratively or as a literal animal. According to one midrashic interpretation in Rabbinic literature, the serpent represents sexual desire;[14] another interpretation is that the snake is the yetzer hara. Modern Rabbinic ideas include interpreting the story as a psychological allegory where Adam represents reasoning faculties, Eve the emotional faculties, and the serpent the hedonic sexual/physical faculties.[15] Voltaire, drawing on Socinian influences, wrote: "It was so decidedly a real serpent, that all its species, which had before walked on their feet, were condemned to crawl on their bellies. No serpent, no animal of any kind, is called Satan, or Belzebub, or Devil, in the Pentateuch."[16]

20th-century scholars such as W. O. E. Oesterley (1921) were cognizant of the differences between the role of the Edenic serpent in the Hebrew Bible and its connections with the "ancient serpent" in the New Testament.[17] Modern historiographers of Satan such as Henry Ansgar Kelly (2006) and Wray and Mobley (2007) speak of the "evolution of Satan",[18] or "development of Satan".[19]

According to Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament scholar, Lutheran theologian and University of Heidelberg professor, who applied form criticism as a supplement to the documentary hypothesis of the Hebrew Bible, the snake in the Eden's narrative was more an expedient to represent the impulse to temptation of mankind (that is, disobeying God's law) rather than an evil spirit or the personification of the Devil, as the later Christian literature erroneously depicted it; moreover, von Rad himself states that the snake is neither a supernatural being nor a demon, but one of the wild animals created by God (Genesis 3:1), and the only thing that differentiates it from the others in Eden is the ability to speak:

The serpent which now enters the narrative is marked as one of God's created animals (ch. 2.19). In the narrator's mind, therefore, it is not the symbol of a "demonic" power and certainly not of Satan. What distinguishes it a little from the rest of the animals is exclusively his greater cleverness. [...] The mention of the snake here is almost incidental; at any rate, in the "temptation" by it the concern is with a completely unmythical process, presented in such a way because the narrator is obviously anxious to shift the responsibility as little as possible from man. It is a question only of man and his guilt; therefore the narrator has carefully guarded against objectifying evil in any way, and therefore he has personified it as little as possible as a power coming from without. That he transferred the impulse to temptation outside man was almost more a necessity for the story than an attempt at making evil something existing outside man. [...] In the history of religions the snake indeed is the sinister, strange animal par excellence [...], and one can also assume that long before, a myth was once at the basis of our narrative. But as it lies now before us, transparent and lucid, it is anything but a myth.

— Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (1973, Revised edition), pp. 87-88, The Old Testament Library, Westminster John Knox Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ISBN 0-664-20957-2.

Moses and Aaron[edit]

When God had revealed himself to the prophet Moses in Exodus 3:4-22, Moses recognized that the call of God was for him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, but anticipated that people would deny or doubt his calling. In Exodus 4:1-5, Moses asked God how to respond to such doubt, and God asked him to cast the rod which he carried (possibly a shepherd's crook) [20] onto the ground, whereupon it became a serpent (a nachash). Moses fled from it, but God encouraged him to come back and take it by the tail, and it became a rod again.

Later in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 7), the staffs of Moses and Aaron were turned into serpents, a nachash for Moses, a tanniyn for Aaron.

Fiery serpents[edit]

"Fiery serpent" (Hebrew: שָׂרָף, Modern: saraph, Tiberian: sä·räf', "fiery", "fiery serpent", "seraph", "seraphim") occurs in the Torah to describe a species of vicious snakes whose venom burns upon contact. According to Wilhelm Gesenius, saraph corresponds to the Sanskrit Sarpa (Jawl aqra), serpent; sarpin, reptile (from the root srip, serpere).[21] These "burning serpents"(YLT) infested the great and terrible place of the desert wilderness (Num.21:4-9; Deut.8:15). The Hebrew word for "poisonous" literally means "fiery", "flaming" or "burning", as the burning sensation of a snake bite on human skin, a metaphor for the fiery anger of God (Numbers 11:1).[22]

