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1. General:
Serpents are not particularly abundant in Israel, but they are often mentioned in the Bible. In the Hebrew there are 11 names. The New Testament has four Greek names and the Septuagint employs two of these and three others as well as several compound expressions, such as ophis petamenos, "flying serpent," ophis thanaton, "deadly serpent," and ophis daknon, "biting" or "stinging serpent." Notwithstanding this large vocabulary, it is impossible to identify satisfactorily a single species. Nearly every reference states or implies poisonous qualities, and in no case is there so much as a hint that a snake may be harmless, except in several expressions referring to the millennium, where their harmlessness is not natural but miraculous. In Arabic there is a score or more of names of serpents, but very few of them are employed at all definitely. It may be too much to say that the inhabitants of Syria and Israel consider all snakes to be poisonous, but they do not clearly distinguish the non-poisonous ones, and there are several common and well-known species which are universally believed to be poisonous, though actually harmless. Of nearly 25 species which are certainly known to be found in Syria and Israel, four are deadly poisonous, five are somewhat poisonous, and the rest are absolutely harmless. With the exception of qippoz, "dart-snake" (Isa 34:15) which is probably the name of a bird and not of a snake, every one of the Hebrew and Greek names occurs in passages where poisonous character is expressed or implied. The deadly poisonous snakes have large perforated poison fangs situated in the front of the upper jaw, an efficient apparatus like a hypodermic syringe for conveying the poison into the depths of the wound. In the somewhat poisonous snakes, the poison fangs are less favorably situated, being farther back, nearly under the eye. Moreover, they are smaller and are merely grooved on the anterior aspect instead of being perforated. All snakes, except a few which are nearly or quite toothless, have numerous small recurved teeth for holding and helping to swallow the prey, which is usually taken into the stomach while living, the peculiar structure of the jaws and the absence of a breast-bone enabling snakes to swallow animals which exceed the ordinary size of their own bodies.
2. Serpents of Israel and Syria:
The following list includes all the serpents which are certainly known to exist in Israel and Syria, omitting the names of several which have been reported but whose occurrence does not seem to be sufficiently confirmed. The range of each species is given.
(1) Harmless Serpents.
Typhlops vermicularis Merr., Greece and Southwestern Asia; T. simoni Bttgr., Israel; Eryx jaculus L., Greece, North Africa, Central and Southwestern Asia; Tropidonotus tessellatus Laur., CentraI and Southeastern Europe, Central and Southwestern Asia; Zamenis gemonensis Laur., Central and Southeastern Europe, Greek islands, Southwestern Asia; Z. dahlii Fitz., Southeastern Europe, Southwestern Asia, Lower Egypt; Z. rhodorhachis Jan., Egypt, Southwestern Asia, India; Z. ravergieri Menatr., Southwestern Asia: Z. nummifer Renss., Egypt, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Asia Minor; Oligodon melanocephalus Jan., Syria, Israel, Sinai, Lower Egypt; Contia decemlineata D. and B., Syria, Israel; C. collaris Menerr., Greek islands, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Syria, Israel; C. rothi Jan., Syria, Israel; C. coronella Schleg., Syria, Israel
(2) Somewhat Poisonous Serpents.
Tarbophis savignyi Blgr., Syria, Israel, Egypt; T. fallax Fleischm., Balkan Peninsula, Greek islands, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Syria, Israel; Coelopeltis monspessulana Herre., Mediterranean countries, Caucasus, Persia; Psammophis schokari Forsk., North Africa, Southwestern Asia; Micrelaps muelleri Bttgr., Syria, Israel
(3) Deadly Poisonous Serpents.
Vipera ammodytes L., Southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, Syria; Vipera lebetina L., North Africa, Greek islands, Southwestern Asia; Cerastes cornutus Forsk., Egypt, Sinai, Arabia; Echis coloratus Gthr., Southern Israel, Arabia, Socotra.
To this list should be added the scheltopusik, a large snake-like, limbless lizard, Ophiosaurus apus, inhabiting Southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, Persia, Syria and Israel, which while perfectly harmless is commonly classed with vipers.
Of all these the commonest is Zamenis nummifer, Arabic `aqd-ul-jauz, "string of walnuts," a fierce but non-poisonous snake which attains the length of a meter. Its ground color is pale yellow and it has a dorsal series of distinct diamond-shaped dark spots. Alternating with spots of the dorsal row are on each side two lateral rows of less distinct dark spots. It is everywhere considered to be fatal. Another common snake is Zamenis gemonensis, Arabic chanash, which attains the length of two meters. It is usually black and much resembles the American black snake, Zamenis constrictor. Like all species of Zamenis, these ire harmless. Other common harmless snakes are Zamenis dahlii, Tropidonotus tessellatus which is often found in pools and streams, Contia collaris, Oligodon melanocephalus, a small, nearly toothless snake with the crown of the head coal black.
