the serpent in scripture
God has delivered all creation into the hand of man (Gen. 9:1-2) for our physical and spiritual benefit. Job appealed to teaching concerning beasts, fowls of the air and fish of the sea to demonstrate the existence of the hand of God in our lives (Job 12:7-9). Similarly, the Apostle Paul directed the Romans to the evidence of creation to help us understand the way God works: “… the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made …” (Rom. 1:20). Solomon also directs our attention to the roe, bird, and ant to observe and learn from their diligence and industry (Prov.6:5-9).
The word “serpent” is used 31 times in Scripture, and occurs for the first time in Genesis 3:1. The Hebrew word “nachash” is used for serpent; it means ‘hiss’, and on a few occasions is translated “enchantments” (see Num. 24:1; 2Kings 17:17). The root word has the meaning of hiss, magic, whispering and prognostication (Strong’s concordance.
In our consideration of the serpent we will follow the principle enunciated by Paul when writing to the Corinthians – “that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is “spiritual” (1Cor. 15:46). The serpent was a creature of God’s creation, but is described as being “more subtil” (Heb. Arum, subtle, crafty – Young’s concordance) than the rest of the beasts of the field (Gen. 3:1). Serpents in the natural state are subtle, crafty and able to deceive. They are generally well camouflaged and difficult to see; they can remain motionless for long periods of time; they can move slowly and stealthily without capturing the attention of the observer. A visit to a zoo reptile house will illustrate these points. The unwary can be deceived; the serpent has the ability to move at lightening speed to deliver a fatal bite.
The ways that lead to death are described in Scripture in terms similar to those describing the actions of the serpent. The wicked man will find that “his calamity shall come suddenly; suddenly he shall be broken without remedy” (Prov. 6:12-15); “with her much fair speech (like the serpent of Gen. 3?) she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him” (Prov. 7:21-23). We know the details of the condemnation on Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16-19). The Apostle Paul warns us that we must not have our minds corrupted from the simplicity of the Truth as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety (2 Cor. 11:3).
The serpent was the first to be condemned, but not death, as it was presumably already a dying creature (implied, see iii. below). The curse upon the serpent is set out in Genesis 3:14-15:
- “cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field”
ii. “upon thy belly shalt thou go”
iii. “dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life”
iv. “I will put enmity between thee (the serpent) and the woman”
Each of these components of the curse is there for us to observe in the natural world before applying it (as Scripture does) to spiritual things.
There are eleven families of snake, giving a total of approximately 2,600 species. There is a natural hostility between this reptile and mankind. The snake will usually hide in the ground or under rocks, when the approach of human beings is detected. Few people like to handle snakes or even look t these cold-blooded creatures; a similar gulf is fixed between the wilfully godless and the faithful. Note that God says the enmity is between the serpent and the woman. Hostility exists with the godless rather than the faithful. Our lord came to save sinners; yet it was for envy that wicked men crucified him (Mat. 27:18).
The serpent was cursed above all other creatures of the field (but not including fish or fowl). The cattle and beasts of the field had legs and walked, the serpent was to be deprived of this facility. There is evidence (1) that some snakes (i.e. boas and pythons) have the vestiges of hind limbs a bit like claws on each side of their bodies, and have a girdle, which may have accommodated legs.
MOSES AND AARONS ROD
A miracle was performed by God when Moses cast his rod on the ground and it became a serpent, and when taking it up by the tail, it became a rod again (Ex. 4:1-5). This was no ordinary serpent, since the miracle was to be a sign to the natural seed of Abraham that “the Lord God of their fathers … had appeared” to Moses (v. 5). This sign was repeated before Pharaoh and his court (Ex. 7:10). Why was it possible for Pharaoh’s magicians to apparently replicate, this sign of Moses authority?
There are only a few species of snake which use death-feigning as a defence mechanism. The most unusual of these is the twig snake. If molested or picked up it will lie completely inert, giving the impression of an inanimate object such as piece of wood. Another example of this behaviour is the log-nosed snake (2). The rarity of this strategy among snakes would enable Pharaoh’s magicians to convince the Egyptian people of their powers and thus maintain their authority in the royal court.