The Book of Isaiah expounds on the description of these fiery serpents as "flying saraphs"(YLT), or "flying dragons",[21] in the land of trouble and anguish (Isaiah 30:6). Isaiah indicates that these saraphs are comparable to vipers,(YLT) worse than ordinary serpents (Isaiah 14:29).[23] The prophet Isaiah also sees a vision of seraphim in the Temple itself: but these are divine agents, with wings and human faces, and are probably not to be interpreted as serpent-like so much as "flame-like".[24]

Serpent of bronze[edit]

In the Book of Numbers, while Moses was in the wilderness, he mounted a serpent of bronze on a pole that functioned as a cure against the bite of the "seraphim", the "burning ones" (Numbers 21:4-9). The phrase in Numbers 21:9, "a serpent of bronze," is a wordplay as "serpent" (nehash) and “bronze” (nehoshet) are closely related in Hebrew, nehash nehoshet.[1]

Mainstream scholars suggest that the image of the fiery serpent served to function like that of a magical amulet. Magic amulets or charms were used in the ancient Near East[25] to practice a healing ritual known as sympathetic magic in an attempt to ward off, heal or reduce the impact of illness and poisons.[1] Copper and bronze serpent figures have been recovered, showing that the practice was widespread.[25] A Christian interpretation would be that the bronze serpent served as a symbol for each individual Israelite to take their confession of sin and the need for God's deliverance to heart. Confession of sin and forgiveness was both a community and an individual responsibility. The plague of serpents remained an ongoing threat to the community and the raised bronze serpent was an ongoing reminder to each individual for the need to turn to the healing power of God.[1] It has also been proposed that the bronze serpent was a type of intermediary between God and the people[25] that served as a test of obedience, in the form of free judgment,[26] standing between the dead who were not willing to look to God's chosen instrument of healing, and the living who were willing and were healed.[27] Thus, this instrument bore witness to the sovereign power of Yahweh even over the dangerous and sinister character of the desert.[26]

In 2 Kings 18:4, a bronze serpent, alleged to be the one Moses made, was kept in Jerusalem's Temple[1] sanctuary.[23] The Israelites began to worship the object as an idol or image of God, by offering sacrifices and burning incense to it, until Hezekiah was made King. Hezekiah referred to it as Nehushtan[28] and had torn it down. Scholars have debated the nature of the relationship between the Mosaic bronze serpent and Hezekiah's Nehushtan, but traditions happen to link the two.[1]

New Testament[edit]


In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Saducees, who were visiting him, a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7). Jesus also uses this imagery, observing: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?" (Matthew 23:33). Alternatively, Jesus also presents the snake with a less negative connotation when sending out the Twelve Apostles. Jesus exhorted them, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Wilhelm Gesenius notes that even amongst the ancient Hebrews, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom.[29]

In the Gospel of John, Jesus made mention of the Mosaic serpent when he foretold his crucifixion to a Jewish teacher.[27] Jesus compared the act of raising up the Mosaic serpent on a pole, with the raising up of the Son of Man on a cross (John 3:14-15).[30] Main: Nehushtan#New Testament

Ivory of Christ treading on the beasts from Genoels-Elderen, with four beasts; the basilisk was sometimes depicted as a bird with a long smooth tail.[31]

Snake handling[edit]

Snake handling is a religious ritual in a small number of Christian churches in the US, usually characterized as rural and Pentecostal. Practitioners believe it dates to antiquity and quote the Bible to support the practice, using references such as (Mark 16:18) and (Luke 10:19).