Among the somewhat poisonous snakes, a very common one is Coelopeltis monspessulana, Arabic al-chaiyat ul-barshat, which is about two meters long, as larke as the black snake. It is uniformly reddish brown above, paler below. Another is Psammophis schokari. Arabic an-nashshab, "the arrow." It is about a meter long, slender, and white with dark stripes. Many marvelous and utterly improbable tales are told of its jumping powers, as for instance that it can shoot through the air for more than a hundred feet and penetrate a tree like a rifle bullet.
The commonest of the deadly poisonous snakes is Vipera lebetina, which attains the length of a meter, has a thick body, a short tail, a broad head and a narrow neck. It is spotted somewhat as Zamenis nummifer, but the spots are less regular and distinct and the ground color is gray rather than yellow. It does not seem to have a distinct name. Cerastes cornutus, having two small horns, which are modified scales, over the eyes, is a small but dangerous viper, and is found in the south. Not only are the species of poisonous serpents fewer than the non-poisonous species, but the individuals also appear to be less numerous. The vast majority of the snakes which are encountered are harmless.
3. Names:
As stated above, all of the Hebrew and Greek names except qippoz, which occurs only in Isa 34:15, are used of snakes actually or supposedly poisonous. This absence of discrimination between poisonous and non-poisonous kinds makes determination of the species difficult. Further, but few of the Hebrew names are from roots whose meanings are clear, and there is little evident relation to Arabic names.
(1) The commonest Hebrew word is nachash, which occurs 31 times and seems to be a generic word for serpent. While not always clearly indicating a venomous serpent, it frequently does: e.g. Ps 58:4; 140:3; Prov 23:32; Eccl 10:8,11; Isa 14:29; Jer 8:17; Am 5:19. According to BDB it is perhaps from an onomatopoetic nachash, "to hiss." It may be akin to the Arabic chanash, which means "snake" in general, or especially the black snake. Compare Ir-nahash (1 Ch 4:12); Nahash (a) (1 Sam 11:1; 2 Sam 10:2), (b) (2 Sam 17:27), (c) (2 Sam 17:25); also nechosheth, "copper" or "brass"; and nechushtan, "Nehushtan," the brazen serpent (2 Ki 18:4). But BDB derives the last two words from a different root.
(2) saraph, apparently from saraph, "to burn," is used of the fiery serpents of the wilderness. In Nu 21:8, it occurs in the singular: "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard." In 21:6 we have ha-nechashim ha-seraphim, "fiery serpents"; in Dt 8:15 the same in the singular: nachash saraph, also translated "fiery serpents"; in Isa 14:29; 30:6 we have saraph me`opheph, "fiery flying serpent." The same word in the plural seraphim, is translated "seraphim" in Isa 6:2,6.
(3) tannin, elsewhere "dragon" or "seamonster" (which see), is used of the serpents into which the rods of Aaron and the magicians were transformed (Ex 7:9,10,12), these serpents being designated by nachash in Ex 4:3; 7:15. Tannin is rendered "serpent" (the King James Version "dragon") in Dt 32:33, "Their wine is the poison of serpents," and Ps 91:13, "The young lion and the serpent shalt thou trample under foot." On the other hand, nachash seems in three passages to refer to a mythical creature or dragon: "His hand hath pierced the swift serpent" (Job 26:13); "In that day Yahweh .... will punish leviathan the swift serpent and leviathan the crooked serpent" (Isa 27:1); ".... though they be hid from my sight in the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent, and it shall bite them" (Am 9:3).
(4) zochale is translated "crawling things" in Dt 32:24 (the King James Version "serpents") and in Mic 7:17 (the King James Version "worms").
(5) `akhshubh, occurs only in Ps 140:3, where it is translated "adder" Septuagint aspis, Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) aspis), "adders' poison is under their lips." It has been suggested (BDB) that the reading should be `akkabhish, "spider" (which see). The parallel word in the previous line is nachash.
(6) pethen, like most of the other names a word of uncertain etymology, occurs 6 times and it is translated "asp," except in Ps 91:13, "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder." According to Liddell and Scott, aspis is the name of the Egyptian cobra, Naia haje L., which is not included in (2) above, because it does not certainly appear to have been found in Israel The name "adder" is applied to various snakes all of which may perhaps be supposed to be poisonous but some of which are actually harmless. Aspis occurs in Rom 3:13 in a paraphrase of Ps 140:3 (see (5) above); it occurs frequently, though not uniformly, in Septuagint for (2), (5), (6), (7), (8) and (10).
(7) tsepha`, occurs only in Isa 14:29 where it is translated "adder" (the King James Version "cockatrice," the English Revised Version "basilisk," Septuagint ekgona aspidon, Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) regulus). The root tsapha`, of (7) and (8) may be an onomatopoetic word meaning "to hiss" (BDB).
(8) ..., or tsiph`oni, occurs in Prov 23:32, "At the last it biteth like a serpent (nachash), and stingeth like an adder" (tsiph`oni). In Isa 11:8; 59:5, and Jer 8:17, the American Standard Revised Version has "adder," while the King James Version has cockatrice" and the English Revised Version has "basilisk."