“Seeing they see not”
Snakes have poor eyesight but they have a sensory system to enable them to track their prey. The system is made up of two small cavities lined with sensitive cells; the cavities are situated in the roof of the mouth and called “Jacobson’s organ”. Dust particles and odours are picked up on the forked tongue and checked for scent in these twin cavities. Snakes and lizards have this facility: “Dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Gen. 3:14). The Scripture uses this natural instinct of snakes “licking” or “eating” dust to describe the state of the wicked when they are ultimately subdued by the Lord at his coming. “His enemies shall lick the dust” (Psa. 72:9); “… lick the dust of thy feet” (Isa. 49:23); “They shall lick the dust like a serpent” (Mic. 7:17).
Snakes are colour-blind, have poor eyesight and are deaf. How well these natural characteristics of snakes fit God’s description of the wicked (Mat. 13:14-15)! The eye of the snake is unusual; it is covered with a transparent scale and has no eyelid or sideways-moving nictitating membrane. The eye therefore always appears to be open, even when the snake is asleep! The Psalmist, comparing the heathen with their idols, says, “Eyes have they, but they see not” (Psa. 135:16). Isaiah also says, when speaking of God’s wayward people, “See ye indeed, but perceive not” (Isa. 6:9, see also 43:8). The wicked, like the serpent, have poor spiritual eyesight, lacking an understanding of God’s Word. Jesus said of Israel, “they seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Mat. 13:13).
Jesus makes the contrast with godly men, “But blessed are yours eyes for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” (Mat. 13:16). Abraham had good spiritual eyesight ; he “rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it and was glad” (Jno. 8:56).
“Hearing they hear not”
Snakes lack external ears that are present in other reptiles and, although they have internal ears, they are largely deaf to airborne sounds, except those of a very low frequency (300 Hz). They do ‘hear’ sounds of a very low amplitude, due to a sensitivity to vibrations transmitted through the bones of the jaw. The natural world shows the appropriateness of the serpent as a symbol for sin. The Psalmist speaks of the wicked as being “like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear” (Psa. 58:4), Micah says, “their ears (those of the nations) shall be deaf” (Mic. 7:16).
Deafness and poor eyesight are disabilities of the serpent which are frequently linked in Scripture with sinners (see Isa. 6:10, 42:18-19 “deaf”, “blind”; Mat. 13:15 “ears are dull”, eyes … closed”). It is consistent with this theme that the protagonists in the Roman world should be characterised as “that old serpent” … which deceiveth the whole world” (Rev. 12:9).
When the Kingdom is established, these serpent-like deficiencies will be overcome: “eyes … opened … ears of the deaf shall be unstopped” (Isa. 35:5). It is our deafness and blindness, which clouds our understanding of God’s purpose. “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for them that love him” (Isa. 64:4). These verses quoted and many more are speaking in type (e.g. Deut. 29:4) or antitype (e.g. Isa. 29:18) of serpent qualities.
Jesus commended the faithful, in that they clearly are not of the seed of the serpent: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” (Mat. 13:16).
“O generation of vipers!”
The snake is not inhibited in its mobility by poor eyesight and hearing. Rattlesnakes and vipers or pit vipers have a sensory ‘pit’ on each side of the head between the eye and the nostril which is sensitive to infra-red radiation. This enables the viper to detect temperature differences of changes as small as 0.002 degrees Celsius (3). This ability enables the viper to strike accurately a man or a mouse in total darkness if necessary, and trail the disabled prey until death. The ability to ‘see’ by scent or temperature difference gives the snake an advantage in darkness over creatures which depend on light in order to see. Those who are sinners prefer darkness rather than light (Jno. 3:19-21) and, like the snake, are able to plot their own paths unseen by men (but known to God) (1 Jno. 1:5-10). The type is used by John the Baptist and Jesus: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee the wrath to come?” (Mat. 3:7). Jesus, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, used serpent typology in Matthew 23. He described them as being blind fives times in one public address (v.16, 17, 19, 24, 26).
The snake is able to swallow food alive, head first and whole, even when the victim is larger in diameter that the snake’s body. This is possible, as the snake can drop its lower jaw at the back of its mouth as well as at the front, since the lower jaw is only loosely connected to the skull by the quadrate bone. The lower jaw can also be stretched sideways, since the two halves are connected at the chin by an elastic muscle. Sharp, recurved teeth hold the quarry in place while the halves of the lower jaw are manipulated separately. First one side of the jaw moves forward, and then the other, allowing the snake to ‘walk’ its monstrous gaping mouth forward around its food (4).