Temptation of Christ[edit]

In the temptation of Christ, the Devil cites Psalm 91:11-12, "for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in [their] hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone."[32] He cuts off before verse 13, "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon (tanniyn)[33] shalt thou trample under feet."[34][35]

The serpent in Psalm 91:13 is identified as Satan by Christians:[36] "super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem" in the Latin Vulgate, literally "The asp and the basilisk you will trample under foot; you will tread on the lion and the dragon". This passage is commonly interpreted by Christians as a reference to Christ defeating and triumphing over Satan. The passage led to the Late Antique and Early Medieval iconography of Christ treading on the beasts, in which two beasts are often shown, usually the lion and snake or dragon, and sometimes four, which are normally the lion, dragon, asp (snake) and basilisk (which was depicted with varying characteristics) of the Vulgate. All represented the devil, as explained by Cassiodorus and Bede in their commentaries on Psalm 91.[37] The serpent is often shown curled round the foot of the cross in depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus from Carolingian art until about the 13th century; often it is shown as dead. The crucifixion was regarded as the fulfillment of God's curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15. Sometimes it is pierced by the cross and in one ivory is biting Christ's heel, as in the curse.[38]

Ancient serpent[edit]

Serpent (Greek: ὄφις;[39] Trans: Ophis, /o'-fēs/; "snake", "serpent") occurs in the Book of Revelation as the "ancient serpent"[40] or "old serpent"(YLT) used to describe "the dragon",[20:2] Satan[41] the Adversary,(YLT) who is the devil.[12:9, 20:2] This serpent is depicted as a red seven-headed dragon having ten horns, each housed with a diadem. The serpent battles Michael the Archangel in a War in Heaven which results in this devil being cast out to the earth. While on earth, he pursues the Woman of the Apocalypse. Unable to obtain her, he wages war with the rest of her seed (Revelation 12:1-18). He who has the key to the abyss and a great chain over his hand, binds the serpent for a thousand years. The serpent is then cast into the abyss and sealed within until he is released (Revelation 20:1-3).

In Christian tradition, the "ancient serpent" is commonly identified with the Genesis serpent and as Satan. This identification redefined the Hebrew Bible's concept of Satan ("the Adversary", a member of the Heavenly Court acting on behalf of God to test Job's faith), so that Satan/Serpent became a part of a divine plan stretching from Creation to Christ and the Second Coming.[42]

Religious views[edit]

Biblical apocrypha and deuterocanonical books[edit]

The first deuterocanonical source to connect the serpent with the devil may be Wisdom of Solomon.[43] The subject is more developed in the pseudepigraphal-apocryphal Apocalypse of Moses (Vita Adae et Evae) where the devil works with the serpent.[44]


In traditional Christianity, a connection between the Serpent and Satan is created, and Genesis 3:14-15 where God curses the serpent, is seen in that light: "And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life / And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (KJV).