(9) shephiphon, occurs only in Gen 49:17:
"Dan shall be a serpent (nachash) in the way,
An adder (shephiphon) in the path,
That biteth the horse's heels,
So that his rider falleth backward."
This has been thought to be Cerastes cornulus, on the authority of Tristram (NHB), who says that lying in the path it will attack the passer-by, while most snakes will glide away at the approach of a person or large animal. He adds that his horse was much frightened at seeing one of these serpents coiled up in a camel's footprint. The word is perhaps akin to the Arabic siff, or suff, which denotes a spotted and deadly snake.
(10) 'eph'eh, is found in Job 20:16; Isa 30:6; 59:5, and in English Versions of the Bible is uniformly translated "viper." It is the same as the Arabic 'af`a, which is usually translated "viper," though the writer has never found anyone who could tell to what snake the name belongs. In Arabic as in Hebrew a poisonous snake is always understood.
(11) qippoz, the American Standard Revised Version "dart-snake," the English Revised Version "arrowsnake," the King James Version "great owl," only in Isa 34:15, "There shall the dart-snake make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shade; yea, there shall the kites be gathered, every one with her mate." "This is the concluding verse in a vivid picture of the desolation of Edom. The renderings "dart-snake" and "arrowsnake" rest on the authority of Bochert, but Septuagint has echinos, "hedgehog," and Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) ericeus, "hedgehog." The rendering of the King James Version "great owl" seems preferable to the others, because the words "make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shade" are as a whole quite inapplicable to a mammal or to a reptile. The derivation from qaphaz (compare Arabic qafaz), "to spring," "to dart," suits, it is true, a snake, and not a hedgehog, but may also suit an owl. Finally, the next word in Isa 34:15 is "kites," dayyoth; compare Arabic chida'at.
(12) ophis, a general term for "serpent," occurs in numerous passages of the New Testament and Septuagint, and is fairly equivalent to nachash.
(13) aspis, occurs in the New Testament only in Rom 3:13 parallel to Ps 140:3. See under (5) `akhshubh and (6) pethen. It is found in Septuagint for these words, and also for 'eph`eh (Isa 30:6).
(14) echidna, occurs in Acts 28:3, "A viper came out .... and fastened on his (Paul's) hand," and 4 times in the expression "offspring (the King James Version "generation") of vipers," gennemata echidnon (Mt 3:7; 12:34; 23:33; Lk 3:7). The allied (masculine?) form echis, occurs in Sirach 39:30, the Revised Version (British and American) "adder."
(15) herpeton, "creeping thing," the King James Version "serpent," is found in Jas 3:7.
That the different Hebrew and Greek names are used without clear distinction is seen from several examples of the employment of two different names in parallel expressions:
"Their poison is like the poison of a serpent (nachash);
They are like the deaf adder (pethen) that stoppeth her ear" (Ps 58:4).
"They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent (nachash); Adders' (`akhshubh) poison is under their lips" (Ps 140:3).
"For, behold, I will send serpents (nechashim), adders (tsiph`onim), among you, which will not be charmed; and they shall bite you, saith Yahweh" (Jer 8:17).
"They shall lick the dust like a serpent (nachash): like crawling things of the earth (zohale 'erets) they shall come trembling out of their close places" (Mic 7:17).
"He shall suck the poison of asps (pethen): The viper's ('eph`eh) tongue shall slay him" (Job 20:16).
"Their wine is the poison of serpents (tanninim), and the cruel venom of asps (pethanim)" (Dt 32:33).
"And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp (pethen), and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's (tsiph`oni) den" (Isa 11:8).
See also (8) and (9) above.
4. Figurative:
Most of the Biblical references to serpents are of a figurative nature, and they usually imply poisonous qualities. The wicked (Ps 58:4), the persecutor (Ps 140:3), and the enemy (Jer 8:17) are likened to venomous serpents. The effects of wine are compared to the bites of serpents (Prov 23:32). Satan is a serpent (Gen 3; Rev 12:9; 20:2). The term "offspring of vipers" is applied by John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 3:7) or to the multitudes (Lk 3:7) who came to hear him; and by Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 12:34; 23:33). Dan is a "serpent in the way .... that biteth the horse's heels" (Gen 49:17). Serpents are among the terrors of the wilderness (Dt 8:15; Isa 30:6). Among the signs accompanying believers is that "they shall take up serpents" (Mk 16:18; compare Acts 28:5). It is said of him that trusts in Yahweh:
"Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the serpent shalt thou trample under foot" (Ps 91:13).
In the millennium, "the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den" (Isa 11:8). The serpent is subtle (Gen 3:1; 2 Cor 11:3); wise (Mt 10:16); accursed (Gen 3:14); eats dust (Gen 3:14; Isa 65:25; Mic 7:17). The adder is deaf (Ps 58:4). The serpent lurks in unexpected places (Gen 49:17; Eccl 10:8; Am 5:19). Serpents may be charmed (Ps 58:5; Eccl 10:11; Jer 8:17). Among four wonderful things is "the way of a serpent upon a rock" (Prov 30:19).
Alfred Ely Day
Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'serpent'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". - ISBE; 1915.

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