Out Lord continued to speak in terms of serpent-behaviour when he described the hypocrites of his day as “blind guides, which strain at the gnat, and swallow a camel (Mat. 23:24). Lest his hearers should fail to see the serpent-type in God’s assessment of their ways, Jesus concluded by saying, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Mat. 23:33). The Babylonians who took Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day are described in serpent-like terms:
“All thine enemies have opened their mouths against thee: they hiss and gnash the teeth: they say, We have swallowed her up” (Lam. 2:16, 3:46).
Paul writing to the Romans regarding sinners links Psalm 5:9 (“their throat is an open sepulchre”) with snakes in Romans 3:13-14 (“Their throat is an open sepulchre”); with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”).
The word viper occurs only eight times in Scripture (three times in the Old Testament and five times in the New), and means ‘a venomous serpent’ or ‘asp’ (heb.epheh), or a ‘poisonous snake’ or ‘adder’ (gr. Echidna – Strong’s). It is interesting to note that the word “viper” in the New Testament refers to a female snake (Youngs). The snake is a type for sin; it is the female, of course, that gives birth and enables the species to multiply. Vipers may bear as many as thirty young each, with a venom system that can be used from birth. It was the woman who was beguiled by the serpent; similarly it is through the woman that our sinful nature is perpetuated. “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent (Psa. 58:3,4). Without Christ our sinful nature will kill us, as the snake venom can if we are bitten. We are not told the gender of the snake in Scripture,
When the Lord Jesus Christ returns he will tread down his enemies as a man treads on an adder (Psa. 91:13); the judgements of God will be by a wound to the head of persistent sinners (Psa. 68:21).
THE SERPENT BITE
The poisonous serpent bite brings death to its prey. The injection of poison may be through hollow or grooved teeth which can fold back along the roof of the mouth. The Psalmist therefore prays, “Break their teeth, O God in their mouth” (Psa. 58:6, note the context in v. 4,5). The lies of the wicked are comparable with the poison of the adder. “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ ‘poison is under their lips” (Psa. 140:3). Just as poison will spread around the body, sometimes killing the victim in minutes, so the lies of the wicked can spread quickly and bring death: “Sin when it is finished bringeth forth death” (Jas.1:15). James uses the serpent characteristics to reinforce the point regarding the dreadful nature of sin: “the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8).
The literal bite of the serpent has been used by God to judge His people (Num. 21:4-6, Jer. 8:17, Amos 9:3). Yet through faith and trust in God the effect of the injected poison could be overcome (Num. 21:7-9). The warning not to fall away is relevant for the faithful today: “Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents” (1 Cor. 10:9). The saving work of our Lord is likened to the lifting up of the brazen serpent in the wilderness. Jesus has overcome the effect of the serpent bite and has made it possible for us to be saved from our sins. Paul also provides an allusion to the overcoming of the serpent bite: “O death where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). A sting is a method used by insects to inject poison through a hollow tube by puncturing the skin; this is an allusion to the poisonous serpent bite again.
Pharaoh’s magician’s rods that became serpents and were swallowed up by Aaron’s serpent rod (Exo. 7:12). This incident points forward to the time of the resurrection when the prophetic words of Isaiah will be fulfilled, “Death is swallowed up in victory” (Isa. 25:8; 1Cor. 15:54).
When our Lord returns, the power to tread on serpents (Luke 10:19) will be given to the elect: “O grave where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55). When the Kingdom is established, the bite of the asp and adder will no longer be possible in spiritual or natural worlds (Isa. 11:8-9, 65:25). “They shall not hurt not destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord”.
- Amphibians and Reptiles, Vaclav Lanka & Zbysek Vit, Hamlyn, 1985,p.20.
- Snakes of the World, Chris Mattison, Blandford Press, 1986, p.93.
- How Reptiles and Amphibians live, Arthur C Echternacht, Elsevier Pub., 1977, p.96.
4. The Reptiles, Archie Carr, Time Inc., 1968, p.55