Following the imagery of chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, Bernard of Clairvaux had called Mary the "conqueror of dragons", and she was long to be shown crushing a snake underfoot, also a reference to her title as the "New Eve".[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Olson 1996, p. 136
  2. ^ "Adam". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-04-12 – via
  3. ^ "Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh". Archived from the original on 2011-11-30. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
  4. ^ Gerard Michon. "Meanings of Mathematical Symbols and Scientific Icons". Numericana. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
  5. ^ Gordon Loud, Megiddo II: Plates plate 240: 1, 4, from Stratum X (dated by Loud 1650–1550 BC) and Statum VIIB (dated 1250–1150 BC), noted by Karen Randolph Joines, "The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult" Journal of Biblical Literature 87.3 (September 1968:245-256) p. 245 note 2.
  6. ^ R.A.S. Macalister, Gezer II, p. 399, fig. 488, noted by Joiner 1968:245 note 3, from the high place area, dated Late Bronze Age.
  7. ^ Yigael Yadin et al. Hazor III-IV: Plates, pl. 339, 5, 6, dated Late Bronze Age II (Yadiin to Joiner, in Joiner 1968:245 note 4).
  8. ^ Callaway and Toombs to Joiner (Joiner 1968:246 note 5).
  9. ^ Maurice Viera, Hittite Art (London, 1955) fig. 114.
  10. ^ Leonard W. King, A History of Babylon, p. 72.
  11. ^ Pritchard ANET, 331, noted in Joines 1968:246 and note 8.
  12. ^ E.A. Speiser, Excavations at Tepe Gawra: I. Levels I-VIII, p. 114ff., noted in Joines 1968:246 and note 9.
  13. ^ Genesis 2:17 HE)
  14. ^ Barton, SO "Midrash Rabba to Genesis", sec 20, p.93
  15. ^ Hakira, Vol. 5: Reclaiming the Self: Adam’s Sin and the Human Psyche By Menachem Krakowski
  16. ^ Gorton 1824, p. 22
  17. ^ Oesterley Immortality and the Unseen World: a study in Old Testament religion (1921) "... moreover, not only an accuser but one who tempts to evil. With the further development of Satan as the arch-fiend and head of the powers of darkness we are not concerned here, as this is outside the scope of the Old Testament."
  18. ^ "The idea of Zoroastrian influence on the evolution of Satan is in limited favor among scholars today, not least because the satan figure is always subordinate to God in Hebrew and Christian representations, and Angra Mainyu ..."-Kelly, Henry Ansgar (2006). Satan : a biography (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-521-84339-3.
  19. ^ Mobley, T.J. Wray, Gregory (2005). The birth of Satan : tracing the devil's biblical roots. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-6933-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  20. ^ Keil and Delitzsch, OT Commentary on Exodus 4 accessed 2015-10-09.
  21. ^ a b Gesenius, Wilhelm & Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1893). Genenius's Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. J. Wiley & Sons. p. dccxcv.
  22. ^ Olson 1996, p. 135
  23. ^ a b Noth 1968, p. 156
  24. ^ Hendel 1999, pp. 746–7
  25. ^ a b c Thomas Nelson 2008, p. 172
  26. ^ a b Noth 1968, p. 157
  27. ^ a b Olson 1996, p. 137
  28. ^ Joines, Karen Randolph (1968). The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult. JOBL, 87. p. 245, note 1.
  29. ^ Gesenius, Wilhelm & Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1893). Genenius's Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. J. Wiley & Sons. p. dccxcvi.
  30. ^ C. H. Spurgeon, "The Mysteries of the Brazen Serpent" Archived 2013-02-12 at the Wayback Machine, 1857
  31. ^ The basilisk and the weasel by Wenceslas Hollar
  32. ^ Matthew 4:6)
  33. ^ Strong's Concordance: H8577
  34. ^ (Psalm 91:13 KJV)
  35. ^ Whittaker, H.A. Studies in the Gospels "Matthew 4" Biblia, Cannock 1996
  36. ^ Psalm 91 in the Hebrew/Protestant numbering, 90 in the Greek/Catholic liturgical sequence - see Psalms#Numbering
  37. ^ Hilmo, Maidie. Medieval images, icons, and illustrated English literary texts: from Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004, p. 37, ISBN 0-7546-3178-8, ISBN 978-0-7546-3178-1, google books
  38. ^ Schiller, I, pp. 112–113, and many figures listed there. See also Index.
  39. ^ Strong's Concordance: G3789
  40. ^ From the Greek: ἀρχαῖος, archaios (är-khī'-os) - Strong's Concordance Number G744
  41. ^ Σατανᾶς, Satanas, (sä-tä-nä's) - of Aramaic origin corresponding to Σατάν (G4566) - Strong's Concordance Number G4567
  42. ^ Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  43. ^ Alfred von Rohr Sauer, Concordia Theological Monthly 43 (1972): "The Wisdom of Solomon deserves to be remembered for the fact that it is the first tradition to identify the serpent of Genesis 3 with the devil: 'Through the devil's envy death entered the world' (2:24)".
  44. ^ The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Expansions of the "Old ... James H. Charlesworth - 1985 "He seeks to destroy men's souls (Vita 17:1) by disguising himself as an angel of light (Vita 9:1, 3; 12:1; ApMos 17:1) to put into men "his evil poison, which is his covetousness" (epithymia, ..."
  45. ^ Schiller, Gertrud, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, p. 108 & fig. 280, 1971 (English trans. from German), Lund Humphries, London, ISBN 0-85331-270-2


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